Is It Downsizing Time?






Decluttering, reorganizing:

One of the major elements in downsizing usually is dealing with clutter.  Certainly, if you have it, you'll have to deal with it when you move; and you'll be forced to deal with it if you shift things so that you have less storage space than before.

Details count!  Those who say "don't sweat the details" certainly aren't helping those who suddenly have clutter or who are chronic clutterers (of course, the "don't sweaters" may very well be clutterers).  It is in the details... because every single item you add in builds up and becomes clutter.  Psychologists say that we equate clutter with disorder, which makes us anxious - and we can all benefit from less anxiety!

Decluttering isn't just about getting rid of things.  It's also about organizing what's left (because really, most clutter is useful stuff).  Without the step of thinking about how to better handle the incoming items, the cluttering is extremely likely to resume.

There are a lot of interesting books on the subject of clutter and how to get rid of it.  Here's one of my favorites:  1001 Timely Tips for Clutter Control - also with speed cleaning tips and help on decision-making, home selling, and holding garage sales.  I was impressed with How to Be Organized in Spite of Yourself, because it pays homage to people's different personal styles.  A popular help website is (of "C.H.A.O.S." fame:  Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome :^).

We'll get to some ideas for ways to handle all your "stuff"...  But there's a prelude that really ought not to be overlooked:

First ask why...

Perhaps the first step in attacking clutter is to give serious thought to why you've been allowing it into your life.  Whether you're moving or downsizing where you are, you don't want the process of clutter accumulation to start up again!

Here are some of the big picture elements common to the cluttering phenomenon:

  • Trouble making decisions - Organizing expert Ellen Damaschino says, "Clutter is deferred decision-making" - and to a great extent, I think that is true.  But there's more to it than that...  In any case, maybe you have the will to make decisions but don't see the way (in which case a little more delving into why you have trouble making decisions is probably in order).  Perfectionism is often a major block to decision-making, if you're waiting to absolutely know the perfect choice.  Sometimes any decent choice is the best place to begin (knowing that you can keep seeking better ways all the time) - because you've got to begin in order to get anywhere.

  • Thinking too big - Neglecting to take into consideration the size of your rooms/storage space (and neglecting to keep your simplification goals in mind) may be leading you to take in more than you can handle.  (This is the same kind of neglectful thinking - or not thinking - that leads people to put too much food on their plates at potlucks.  But if it's all good, should we really take it all?)
  • Procrastinating - Allowing yourself too much leeway in attending to the small steps (which you may be thinking of as "chores") that will prevent a lot of clutter from taking shape, such as putting clothing or shopping away, sorting through mail, picking up the detritus from craft projects, etc.
  • Poor time management - Even if you don't procrastinate, you may lack time management skills that would free up time for attending to clutter.  Part of this is bound to be related to allowing time-wasters to eat up your free time.  Part of it is probably a matter of not seeing ways to double up on tasks (such as sorting or cleaning things while you're on the phone or watching TV).  Mostly, poor time management is just a matter of not paying attention to how you spend your time.  If you become aware of it, and decluttering is a priority, you'll find ways to divert your energies more effectively.
  • Not having systems for dealing with different types of clutter - Devising a method for sorting the mail, or setting up a place to put dirty clothes, or deciding on how and when to view the things you decide to keep, may make all the difference in giving you the relief of using the system (and in allowing you the freedom from having to constantly be making those decisions over and over again).
  • Hesitating to take control of your life - Your clutter problem may be a metaphor for your not being in the driver's seat in other aspects of your life (again, why?)...  But the good news is that dealing with the clutter can help to empower you in general.
  • Being unclear about who you really are - Are you your past? - no; are you who others think you should be? - no...  But the things you hang onto may show you an error in thinking - may, in fact, be like a cloak that you needlessly wrap yourself in.
  • Confusing mementos with memories - Feeling a need to keep things you don't actually use or like, just because they belonged to a cherished person now gone, can be at war with your desire to recover space in your home.  You won't be letting go of the memories of shared experiences and love if you let go of the object.  Maybe giving it where it will actually be appreciated would be a good solution.  (Besides, maybe a photo of the item would do?)
  • Being too focused on materiality - If the material goods of the world are too much in the fore of your life, perhaps they're too much in the fore of your thinking (and again, asking why is probably in order).  Maybe it's because of...
  • Having no trust in the abundance of the universe - Hoarding is symptomatic of a belief that you aren't going to have what you need and want unless you provide it for yourself in advance.  This can lead to an actual belief in lack (the opposite of a belief in abundance, that you will be given access to what you need when you need it).  The trouble with hoarding isn't in not having enough room - the trouble is in the thinking (and in not thinking - that is, letting it simply be a subconscious urge).
  • Allowing yourself to believe in "needs" that are really just wants - If you are committed to giving yourself overabundance, you might ask yourself what lack it is that you think you're able to make up for with a plethora of things.  If you don't want to give up pampering yourself, perhaps you can pamper yourself in a less cluttering way! - try services instead of goods... or more expensive food?, which will at least be eaten up! (just don't store tons of it).

Deep stuff, eh?  Probably you're not going to resolve long-held beliefs and quirks overnight; but just looking at the psychology behind your cluttering habits can cause a big shift.  And you might need that shift to accept the ideas that will lead you to "cleaner living".

Some caveats about decluttering

If you're drowning in stuff, you'd think that anything you could do to subtract clutter from your life would give you relief.  Actually, though, there are some cautions that may save you trouble later on...

Don't be so ruthless as to hurt yourself.  If you savagely throw things away just to clear a space, you'll likely regret not having some of it later (and then feel savagely toward yourself for not taking the time to sort intelligently).  If you have to spend scarce resources to get later what you've thrown out, that's a silly waste.

If you're moving, and there really isn't time to do much in the way of decluttering, so be it.  Just make sure to sort as you go, as much as you can, while you pack - and then prepare to sort some more when you unpack.  You have to handle everything twice when you move, so it's a huge energy savings to declutter at one point, anyway.  Hopefully you'll have given thought to how to store things in the new house...

It's possible to confuse "stashing something away" with organizing and decluttering.  If clearing off a counter leads to messing up one or more drawers, shelves, or closets, does that really amount to decluttering? - no.  That's like the Cat in the Hat's pink bathtub ring that simply got wiped onto the next surface it touched!  (At least when the stuff's on the counter, you can probably find it. :^)   Concealing clutter isn't decluttering.

You can also over-organize with the effect of not being able to find what you need when you need it - or not being able to easily get at it, even if you know where it is.  A little planning is in order! - including ease of access.

Children's "stuff" may take some special handling.  As Susan Wright says in Eliminating Clutter from Your Life, children's "possessions become invested with meaning that parents may not know about or understand."  I know that some parents delete young kids' possessions without their knowledge, but thinking back to my childhood viewpoint would keep me from doing that.  Attachment is a complex issue (and after all, we're talking about your attachment to things when we talk clutter)...  We'll look at some ways of approaching it - but know that your child might not be as ready to declutter as you are.  (And if you're moving, keep in mind that a child's - or a pet's - "stuff" will be one of the only obvious constants in their lives during the transition.)

Also, start out with the intent to be kind to yourself, and to give the process of decluttering some time to work miracles.  Yes, every step you take will be to the good - but it may take awhile from Step One to a perfectly uncluttered and reorganized home.  Just as with my writing this page from many pages of short notes, not everything will fall into place all at once.  You may develop better plans as you go along, so be prepared to flex and revise a bit in your storage and even your throw-away decisions - no big deal.  You'll get there... and it will be wonderful!

Not every person will want to go about decluttering in the same way.  (Some people take everything out of a room and put back only what they want to keep!)  Do what you can, when you can, and find the best way for you.

It's helpful to start with some goals

Just as with downsizing of possessions in general, it's important to keep your goals in mind - and so, you'll have to have some goals to keep in mind.  This simply amounts to some proactive thinking.  What are your goals?

Some might be:  developing a system for dealing with the mail; clearing off kitchen counters; turning a junk room into a guest room; making space in the garage for the car; coming home to a clear hallway and living room.  You get the picture...  Ensure that your goals are do-able; don't overwhelm yourself with the goal "to have a perfectly uncluttered lifestyle".  Ask yourself, what would that look like? - the goals will essentially describe how to get from here to what you see in your mind's eye.

Make a list of your own goals - and then tackle jobs that move you in that direction.  A good place to begin is with the easiest things; also with the tasks that seem the most enjoyable.  As you make progress, you might come up with other goals, perhaps deeper ones (relating to the "whys" above, perhaps).

Need a break before you begin in earnest? ...Go on a trip with as little luggage as possible - it will get you in the mood for less!  (Or would that be a trip with too much luggage?)

Good general principles to follow

For better peace of mind, keep these things in mind as you go:

  • Start small - If it's daunting, start with just a minor (maybe a very minor) project.  The good feeling you get from doing it will give you a taste for more!  Maybe you'll want to go on to an area that really pushes your buttons.  But remember that all the little bits that you can do will get you forward - even if you can only spare 15 minutes at a shot.

  • Break up the big stuff - If you have a big ol', multi-faceted mess, keep on small...  If there are different types of problems in one room, tackle only one type at a time.  Or tackle only one area of the room at a time.  Or look for one category of junk to get rid of all over the house.  (If you're involving kids in a decluttering process, it's especially important to keep to small do-able tasks.)  "Doing the kitchen" may well be too big; doing the right side of the pantry shelves, or one junk drawer instead of all the drawers, is far more do-able.  But, as you go through individual tasks, remember to pay attention to the room as a whole - and note ideas for improvements (better lighting, storage solutions, etc.).

  • Make it entertaining - Any way you can lighten up your tasks will raise your mood and keep you committed to the decluttering process overall.  Some possibilities:  putting on some great music while you work; sorting in front of the TV; giving yourself a treat after a session; doing it with a friend (maybe you trade off whose house you work in); make up stories about the stuff you're handling; keep a photo record of the befores and afters - the afters will make you feel so good!  Have fun - it's mostly a decision, you know.
  • Store related items together - If they fall into a similar category, you'll probably be happier if they're stored together (unless you need them in different places and want to get at them easily in each place).  If they're used together, find a way to store them together.   (And look for ways to make the using of them easier - you know, like carriers for cleaning supplies.)
  • Consider convenience - How will you use or enjoy the items you're keeping? - that should affect where and how you store them.  (If you grab your camera every time you go for a walk, you won't want to keep it in a down-the-hall closet.  Even if you use games in the family room, you might actually want to store them out of the way if you only use them once or twice a year.)  As above, do you need the things in a central place, or do you really need duplicates in more than one spot?  What sort of container should house them, something stationary or a carry-all?
  • Do you use it? - If you don't use it, perhaps you can bring yourself to get rid of it.  If you truly wish to keep it anyway, you can surely store it out of the way - or start using it!  If it's something you'd use if it were different (such as an uncomfortable piece of furniture), trade it out and replace it with something that matches your needs.  (If it's furniture, now's the time to think in terms of a) something smaller, or a fold-away type, and/or b) a piece with storage capacity.)  If you've been keeping appliances that need to be fixed, will they ever get fixed?
  • Look around with fresh eyes - When you're used to it, clutter can pass through your mental filters.  You probably dislike it, but you still might have trouble seeing it for what it is if you've been trying to block it from your consciousness.  Ask a friend or two to help you see things differently?
  • Leave "breathing space" - Like white space on a page of print, "breathing space" around a room will make it feel less cluttered.  Let some wall and floor space show.  It's amazing what an effect setting aside one shelf in a bookcase for showcasing just a few art objects can do to change your perception of that part of a room - it just feels freer.  (Do you really want the refrigerator covered with papers and magnets? - try taking them off and see if it changes how you feel.)  Glass shelves and doors can also give the feel of more space (if they don't allow you to see clutter!).
  • What can you respace? - Often you can get more usable space in the same old places just by moving things around, and by setting up dividers, adding shelves, stacking boxes, etc.  Closets are especially amenable to this - but you can likely also "find more room" by rearranging the contents of drawers in the kitchen, or adding containers to existing garage shelves and the like.
  • Map the space - This is particularly critical when you're moving, but it's a useful idea any time:  draw a to-size map of your room/s on graph paper, and make little to-size cutouts of your pieces of furniture (current or ideal) to get a handle on how everything can (or can't) fit.  (You can also use an autocad computer program for this.)  Brainstorm on storage solutions while you rearrange the furnishings.
  • Lending and borrowing as options - If you lend out your space-consuming possession, it isn't clutter any more for you.  If you rent or borrow large items only when you need them (such as for big gatherings held only rarely, or for yard reworking), they aren't taking up precious storage space at your house.  Perhaps you could start a swap club with friends and/or neighbors, so that each of you has to house only one major item and can borrow the others when needed. 

  • Consider going virtual... or not at all - Ask to be removed from catalog mailings - if you don't want access, or if it's available online.  Ask to be removed from junk mail lists (in the U.S., Direct Marketing Associaion, Mail Preference Service, PO Box 643, Carmel, NY, 10512 - or; for opting out of credit card offers).  Don't forget to hold your mail when you go out of town!

Set up a system for sorting as you go

As you work through your Stuff, you'll want to have some boxes, bags, or bins set aside (well, piles, anyway) for different categories of items - and when you decide on what do to with each thing you handle, put it in the right container.

Decide for yourself what categories you'll need...  Here are some suggestions:  KEEP, TOSS, DONATE, RECYCLE, SELL, PASS ON.  ("Keep" items might be subdivided, if you're keeping them for different purposes - or to put them in different places.  "Pass On"s might be subdivided into family heirlooms to give away and gifts to save for Christmas, for instance.  You might want to donate some stuff to a book sale or church bazaar, other stuff to a rummage store.)

Storage and organizational ideas

  • Build a closet or storage cabinet in a room with an overabundance of space - or add an armoire against the wall.  Build a bow window with a storage bench.  Build a storage or sleeping loft above ceiling level.  Look for opportunities to create alcoves underneath staircases, between-stud shelving in other spaces.  Tilt-out bins, even if shallow, can add useful storage space built into a wall.
  • Create a niche in the corner of a large room by using a bookcase or cabinet as a divider (or even a gaming table, if that's your taste).
  • Containers - Nesting food containers and pots save space in the kitchen, stacking boxes, crates, and buckets in the garage.  Nest pieces of luggage for storage - or use them for storing other things.  Consider using various types of containers for things other than what you're used to using them for (I keep paint brushes in a vase, paper clips in a silver sugar bowl, CDs in a beautiful basket - eliminating the need for other containers and allowing me to keep/use what you really like) - what about tins, tureens, old teapots, flower pots, tackle boxes?
  • Shapes and sizes matter - Switching from round to square/rectangular containers (or to fabric pouches, or ziplock bags) could give you that much more space in the corners (or pouchy-out places).  Get rid of giant containers that purchases come in (do you really need the computer boxes?); if the purchase consists of a quantity of things, consider dividing the stuff into smaller, easier to store containers.  This even applies to paint! - or CDs, put into an album of plastic sleeves.

  • Digitize to downsize - Transfer your photos and music to digital formats, if you're willing to jettison the hard copies (or store them away).
  • Use the ceiling and upper walls?  Suspended cabinets can add useful space to a room.  Various types of suspended nets or brackets or pulley systems can come in handy for storing things out of the way in the garage (e.g., paper products, lumber, bicycles).  Pots and pans can be hung in the kitchen.  Even televisions can be suspended from an upper wall.   Then there's pegboard to hang things from - in the garage, in a crafts room, even in a pantry or on a cupboard door, perhaps.  Or just plain hooks (many specialty hooks are made to hang yard equipment, bikes, lawn furniture and such from). 
  • Other wall-hung ideas - Simple clipboards on the wall can easily organize many small bits of paper, keys (add a cup hook), even kids' drawings.  You can hang a baking rack (for cooling cookies) on cup hooks in the wall, and use S hooks to hang objects from it (not necessarily kitchen items!).  Hanging files are great for organizing papers, magazines, and other smaller objects.  
  • Back-of-door containers can hold all kinds of things:  toys in a child's room; kitchen implements in the pantry; shoes or scarves or socks (etc.) in a bedroom or closet; smaller stuff in a cupboard.  Then there are towel holders that fit onto a door hinge behind the door.
  • Inside closets - Hooks on the back wall for hanging small objects (e.g., cameras, shopping bags, belts).  Multi-garment hangers for clothes, ties, belts, etc.  Rolling bins are great for the floor, so stuff doesn't get lost underneath your clothes.
  • Shelving - Can be tall and narrow, in the corner, high, low, airy or massive.  Stackable wooden cubes as shelving.  Over-the-toilet shelving units.  Store rarely used items up high or down low to save wear and tear on backs; keep heavy items at about torso level.  Add shelf organizers.  Suspend bags from hooks under higher shelves.  Put shelves over doorways or windows (a nice place for decorative stuff, perhaps).  Oh, and you can double your book or CD storage by placing a back row on a board (so the top part of the spines can be read above the front row).  Rolling shelving units can save space if you tuck them away, or move multiples of them close together, while not in use (think garage?).
  • Under shelving - Suspend things under cabinets (especially useful in the kitchen - toaster oven, spice rack, paper towels, etc.; also possibly in the garage).  Or use under-the-shelf wire baskets, if there's room below.  
  • Cupboards and drawers - Lazy susans in hard-to-get-at corners.  Double up on small items in fatter drawers by using two layers of organizing trays
  • Papers - Susan Wright (Eliminating Clutter from Your Life) suggests a "Life RAFT" system for sorting papers:  Refer, Action, File, or Throw Away.  (Or perhaps you'd prefer "Read" to "Refer", if you don't see yourself passing things on to others.)
  • Labeling - Use photos of contents as box labels (or magazine pictures).  What about color-coding boxes for different people's stuff?  And if you have rows of containers that are difficult to label accurately, you could always mark them "A" through "Z" (!) and keep a sheet handy that describes the contents in detail.

Good ideas for various objects/categories

  • Collections - Hang it on a wall or ceiling (i.e., decorate with it).  Keep only part of it out at any given time.  Store it away and bring it out to pore over only periodically.  Store it away for a year or more, then pull it out and see if you're still attached to it - maybe you'll be able to part with it then.  Or maybe you can keep just one or two of your favorites from the collection?
  • Gifts - It is the thought that counts... and you do not have an obligation to someone else to keep something you don't like, want, or need.  Be creative about unwanted gifts (pass them on; use them differently?; revise them somehow?) - and be proactive for the future:  Ask for types of gifts that can't turn into clutter (edibles, gift cards or cash, tickets, services, or donations on your behalf to others).  And turn some of your cast-offs into gifts?  (Have a white elephant exchange party!)
  • Indoor plants - Hang them from the ceiling.
  • Laundry room itemsStacking washer and dryer.  Built-in ironing boards can fit between wall studs (yes, they do still make them).  Or hang one on the back of a door.  Can you use a central laundry chute instead of individual hampers?
  • The bathroom - Wall-recessed shelving nooks or cabinets other than the typical mirrored medicine chest.  If the mirror doesn't cover up a medicine cabinet, add crown molding at the botton of it to form a useful shelf.  (Maybe you'd like to put a work of art on the medicine cabinet door!)  Hotel-style tubular towel shelves for the upper wall.  Tall corner racks.  If you're changing out a sink, consider covering the plumbing with a bumped-out section of wall (wainscoted?) that creates a ledge at chest-height.  Put the sink/faucet in the corner?   Consider a cabinet in a half-wall concealing the toilet or tub from view.  Make the room feel bigger by using glass shower doors, or perhaps replacing a small window with a big one (or a small mirror with a big one!).
  • Electronics - Use all-in-one office equipment instead of a separate printer, fax machine, copier, scanner - or a separate phone and answering machine.
  • Furniture - Nesting tables.  Pull-out and fold-out furniture (e.g., folding chairs; gate-leg tables; murphy beds, hide-a-beds, and trundle beds; fold-up sewing stations and the like) can save a lot of space - though you have to reserve the floor room if you're going to use the item often.  Choose double-use furniture, like using file cabinets for end tables, storage benches for seats, fold-fronted secretary desks to also hold glassware or books in the shelves above.  Raise your bed on blocks and put drawers or storage boxes underneath; or build a platform bed atop cabinets, an office area, or a play area in a child's room.

What about afterward?

How are you going to stay uncluttered after you've invested time and energy in decluttering and reorganizing your home?  Well, you've no doubt picked up some really good habits during the process.  But...

You might want to put a "clutter review" on your calendar at some convenient point in the future (when you're likely to have the time, or the will? - New Year's comes to mind as logical for that).  Maybe make a date with a friend to review both your houses?

Other than that, a dilemma might be that you have decluttered, but other household members aren't so sure they know where things are now, or don't get and so can't participate in the systems you've devised for dealing with Stuff.  Maybe you'll want to take photos of rooms (or draw diagrams) and label them as to where things are so others can remember where to put things.  And maybe you'll want to have demonstrations of systems (like fire drills ;^), or even celebrations to inaugurate them.

Decluttering your life is something to celebrate!  May you find yourself feeling freer and more empowered this time next year, with much effective reorganization behind you.




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