When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York, he was known for his habit of asking New Yorkers, “How’m I doin’?” I found that habit endearing, even though a big part of me knew that a big part of him probably wasn’t really listening to the answers. (Because, let’s face it, most politicians are not really great listeners.)
Last month, as someone who has become known as a “downsizing expert” in connection with my extensive writing and sometimes speaking on the topic, as I was going through my own downsizing-the-home-(in-a-hurry) experience last month, a part of me was also observing the process, and thinking, “So, how’m I doin’?”
For of course, writing about downsizing and actually doing it are two very different things.
Now, with a few weeks after my big downsizing move to think about “how I did,” I thought I would give myself a Downsizing Report Card. Since as far as I know, no such report card has ever been done before, I had to first think up the categories. It is my hope that having defined some of the elements involved in successful downsizing may prove helpful for others going through, or planning for, a downsizing move.
Success In Significantly Reducing Number (and Volume) of Possessions: A
I really did get rid of a lot of my stuff! I sold and donated LOTS of clothing, furniture, books, equipment of various kinds, and shredded pounds and pounds and pounds of paper. I feel I was particularly successful in this category, since some of the things I sold were things I never thought I would sell, and things I really would rather not have gotten rid of. (For example, beautiful old furniture that had been in my family for some time; and some of my work files, which contained interesting, though not essential, material of various kinds.) In my case, having made the decision to NOT move from one house to another (or even from my house to an apartment), but to put all my stuff in storage for an unforeseen length of time helped me realize that it was probably a good time to let go of these things, that I just couldn’t keep them anymore, or at least that it didn’t really make sense to do so. (There will be more on this decision-making process in another post.)
General Organization: C
In the first three weeks of my 27-day downsizing marathon, my organizational skills were pretty good. I had a lot to do in a very short time, and it all went pretty well. I held three days of moving sales: early in the process I scheduled pick-ups of furniture, and dropped about 30 boxes of books at our county library’s used book store; I filled our recycling barrels every week with tons of shredded paper; what I couldn’t sell I put out as “curb alerts” for my neighbors to come and pick up; I identified, and rented, the best self-storage unit I could find near my home; and scheduled a cleaning service to come in a couple of days before my move. So I would say that overall, I deserve at least a B+, maybe even an A for those weeks. But the last week? Honestly, I would have to give the last week an “F,” or at least a D-. The last week, predictably, slid into pure chaos. This is because my decision to try to do such a big downsizing job in such a short period of time flew in the face of probably the most valuable piece of advice in our book. Take Your Time! So I knew from the start it was inevitable that the job was not going to be done perfectly.
On the other hand, with those “take your time” and “the time to start is now” lessons firmly in my mind ever since we first published our book, I really had been working on the task for months and even years before those last 27 days. If I had not been proactively downsizing all along, it definitely could have been worse!
Safeguarding of Important Things: A
I think! Although I did get rid of a lot of things that had sentimental and other kinds of value, I didn’t have time to go through pictures, letters, etc, etc., etc. in detail. So what I couldn’t go through, I just kept, for now. As far as I know, I didn’t lose anything of importance, though the verdict will be out on that for a while, since I am currently in another country and won’t have the chance to go through everything and really know what I still have for some time.
Sharing With Others: A
For me, as for many “keepers,” being able to give things to people who can use them rather than just throw them in a dumpster or the garbage is very important. In this regard, I think I did quite well. As soon as I knew I was going to move out of my home I scheduled a pick-up from a local charity that gives furniture and clothing to families in need. (Scheduling such pick-ups well ahead of time is crucial, I found.) And the yard sales and curb-alerts I did proved over and over again the truth of the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Many people took delight in acquiring items that other people (I won’t point any fingers here 🙂 ) had declared “junk,” and walked away happy with their treasures.
Environmental Awareness and Respect for the Earth: B
Here again, not just throwing everything I didn’t need into the trash was important to me. I think I did pretty well in this regard, but again the speed of the move plus the inconvenient nature of recycling or properly disposing of certain kinds of items (for example, CDs and videotapes) made it impossible for me to have an entirely earth-friendly move. I think my county is exceptionally earth-friendly in its approach to recycling, and I did manage to get most of the toxic materials to the county’s toxic waste disposal center. But I do wish it were easier to properly dispose of these items, and am hoping my county will become even more “green” in this regard in the future, and that these practices will become more widely established across the country. (There will be more this later, too.)
Maintaining an Upbeat Attitude: A+
I believe that maintaining an upbeat attitude is an essential skill in downsizing. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re depressed! And I did manage to maintain an upbeat attitude throughout the process. On the last frantic day, when it was extremely hard to be upbeat, as thunderstorms and my imminent transatlantic flight made an extremely difficult and stressful process even worse, a neighbor who I have come to think of as an angel helped me stay upbeat despite it all. (Which reminds me of another important piece of advice in our book: Get Help!)
Maintenance of Health, Safety, and Sanity: A
This may not seem like it has anything to do with successful downsizing, but in fact it is probably the most important thing of all. (And actually, maintaining an upbeat attitude is related to this one too.) Downsizing is mentally, physically, and emotionally very stressful, and rife with abundant opportunities to become injured or dangerously exhausted. A couple of times I had to willfully slow myself down and take a short break to lie down and meditate, because I knew if I didn’t do so I would be endangering my health, and that ending up in the hospital would definitely be counterproductive to the process, not to mention my life! So: in those last few days when I was giving myself an “F” for organization, I was also giving myself an “A” for maintaining my health. (“You didn’t have a stroke!” I told myself. “You didn’t break any bones. You didn’t end up in the hospital. You’re doin’ great!!!” 🙂 )
Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life: A
Coming up with this category has been kind of a revelation to me. But I believe it is of essential importance in downsizing, and that failure to do it can be one of the main impediments to proceeding with the task. A good friend has reminded me that the life I have been living is not very similar at all to the life my parents lived. My parents moved all their household goods exactly twice in 40 years of their adult lives, and both times the move was paid for by my dad’s employer. My husband and I moved five times in the space of 15 years, and only one of those moves was funded by someone else. Our parents lived in sprawling suburban homes near the places they had grown up, with attics, basements, and plenty of storage space, while I have lived much of my life halfway across the country from where I grew up, in small apartments in urban areas, and have spent a lot time abroad. With the decision to put all my stuff into storage while I figure out where my gypsy nature will take me next, I have finally realized that my life is not a life that allows for hanging onto things in the same way my parents did. I do appreciate the “keeper” instincts that kept so many special things in my family for several generations, and even as I have reluctantly let some of those special things go, I have held onto others (mostly the ones that don’t take up too much space!
So, all in all I didn’t do so badly, really. What is that? A B-? C+? I’ve never been too good at grading. But I do give myself an A for honest self-analysis, and I look forward to doing better next time. Hopefully on a longer timeline. 🙂
Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.