15 Nov

Are decluttering, rightsizing, downsizing, and dostedning (Swedish “death cleaning”) all really the same thing, i.e. getting rid of things to get to a lighter state of being? Does it matter what we call it? Perhaps our choice of words carries some psychological weight that might affect our emotions and our actions. 

Decluttering is the act of “removing unnecessary items from an untidy or overcrowded space.” What is necessary is, of course, personal. And removal may just mean finding a new, more suitable, and often hidden home for an item.  So, decluttering isn’t necessarily downsizing. Anna Novack, a professional move manager and organizer suggests that decluttering should not be a first step to downsizing as we may end up focusing on the wrong things or use decluttering as a form of procrastination from the hard choices. There is something almost delicate about the word “decluttering,” like handling a small china teacup. Is it a robust enough term for the size of the challenge that  most of us find in front of us? 

Rightsizing means reducing something to an optimal size. I know that a number of professional organizers favor this term. It sounds less drastic and judgemental than downsizing although it amounts to the same thing. Those “rightsizing” may not have any intention of moving to a smaller space but just desire a life less loaded with possessions.  I don’t like the term rightsizing. It seems to gloss over the hard work of downsizing as I use the term—choosing, letting go, and finding new homes for your things.  It suggests that there is a right amount and that somehow we can find that level and stop. 

Downsizing’s definition is “replacing something larger with something smaller.” In more popular parlance, and certainly the way I have used it in this blog, it is the act that preceeds the moving to a smaller place. Unlike decluttering, downsizing implies the removal of items. However, one can picture a scenario in which a person crams what they already own into a smaller space and avoid any major decision-making about what to keep. So, can downsizing to a smaller place also mean avoiding the difficult nature of the task at hand? 

Dostadning (“death cleaning”) refers to cleaning out your home before you die instead of leaving that task to family and friends. Earlier, I reviewed a book on this topic. The association with death may put off younger people who are planning to simplify their lives and/or move to a smaller place. But the concept is a good one and certainly has been part of our goal as we shed ourselves of possessions. Whereas downsizing often happens in a short space of time, dostadning feels more gradual, like slow downsizing. But it’s not a friendly term. 

Ann Pachett’s inspiring 2021 essay in the New Yorker on  “How to Practice” supplies a vivid description of her own efforts to shed herself of unused, no longer needed, or no longer wanted possessions. She appears to incorporate aspects of all four terms. What I found particularly helpful was her sharing of the emotional resonance of her decisions—for example, how she had attributed feelings to inanimate objects. By calling it a “practice,” she suggests that the process of parting with one’s stuff is an ongoing one, requiring a new mindset, and also that with practice we get better at it. 

Maybe we need another term altogether—one that captures the positive associations of each, without the questions and inadequacies that these terms currently imply, one that motivates rather than repels us. 

Or maybe we shouldn’t worry about finding the right label, but instead try to shift our thinking, and with practice, as Ann Patchett says, get closer to achieving our decluttering/ rightsizing/ downsizing/ dostadning goals (based on our needs).

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