Decluttering your home and your life will bring you much peace and many opportunities, whether or not you are planning to also downsize your living space in the near future.
By Wendy Priesnitz
We recently moved from a three-bedroom house with a garage and finished basement to a one-bedroom apartment. Circumstances led us to make the move sooner than we had planned, and the decluttering process turned into full-scale downsizing very quickly.
Forty-five years of marriage, two kids, and a forty-year-old business that has operated at home for many of those years meant that we had accumulated an overwhelmingly huge amount of stuff. My donation of approximately a thousand books to our local library (don’t worry: there are still lots left over!) will give you some idea of the amount of stuff for which we had to find new homes.
Despite the fact that we were living an already relatively simple life in materialistic terms, and that we have lived in even smaller spaces over the years, the process has taught me some lessons.
Begin to downsize now, even if you plan to move a year or ten from now. Tackling one room or closet at a time, sort through things and get rid of what isn’t necessary. Then, when you’ve thinned all rooms, do it again. Eventually, you will end up with just what you really need and value. Starting early will allow you the time to dispose of unwanted belongings by selling, giving away, and recycling, rather than by throwing out. This will also result in less time spent taking care of things and cleaning your home, and you will feel so much lighter with a less cluttered life, even if you don’t move.
Begin to downsize now, even if you plan to move a year or ten from now. Tackling one room or closet at a time, sort through things and get rid of what isn’t necessary. Then, when you’ve thinned all rooms, do it again.
Before the move, I made a list of the necessities that we’d be moving – bed, couch, dining table and chairs (although the dining table, which had a fort-year history of family dinners, sadly came off the list when we discovered it wouldn’t fit in the new place), computers, desks, clothing, dishes, etc. Then I made another list of everything I couldn’t live without – some of my books, cherished pottery pieces, some artwork, a couple of antiques, etc. I think that process help me with the process of separating from the things I couldn’t keep. (My husband Rolf didn’t do that, and he was adding things onto the truck at the last minute that he didn’t want to part with…and the logistics of getting rid of the stuff that he kept but that doesn’t fit into our apartment are now much more complicated.)
Find Out What It’s Worth
Some of what we had accumulated used to belong to my mother and my mother-in-law. There were a few antiques and other pieces for which I got an objective, third-party opinion as to their value before I decided on their fate. High-end goods can be sold on consignment through a reputable secondhand dealer, or through an auction house. Various other pieces went to a daughter, were given away to friends, and donated to charity.
Learn How to Think Small
A few years before we were ready to move, I began to visit model condos, just to get a feel for what it would be like to live in a smaller space. I accumulated floor plans with measurements and compared the room sizes with those in our house. I eventually developed a good sense of which pieces of our furniture we would be able to take with us and which ones would have to go.
I also frequented stores that cater to small space living, and acquired a few magazines and the IKEA catalog, so I could learn creative ways to store things and how to make furniture and spaces do double duty. So many of us, once we have accumulated more things – furniture, clothing, books, kitchen accessories, and so on – than will comfortably fit into our homes, begin to think about moving to a larger space. Instead, consider letting the size of your home dictate how many belongings you have. If your kitchen cupboards are overflowing, get rid of the dishes and gadgets that you haven’t used in the past five years. If your clothes closet is jammed full, cull the pieces that no longer fit, that you bought but have never worn, or that haven’t seen the light of day in many years. (I donated clothing I hadn’t worn in fifteen years that was still in my closet just because I had room for it and hadn’t been able to bring myself to get rid of it.)
Once we had found our new home, we measured the rooms and drew rough floor plans. (If you are moving into a new space, you should be able to get a floor plan from the builder/developer.) Then we sketched in furniture layouts in order to see if we had been realistic about what would fit. (We hadn’t been, and had to pare down some more.)
Everything in its Place
Now that we’re in a much smaller space, we’ve found that happiness means that everything has a place and everything must be in its place. And if we don’t want it, it doesn’t get through the door. We’ve never been in the habit of buying things we don’t need, but so much sneaks in anyway, from junk mail to conference handouts (think eight mugs and over forty reusable shopping bags emblazoned with corporate logos). The conference freebies now stay at Rolf’s office (and some of them were returned there during the moving process). And junk mail ends up in the recycling bin our apartment manager has conveniently placed beside the mail boxes in the lobby. You could place a basket inside your front door for the same purpose.
If you are struggling to create order among things you don’t want to get rid of, creating more places to store them can at least keep the clutter in control. Baskets, under-the-bed boxes, filing cabinets, and even a “junk drawer” are great ways to house necessary but cluttery things – just be sure you actually need those things. And once you have created those places, use them. Make a habit out of putting things away after you’ve used them.
Creating more places to store stuff doesn’t mean you have to fill them all up! Resist the temptation to hoard things because they “might be useful someday.” You’ll always have things like pens, twist ties, elastic bands, etc. that will, indeed, come in useful at some point. But, as Rolf discovered when we downsized, there will never be a use for twenty years’ worth of extra computer cables, toner for printers that we no longer own, or software for obsolete operating systems! So be careful what you keep.
If we hadn’t run out of time (or had begun sooner), we could have eliminated boxes and boxes of paper by scanning old documents, kids’ artwork, and family photographs. That was something we always intended to do, but never got around to it. If I had to do this downsizing thing over, I definitely would have made time to do it!
Sell, Donate, and Recycle
Try not to throw out things that still have life in them. We didn’t have as much time and energy as we would have liked to sell many of the things we couldn’t take with us to our new home. But free Internet classified sales sites and supermarket bulletin boards are both your friends when you’re trying to find new homes for stuff. We donated clothing, small household items, and furniture to local charities and shelters – some of which will even pick up from your home. We donated books to the Friends of the Library; newer ones went directly into the library’s collection and the rest were sold in a used book store to raise money for the library. We donated tools to a tool library. And we left a few things that we no longer need, like gardening equipment and snow shovels, at the house for the next occupants. Knowing that someone would be able to use our unwanted items made it easier to give them up.
There is a quote that I like, which is attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Keep that in mind as you are downsizing your home or just decluttering your life, and you will find the inspiration and make the time for it to happen calmly and simply.
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine and the author of twelve books. She and her family have, over the years, lived in a VW van (pre-children), a motor home (with two children), and houses and apartments of various sizes.