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The Downsizing Journey - Benefits and Tips

Barbara Z. Perman, Ph.D.

Naomi Remen tells a story in her book "My Grandfather's Blessings"

"A little boy has two Matchbox cars on which he lavishes hours of play and attention. An adult friend, seeing how much he loves the little toys, devises a way to get him a whole set. She asks people at work to patronize a local gas station that gives away a car with each purchase. When the collection is complete she presents it to the boy. She notices that after playing with the cars for a few days he abandons the whole set, including the original two. When she asks him why he isn't playing with them any more, he replies, "I don't know how to love so many cars."

That story points to something I find to be true in my role as a senior move manager: The more we accumulate, the thinner our affection is spread.

Lots of people in this country over 50 complain of having too much stuff. But maybe the real problem is that we can't love it all. As it becomes harder to find a place for these items in our homes, that's happening in our hearts, as well. This is what I sense when I work with clients to help them de-clutter. It's not an easy process because ultimately it's really about what to keep and what to let go of. Unlike the boy in the story, they've embraced the whole collection, so many of them have difficulty letting go. This is what I call the inner journey of the downsizing process. We'll be taking up that aspect of downsizing in next month's column, but it's good to keep it in mind as we focus here on the outer journey.

The benefits of downsizing are many. Here are some of them:

1. Relief: When you remove things you no longer need or want so that you no
longer come across them, you'll feel the spaciousness inside.

2. Control: You'll feel organized, lighter, much more on top of things.

3. Priorities in order: Downsizing will remind you of what is truly important to you and you will share it with those who need to know it.

4. Service: Other people will benefit from using things you no longer need or want.

5. Communication: You may achieve mutual understanding with family members.

6. A clear path: Being less encumbered, you'll be ready to take next steps in your life.

7. Freedom: You can do things at your own pace instead of waiting for the pressure to build up to get them done.

Through our work in facilitating the downsizing process we have discovered some important principles:

1. If you start with an overall statement of what you want your life to be about,
it will be much easier to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of.

2. The Internet turns out to be a downsizing tool; constant access to its information can change what you think you need to keep.

3. If there's something you think you need, but you can't remember where it is or access it because of where it is, there is no point in having it.

4. Cleaning out makes room for new life.

Finally, here are some actual downsizing tips:

1. Start with an area of your home that has less emotional pull (the kitchen is often best for this reason).

2. Set aside a small amount of time - perhaps 2-3 hours at a time to work on one area or category.

3. Choose one category of things to downsize - for example, books or clothing.

4. Set up a "staging" area in a room or corner where things you are sorting can be left midstream.

5. Make labels or use different color removable stickers to designate "keep", "give away", "sell", "ask family".

6. Ask someone to work along with you, letting him / her do the physical work while you make the decisions.

7. If you begin with paperwork, ask yourself these questions from Paper Tiger* by Barbara Hemphill:

a) Can you identify a specific use for this piece of paper? b) Would it be difficult for you to get another copy? c) Does it require any action? d) Is it recent enough to be useful? e) Does it have any tax or legal implications? f) What's the worst thing that can happen if you toss this?

Going through the outer journey of de-cluttering is like being in a laboratory; we can actually make some discoveries. The process makes the things that truly matter to us stand out. Each item can be a vehicle for reconnecting with hopes and dreams, for sharing memories while they are fresh in our minds--or for letting go of things that are in the way of our moving on.

When we do this, downsizing becomes rightsizing**. By rightsizing our lives we will not have the problem of the little boy in Remen's story. Our hearts will be freer and lighter.

* Kiplinger's - Taming The Paper Tiger, The Monticello Corporation, Atlanta, Georgia
**Rightsizing is a term used by author Ciji Ware in her recent book Rightsizing Your Life, Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most. Springboard Press, 2007