First things first: When does it make sense to downsize and move to a smaller place? As you might expect with such a personal matter, Hulstrand says, it depends.
"Some people make the decision to downsize in advance, carefully weighing their probable future needs, but sometimes the need to downsize is suddenly thrust upon a family when there is a health crisis or a death," she says. "Of course it's better to have time to plan for a move and prepare gradually, but some people would be heartbroken to leave their homes and have made it clear that they never want to."
"What's most important," she adds, "is that the people involved in the move are, whenever possible, the ones to make the decision."
Sometimes, you can spot a window of opportunity to downsize, according to Hetzer. Both major life events and small changes present a time to reflect and an opportunity to clean out.
"Imagine for a moment that your child is ready to leave for college and you have to sort through everything your child owned or used for 18 years," says Hetzer. "It's likely that, at regular intervals, you got rid of donated, handed down items your child no longer needed."
That "throw as you go" philosophy also works well for a grown-up's things.
"Use your life events to trigger a mini-downsizing," Hetzer urges. "Buying a new computer or upgrading your phone presents an opportunity to sort through older electronics and their manuals and donate them in ecologically responsible ways. Your child leasing a first apartment is a good time to sort through your kitchen cabinets for equipment you no longer use."
A nonprofit collecting used books to sell, a community shoe drive, an organization looking for furniture to furnish an apartment for someone in need, or a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, fire or flood, also present opportunities to give things to people who can use them.
How to go about it? In their book, Hulstrand and Hetzer make three main recommendations. Those are:
1. Take your time. 2. Keep the lines of communication open, and consult with others who may want to or need to be involved in the process. 3. Get help--professional or otherwise--when you need it.
Of those three tips, the most important is to take plenty of time. If it took 30 or 40 years to fill a house, says Hulstrand, "you're not going to be able to get rid of everything that has accumulated there in a week or two -- at least not in a way that will leave everyone feeling satisfied that the job has been done right.'"
Pretty much everyone who has downsized says to give it plenty of time. Sorry folks, that means if you're reading this post, the time to start is ... now.
How? Some organizers suggest starting with small, manageable tasks, kind of the "one drawer, one shelf at a time" approach, according to Hulstrand. Others say it's good to start with getting rid of big objects (like maybe a piano?) to get more of a sense of accomplishment and inspiration. It also frees floor space for sorting items and piling up boxes.
The method depends on the individuals involved, the situation, the time available, the quantity and types of things that need to be dealt with, and so on. According to Hetzer and Hulstrand, the key thing is to get started on the task and to stay with it. Their blog, Downsizing the Home: Lessons Learned, offers further advice and guidance on exactly how to deal with certain kinds of "pesky" items, such as carpeting, shoes, and old electronics.
As someone who finds satisfaction in organizing, I wondered what makes downsizing different from a good cleaning out. Not a lot, says Hetzer. "No matter how you look at it, or whether it precedes a move, it means being honest with yourself."
She says to ask yourself questions such as, "Do I still wear this? Is this item still useful? Do I respond positively to seeing this? Am I saving this because I don't know what to do with it? Can someone else use this more than I can?"
If it helps, Hetzer points out that going through this process before a move means that you will be more 'right-sized' in your new place.
Still, we know most people would rather age in place. Which begs the question,
Can we downsize without moving?
Hetzer reminded me that we all have to edit our possessions periodically to keep our belongings from overtaking our homes. "Not only can we downsize without moving, we probably should downsize as we remain in our homes," she notes.
She points out the potential upside. "The process allows us to choose what is important to us. We pick what we want to live with, how we want our homes to look and feel and function. Downsizing along the way helps us have homes that work for us during different phases of our lives and allows us to stay in our homes so we can age in place."
In much of the world, downsizing is not a "thing." How much excess do we tend to cart around anyway?
Most people in the United States have too much stuff. "It is part of our culture, a piece of our DNA, to want more, to buy more, to want the latest thing," says Hetzer.
Thus, many of us have to acknowledge that we have more than we'll ever use before we can think about paring down what we own. "That realization, that we can live our lives with much less than what we have is the first step in being able to downsize," Hetzer believes.
But what happens when insight is there but people still need help?
Hulstrand says that for someone with genuine anxiety about getting rid of things, the professionals brought in to help need to be sensitive to how upsetting it is going to be. "Barreling in like a drill sergeant or even a cheerleader would probably not help," she comments. With patience and compassion, she adds, most people can make headway. Being shamed into action, or having all control taken away from them, is not the best way to go about it.
"It's essential to be aware of how stressful the situation is for these clients," she says, "and how vulnerable they are to criticism of their 'pack rat' ways." True that. Who wants to be likened to a rat?
And who are our role models ... those lucky folks who can downsize without delay and in good cheer, without servants?
Hulstrand says they tend to be flexible, optimistic and open to change. "And, of course, they may have been blessed with a knack for organizing. We're not all like that, which is why some people need more help than others."
No matter what your approach to downsizing, there's one ultimate goal to keep in mind: