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  • An Important Lesson

    “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process. People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there. Read more about how “keepers” and “throwers” work together to downsize and declutter.
  • Press for our Book

    “…a downsizing bible” Oregon Home
    "...some items have special sentimental meaning... Huffington Post
    "clearing out the clutter...a wonderful gift to your family..."USA Today
    "sharing tips for getting the job done..."PBS’s Next Avenue
    "Downsizing: What to do with all that stuff?" Forbes
    “…discussions [help] avert misunderstandings…” The New York Times
    “…creative ways…of maintaining peace while dividing the family heirlooms” BloombergBusinessweek
    “practical suggestions for sorting through a lifetime of items…” The Washington Times
    “…about memories, feelings and people…” Chicago Tribune
    “tips on preserving relations and memories while sorting clutter...” The Salt Lake Tribune
    "lessons from two who have 'been there, done that'..."Your Organizing Business
    “…a useful resource...” Senior Living Institute
    “…help is on the way…” Illinois Public Media
    …the only book mentioned in the Comprehensive Checklist for Downsizing a Home Organize and Downsize

  • On Our Bookshelf

    Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand
    Buried in Treasures by David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee
    Caring for Your Family Treasures by Jane S. Long and Richard W. Long
    Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern
    Organizing Plain and Simple by Donna Smallin
    Sell, Keep, or Toss? How to Downsize a Home... by Harry L. Rinker
    Who Gets Grandma's Yellow Pie Plate? by Marlene S. Strum

  • Our Favorite Blogs

Interesting Questions to Ask your Parents and Grandparents

“Uncle George went to Indiana because he was put on an orphan train,” my cousin told me in a recent phone call. Conversations with family members can lead to the most interesting stories! That’s how I learned that our great great-uncle, our great grandmother’s youngest brother, was taken on an orphan train from New York City to Terre Haute, Indiana. We had visited Uncle George and Aunt Ann in Indiana but I never knew what the circumstances were that had brought him there.

What questions didn’t we think to ask? Unfortunately, far too many.

What did we learn when we did ask questions?

I remember the questions my kids asked when they interviewed a relative for a school assignment. My younger daughter, who talked to my husband’s aunt who grew up in Eastern Europe, asked what her favorite chore was and found out she liked going to the chicken coop to gather the eggs.

My older daughter asked my father what he recalled about one of the major headlines of the day. He told her he remembered the exact spot where he was standing when he heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. What a way to make history real for her.

Interesting, open-ended, thought-provoking questions can spark meaningful conversations and help keep the family stories coming. Everyone has a story, and many of them turn out to be more interesting than you might think.

Lots of sites have lists of questions to ask. Here are a few that spoke to me.

From A Place for Mom’s list of questions:

Who in your life has shown you the most kindness?

What an out-of-the ordinary question and what a wonderful story it will evoke.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Sharing recipes is such a wonderful way to keep the family history alive, and how great to share the stories that go with the foods, whether the food was a gourmet triumph or a total disaster.

From a genealogy website:

Did you and your friends have a special hangout where you liked to spend time?

So was it a friend’s backyard, or the ice rink, or the local candy store? What a wonderful question to help bring to mind stories of your parents’ youth.

What was the funniest thing you can remember that one of your children said or did?

Little kids say the darndest things and your family will love to hear those stories.

From a blog:

What was your second choice for my name?

This was always my daughter’s favorite question – she wrote an essay in school about our answer – because my husband had a way-out, hippie choice and I had a elegant, old-fashioned name in mind, and I prevailed.

What was the best trip of your life?

It could be leaving everything and heading to Alaska, or collecting seashells along the shore of an exotic island, or it could be visiting a grandparent. All good stories.

What haven’t you asked your parents? What do you still need to tell your kids?

We want to come to understand the significance of sharing our family history, of sharing our family stories. We want to realize that stories are more important than any object that was left to us, or anything we could leave to our kids. The stories are the memories that we will hold onto, the memories that will stay in our hearts for all time.

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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Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

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

‘Tis the Season to Give…with Gifts That Make a Difference

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In this season of giving, there’s no better gift than giving back. Keeping in mind that most of us have too much stuff, really, way too many material things, we relish the idea of giving gifts that can be consumed, or used up, or ones that will help others.

Here’s our guide to what we call alternative, maybe subversive gift giving – subversive in that they don’t accumulate in your house later.

Family items

One of the people we interviewed for our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, told us how her mother gave family items, family heirlooms, as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She said she didn’t want her family members to wait to inherit them from her and preferred that they enjoy the items now. We agree, and think it’s an idea worth considering for the holidays. And don’t forget to share the stories behind the objects.

Food and drink

We love to receive gifts of homemade food or something we wouldn’t necessarily buy for ourselves. Things like good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread, homemade pickles, a jar filled with dry ingredients and a favorite soup recipe, a make-your-own spice mix, an assortment of tea or coffee, a hot chocolate kit. Who doesn’t love food made with love.

And you could make a recipe book, a compilation of family recipes handed down over the years, for each member of your family.

Experiences

Giving a gift of an experience lasts far longer than a new scarf or gloves. Gifts of outings such as a camping trip or dinner at a lovely restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, a bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest.

Sharing your talents

Use your skills like knitting, crochet, and woodworking, to create one-of-kind gifts. Or, your skills are more modest, you could frame a loved one’s wedding announcement or diploma, get seeds or bulbs for an avid gardener, or create a photo album commemorating a family event this past year.

A gift of time

Homemade gift certificates allow you to offer to help others in a festive way – and you get to spend time with friends and family while getting some chores done. You could offer to help with yard work or planting, make a dinner, bake a cake for a special occasion, offer babysitting to new parents, or take your grandkids out for ice cream, or help someone sort through their clothes or books.

Adopt a family

You can help those less fortunate by purchasing gifts of clothes and food for those in need, or adopt a soldier who is serving overseas and send notes and gifts.

Make a donation

Donating to a worthy cause is a gift that gives back. There are so many places to give but here’s a list of a few to consider.

A good place to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here’s this year’s list.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $1-for-$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, doubles the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer International helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Help domestic animals by giving to the ASPCA.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

The best way to celebrate the season is to practice gratitude. Be happy and thankful for what you have. Recently spotted on a T-shirt: “Happiness is homemade” and I think that’s a great attitude for the holidays. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things you have, for friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes you calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.

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

When Is Storage a Good Choice?

Deciding whether to store items can be difficult. On the one hand, you don’t want to simply defer decisions – decisions like the answer to “Do I really need this?” On the other hand, temporarily storing some items can be a good interim step for many of us. Here are some things to consider in helping you determine whether using storage is a good choice for you.

Before you even think about storage…

Before you think about storage, sort through what you have and eliminate as much of it as possible.

It’s easy to get lost in a swirling sea of sentimental items, but keep the best and give away the rest. Give things to family and friends, donate to charity, toss or recycle the unusable stuff. You want to simplify: downsize, declutter, eliminate what you don’t need, and purge, purge, purge. Go through everything, whether it’s a drawer or a carton or a closet, before you decide what will go into storage.

It’s best to use offsite storage less like a warehouse where you put things away and forget about them, and more like a second garage where you store things until you need them, or can decide what you’re going to do with them, or who will get them.

When it’s time to find a storage space, think about getting the smallest space you can—one that suits your needs but not one that you will be tempted to fill indiscriminately. It’s better to think about how and when you will remove things from storage, than to think of the space as somewhere to keep putting things.

Smart questions to ask…

Here is a list of questions to ask yourself to help you determine whether using storage is the right step for you.

  • Does the item have practical value? Sentimental value? No value? Are you waiting for it to go up in value?
  • What is the cost—personal as well as financial—of renting a storage space?
  • Is everything well labeled? Have you created an inventory, a list to keep at home, of what’s going in storage? Have you taken photos of the items that will go in storage?
  • Are the conditions in the storage place appropriate for the items you want to store? Will wood warp? Will paper deteriorate? Will fabric rot? Climate-controlled storage space is more expensive, but for some items it’s the only safe way to store things for more than a short while.
  • Do you have a plan for the items? Are you storing them until you can have a yard sale, sell them at auction, or sort through them with another person? Is the plan open-ended, or do you have a specific timeframe in mind? (Hint: It’s best to have a specific timeframe!)
  • Be honest. Are you storing items simply because you cannot make a decision about them? If so, will having more time really help you?

When storage is a good option…

There are times in life when using off-site storage makes sense. Here are some life events where it seems the right thing to do.

You have a business commitment away from your home base for a year or maybe two, and you have to vacate your apartment. You need to store all your stuff until you come back.

You have a new thoughts about what you want your home to look like, and some of your stuff does not quite make the cut. You are actively working on a new plan and will decide what you will keep and what you will eventually give away—by a specific date!

You inherited some valuables, like a china service for 12, a huge stamp collection, or a large painting, and you want to store the item until you can decide what to do with it.

You’re living abroad for the time being and need to store the contents of your entire home until you decide where your permanent home will be.

Your parents passed away suddenly and you want to store their things so you can sell the house. Then you’ll deal with the household items.

You’re a student and need to store stuff over the summer or during a semester away.

You are the caretaker for your parents’ collections, for example your father’s record albums from the 1950s and 60s, or your mom’s comic book collection, and you want to keep them safe.

You have a lot of seasonal stuff: soccer balls for the fall, down coats for winter, sports equipment like skis or boating paraphernalia or camping equipment for the summer, and you want to keep it safe and out of the way during the off-seasons. Or you are planning to have another child and want to keep all the baby-related paraphernalia in storage for now. If your main living space is really limited it may be worth the cost of keeping a storage space long-term for these purposes.

What you should NOT put into storage…

Your important papers should also always be kept at home, not put into storage.

Most storage units have rules about what is not allowed to be stored on site. Be sure to follow those rules: most of them are aimed at maintaining a safe and secure environment, and preventing various kinds of environmental hazards.

Once you have made the decision that storage is right for you, choose a place that is convenient for you to get to, has a helpful staff and convenient hours of access, is climate-controlled if that’s important in your case, and is generally going to provide a pleasant experience for you. You want a place that is clean and well maintained, where your things will be well cared for, safe, and secure.

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are the authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and creators of this blog.

 

Happier at Home…Or How You Can Make Your Surroundings Friendlier

 

We’ve said often that getting rid of what we don’t need can add to our happiness. But what do we do with the stuff that we have chosen to keep? Three authors explain how making small changes at home can lead to a greater feeling of contentment.

Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, has traveled the world researching what makes people happy. He has discovered three strands of happiness—pleasure, purpose, and pride—gleaned from what he calls the world’s happiest places.

I understand how having a purpose in life makes us happier and how we need to experience pleasure or enjoyment, but pride was the one that kind of threw me. Buettner’s focus is on improving our surroundings. He says, “There are small things [we can do]. One facet of happiness is a sum of positive emotions. So I like the idea of a “pride shrine”—a place in your house that you pass a lot where you put pictures that trigger pleasant memories. Or diplomas or awards that remind you of accomplishments.”

Gretchen Rubin, author of Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life, says, “Of all the elements of a happy life, my home is the most important.”

Two stories that Rubin tells in her book speak to both the importance of a comfortable home to her and to the truth of our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object.” She also calls these set-ups “shrines” and shows how one item or a grouping of a few can make us happier.

Of the many items that Ruben had that belonged to her grandparents, she treasured most two small ceramic birds. She decided to put them on a shelf in her home office, a place where she would see them every day, and this enabled her to get rid of the rest the inherited things.

Ruben’s two daughters were accomplished ballerinas and Ruben kept the tutus from their many recitals in storage under their beds. The tutus soon outgrew the space available and Ruben agonized a bit over what to do about the costumes even though she had many photos of the recitals. She chose to set up a “shrine” in her foyer: several frames with photos of the events. She kept additional recital photos in a drawer in the hall table so she can swap them out from time to time. These photos are the first things Ruben sees as she enters her home.

Leo Babauta, author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life, writes about how to streamline your life by identifying the essential and eliminating the unnecessary, freeing you from everyday clutter and allowing you to live a better life.

In a recent blog post, he wrote about lowering your life’s requirements. He explains: he was walking through an airport in early morning and wanted a cup of coffee but the long line at the coffee bar made him change his mind. He didn’t need the coffee to be awake. His thoughts were, “What are your requirements, things you can’t do without?…What happens when we let go of these needs, and just keep them as a ‘nice-to-have’ option?”

He and his wife joined a no alcohol challenge, “just to push into the discomfort of not relaxing with a glass of wine at night.”

Babauta concludes, “The fewer requirements we have, the less of a burden these requirements become. The more often we have the same thing every day, the more likely they are to become a requirement.”

To make our homes happier, we can create small monuments to important aspects of our lives – “shrines” to our accomplishments, to our family, and to our favorite activities. We can also rethink our habits, what we do every day without thinking, whether it’s making coffee first thing in the morning or keeping too much stuff simply because it belonged to our parents or grandparents.

Is it time to rethink what makes us happy? These authors suggest that we can let a few things, a curated few, tell the story we want to tell. We don’t have to keep everything, or hold onto everything, whether it’s an item we inherited or a habit we have cultivated.

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

 

On My Reading List: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

the-gentle-art-of-swedish-death-cleaning-9781501173240

Well, this “coming soon” title has definitely caught my eye, not only because of my Swedish-American roots, but because the title of the book seems—to me anyway—ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around! 🙂 )

Reviewed this week by Jura Koncius in the Washington Post, the book, which is scheduled for publication in the U.S. in January, sounds like yet another gentle pushing back at—or at least moderating influence over—the Marie Kondo “magic of tidying up” tidal wave that has swept the nation in the past few years. The publisher describes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering, which sounds either helpful or frightening, depending I suppose, on one’s perspective—that is, as we have discussed in our book, on whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.”

It’s interesting to me that this book comes from Sweden. I have often thought about the fact that within a few short generations my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with. I have wondered if it is in part the fact that there was that lingering and painful historical memory of having had to leave everything behind in Sweden that fueled part of the fierce resistance to letting go of things that is very familiar to me as a Swedish-American Minnesotan.

So the explanation in the Washington Post article that “death cleaning”—that is, doing most of the getting rid of things before you die, so your survivors don’t have to it—is a very Swedish thing (“almost biological” says the Swedish ambassador to the U.S.) and the author’s view that it’s “not fair” to leave that task to others to me feels on the one hand surprisingly un-Swedish (that is, the getting-rid-of-things part), and on the other hand very Swedish indeed (the-importance-of-fairness part).

In any case, I’m looking forward to reading this book. And I imagine we’ll be letting you know more about how well it complements our approach to downsizing—or doesn’t?—later. So stay tuned for more…

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

Fix Your Broken Window and Other Great Tips for Feeling Less Stressed

There is a social science theory that one broken window on the block can lead to the downfall of a neighborhood. Broken-window policing, the practice of combatting minor offenses in an effort to deter more serious ones, was popular in many cities and former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, for one, was a strong supporter.

Today that practice is somewhat controversial as a police policy but it may have a place in our arsenal against clutter. It can be a new way of looking at small messes in our home. Rather than seeing the mess and feeling overwhelmed by it, we can fix the small things.

As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, says, even something as small as a stack of unsorted mail can feel defeating. She continues: “Maybe your broken window is dirty laundry, a sink full of dishes, clutter on your counter. Whatever it is, it undermines your goals because it gives you a sense of chaos. The act of fixing broken windows, however, is liberating. The task takes on symbolic weight. It doesn’t just feel like you’re sorting the mail you’ve been meaning to sort—it feels like you’re taking the first step toward doing everything you’ve been meaning to.” So fixing small messes means they’re less likely to become big messes.

Another tip is to be prepared. Yes, the Girl Scout motto comes in handy for adults, too. When you don’t have the time to do a complete job – of any household task including battling clutter – the more you prepare ahead of time, the more you can get done. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, of his command of the troops in World War II, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

A Navy Seal reminds us: “Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” Let’s look at our training at home. You have a mail sorter and wastebasket near your front door? Your mail never has to become an unwieldy pile. You’ve posted important phone numbers on your refrigerator? No need for a frantic search when you need one in a hurry. Bought fruit and vegetables at the farmer’s market this weekend? You’re halfway to a healthy meal after a stressful day at work. Systems that are firmly in place often reduce stress.

Remember to appreciate the small things in your life. Do you have a painting you love to look at? Make sure to hang it in a prominent spot away from clutter or other distractions so you can enjoy it. You love to read but find your books are always in a jumble? Make it easier on yourself by straightening up your bookshelf so you can find the titles you want. You love your grandmother’s china but never have an occasion to use it? Hang one plate on the wall so you see it every day. Live with the things you love.

Learn something useful. So much of life today involves paperwork or using technology, or both, which is so disheartening. To combat that feeling, learn to do something useful. You can share your expertise with a friend and ask her to teach you something. Ask your grandmother for tips. Or take a course, if you like. But be useful. Grow vegetables. Knit a hat. Fix your toilet. Bake a cake. Paint the porch. The results of a first try may not be as wonderful as you would like but you’ll feel like you’re contributing to your home. You’ll empower yourself.

And, lastly, help someone else. Lend a hand. Do a good deed for someone in need. As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

Do you have a favorite stress-buster? We’d love to hear from you.

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