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Lighten Your Load: Consider Tips to Start Decluttering

As posted in the Seniors Section of the Herald Citizen, here are tips on how to approach decluttering.

“Let’s gift these items to our children.” “My train set needs to stay in the family.” “They’ll learn to appreciate my Hummel collection.” “They’ll need this one day.”

These are all things I’ve heard seniors say when I help them move to their next chapter in life.

Seniors have seen and been through so much. Earlier in their lives, “stuff” was not plentiful. Accumulating stuff reminds seniors how far they’ve come to enjoy the things that they didn’t have when growing up. Things are typically accumulated via uncontrolled consumer impulses, emotional sentiment, accomplishment, guilt or obligation, memories of the past, fear of a future need, or hope for a future change. Belongings are infused with emotion, becoming an extension of ourselves. And some people become prisoners of their stuff.

Fast forward to the Gen X, Y and Z generations. Things are plentiful and easily accessible, thanks to an online marketplace. What’s different about these later generations is their vision of success and happiness. Generally speaking, Baby Boomers collect (aka observers), whereas younger generations lean towards experiencing life (aka participants).

Understanding your emotional connection versus your children’s motivation may help you determine what’s best for all. Gifting an item may not have the impact you intended. While you may feel good about it, your children now have to deal with either keeping or disposing it. You may be passing along a delayed decision of your own, or even passing along guilt or another emotion to others … that’s all yours.

Before that happens, here are a few tips to consider that will help you go through the process of decluttering in a healthy way.

1. Start early and make progress daily

As Nike says, “Just Do It.” The hard part is just getting started. Starting small and being consistent will help you gain momentum. Finish one task before you begin a new one. Make a daily plan to do one thing everyday so you keep moving forward. You may elect to clear out a few cabinets in one room one day, and finish the rest of the cabinets the following day. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Understand purpose and emotion

What current purpose does the item have in your life? How does the item make you feel? If your belongings are largely memorabilia from your past, you may have trouble letting things go, forgiving, or feel like your best days are behind you. If your belongings consist of other people’s things, think if you may have issues with boundaries. If you’re holding onto items not used, you may have a fear or distrust of the future, or a wish that you’re something you’re not. Projects unfinished may signify perfectionism, e.g., it will never be good enough, not perfect enough, so why finish. Unfinished projects are reminders that we have failed at something we set out to do, resulting in letdown and an eyesore.

3. Jump start with unsentimental, seasonal, or duplicate items

Closets are a great place to start. As well, gather up all items that no one wants such as outdated or obsolete computer equipment, cell phones, stereos, suitcases without wheels, etc. Presumably, you paid good money for them, but consider them a “sunk cost.” Donating the usable items not only helps others, but it will make you feel good.

After each season, I personally place items to the side that I want to donate next year before the season hits, and mark it on my calendar as a reminder. That way, charities will be more willing to accept the items since people will be looking for those items. Classic supply and demand principles apply here.

Additionally, you may prefer to gather all the like items found throughout the house and see what duplicates you have. Decide if you really need five hammers or six bathrobes.

Once you get the hang of decluttering, you’ll eventually be able to work up to “sticky stuff,” e.g., the hardest items for people to part with, such as family photos and heirlooms, books, collections, furniture, china, silverware and linens, and National Geographic and Life magazines.

4. Change your perspective

Your mind is your most powerful tool, and it’s in your control to choose the perspective that will best serve you for a healthy outlook. The goal is to change your perspective, so you can respond more effectively to your situation.

Many emotions can surface when decluttering. Some seniors may decide that they don’t want to maintain their things, they’re moving to a smaller home, or they just lost a loved one. Throughout the process, keeping the perspective on your next chapter in life versus the past that is lost will help you see the day for what it is, so you can better attend the present. You’re not giving up stuff; you are welcoming a fresh start.

5. Ask yourself these questions

As you think through what to keep, discard, gift or donate, place everything in the middle of the room. Then ask yourself whether you’d buy the item again. Do you have an emotional attachment to the item? Does it bring you joy or does it make you feel sad? Have you used it in the past year? Do you really need it? Will you benefit from keeping it?

6. Consider teaming up

Consider if and how you want others to help you. Family members may have the best of intentions and know you, but they may not be available when you need them. It may be good “therapy” to share in this process, but it may take a little longer due to their own memories and emotional ties to your belongings. Another option is to hire a service that does not have an emotional tie to your stuff, but rather helps you think through the mental and physical pros and cons of decluttering.

7. Enjoy the next chapter

Congratulations on turning the page to your next (and hopefully best) chapter in life. You can now focus on appreciating the people in your life, enjoying your extra time versus caring for items, and relishing in new experiences. When we are willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, we can enjoy the life that is waiting for us.