You're retiring. The kids have moved out. Sometime within the next few years you're probably going to relocate -- whether it's from a four-bedroom suburban house to a two-bedroom condo, or a two-bedroom condo to an independent living facility. So you no longer need all that stuff crowding your living room, filling up your basement and spilling out of your closets.
Besides, after you're gone, you don't want to leave a legacy to your children of a house full of junk, and the long, hard, emotionally taxing job of cleaning out what you should have taken care of years ago.
Decluttering is a move to take control of your life. It allows you to control your physical environment, of course, but also your future. But it's a big job. So take it one step at a time. One rule of thumb suggests you budget one full day of decluttering for each year that you've lived in your house. So if it's your family home where you raised your kids and lived for 30 years, be prepared to spend an entire month cleaning out, paring down and straightening up.
But you don't have to do it all at once. Some experts suggest taking a year or two to complete the process. That gives you plenty of time to plan, reconsider and notify your loved ones of your new commitment to an organized life. Here are six steps to help you get on with the job:
1. Warn your children. Invite them, well ahead of time, to range through your house and take what they want. But also insist that they remove any and all of their own materials, including the boxes of old schoolwork, trophies, souvenirs, stuffed animals and textbooks. These things belong to them now, not to you.
2. Tackle one space at a time. It's easy to get bogged down if you do a little of this and a little of that. So start small. Clean out a closet. Then organize a bathroom, or one of the kid's bedrooms. The hardest jobs will be your own bedroom, the basement and the kitchen, unless you're moving into an assisted living facility where all your meals are provided, in which case the kitchen clean up should be easy because all of it goes.
3. Touch something once, make a decision. As you go through your old clothes, books and furniture, decide whether you should get rid of an item or need to keep it. But the key to making progress is to make the decision right away. If you need one suit, then decide which one to keep and dispose of the others. Try not to hem and haw, change your mind or postpone the decision, or that one day of decluttering per year could turn out to be two or three days per year. If you hesitate on too many items the decluttering may never get done.
4. Make four piles. Decide what you want to keep and put that in the keep pile. Then decide right away what to do with everything else, and make a give pile, a sell pile and a trash pile. Once you've decided to dispose of an item, don't waste a lot of time or emotional energy deciding on which pile, just choose one. If you make a mistake and put something in the trash pile instead of the sell pile, what's the harm? Be realistic. If you tried to sell it, you probably wouldn't have sold it for much anyway.
5. Take photographs. The hardest decisions are the emotional ones. If you can't bear to get rid of something you really don't need, then take a picture of it. Put on that special dress, take a picture and then give the dress away. When faced with giving up old license plates, a shelf of trophies and a wonderful old oriental rug that will never fit into your new place, take a picture and keep the photo with you always. Then make sure to send copies of the photos to your kids.
6. Hire a professional. For most people, decluttering is a do-it-yourself project, perhaps with some help from the kids or a friend, and we would have it no other way. But sometimes the job might seem too daunting. There are professionals who will help you, for a fee, ranging from $35 to $100 a hour. Contact the National Association of Senior Move Managers or the National Association of Professional Organizers for referrals to local professionals.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.
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