Downsizing: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

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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Interview with Elizabeth Stewart, Author of “No Thanks Mom!”

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Elizabeth Stewart is a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America with an expertise in appraising art and antiques for estate planning. She knows the best places to sell “stuff” and why certain things are worth keeping. She has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of San Diego, and a doctorate from Pacifica Institute in Mythological Studies, with an emphasis on material culture: her dissertation was a scholarly study of consumers, collectors, connoisseurs, and hoarders. She writes a weekly column in the Santa Barbara News Press under the pseudonym “The Gold-Digger,” and hosts a weekly radio show on the arts on KZSB radio. “No Thanks Mom: The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want (and What to Do With Them)” is her second book. She recently took the time to discuss the “generation gap” between baby boomers and millennials in regards to “stuff” with Janet Hulstrand, via email. 

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Janet: What inspired you to write this book? Was there a particular professional or personal experience that made you realize that there is a kind of generation gap between boomers and millennials when it comes to how they feel about “stuff” and how they want to decorate their homes?

Elizabeth: Was there ever! My son was newly married, and they had just found a house they loved in North Carolina, across the country from me. (I am in Santa Barbara, California.) Thus I had a storage locker dedicated to things I was collecting that I thought a young couple COULD NOT entertain/live/decorate/feather their nest WITHOUT. So for about nine months I sent them about a box a week. When I got the call to come and help them paint their house, I went there. Seeing none of the things I had sent, I thought, “Ok, they’re in storage, because we’re house painting.” Yes, they were stored, all right: in the local Goodwill shop!

Janet: What do you see as the biggest difference between millennials and their baby-boomer parents, especially when it comes to how they feel about possessions?

Elizabeth: The influence of the technology-centered lifestyle. Take memories such as photos and letters, and cards on paper. A mom can have boxes of these. Or in my case, since I am the eldest child of five siblings, steamer trunks of these. The actual physical objects will not be welcomed in the kids’ houses. But a memory stick of them will.

Janet: I get it (and my son has made sure I understand) that millennials DO NOT want their parents’ stuff (which often is actually stuff that has been handed down from grandparents or even great-grandparents). And that this has caused the value of items like crystal, china, silverware, Persian rugs, etc. to plummet.  My question for you is, as a professional appraiser, what do you think about the permanency of this trend? Do you think these things are NEVER going to be valuable again? Or will the pendulum swing back again, as most trends do? And if so, what is the best advice for people who are upset by the thought of giving away (or selling at a very low price) things that might gain value again in 20 years or so?

Elizabeth: The concept of nostalgia is a fraction, which is essentially sentimentality over TIME. The TIME part is the shrinking coefficient here, Janet. It used to be that a collectible was 100 years old. Now we see the market for objects from the 1970s and 80s booming. So what is desirable has a shrinking effect, because of two factors. There’s so many children of the boomers—and most of them were born in the 1970s and 80s…We are nostalgic for the things of our youth. And we are living longer. And these youngsters have grown up on the visual IMAGES of things, not necessarily the actual things. (Think of  the board games we played with, as opposed to their video games.)

Therefore, yes, the “turnaround” for market prominence of an object will become shorter and shorter as time seems to move faster.

Secondly, there are good reasons that formal china, silver, and glassware might have a resurgence. First, tableware like this is about ritual, and like all rituals they fade and return. Second, because no one wants tableware today, the market 20 years from now will be slim, and the rarity factor will make the values go up.

Janet: What do you think is hardest about letting go of heirlooms that have been in the family for several generations? Do you have any advice or comfort to offer people who realize it’s the right thing to (or maybe the only thing to do!) but still find it painful? Also, are there ways that the millennials can make this process a little less difficult for their parents? 

Elizabeth: I read your piece about your father’s dresser, Janet. Well said.

But there’s no way millennials can make it easier on us –because we are witness to two divergent philosophies of material culture between two generations. I call  it the intrinsic/extrinsic divide. We believe that objects passed down have intrinsic value because they contain the essence of someone or some past time. Our kids see those objects as extrinsic. They see them for their usability factor… they are what they APPEAR, and contain nothing more than the materials which they are made of, and the use for which they are made. And much of our stuff and our grandparents’ stuff is not designed to be used in the modern house of today.

In other words, the image of the object trumps what essence the object contains.

That’s because our kids from birth have been flooded with superficial visual images (think of all the screens around them and all the visual content contained thereupon.) So they are expert curators of the visual, not of the material itself. These two philosophies will never coexist.

Janet: Your book has a ton of really helpful practical tips, and to get them, of course, people have to buy your book!  But what is one of your favorite tips, or perhaps one of the ones people have told you is the most helpful?

Elizabeth: Most helpful has been my suggestion to speak in millennial language: that is, to use visual technology to make a case for the millennials to keep something in the family. For example, go around your home, have someone film you, stand in front of each item, narrate the object’s story, and then send CD’s of this to all family members.

Janet: What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned in the process of writing this book? 

Elizabeth: How upset my daughter in law was that I was going public with this! She wrote a rebuttal to my book, which I published on my website, and she spent hours reacting to my book. Mostly she was upset about the inherent paternalism in our culture, which forces the MOM to do the hard work of defending her objects. And she was concerned that I didn’t focus on that, as well as concerned that her generation had a good reason for wanting to start over fresh—-thus to be allowed to say NO.

Janet: I think it was generous of you, and can be quite helpful to others, that you posted your daughter-in-law’s rebuttal to your book on your website. I also think her rebuttal is quite eloquent, and that she articulated her position both clearly and sensitively. I’d  like to ask how you weathered the rocky period between when you realized all your special gifts for your son and daughter-in-law were being rejected, and now. How difficult was that period, and does this story have a happy ending? 

Elizabeth: My daughter in-law is in her last year at Duke Law School, and is an eloquent debater and writer. Her rebuttal is indeed illuminating as it brings an additional layer to the problem of  downsizing, which is so deep in our culture that we don’t even think about it: but really, who made MOM the curator of stuff?!

And who made daughters-in-law the RECEIVERS of stuff?

There’s a feminist angle here which I didn’t see until she pointed it out. Why, furthermore, should it be the female role to feather the nest or defeather the nest, to entertain, to even think that way?

My writing the book and Meredith’s rebuttal was slightly painful to both myself and her, but we learned that the generations indeed do look at stuff differently, and along with changing trends in decorating and entertaining, there’s a gender bias there as well. So now we are in even deeper!

Janet: What are the main lessons learned from what you went through in this regard in your own family?

Elizabeth: When I downsized my 87-year-old mom’s house last month, I saved for her the valuable and irreplaceable objects. I ditched the toaster, the old computer, the old pots, the tv trays, the potty seat raiser, the old towels.

What did she want when we moved her into the new house? The toaster, the old towels, the potty seat raiser. I had neglected to remember that even the act of shopping is exhausting at her age. So, again, I should have listened to specific issues germane to the age and generation of the woman involved.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Elizabeth Stewart is a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America, and the author of “No Thanks Mom! The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want.” 

 

 

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

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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.

More on the Limits of Sparking Joy

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Photo by Janet Hulstrand. c 2015

Last year I wrote about Marie Kondo’s great success, about my skepticism in approaching her books, and about my surprise that I found her advice to be more sensitive toward and respectful of the “keepers” of this world than I thought it would be.

But at the time, I didn’t really admit that I was basically pretty uncomfortable with her famous phrase “sparking joy.” To me the whole “sparking joy” thing just seemed a little bit too facile. To me that phrase did not really seem like it would be a very useful mantra to use when trying to figure out what to keep and what to let go of.

One reason for this is that to be honest, it is very hard for me to joyful at all when I am immersed in the task of downsizing. Getting rid of things is not really something I enjoy a whole lot: it is something I do because I know I must.

Another reason is that, when I’m not in a bad mood because I’m trying to downsize, way too many of my things spark joy. For example, this book:

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This book is called Sailor Dog, and it was absolutely one of my favorite favorite books when I was a little girl. I loved this book, and I particularly loved these two pages. So. Although this book has always sparked joy in me, and always will, when I was working on emptying out my storage locker last spring, I knew it had to go. So I asked my son to take a picture of my favorite pages, and I just kept the photo. That worked just fine for me.

On the other hand, what you see below is one of the things I did keep, and it does not spark joy at all for me. What it sparks is sadness about the younger brother who wrote this letter to Santa when he was a little boy; about the fact that he died too young, and that he never really found the happiness in life I wish he could have found; and that he is gone now, and I miss him.

Still. I kept this letter when I found it in his storage locker after he died. (And I wrote about the experience of finding it here.) And I put it in our family’s book of Christmas-time remembrances. And I treasure it.

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So you see? For me, this whole notion that you would keep only the things that “spark joy,” and that this would pretty much solve the problem is problematic, to say the least.

Sometimes when I am speaking to groups about downsizing, I am asked about Marie Kondo’s book, and about the concept of “sparking joy.”

What I usually say is that apparently for a lot of people that advice has been extremely helpful, and for them, that’s a wonderful thing.

But that if it doesn’t really work for you, or doesn’t seem to help, there are lots of other ways to manage to get rid of the things you don’t need, and don’t want anymore.

And that you can always just listen to yourself too. Most people don’t need anyone else’s advice when it comes to making these decisions, not really. And even if they do, they appreciate having the chance to make the final decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and why, and how, themselves.

But you might want to consider buying our book. People have told us it’s been very helpful for them. Even though we never once used the words “sparking joy.” 🙂

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

 

 

Letting Go of Things Somewhat Reluctantly…or Not at All

Getting rid of just about anything can be an experience that is fraught and often loaded with meaning. Here’s a shout-out to those of us who find it difficult to downsize or declutter and who do it with a bit, if not a great deal, of reluctance.

There are reasons for getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or enhance our lives. But actually moving those items out of the house – to donate, to sell, or to give to a friend – can be a long process of mulling things over, coming up with excuses, putting things in storage (or the back of a closet) to ponder at a later date, or, simply, just ignoring them.

At times we can overcome our reluctance to part with things, and at other times we cannot. Sometimes quicker is better. Contemplating the fate of our stuff can take up too much time and energy. But sometimes things can be given away after some thought about the item and about who we are.

Some items don’t match the way we live our lives. Many years ago my mother gave me my grandmother’s china. It was a pretty light green, very Victorian, and I loved its square luncheon plates. The china came with a set of cream soups, bowls that seemed too Downton Abbey-esque for my lifestyle, and I put them in a cabinet above the refrigerator and forgot about them. After some decluttering, they are now at a local thrift store that raises money for those in need.

Some items belong to a person we no longer are. My husband’s fishing gear – rods, reels, and wading boots for flyfishing – were in our storage room for a few years. When we emptied the room, my husband needed some time to think about what he wanted to do with the equipment. When he realized he was no longer going to stand hip-deep in a river, he donated the fishing gear to charity.

Some items are not going to be passed down as we had hoped they would be. A friend, a great host who gives wonderful dinner parties, had planned on passing along to her niece her Christmas china and her silverware. Her niece isn’t interested. Now my friend has to spend time thinking about what she eventually wants to do with tableware that she had hoped would stay in her family.

Sometimes we don’t get rid of an item at all.

I have an address book that I bought in the 1970s. It is spiral-bound, about 6-inches square, and covered in a flowered cotton fabric. And it’s been falling apart for years. In its pages are family members, often with addresses crossed out and replaced as they moved around the country; people I worked with, some of who were important contacts for work, others who are now forgotten; friends I made as I traveled, some of whom are dear friends today and some whose names I no longer recognize. Many of the people in these pages have died, and they are people I want to remember.

The book is somewhat of a time capsule of my life. It’s a rolodex of people I worked with, a family tree as it mapped extended family as it expanded, a list of friends whose phone numbers I no longer remember. It’s proof that I existed, that I have a family, that I worked, that I traveled. It’s proof of who I am. It’s full of memories.

Its meaning is only nostalgic, but I don’t throw it away.

And then I think of what Marie Kondo said,

“It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure.”

And with those words in mind, I will try to find my way to getting rid of my old address book.

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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