March 26, 2019 FEATURE

Downsizing and Decluttering

Robin Page West

An entire industry of professional organizers, storage lockers dotting the landscape, and even a Netflix series on decluttering leave no doubt that having too many things is a pervasive circumstance that causes headaches for many of us. It makes things hard to find, promotes feelings of overwhelm, and complicates cleaning. Websites, books, articles, and checklists on how to deal with decluttering are popular, recommending variations on the common theme of taking stock and then categorizing (keep, discard, or donate). But is it really that simple? If so, why is this happening to so many of us in the first place, and once we've tidied one room or downsized into a smaller home, what's to stop the problem from recurring?

I'm no stranger to the bane of belongings glut. Since before I was born, my father kept track of daily events, consequential or not, in a small leatherette “perpetual calendar” he carried at all times in his breast pocket. At the end of each year, he stored it away and started a new one. An engineer/lawyer, he was an assiduous documenter/saver, a mindset to which several storage lockers of accumulated miscellany (including decades worth of perpetual calendars) attested after he died. It was hard for my mother and me to decide what to do with these things because in 2012 we didn't yet have Marie Kondo's guiding principle of “does it spark joy?” to inform our decisions. We didn't want to throw something away and regret it later. But there was so much, we could not keep it all.

On the other hand, my son asked to have the perpetual calendar from the year he was born, cuff links and a tie tack commemorating his grandfather's work on NASA's Nimbus program, and the home movies. By zeroing in on what he found to be the most poignant mementos of his grandfather's life, my son elegantly bypassed dissipating his time and energy on the stumpers my mother and I were grappling with, such as “Is there some reason we should keep this folder on repairs to the pop-up irrigation system at the house we moved out of three decades ago?”

My son wasn't focused on why things were in the storage lockers in the first place. He was thinking about what was meaningful to him, and in so doing, he easily discerned “the essential few from the trivial many.” Greg McKeown coined that phrase in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which explores the process of filtering out what's not significant in order to find what's essential and then focusing on it intensely. Reframing our downsizing challenges through the lens of essentialism not only helps with the practical aspects of deciding what to keep and what to let go, but also invites us to think deeply and with focus about why we want to downsize, what we intend to accomplish by it, and how not to get into the situation again.

At bottom, the accumulation of too many things is a result of deferring decisions about what to get rid of. This deferral occurs when one is too busy with other things to hatch a plan for what to keep and what to toss. If we had a list of criteria an item must meet in order for us to keep it, we could discard all items that don't meet the criteria, refuse to bring into the home or office any new items that don't pass muster, and have a clutter-free environment. But most of us cannot do this easily because of the limits on our time and the many competing demands for our attention, including gratuitous time-sinks such as the news and social media. McKeown notes, “If you believe being overly busy and overextended is evidence of productivity, then you probably believe that creating space to explore, think, and reflect should be kept to a minimum. Yet these very activities are the antidote to the nonessential busyness that infects so many of us (p. 61) ...Only once you give yourself the permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter, (p.4)” he writes.

Blogger Benjamin Studebaker took this idea a step further when he posited that lack of time and mental space prevents leisurely contemplation, which results in a lack of self-determined personal goals. He wrote,

Aristotle makes an important distinction between “amusement” and “leisure.” For Aristotle, leisure is time we spend thinking about what it would be good or worthwhile to do. If we don’t have leisure, we can’t self-determine our ends. ... Amusement, by contrast, is about getting ourselves in a psychological condition in which it is possible to return to work. When we engage in amusement, we have free time, but we don’t have the mental energy or education to use that free time in a leisurely way. So instead the free time has to be spent rectifying our deteriorated mental state or squandered on frivolous, childlike pursuits.

Without coming to grips with whether or why our decluttering and downsizing is good or worthwhile or essential to do, it becomes one more to-do item on an endless list of “nonessential busyness” that pushes us toward the self-soothing behavior, the amusements, the David Foster Wallace-esque entertainments, that beget a lack of self-determination and satisfaction. On the other hand, if we take a step back and probe to find what really matters to us, the list of criteria for the “keep” items will write itself and the downsizing can commence. Using the same criteria for bringing new materials into the home or office will keep clutter at bay and save time and energy for essential pursuits.

One trap that's easy to fall into when creating the selection criteria for what to keep is losing focus on what's essential to ourselves and speculating about how others might react to these items. But allowing your brain to run wild dreaming up scenarios of why you or someone else, real or imagined, might regret your not having kept something, will sabotage your results and waste a lot of time.

Once you have your list, just get started. Divide the process into stages and place time limits on yourself to complete each one so you can see progress. If something doesn't meet the criteria, toss, sell gift, or donate it.

Determining ahead of time which types of items are essential to keep is not the same as asking whether there is a reason not to dispose of a particular article. If you look for a reason not to get rid of something you will find one. Don't go there. Don't create more choices for yourself. As McKeown puts it, “We have lost our ability to filter what is important and what isn’t. Psychologists call this ‘decision fatigue’: the more choices we are forced to make, the more the quality of our decisions deteriorates,” (p. 15)  Keep your focus on “discern[ing] the essential few from the trivial many” by applying the set of criteria you thoughtfully considered and designed. And don't let things take too long or get so complicated that decision fatigue sets in.

Throughout the process, you're bound to get stuck. Remind yourself why you are choosing to do this and what you will be able to accomplish in other areas of your life once you're finished. By looking ahead to your future life, it will be easier to keep the trinkets and memorabilia of your past life in perspective. Working with a professional organizer can help immensely in keeping momentum going and not losing focus. Less expensive but equally valuable is a decluttering bible, such as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Overcoming Procrastination by L. Michelle Tullier or Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, that offers specific techniques and tips for dealing with items you're tempted to save because of guilt, sentimentality, practicality, hopes and dreams, potential future value, your identity, and other commonly-invoked reasons. For example, on mementos: “If you already have children or grandchildren you plan to leave your mementos to, go ahead and give rather than hanging onto them yourself,” Tullier at p.98.

After many bouts of downsizing, I've noticed that I feel great when I finish. Plus, it does get easier the more I do it. Much like work expands to fill the time we have to do it in, it seems that clothing, photos, tools, and papers expand to fill the space we're willing to give them. And then we become attached to them, even if we never or rarely use, look at or wear them. I've let a lot of these things go because I decided that for me, in that particular moment, they were not essential, so I would be better off not having them. I adapted to their absence. And I was OK.



Downsizing Planner/Checklist




Robin Page West was studying photojournalism in college when the events of Watergate inspired her to go to law school. After a stint at her state attorney general's office and several years as a litigator at small and medium size firms, she hung out her solo shingle and developed a successful niche federal Civil False Claims Act practice. She went on to become the Editor-in-Chief of the Litigation Section's flagship publication, Litigation, and to author the ABA book Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower: From Identifying a Case to Filing Under the False Claims Act (2d. Ed. 2009). She continued to represent whistleblowers with knowledge of fraud on the government until relocating to Austin, Texas, where she is planning an ambitious garden and pursuing a new phase in life.