Reflections on Downsizing and Decluttering: Savoring the Process

I’ll be the first to admit that most of the time downsizing and decluttering feels like pretty much the LAST thing you’d think of when you think of an experience for savoring.

A delicious meal. A perfect massage. The taste of fresh strawberries that really taste like strawberries melting on your tongue. A sunset so beautiful you wish you could press “pause,” but you wouldn’t really want to do that because with each passing minute it becomes a new kind of beautiful.

Those are the kinds of things more likely to match with the word “savoring” in my mind.

But downsizing? And decluttering? I don’t think so….

And yet.

One of the things that has always bothered me a bit in the conversation surrounding this topic is the often stated, seemingly obvious “truth” that people who leave lots of things for their heirs to go through are at the very least leaving them with an entirely unsavory task, and that this reeks of at the very least a kind of selfish irresponsibility.

And yet. As the child of two parents who left us with plenty of things to go through after they died, and a brother who left my sister and me an even more bewildering collection of unwieldy possessions to go through, I have for the most part stayed out of this conversation, harboring my own private thoughts about it.

Well, almost. I did write this about my brother and his stuff.

But here is what I would like to stay about this now, for what it’s worth.

I would like to say that while I agree entirely that what my parents and my brother left for us to go through could certainly quite accurately be described as “a burden.” There’s no denying that.

But to me this “burden” has not been entirely a negative experience, not at all. In fact, there have been many parts of this process that has unfolded actually over a number of years, that have been worthy of savoring.

There have been many little items that have, shall we say “sparked joy” as I came upon them. Some of them have sparked sadness also, but often along with the sadness they have brought a kind of poignant comfort to me, or to others. (And not all of them were saved by my parents. Some of them were saved by me (a chip off the old blocks if ever there were one!)

A few of the things I came across in my last round of going through the things in my storage locker were these: my father’s report card from grade school (back in the 1930s, in a little one-room country schoolhouse in rural Minnesota); a letter I had saved from a dear friend who is no longer alive, in which she had lovingly and beautifully written about her children when they were young (I sent the letter to her children); a little ceramic mouse that had been a “stocking stuffer” gift from my mother-in-law years ago, and which brought comfort to her son at a time when he needed comfort, and a reminder of his mother, desperately.

Going through these things one by one, piece by piece, is often a tedious process. The thing I like the least about it is this feeling that I am being sucked into the past, a past from which I’ll never escape. It’s not a particularly pleasant feeling, and certainly not worth savoring.

But parts of it are: those moments when you feel love expressed many years earlier in the form of a letter; or a little ceramic mouse; or a lump of brown and gray clay fashioned by a little boy, who had brought it to his mother one day while she was working, handed it to her, and said, “Mommy, this is a butterfly.”

Those are the moments I savor, and I always will. And because they are there to be savored, I think the tedium, all the tedium is worth it, really.

 Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

Downsizing Stories, as Coach and Coached

Illustration by Quentin Monge

One reviewer of our book on Amazon said that with Moving On, you get the authors “coaching you, supporting you, and cheering you on with their very practical advice.”

The past couple of weeks I have felt both somewhat of a coach and very much one who is coached.

We have been sorting through our files, mostly business financial papers because we closed our company at the end of 2017. The impetus to get it done now was a free shredding event in our neighborhood.

As we emptied files we ended up with four bankers’ boxes of papers to be shredded. With that amount of stuff, “in our neighborhood” took on a different meaning. To get several blocks away with such heavy boxes became daunting so my husband called a shredding company to request a private pick up, for a fee.

Since we were getting papers picked up, I decided to go through more files, mostly of book stuff. I have a file, sometimes paper, sometimes electronic, sometimes both, for each book I have written, sometimes one for each book I’ve edited, and many files for books I’m thinking of writing. I culled much of that.

Then I started on personal files, which I edited down rather than getting rid of completely. For the file on my father’s funeral, I read through some of the papers I had used to write his obit and reread some very thoughtful and supportive condolence notes. By the end of the file, I was in tears but I got through it by invoking our mantra, “Keep the memories, toss the object…”

A friend’s mother died a few weeks ago at the age of 102½ (I seem to have quite a few friends with longevity in their genes), and my friend has to empty her mother’s apartment of many years. She had been to a couple of my downsizing talks and even wrote a lovely comment – with 5 stars – on our book’s Amazon page.

Now she was ready to implement the suggestions in Moving On so we talked about how important it is for those emptying a home, and certainly for her, to honor her mother’s life – as an Olympic gymnast, as a wife and mother, and as one who gave back all her life – while at the same time getting rid of a lifetime of stuff. I felt I could be a bit of a coach for her because I had been through that process when my father moved from his home of 50 years.

Another friend, a doctor, is getting ready to retire and wants to downsize. Her kids have been out of the house for years and she now wants to make her home more functional for herself and her husband. She came to me to ask for guidance and then said, “I’ll just buy the book.” So our book will be a coach for her – and she can always ask me questions along the way.

That same reviewer of our book on Amazon also said, “I knew I found my roadmap when I read this book.” (We are so grateful to that reviewer for such kind words about us and our book.)

I have used our book as a roadmap and have been coached and cheered on by my friends and family this past few weeks, just as I have coached and supported and cheered on my friends who are downsizing. It’s been a time of women supporting women.

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

“Outer Order, Inner Calm” Sparks Joy for Me

Gretchen Rubin has always been an intriguing author for me because she is thoughtful, practical, and focused on what makes us happy – as she ought to be since her seminal work, The Happiness Project, is a book about exploring what makes Gretchen happy and more agreeable and how we might glean something for our own lives from her journey.

In her newest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, a short look into what works for her and suggestions for what might work for us, Rubin explains her challenges to find more order in a way that is thoughtful and helpful, yes, but also allows for the messiness that is part of life. There is not one way to do this, only different solutions that work for different people.

Here are some of the ways she has found, as the book blurb says, for getting control of the stuff in our lives and making us feel more in control of our lives by getting rid of things we don’t use, or need, or love, so we can free our minds and our homes for what we truly value.

Outer order isn’t a matter of having less or having more. It’s a matter of wanting what we have.

In most situations, we don’t need to make a perfect choice but just a good-enough choice.

People are reluctant to relinquish their possession, so if I think that it might be time to discard an item, I probably should’ve done so already – especially if that thought occurs to me more than once.

Here’s a wonderful explanation of some of the psychic challenges to getting rid of our stuff. The endowment effect: We value things more once we own them. The duration effect: The longer I own a possession, the more precious it becomes, even if it has never been particularly valued.

David Ekerdt, a professor of sociology and gerontology, observed that after age fifty, the chances that a person will divest himself or herself of possessions diminishes with each decade.

Do it now, or decide when you’ll do it.

When trying to make a tough choice, challenge yourself: “Choose the bigger life.” The helpful thing about this question is that it reveals our values.

Does this bring you joy? may be a useful question for some. But for me the question is, Does this energize me?

Someplace, keep an empty shelf or an empty junk drawer. My empty shelf gives me the luxury of space; I have room for more things to come into my life.

Remember love. When it gets to be too much, remember: All this junk is an expression of love.

Outer order is a challenge to impose and it’s a chore to maintain. Nevertheless, for most of us, it’s worth the effort. Especially because it helps us feel good and helps us create an atmosphere of growth.

And inner calm contributes to outer order. When we feel serene, energetic, and focused, that’s when it becomes easier to keep our surroundings in good order. It’s a virtuous cycle.

My possessions aren’t me, that’s true – yet it’s also true that my possessions are me.

When we look at our stuff, we see a reflection of ourselves. We’re happier when that stuff is in good order and includes things that we need, use, and love – because that reflection influences the way we see ourselves.

Thank you, Gretchen Rubin. Your new book echoes some of the themes in our book, Moving On, where we say that when downsizing it’s helps to remember the love that went into accumulating the stuff in the first place.

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

Alison Lush on the KonMari Method™

alison-lush

Alison Lush is a certified professional organizer who has specialized training in working with people affected by chronic disorganization. She is a Master Trainer, CPO-CD®, CPO® and President of ICD (the Institute for Challenging Disorganization). Alison recently attended two international conferences: the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers  (APDO) in London, and the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas. I interviewed Alison about her work as a professional organizer about a year ago on this blog. Upon her return to Montreal after her attendance at these conferences, she kindly took the time to answer some questions I had about the KonMari Method™ from her perspective as a specialist in dealing with people who are affected by chronic disorganization—JH

Janet Hulstrand: What did you think about the KonMari Method™ when you first learned about it? Has your opinion of it changed since then? If so, how has it changed?

Alison Lush: My opinion about the KonMari Method™ has not changed since I first learned about it. On the plus side, I think that several strategies inherent in the Method™ definitely have merit, depending on who is trying to use them. They will work for some people, and not for others. On the downside, I find the “Do it exactly this way, with no modifications” approach unhelpful. I have nine years of experience working with clients, and I find that many people appreciate personalized approaches. They like to pick and choose. They like to personalize.

Also, Kondo claims that it is easy to declutter and organize. That is simply not true for everyone, and I think it is a disservice to those who struggle with it, to say that it is.

Janet: You recently addressed a group of professional organizers in London. What was the topic of your talk?

 Alison: The presentation I gave was called “Making Space for the KonMari Method™”. I’ve talked with two certified KonMari consultants, and was struck by the similarities in our approaches.

My education and training comes primarily from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD). Ever since Marie Kondo’s book launched in 2014 in English, I’d been hearing backlash from professional organizers, and I’ve been curious about that. So a fellow professional organizer, April Miller, and I performed a detailed compare-and-contrast of the ICD perspective and the KonMari Method™. We delivered this analysis as a class to ICD in late 2017, and I reworked the presentation for the annual 2019 conference of the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organizers (APDO) in the UK. The crux of this detailed analysis is that there are some parts of the KonMari Method™ that would work for people affected by chronic disorganization, and some that definitely would not.

Janet: Why do you think the KonMari Method™ is very helpful for some people, and not all for others? Can it even be counterproductive for some people? Is there a way of creating a “hybrid” approach to decluttering that uses some elements of the Kon Mari Methodand rejects others? 

Alison: One of the things many people lose sight of is that the basis of the KonMari Method,™ as outlined in Marie Kondo’s first book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is that she insisted that the method must be followed as directed. That is one of the pieces that has generated much of the criticism I think.

As a professional organizer, I listen carefully to what my clients tell me. I suspect that many people who report having success with the KonMari Method™ may actually be having success with some of the strategies presented in the Method. I tried several of the strategies myself, and was pleased at seeing some progress. But I would never attempt to try the KonMari Method™ as prescribed. I believe the most helpful decluttering and organizing strategies are personalized by and/or for the individuals who own the stuff.

If people affected by chronic disorganization attempt this method (which claims to be easy) without support, and fail again, their feelings of inadequacy may be reinforced.

Janet: What do you admire most about Marie Kondo?

Alison: The marketing that has launched her onto the international stage is impressive. Many of the individual concepts she has woven into the KonMari Method™ were already well known, but she repackaged and launched them with great success.

Janet: What, if anything, do you think is misguided or overrated in her approach? Or perhaps simply misunderstood?

Alison: The underlying strategiesand the complete KonMari Method™ are not the same thing. The Method™ includes taking multiple steps, in order, and it is recommended that it be done as quickly as possible, like ripping off a Band-Aid. When the Method™ is executed as directed, dramatic results are promised, including protection from backsliding into clutter. But the Method™ must be followed as directed for these results.

The two primary issues I have with her approach is that it is specified that you must 1) do it THIS way, and 2) that it is EASY. For many people, chronic disorganization is a reality, and decluttering is NOT easy. Telling them it is easy potentially sets them up for more failure.

When I asked the certified KonMari consultants I talked with about their work with their clients, I was impressed by the similarities in their descriptions of their approach, compared to how I work with clients. They describe a client-centered approach – but Marie Kondo’s book is definitely not client-centered. The certified KonMari consultants I met with are positive ambassadors for the profession, and I’m sorry they find themselves on the front lines, receiving much backlash because of the rigid approach outlined in the book.

Janet: One of the areas of backlash to the massive decluttering that is going on in the wake of the huge popularity of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series is the environmental effects of massive, sudden throwing out of things, especially in plastic bags! What advice or cautions do you have to offer about how to go about aggressive decluttering in a way that is environmentally responsible?

Alison: For the record, I have not watched the series, and have no intention to do so. I have studied Marie Kondo’s first book in great depth, many times, over the past five years. At the NAPO conference this past weekend, I heard a presentation about The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. It involves the notion that when we declutter, we have the responsibility to find someone else who can use the thing. I find this both refreshing and challenging. Because when we are dealing with a LOT of stuff going out the door, it is very difficult to imagine finding individuals to take it all.

I certainly do encourage my clients to first think of anyone they know who might benefit from the stuff, then to donate to charities, then as a very last resort, to send it to landfill. I refer to this as Amnesty – a one-time rebooting of the overall amount of possessions one owns. And hand-in-hand with Amnesty, I hope there will be increased awareness of the responsibility of ownership.

It all starts when we bring stuff home. Bring home less stuff! 🙂

Alison Lush is the only Certified Professional Organizer in Quebec, Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

Too Many Papers and How Surprisingly Little Time It Took to Sort Through Them

It began when my husband needed some information from my Social Security card. I started to look for the card in desk part of my secretary and couldn’t find it. An hour or so later, after clearing out outdated bank statements, deposit slips, and the like, I had a cleaned-out, clutter-free secretary, or the desk part anyway. Some of the items were trash and some had to be shredded but all unnecessary stuff was gone.

I love that secretary, a smaller version made for my father of the one his father had had, and I acquired it after my grandmother died. It is immortalized in an illustration on page 50 of the paperback edition of our book Moving On and shown above. But I tend to abuse the desk, actually the entire secretary, by stuffing it with too many papers. The photo of the open desk, below, is not beautiful, but to me it is because it shows how clean and organized it now is.

As much as I don’t like paper clutter, I like going through papers even less so I have lots of piles that need attending to. According to professional organizers, clutter tends to gather in certain parts of our homes and for me there are three places that paper clings to: the secretary, the top of my dresser, and on my desk next to the computer.

The clutter-free secretary spurred me on. I was so inspired by my efforts – I keep opening the desk and admiring how clean and orderly it is – that I was able to tackle the other two areas of paper clutter.

The top of my dresser in the bedroom is a place that gets cluttered with shopping receipts and packing slips from online orders, jewelry I have worn and haven’t put away, and things I want to look at before I get rid of them. Less than two hours after I started, I have a cleaned-out, clutter-free dresser top where you can now see the smooth wood.

Onto the third area of clutter, the space on my desk next to my computer. This is the worst one. I know many experts say to start with the toughest problem but I had to work myself up to confronting this pile.

Next to my computer is where I keep papers about the projects I am working on. Research in paper form (that somehow isn’t online), articles from the New York Times (since I still get the paper delivered to my door every morning), notes to myself (lots of notes) about current projects and future ones, and business cards of people I want to follow up with (although I do have a folder for those).

I usually sort through this pile at the end of a project, a book or an article I have written or one that I have edited. But, for whatever reason, perhaps some laziness, definitely some procrastination, I have put off the periodic clean ups and the pile seemed insurmountable.

For that reason and because of the nature of the items, sorting through this pile required much more thought and decision-making than it did for the other piles and it took me several sessions over a period of a few days to sort through everything. I keep a file, or more than one sometimes, on each of my projects and I created new files for the newer ones so everything had a place to go.

This will be the most difficult area for me to keep clean. So far the secretary and the dresser top look so clean and neat that I haven’t dared to put anything there. And the items that tended to accumulate were everyday papers that could easily be dealt with. But the area next to my computer is an active workspace and so it will continue to accumulate papers. I just have to be more vigilant about sorting through them on a regular basis, small sorting sessions rather than one so large I consistently avoided it.

I have to set a goal of sorting through my papers periodically (and frequently) and then follow through by actually cleaning out the stuff I don’t need. Every so often, ask me how I’m doing!

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

Downsizing Mistakes I Have Made

DownsiingAgainI’m involved in another round of downsizing this month, and as I become aware of some of the things I could have done better along the way, it occurred to me it might be helpful to share with our readers some of the downsizing mistakes I’ve made.

Of course it would be nice to maintain the illusion that a person who is coauthor of  a book about downsizing doesn’t make mistakes. But of course we all make mistakes, and the best thing we can do about that is to learn from them. Therefore, here are a few of the things I’ve done wrong, which I am sharing in the hope that others will benefit from reading about them.

Mistake #1.

It’s the #1 tip in our book, but sometimes it is hard to do: Take. Your. Time.

The reason it’s hard to do this is that often when a move comes up, there are circumstances beyond our control that force us to move more quickly than is ideal for making good decisions.

So it has been in my case. This year, as I approached the task again, I realized, in retrospect, that I moved too quickly in the last round. This has led to my gaining several pieces of wisdom that I suppose should have been obvious: but when one is moving too quickly, the obvious doesn’t always stand out.

  1. Since one of the main goals of downsizing is to reduce volume, it’s best to focus on objects that take up lots of space than on small items that can be easily stored away to deal with when you have more time. This means that, for example, you’re probably going to want to focus on furniture, books, and other objects that take up lots of space, especially if they are going to be in storage (for example, cooking equipment and glassware, china, pottery, etc.: things that have to be wrapped in bubble wrap and so on, rather than on jewelry, ephemera, and other things that can be kept flat, or tucked into small boxes rather than large ones, taking up little space.
  2. When (finally) saying goodbye to sentimental items that really must go (usually, but not always, because they take up too much space), be sure to take the time to properly honor what they have meant to you, and make sure that whatever you do with them honors the sometimes sacred meaning they have for you. The best example of this that I have is the little handmade felt heart that my son made for me in school as a child. When he was helping me in the first round of dealing with all the things in my storage locker, he urged me to let go of the heart, and reluctantly I agreed to do so. But I made two mistakes about letting go of this heart. One was to not, right at that moment, to take a picture of the two of us together, holding the heart. I would have loved to have this picture; even he (who is much less sentimental than I) would probably have liked to have it too; and I would have liked to be able to share that picture on this post. (It would have been demonstrating something like “You see? Working together, we CAN find ways to say goodbye even to some of our most special, sentimental items.”) But I did not think to do that. Instead the heart went into my car, along with a lot of other stuff. And when eventually I got rid of it (telling myself, “He WANTS you to get rid of this. You promised you would!”)  I did NOT find an honorable place or way to say goodbye to it. (The truth is that I cannot even tell you what I did with it, because the memory is too painful.) Even Marie Kondo, whose method for decluttering is seen by many people (including to some degree by me) as too extreme, recognizes the importance of honoring the sacred meaning of such special items. I am pretty sure if she had been standing there, she would have urged me to find a different way to send that beautiful little heart out of my life than the one I finally chose.
  3. Since inevitably you will make some mistakes, know that this is inevitable, and give yourself a break. And when you are feeling regret, know that this too is an inevitable part of the process. This is the time to check your Regret-o-Meter, and move on, wiser for the next stage of downsizing.

Spring is nearly here, and you know what that means: time for spring cleaning, and proactive downsizing!

Here’s hoping that some kernel of wisdom above will help you to go quickly enough to get the job done, and not so quickly that you are filled with regret.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. She is also the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You

 

 

 

Who Are the Visionary Women in Your Life?

 

In March we celebrate Women’s History Month, an initiative that “will amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future.” You can read more about the month’s theme here. In recognition of that celebration I would like to pay my respects to several women who have helped me deal with my clutter—and organize my life in countless ways.

Kerri L. Richardson, author of What Your Clutter Is Trying To Tell You, suggests we ask ourselves why we are holding onto some things. Is it because we think we should hold onto them? Do the items speak to the person we think we should be? Other people have posed similar questions but when I read this I had a eureka moment. I have a shelf of a certain type of self-help book, books that I have never read. I always thought I should read them, but never did. After reading Kerri Richardson’s book I decided to get rid of them. At first, I was going to look at each book and choose one to keep and read. Then I decided to just donate all the books to a local charity.

Thank you, Kerri Richardson, for opening my eyes to the futility of should.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the driving force behind the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, says to put all your clothes in a pile in the middle of your bed. Well, I didn’t go quite that far but I did put all my socks on the bed, and I have a lot of socks. I’m very particular about my socks, and I have ones for the gym, for walking/hiking, for everyday use, for when I’m more dressed up, and all depend on the weight and thickness and height of the socks. What prompted me to sort through all of them was a struggle each morning to find socks to wear to the gym so I KonMari’d my socks. The single socks went to fabric recycling and some pairs I no longer wear went to a women’s shelter, and the rest are now arranged by type.

Kudos to you, Marie Kondo, for helping me evoke my inner organizer.

Gretchen Rubin, whose newest book is Outer Order, Inner Calm (which I’m looking forward to reading when it comes out later this month), tells a story in an earlier book, Happier at Home, about the way she handled her grandparents’ stuff. She had inherited quite a few items but two ceramic birds reminded her the most of her grandparents. She gave the birds a place of honor, putting them on a shelf in her home office where she could see them every day. Viewing the birds each day helped draw out her warm feelings about her grandparents and she was able to get rid of the other things she had inherited. I thought of that story as I donated my grandparents’ pitcher and washbasin, a set from the 1880s that had been specifically left to me, because I had no place for it and because I had other things that spoke to me more of my grandparents.

My thanks to you, Gretchen Rubin, for passing along the insight that perhaps the best way to honor our parents and grandparents is to keep only certain things that speak to us.

Julie Morganstern, whose first book Organizing from the Inside Out was such a helpful organizing book, the one I read before starting to write Moving On, looks at decluttering as a positive thing to do, a way to gain insight into ourselves, not just as a way to get rid of the material things we have amassed. She says, “Decluttering is a point of entry, an opportunity to discover an attachment, a belief system, an unexpressed part of yourself.”

I’m so grateful to you, Julie Morganstern, for sharing your wisdom about discovering new parts of ourselves.

This is the first day of the month dedicated to women and I have written about four women I’m thankful for. I’m challenging myself to think of one women each day of this month to honor. How about you? Who are the visionary women in your life and which ones are you thankful for?

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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