Whether you're an empty nester moving to a smaller home or are simply tired of stuff consuming your basement, garage, and attic, the idea of downsizing may seem overwhelming. "People often look around at everything that's taking up space in their homes and feel discouraged," says Cindy Hofen, owner and president of in Silicon Valley. "But if you take it in little bites, downsizing is manageable. And you'll feel a sense of 'lightening up' every time you get rid of something."
Here's how to get started:
1. Have a reality check.
Sure, everyone has a lot of stuff, but admitting it's time to get rid of things starts by being honest with yourself. When you walk in your home, does it feel peaceful or chaotic? Have you stopped entertaining because you're embarrassed of how much junk you have? Are you buying the same items over and over because you can't find what you already have? "If you're a prisoner of your stuff, it's time to take charge," says Hofen.
2. Focus on the goal.
Define the reason you're tackling the project in the first place. Even if you're only trying to clean the garage to (finally) park the car in there again, remember what you're trying to accomplish. "When I helped my parents downsize and move to an assisted living facility, I realized we were still using their lifetime assets for their benefit. Their possessions are still working for them, just in a different way," says Marni Jameson, national syndicated home columnist and author of . "Reframing the situation in a more positive light helps you stay on track."
3. Tackle the easy chores first.
Don't start with sorting the family photos or years of personal paperwork, which are the hardest tasks to tackle, says Hofen. Stick with the things you can knock out quickly or that don't have any emotional landmines lurking — such as the kitchen junk drawer or the half-used toiletries under the bathroom sink. Once you've accomplished those chores, you'll gain confidence. "You'll open that newly organized drawer and see order and feel great, which helps you move toward the next task," says Hofen.
4. Build momentum.
Commit to 15 minutes a day for sorting, which is manageable most days, says Hofen. Clean out one drawer in your desk. Go through your handbags. Toss outdated food and spices in your pantry. Sort through extra towels and sheets. Recycle magazines that are more than three months old. And put all donations in black bags so you aren't tempted later in the week to pull out something you wavered about because you can still see it through the bag, says Hofen. If you get stuck, enlist a friend's help, then return the favor at her house.
5. Acknowledge your emotions.
Even though we say "it's only stuff," many of our possessions represent a lifetime of memories and the people who gave these items to us. "Downsizing is emotional, but you still can pare down to what's practical and meaningful if you acknowledge that you don't need to keep everything to keep the memories," says Marlene Stum, PhD, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of . "It doesn't mean we're throwing away Grandma if we get rid of something she gave us."
6. Decide on the criteria for what stays or goes.
"Ask yourself three questions: Is it something I love? Is it something I need? Is it something I use?" suggests Jameson. "For example, books are a big thing I hoard. Do I love them — yes! Do I need them? Probably not. Do I use them? Not all the time. I can always find them again if there's a book I really want, but chances are pretty good, I won't need to own them ever again."
7. Get over the guilt.
Most of us have justifications for why we can't part with stuff: You hang onto things because they were expensive. Or you think you might need it. Or you think you can't replace it. Or it was your mom's or grandma's — even if it's something that's totally not your style. Give yourself permission to donate or give away whatever it is you're afraid to part with. This goes double for those items you never liked. "Accept that what matters to you changes at different stages in your life. Sometimes stuff just becomes stuff," says Stum.
8. Respect other people's memories.
Your spouse won't part with his high school track trophies. Your tough-acting teen freaks out if you suggest tossing his old stuffed animal that's missing an arm. "People find different things important," says Stum. "We're often surprised about what people want or don't want to keep, so have a conversation with your family about why something matters to you or to them." If space truly is at a premium, let every family member keep one plastic storage tote of memorabilia items— no questions asked.
9. Save the memory, not the item.
You kept your kid's third papier-mâché dinosaur. Now snap a picture of it and let it go. Or make a photo book of all of his or her school projects, which takes up far less space than the projects themselves. The same goes for any collectibles you're trying to pare down. "Keep one or two, not all 50 items," says Hofen. Most importantly, once things are packed up, get them out of the house and loaded up in your car. "Out of sight, out of mind" applies here!
10. Be sentimental (but don't get carried away).
"We endow things with meaning. That's why they become important to us. But if everything is important, then nothing is special," says Jameson. For example, if you have a lot of items that once belonged to other family members, select just a few prized pieces to use, wear or display and donate the rest. "Your heart can never be too full, but your house can be," says Jameson. "Remember that that how you love someone lives in your heart, not in their stuff."