Downsizing Tasks for Snowy Days

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Snowed in, are you? Here are three great downsizing tasks good for snowy days:

1. Attack that pile of junk mail, magazines, etc. that is staring you in the face and that you now find even harder to ignore. Recycle anything you don’t need/want. File (right away!) anything you do need/want.

Now: Enjoy gazing upon a clear, clean surface, where once only guilt and dread were staring you in the face.

Alice & Johnny HulstrandUncle Lewey war letter

 

2. Do something about the old family photos/videos/movies/letters you keep meaning to “do something about.” But before doing anything, read up a bit on the issue of digital preservation. You can learn about why this is a complicated issue here, or here. And you can get some help in knowing what to do about it from the following sources:

From the Library of Congress http://digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/

From the National Archives http://www.archives.gov/preservation/family-archives/ (Most of the information here is good, and still current. Some is surprisingly out of date, for example the allusion to videos. (Budget cuts?)

From The Legacy Project  http://warletters.com/preserve.html 

3. Browse around this blog and see what other information may be helpful to you as you plan your attack on All That Stuff when spring is here. It won’t be long now!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Dr. Gail Steketee Shares Her Insights into Hoarding

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Dr. Gail Steketee is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her work on hoarding is a corollary to her work on obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders. She has published over 200 articles and more than a dozen books on these topics. With colleague Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored the best-selling book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and the first edited scholarly volume on hoarding disorder, the Oxford Handbook of Hoarding and Acquiring (Oxford, 2014). With Dr. David Tolin and Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding (Oxford, 2013). Dr. Steketee received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the International OCD Foundation in 2013. She a gives frequent lectures and workshops on hoarding and related conditions to professional and public audiences in the United States and abroad. Dr. Steketee graciously accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

~ What led you choose to study the subject of hoarding?

I was working closely with colleague Dr. Randy Frost on research on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) when he indicated that some of the students in his course on OCD had decided to study hoarding symptoms and had sought information from people contacted through their local paper.  They got scores of responses to an ad for “pack rats.” Gradually it became clear that this was a serious condition that merited our attention as researchers.

~ Do you think there is a continuum of behavior from cluttering to hoarding and, if so, what are the signs people can look for in themselves to help them stop sliding down that slope?

Yes, certainly this spans a range from very mild to very severe and impairing. A red flag is when the person is reluctant to invite people over because they are embarrassed by the clutter in their home.  If it would be hard to find a place for a visitor to sit down comfortably, the problem has probably gone over the edge into the realm of a psychological disorder. But the true hallmark of hoarding is difficulty parting with objects that most people would throw out – this symptom begins early and does not necessarily produce serious clutter for some years.  So it is not simply a matter of the amount of clutter which can accumulate for a variety of reasons.  Rather, the crux of the problem is inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed.

~ In the introduction to Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, you say “This book is for and about people who have trouble managing their possessions.” What a wonderful description of people who have too much clutter! Is there one thing that you can recommend for people to do to improve their relationship with their stuff?

Know your own goals and values.  What really matters to you in your life?  Be sure to follow those goals and question whether the objects around you are serving those purposes.  If not, it’s time to bite the bullet and learn to part with things that are in the way of attaining what you truly believe in.

~ You have said in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that among the top reasons that people hoard are “to avoid wasting things that might have value” and “that the object has emotional meaning.” This is true for people with too much clutter, too. Can you give us your advice for addressing the wish to avoid wasting things?

This is not a simple matter, but in general, concerns about wasting and emotional meaning are really about our identity – who we are.  For fears of wasting, it’s worth asking how big a “sin” is wasting this thing versus the benefit of getting rid of an object that is not serving your main goals and values.  If you want people to visit your home, or if you want to enjoy reading in your living room, talking to your friend over tea in your kitchen, or cooking a meal for your family, is that a more important goal than suffering the guilt of not “wasting” this by discarding it? These are hard choices, to be sure, but essential ones.

~ And advice for dealing with the pull of emotional meaning?

Emotional attachment is similar.  It is worth asking what each of us would save in the 5 minutes before a fire consumed our home. Those items are likely to be the most emotionally important items, and the rest are nice, comforting even, but not essential to our being. Again, this returns to our own values – what is most important in our lives and is that truly represented by objects or does it lie within ourselves and our remembered experiences? But even for truly sentimental items, we can still ask – If we lost the photos of our father who has passed away, does that erase our memory of him and his influence on our lives?

~ What is the best way for people with a friend or family member who has a hoarding problem to approach the situation? What should they do or not do?

There is no simple answer except that an accusatory, critical and hostile tone won’t lead to change and is likely only to provoke anger and refusal to change. Calm, quiet, honest questions about what the loved one needs in order to reduce clutter is a great approach, but still might not yield any movement if the person is not convinced they need to change. If the situation is dangerous – the home is unsanitary, the clutter could easily cause a serious fall or a fire – the family member must seek help from authorities who are familiar with hoarding and can be thoughtful in requiring specific changes for safety’s sake.  The goal here is harm reduction first. If there is no major safety risk but the clutter is unacceptable to the family member, she or he will need to ask for specific actions and reasonable timeframes and indicate the benefits and the consequences of making or not making the change. This process may well require help from a professional, as it is not easy to decide what’s fair and reasonable in such situations.  I highly recommend Tompkins and Hartl’s book Digging Out intended for family members with a loved one who is very reluctant to change hoarding behaviors.

Thank you, Dr. Steketee, for sharing your insights into hoarding with us.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Poetry of Downsizing…

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand

 

Is there poetry in downsizing?

We think there can be, given enough time and a sensitive approach to this process, which most of us go through not just once but several times during our lives.

In fact many writers have written quite sensitively and beautifully about downsizing. Last year the New York Times published a lovely blog series by Olivia Judson, in which she describes the process of going through the massive amount of accumulated “stuff” in her parents’ home after their death. Her writing about it is quite poetic, and so were many of the hundreds (thousands?) of comments from readers. And that’s just one example: along with the appendices in our e-book that help direct readers to information about how they can preserve, donate, sell, or otherwise get rid of “stuff,” we’ve provided one with links to other essays on downsizing, some of them also quite poetic.

“Rummage Sale,” a poem by Jennifer Maier, lightheartedly but sensitively evokes the poignancy and bittersweet quality of decluttering a home full of objects laden with memories. “Forgive me, Aunt Phyllis, for rejecting the cut-glass dishes…” it begins. You can read the rest of the poem here.

When we take the time to say goodbye to the things we’re getting rid of, and to remember the people who brought them into our lives, we’re saying goodbye to the past. But by the very act of savoring the connections they evoke, we’re also finding a way to “keep the memories, while getting rid of the stuff…” (our mantra!) And to keep the memories, at least, alive into the future.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

An Interview with Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer

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Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer (Photo by BrandIt Images)

 

Since January is National Get Organized Month (GOMonth), we thought this was a great time to find out a little bit more about the field of professional organizing, and what professional organizers really do. We are delighted that Nettie Owens, founder of Sappari Solutions, who recently celebrated 10 years in the field, accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

How did you decide to become a professional organizer? What was the path that led you to this work?

When I began my business in 2004 the industry was still fairly young. There were a few organizers who had already been around for 15 years of more, but just a few. Organizing TV shows were just coming out on HGTV and TLC.  Those were really my first introduction to professional organizing. Seeing the lead organizers on those shows sparked an interest for me. I thought, “Wow!  That person is just like me! I want to help people in the same way.”  Prior to starting my company I had worked in administrative and project management roles. When I found professional organizing I realized I found what I was meant to do.  It was a great feeling!

What do you think is the most important quality for a professional organizer to have?

Compassion.  Being neat and organized is almost secondary. You have to work well with people.  You have to be able to see the person amidst the clutter. When hiring new organizers I ask a question before they ever set foot in a client’s home. “You walk into a client’s home for the first time, what do you see?” Many people answer they see piles of laundry, books, clutter, mail, etc. The people I hire say they see an overwhelmed person.

You recently earned the Level III Certificate of Study in Chronic Disorganization, ADD and Hoarding from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD)–and you’re one of only 81 people in the world to have done so, right? You also have a Level I Certificate in Aging from ICD. What is important for people to know about these conditions and how they affect people when it comes to getting organized? And what are some of the special issues connected with aging? 

Chronic Disorganization is isolating and is not a diagnosis of a condition. It is a description of symptoms that could have any wide range of causes. It means that a person has been challenged with organization for a long time, that they have tried organizing solutions and not been successful, that their disorder causes problems in their daily living and that they don’t see a change coming in the future. It is such a frustrating place to be. I want people to know that I have yet to meet a lazy, chronically disorganized person. There is always more to the situation than meets the eye. Often a person is chronically disorganized when conditions such as ADHD, hoarding, depression, anxiety and even PTSD exist. For an aging client, especially one for who organizing has been a lifelong challenge, you meet with additional hurdles such as a loss of structure and support, dwindling finances, possible onset of dementia and other neurological conditions, and possible physical limitations. But there is always a person there–someone with great memories, goals for the future and valid emotions that need to be considered. I will often recommend the book Digging Out, by Michael Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl. The authors describe how a family can help and how to use the “Harm Reduction Method” to support their loved one.

What are some of the most important questions to ask a professional organizer before hiring her to work with you?

An organizer should be a member of a professional community, such as NAPO or ICD in the US. There are other organizations internationally. You should ask how long he or she has been in business and what his or her specialties are. There is a wide range of talents in this community, and you should find the person that fits your needs. I would also ask for referrals. The organizer’s clients can tell you more about their work style.

What are some of the most common misperceptions about professional organizers?

People often think we come in with trash bags ready to throw out all their stuff. While letting go of the excess can be part of the process, it isn’t the focus of organizing. Organizing is about giving people access to that which is important to them. Plus, we don’t make decisions for our clients about what to keep and what to part with. Another misperception is that we can wave a magic wand and solve the challenges a person is facing. We work with our clients to craft solutions, but it is definitely a process and it takes time.

What is your most important piece of advice for someone who struggles to become organized, but really wants to do it?

I am not sure there is one most important piece of advice but I will give three, if that’s okay. First, recognize your strengths and tie your organizing solutions to these strengths. For instance, if you have a set morning routine, add one step to it that will work towards your organizing goals. Second, and closely related to the first, work in small increments. Consistency over time builds habits that make big changes when added together. Small, consistent steps outweigh weekend clean-outs every time. Third, be mindful of what is coming in and what is going out. If more is coming in than is going out, you are trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon, and it just won’t work.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the ‘ah-ha!’ moments that people have. I love making a real difference in the quality of life for the people I work with. It is so rewarding.

Thank you, Nettie!

Nettie Owens, CPO-CD is a professional organizer and owner of Sappari Solutions, founded in 2004. Prior to starting her own company she worked in variety of positions for companies large and small, and honed her skills in management, project management, customer service, instruction, and office administration. Nettie graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a BA in Computer Science and a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management.  She lives in Maryland with her husband and three rambunctious kids. She is active in her community, supporting non-profit groups such as The Havre de Grace Green Team, Habitat for Humanity, and many others. She was interviewed for this post by Janet Hulstrand, coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and of this blog.

 

A New Year, A New Approach

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It’s a new year and we still have too much stuff. Here’s a plan of action, or a thought experiment, for those of us who are “keepers” of our stuff, we who talk about, deliberate, and brood over our possessions before we decide if we should keep, toss, or donate them.

Sometimes we don’t know why we keep something or why we haven’t been able to make the decision to get rid of it. The following is a technique we can use to see what our possessions mean to us and how they fit into our lives.

This is a writing exercise so if you would like to join in, grab a pencil and paper.

Choose one item in your home that means a lot to you, perhaps a very important item or perhaps one that you’ve had for a long time. Then think about that item in three different, but related, ways.

First, describe the item in detail. Be specific about its attributes: the creamy background color and lovely pink flowers on your dinner plates, the interesting shape of a vase, the sparkling gems in a brooch, the vivid paint strokes in a favorite painting.

Next, explain why this item has meaning for you. Did the chest of drawers belong to your grandparents and was it passed down to you by your parents? Was the gold necklace a gift to yourself, a purchase you made with your very first paycheck? Is the painting something you brought home from a memorable vacation? Was the china something you and your about-to-be husband chose, the first household decision you made together?

Lastly, choose someone, a family member, a good friend, to inherit the item and explain why you chose that person. You can leave the china to your son and daughter-in-law because they are the ones who now host the family gatherings. You can decide to give the painting to your best friend from college who accompanied you on that vacation trip. After some thought, you can choose to sell the gold necklace, a style long out of fashion, and give the money to your grandchild to help finance a semester abroad. You can choose to donate the vase to your local historical society because it was made at a now-defunct pottery that used to be in the area. You can decide to have the chest of drawers appraised first before you designate a recipient, and perhaps the appraisal will help you decide to sell the furniture and use the money for a different purpose.

Now read over what you’ve written and see what it tells you. You have articulated why the item appeals to you, its beauty, or perhaps its usefulness. You have explained your emotional attachment to the piece, what event it memorializes or which people are connected to your feelings about the piece. And, lastly, you have designated a caretaker for your item, someone who will appreciate it and care for it the way you did. Or, and perhaps more importantly, you have chosen to give the item away (the painting to your college roommate so she can enjoy it now), donate it (the vase to the historical museum), or sell it (the gold necklace) and put the money to better use.

Does this exercise help you see one item in a new way? I hope so. Will you go through this process for all of your stuff? Probably not, since it’s too time consuming.

But using this new approach in the new year will help us face that fact that we have too much stuff and that some of our stuff can find new homes with family and friends, some of it can be sold, and some of it can be donated – and some of it can even be trashed.

So here’s to a happier new year, a year when we unclutter our homes, a year when we purchase more thoughtfully, a year when we live with less stuff and more joy. A year when we “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Dealing with Holiday Aftermath: An Ecological Approach

We’re not exactly through “the holidays” yet, but there certainly has been a flurry of activity for the past few weeks, hasn’t there?

Now, a little bit more than midway through it all, is a good time to think about how we can deal with the aftermath–all that wrapping paper, all those strings of lights, all those Christmas trees,  all the “trimmings and trappings,” in a way that does minimal damage to (or may even help) the earth.

Here’s a post we published a couple of years ago with some tips about “green” ways to deal with the holiday aftermath. This year I learned that Mom’s Organic Market, which has stores along the Mid-Atlantic coast from Pennsylvania to Virginia, has a great recycling program that includes holiday lights and corks. (Real corks only, not the synthetic ones–in many areas you can recycle synthetic ones along with the rest of your plastic). You can even get discounts on the purchase of new holiday lights when you turn your old ones in.

Timing can be important–if you know about locations or deadlines for holiday-related recycling in your area that you’d like to share with your neighbors, please feel free to share the information by commenting on this post.

Here’s wishing you safe and pleasant celebration into the New Year–and a green year ahead!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

Is an Appraisal the Way to Go?

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My parents’ Herter Brothers furniture.  We researched it online, in books, and in museums, and then had it appraised on “Antiques Roadshow” before we sold it to a dealer.

As we approach the holidays and anticipate spending time with our families, some of us may be traveling to houses that are full of stuff and some inevitable questions are sure to arise. A discussion of “What will we do with all this stuff?” may lead to “Who will get what?” which may lead to “How much is this worth?”

Is an appraisal right for you? An appraiser can give you the value of a single piece, or can go through the entire house, in what is called a “look-see,” to tell you which pieces may be valuable. The value of an item is determined by its condition, its rarity, and its provenance or history. The stories passed down in the family about the original source of items, however, are not always accurate, says Helaine Fendleman, coauthor of Price It Yourself! and past president of the Appraisers Association of America. So you will need more than family lore to establish provenance.

A good appraiser, according to Fendleman, is someone who is sensitive and caring and who understands the financial responsibility of giving an accurate appraisal. Appraisers will charge a flat fee or by the hour. (It is illegal to charge a percentage of the item being evaluated, since this would lead to artificially increasing its value.) It’s important to hire someone you feel comfortable with and someone you feel is honest.

Some appraisers may simply assign a dollar value for the objects, but most will also shepherd you through the process of selling them, by suggesting the best place to sell it—to an antiques store, dealer, or consignment shop—and then will help you work with the store or dealer, if that is what you want.

Sometimes an appraiser will suggest that the item has little or no monetary value and that it would be more appropriate to donate it to charity than to try to sell it. Don’t be discouraged. As Fendleman says, “Every object in the world has a value; you just may not like the value it has.” And of course, the process of appraising has nothing to do with emotional or sentimental value. In some cases, finding out that a particular item has no financial worth may be a relief.

To find a professional appraiser, ask your lawyer, banker, real estate agent, or friends for a referral. The appraiser should ask probing questions in the initial interview, and you should, too. Ask what qualifies him or her to appraise your items, what their area of expertise is, and what professional organizations they belong to.

Can you estimate what something is worth without a professional appraiser? Certainly you can do your own research in the library, on the Internet, or in museums, and browse through antique shops and attend auctions to get an idea of what your special items are worth. If you have the time, researching the history and value of a favorite family item can be fun.

Online appraisals are another option, but they are only as good as the photographs you send in, and the expertise of the appraiser. If you plan to sell the item, you may want to then hire an appraiser who can see the object in person.

You can check out these professional appraisal organizations for more help.

The Appraisal Foundation is the organization that has issued the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP).

Appraisers Association of America, Inc. (AAA) is the oldest professional association of appraisers and is the recognized authority for standards, legal issues, and regulations. It provides a database of members that can be searched by location and by specialty.

International Society of Appraisers (ISA) has a library of over 50 webinars, some of which are free.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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