The below is an extract of a draft of a chapter I am preparing for my book “Downsizing Differently”. As such it is still fairly rough, but I hope it is of use to those out there who are having a hard time sorting through a lifetime of accumulations.
What to do when life has changed
Certain changes can have long lasting physical and mental impacts, where it becomes difficult to focus on the downsizing tasks at hand. Then, with so much else going on, it can be hard to feel as though progress is being made. Sometimes it can feel like “one step forward, two steps back”.
Reaching the goal of a decluttered and downsized home can feel like an insurmountable challenge.
For many, acknowledging that you’re going through a hard time can be genuinely helpful in finding the best way to move forward.
There are times when perseverance is less effective than re-creating the playing field and drawing up a set of new rules.
When you or a family member have suffered a loss
Depression, anxiety and loss of a family member are all too common and can make the downsizing process more fraught.
Sometimes the timing is wrong.
Sometimes it can be beneficial to wait or to proceed very slowly.
No matter what the set of circumstances, many people in their retirement years find that going slowly can be beneficial, so that there are no regrets about the items downsized and that the stress of sorting through a lifetime of accumulations is minimised.
Sentimental items or items belonging to a spouse can be very taxing to deal with, as they bring up a lot of feelings and memories associated with the objects.
When the goal seems unreachable
We are sometimes called in to attend deceased estates and homes where the owners have moved into aged care, where it is clear that the home has undergone a degree of passive decline. For more on passive decline vs hoarding, read chapter 5 as it outlines some strategies for overcoming a state of passive decline in a home.
Sometimes, however, I am called to a home which most people would categorise as being fairly minimal but the homeowners are panicked about the prospect of downsizing and don’t see how they could possibly tackle the task at hand. While I might see a modest amount of organised possessions with an average collection of furniture and knick-knacks, the homeowner may feel completely overburdened by the weight of a lifetime of possessions and paralysed by the thought of downsizing.
Which is fair enough.
The average home can contain thousands upon thousands of possessions to sort, make decisions upon and then redistribute, so the sheer size of the task can make many people feel as though they will never reach the finish line, or as though they’re working around in circles, only ever making small dents here or there.
If your overarching goal is a large goal such as “deal with all items remaining from my spouse” or “keep only the things that I need and redistribute everything else”, you may need to take a step back for now. Set aside the larger goal for now and focus on just one area or one category of items.
Sometimes working towards a lofty goal or keeping a large, itemised list of everything which needs to be done can be a source of immense stress. Rather than keep a mental or physical “to-do” list which nags at you, reminding you of what you haven’t done, it can be easier to collect accomplishments. Even though it might seem a little cheesy, consider keeping a “done” list on your fridge where you can add each task as you do it. I love the power of a “done” list to remind me of the things I’ve achieved, as it is often too easy to forget each accomplishment in the ebb and flow of daily life.
For example, many people find the biggest sense of accomplishment to come from decluttering their living room or bedroom. You might even start with something small like a side table or a small bookcase and then add that to the “done” list.
I find that collecting a list of “done” items can help me to overcome procrastination and overwhelm on my personal projects and give me the motivation to keep going with them. OnceI’ve gotten to a certain level of momentum, I find that I then continue with more clarity with the process and can work more strategically.
However, it’s not always important to follow your strategy to the letter. Sometimes it is about the small victories and the confidence these can confer.
As the proverb goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time and a “done” list can help you to celebrate and capitalise on gains as you do so.
When donation centres are closed or hard to get to
One very dramatic effect of COVID-19 has been that some charities, such as The Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, temporarily stopped accepting donations of goods.
Many popular online platforms for giving items away, such as Freecycle and Buy Nothing groups have, at time of writing, stopped allowing people to list items.
Which means that people have had to become creative with how to deal with decluttered items.
If you have the space to be able to do so, it can really help to group the items together to deal with by category. So that, for example, when you find a destination for the crystal glasses, all of the crystal glasses can go there together. For information on packing and shipping methods,
see Chapter x: Packing up.
During times when donation centres are closed or hard to get to, alternatives include:
- Commercial alternatives such as auction houses or tip shops. Some auction houses and dealers will visit you, but others require you to drop off items. Consider using a “man with a van” service or a door-to-door delivery service.
- Listing the items on online bulletin board sites (Craigslist in North America, Gumtree
elsewhere) for free or cheap.
- Leaving items outside your home for collection by passers-by. This approach will work better in some areas than others, but I have heard anecdotal reports of this working in wealthy suburbs and less wealthy suburbs equally well
The power of a “maybe” pile
Very few decluttering decisions must be made immediately. Even if it is a forced move to an aged care facility or similar, items can generally be boxed up (preferably by category) and placed in a garage or storage facility for sorting at a later date.
There is no harm in a “maybe” pile.
A “maybe” pile, box, or area can consist of items which you have not made a decision on yet, but will do so in the future.
These items may be revisited and sorted multiple times. Sometimes it takes multiple tries to gain clarity on what you feel most comfortable doing with certain items.
This approach also gives more time to research options for potential destinations for an item.
Most people are pretty happy to let go of an item once they have found a good home for it, but need time to find a way in which they feel comfortable to say goodbye to items which represent precious memories and moments in their lives.
Sometimes slow and steady is the only viable approach, with compassion, understanding and forgiveness towards oneself.