Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

How to Start Simplifying and Downsizing Your Life Today

We regularly receive emails from readers looking for suggestions for how they can start ‘editing’ their lives. They find themselves living lives that feel chaotic. They have too much stuff. Their houses are too big. They might want to downsize their homes but the areas where they live do not have many options for compact housing. Their families are not necessarily aligned with the would-be simplifiers’ ambitions. They are having a hard time letting go of stuff and the idea of downsizing themselves. Almost invariably, they ask, “What do I do? Where do I start?”

Much to our chagrin, we are not oracles here at LifeEdited and have no special access to wisdom in regard to simplifying one’s life. We know how hard it can be to change habits that are often forged over several decades. We know letting go of stuff can be tough. We know that many places, particularly in the US, don’t have a ton of options for desirable compact homes in walkable areas outside of major cities. We know that getting family members and friends on the same page can be tough. We offer no easy answers.

That said, we do have some experience, both our own and from many others. With that experience, we have compiled a short list (the best kind) of suggestions we find to be pretty universally effective in starting the process of simplifying and downsizing lives:

  1. Don’t wait for a good time to start. At risk of sounding cliché, the time to start something is–and always will be–now. Don’t worry if the changes are tiny–maybe throwing away a pair of old sneakers you never wear–make them as soon as possible.
  2. Get rid of stuff you are very attached to, but don’t worry, it gets easy with practice. This is one of the biggest hurdles for many people. They are simply unable to give up many of the items that clutter their lives due to sentimental attachments. Perhaps it’s heirlooms or high school yearbooks or art your children made. Important, sometimes valuable things. The unfortunate fact is a certain amount of sacrifice is necessary for simplification. As it’s been said, “are you willing to give up what you have for what you want?” If you’re not willing to give up your stuff for a simpler existence, no biggie. Many people have lived great lives with tons of stuff. But if you actually want to start making changes, something–and more likely many things–will have to go. But take heart! And this we can promise, it gets easier. Once you get rid of one sentimental object and live to tell the tale, the next one is so much easier to part with. You start realizing that the value of having less is often greater than the sentimental value you placed on the dearly departed item you were clinging to. Soon you wonder why you kept the stuff for so long.
  3. Don’t wait for the right home to start downsizing. As Gandhi (or someone) said, “There is no path to simplicity. Simplicity is the path.” You can live a simplified, downsized life, even in a big home in the suburbs. If we use our environment as an excuse to getting rid of stuff and simplifying our lives, there’s a good chance we’ll never get started.
  4. Moving is the best way of getting rid of stuff. Okay, we’re totally contradicting ourselves from point #3, but nothing clears the coffers like moving. One of the ways we hold onto more stuff than we need is by creating invisibility. Out of sight, out of mind. When we move, everything comes into view, and sometimes that view ain’t so pretty. We get a taste of the shear enormity of our acquisitiveness. Moving into a smaller home works doubly well to get rid of stuff as the space’s spatial limitations will guide your excisions. Getting rid of stuff whilst moving also tends to build the habit of removing the unnecessary–to reiterate point #2, practice makes perfect.
  5. Don’t wait for the support of friends and family to start making changes. This is a simple, though often exceedingly difficult proposition for most of us. We might read this post and be excited to start getting rid of stuff or even look for a new home. We reach for the _____ that we’ve been meaning to get rid of for years. Then our significant other says, “You’re not getting rid of the ______. I love the ______.” We become crestfallen. We realize the futility of our endeavor. Like any change, there will be internal and external resistance. It’s natural. Start with your own stuff. Get rid of some of those clothes you don’t wear or bathroom products you don’t use–stuff no one can stop you from getting rid of. Lead by example. Simplicity and manageability are contagious. And if your friends and family are immune to that contagion, at least your house will be in order.

If you have successfully simplified and/or downsized your life, what has worked for you? Let us know in our comments section below.

Complicated or Simple Road Sign via Shutterstock

  • Chris

    Make letting go of stuff a game.

    At The Minamlists (http://www.theminimalists.com) one of their posts is about at the beginning of the month to let 1 thing go on Day 1, 2 on Day 2, etc. If you do that for a month, you’d be over 400 items lighter. I managed it for 15 days before I couldn’t find anything more I wanted to let go.

    The size of the items don’t matter, the only rule is that it needs to be out of your house by the end of the day.

    • David Friedlander

      thanks chris. we’re big fans of joshua and ryan.

  • Kathy Black

    I like the game idea as well, keeping it fun! I’ve also found that accountability really helps. It’s great to be inspired (esp with ideas like I find on LifeEdited!) but *real* life creeps back in and, before I know it, my best laid plans get side-tracked. Telling someone else about my plans — even my specific steps — and asking them to hold me to it, makes all the difference for me.

  • Maggie

    Can’t play the Minimalists game – don’t have 400 things to get rid of!

    However, after a huge-ish clean out before Christmas, I decided to dig further by getting rid of a further 100 items in 2014. I’m up to 87 thus far. I wish I could get my partner on board, but I decided to stop concerning myself with HIS stuff, and concentrate on MY stuff only.

    We’ve managed to downsize from 1000sf to a little over 500sf in the past few years, which reduces overhead costs as we live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. The figurative ‘weight’ of the stuff, however, is immeasurable.

    • Chris

      I don’t know that many people can keep going for the full 30(1) days. You run out of stuff to let go pretty quickly.

      I’ve also just moved from just under 1,000 sq ft to 500 in the last 3 weeks. I didn’t have an issue with my ‘personal’ stuff as I don’t have that much but deciding which pieces of furniture I could take, which pots & pans, etc was tough.

      • Maggie

        We changed our 6-seater dining table for a 2-seater one, and got rid of a ton of kitchen stuff, reducing the no. of plates, cutlery, etc., to enough for the two of us. No more dinner parties but I was finding them more and more arduous anyway. One less thing to stress about.

        • rdzk

          Yes, and disposables make for an enjoyable and effortless occasional event!

  • Maggie

    Can’t play the Minimalists game – don’t have 400 things to get rid of!

    However, after a huge-ish clean out before Christmas, I decided to dig further by getting rid of a further 100 items in 2014. I’m up to 87 thus far. I wish I could get my partner on board, but I decided to stop concerning myself with HIS stuff, and concentrate on MY stuff only.

    We’ve managed to downsize from 1000sf to a little over 500sf in the past few years, which reduces overhead costs as we live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. The figurative ‘weight’ of the stuff, however, is immeasurable.

  • David Bush

    I think the best way to start is to begin at the top and bottom then make your way to the middle. Attics and basements are full of prime stuff to get rid of — the stuff thats there just in case you might need it some day. They are also full of stuff that may seem cherished — like that box with the wedding dress in it that your kids will eventually have to throw out one day. The real trick is to imagine that you are cleaning out someone else’s house. Objectivity is the key. Once you get the hang of it in those two places, dealing with the main part of your home becomes that much easier.

    Or, like me, you could just go through a divorce and leave with some power tools and a trash bag full of clothes. That works too.

  • MJ

    Set a small goal of getting rid of 7 things, even tiny things, a week…to the trash, Goodwill, or give to friends.

    For the things we’re sentimental about…take a photo of it, then give the object away. You may like to look at it later to remind you of some event or person, but you don’t need the actual object.

    Start going paperless. Scan your papers. I was able to get rid of 2 filing cabinets worth of papers.

    Notice which clothes you actually wear. After wearing them, place them on one side of the closet. The clothes on the other side are ready to give away.

    I downscaled from a two-bedroom 870 square foot condo to a 458 foot studio. It makes me happy. No need to spend your weekends going to the mall to buy things to fill in space. When I’m tempted to buy something, it’s a relief to realize I simply don’t have room for it. Saving time and money.

  • Ani

    The biggest thing is to just get started! I know from my work that many people just look at the sheer amount of “stuff”, especially in attics, basements and garages, and feeling overwhelmed, just give up. I suggest tackling one area at a time. That could be a single drawer in the kitchen or bedroom, or one closet. Do it, deal with the stuff, and then tackle the next project. The important thing is to avoid feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. As you get areas done, the. positive feelings will spur you on to keep going.

  • Greg

    Personally I’ve found that having an “end in mind” has been the biggest help in my simplifying over the years. Typically when I forget the vision of what I’m seeking I am likely to fall back into collecting things that I think will be useful someday. So simplifying for the sake of simplifying is not enough to keep me on track it appears.

    Additionally, I cut myself some slack when life gets chaotic, I feel overwhelmed and am desiring some “simplicity” in my life. Usually the chaos passes and I can return to focusing on what is “important” over “urgent” which I find does a pretty good job of keeping the chaos at bay.

  • Joanna

    I met my husband 13 years ago, and we moved about 8 times. Every time we move, we still have the same amounts of crap to get rid of: give away what can be useful to someone, throw away what should have been thrown away a very long time ago or became obsolete.
    One rule we REALLY try to stick to is before you bring something new IN, get rid of somehing else. I wanted new wine glasses, I gave away the old ones.
    Another rule: be aware that liking something on a store shelve does not mean you need to possess it.
    Finally, we spend our free time in other places than Malls and stores. Going for an errand in a Mall is the best way to come back with a bunch of (pretty) useless stuff you did not even know you needed. We go to stores only when we need to purchase something specific. And yet, go to the store with a list of what you need, and try to stick to it.

  • Joanna

    Ah, last but not least: convince your relatives that you and your kids don’t need so many christmas/ birthday gifts: kids can get 1 toy for christmas/ birthday from each relative, aunt, grandmother…
    We systematically refuse any gifts for us (it was useless crap anyways). If they really want to make a gift, we suggest something that would bring us good memories (these gift boxes with dinners at the restaurant, hotel stays…).

  • Kathleen

    When I was in my early 20s, my best friend and neighbor was in her mid-80s. Being the kind, loving person she was, she had pared down her stuff to basic essentials because she wanted to spare her loved ones the trouble of disposing of a lot of her possessions after her death. The good stuff, like jewelry and china sets, she gave to younger friends and relatives so they could enjoy them and she could see them doing so. She even had the dress she wanted to be buried in neatly folded in a box in the closet. Eventually the sad day came and it was so much easier being spared the pain of disposing of her things (a difficult task after the death of a loved one). I am now in my late 60s and have never forgotten this lesson. I’ve given away many of my valuables and don’t miss them a bit. Having had to clear out the mountains of possessions (and just plain junk) from two of my friends who died prematurely, I am more adamant than ever about making it simple in my case. As one ages, there is a desire to lighten up on the possessions and it really is a freeing feeling. You are giving a gift to your aging loved ones and yourself by encouraging them (and helping them) to start now to shed all stuff that clutters up precious space and could be doing something useful for others who need it!

    • Nicole

      Kathleen
      I just finished moving mother from a large house to memory unit! The sadness and confusion brought on by so much stuff at that time was huge. Thanks to your post, I, too, am using the experience to edit my stuff ( and get my chaotic drawers and cabinets cleared of unnecessaries and organized!)

    • HairyGuy

      i’ve had that feeling since age 15 and everyone called me cuckoo. always knew that possessions end up owning you instead of the reverse. one need not be near death to realize this.

    • rdzk

      Had a relative who did this, because then the young ones make room for the items and actually USE and appreciate them!

  • Tania

    I always tell people you’d be amazed at what you’ll toss in the process of moving. If one feels overwhelmed, start small (a drawer, a shelf, a morning routine) or set a timer. I find writing in a journal is helpful too, I write down my goals and my reasons for wanting change. If family/friends aren’t supportive, you can find many people online who think as you do. I live in 800 sq ft, which is generous for one. It’s new construction designed by my dad and I (I live next to them after post divorce relocation) so I don’t plan on moving to a smaller place. I do however plan on enjoying empty space free of clutter, that is my goal. You don’t need to go small to downsize your possessions, you can merely enjoy a spacious room with little in it.

  • Ghislain

    It’s like Pringles chips; once you pop you can’t stop! I cleared stuff out in stages. The first time I went through my belongings some of the stuff I wasn’t sure I wanted to get rid of. I must have gone through it three times over a year. If the stuff I wasn’t sure I wanted to get rid of the first time around hadn’t been used by the third time I went through it… It was clear by then I really didn’t need it! Weeding out stuff is something I do on a regular basis now and it feels great. Your space feels cramped? You don’t need more space. You need less stuff! I realize now that all this stuff weighed on me. And you don’t realize it until it’s gone. Now my space feels bigger and I feel lighter!

  • Pingback: Decluttering — the journey begins | The Lady Who Lives Down the Lane()

  • Susan

    I’m still gearing up for the Big Upload, but I wanted to share an idea for removing what’s often a big roadblock for purging. For me, with my bad short and long-term memory, many objects act as reminders of people, events, places, etc. And I end up keeping them around simply to preserve the memories. So what if you snapped a digital picture of all the things you’re about to let go? You could date the image for even more “clues.” And create a folder on your computer for these images, or move them all to a “memories” flash drive. I’ve only tried this w/ a few items so far, all in crappy shape but w/ big sentimental value, like my grandmother’s little step stool which I’ve lugged around forever, and a few bulky items I’ve created for art installations. In fact, the whole endeavor could become a sort of portfolio of memory jogs. Stay tuned… p.s. Love the feature in Dwell!

  • montegobay305

    Personally an edited life runs against a part of me that wants to save stuff just in case we need it, the recycling mentality. It forces you to throw away stuff that could be used again… I plead guilty that this may be a non-valid excuse. I am inspired by this website to do better.

    • cinthesooner

      I agree with you that this mentality is a powerful motivator to keep things. What has helped me is the idea that I don’t have to be the one who actually re-uses the item and that is where Freecycle comes in. That stockpile of plastic planters or empty food containers may be just the thing somebody else is looking for and will put to good use in their own home or community. Later, if you find yourself in need of something, you can just post a ‘wanted’ ad and somebody else may share their hoard of bubble wrap with you.

  • Gidget

    What makes getting rid of stuff really hard for me is the hopes and dreams embodied in that stuff–typically arts and crafts supplies of various sorts. Hard to admit that I’m not going to do this project or that. BUT as I’m typing this it occurs to me that if the urge to create comes upon me, I can replace the stuff I’ve tossed! D’oh!

  • Mary Garner-Mitchell

    One small way I’m trying to reduce “things” in my life is in regard to gifts. I’ve told my friends and family that gifts from me will limited to only things that one can EAT, DRINK, or READ, and that such is what I would prefer as well. I could and might add “listen to” by way of an iTunes gift card. So far this plan is working pretty well.

  • Bonnie L

    Keep thinking about what you’re moving *toward* rather than what you’re giving up. This helps with any major life change that you make intentionally.

  • Nicole

    Based on the thoughts here, I do a “mock move” once a quarter. taking one room at a time, I take everything out as if I’m packing for a move. My husband is amused by this bit of theater but loves the results. I’m the one who tends to hang onto things…

  • I’ve gone through about 3 major down-sizing events in my lifetime due to residence moves. Suggestions for others are:
    – start early, it takes time. Your brain gets tired after about an hour. So, if you’re moving in six months, then you best get started once a day between now and then!
    – You won’t miss the things you get rid of. Out of all the things I’ve parted with, I can only think of about 2 or 3 that I wish I still had. And, I could buy them again if I wanted to.
    – Ask yourself: Honestly, what do I REALLY do with my time? Because we are creative people, we have a tendency to falsely believe we do more with hobbies, crafts, sports than we truly do.

    Good luck. I guarantee, you’ll love the end result.

  • amy

    My mother always taught me that if i wanted something new, i had to get rid of the old FIRST. For example; she wouldn’t take me shopping unless i cleared out a garbage bag of clothes that didn’t fit right. i had to clear out space for the new! If i wanted a lot of new outfits i had to get rid of a lot of outfits. That simple.

    This mentality allowed me to establish a balance and never stockpile. Moving is therefore really easy and so is budgeting! If i have a book i’m interested in buying, i first drop off the books on my shelves i’m not interested in reading again and boom suddenly there’s a gaping hole where the new book can go!

    Getting rid of stuff allows me to upgrade my life and environment! You just have to make the room first. It starts with the want for newness( get excited about the item) and then taking action(now there’s a place for that item!). Just don’t buy anything new until the old is gone or you’ll never get rid of anything.( becomes too easy to make excuses to keep both and that’s how easy it is to pile up junk, and multiples)

    oh and avoid moving an item from one room to another- ITS STILL TAKING UP SPACE!! I remember a vase got moved to every surface in the living room until someone finally decided it had no place there, only to toss it in a closet…. this is how hoarding begins. :p

    • rdzk

      There is a problem when there are three layers of furniture or items extending from each wall!

  • Jennifer Kim

    I go through and fill up one box a week of stuff around the house. I keep it in my closet for a full 6 months (with the end date marked on the outside of it only…not marking of what’s in the box). If I don’t find myself going back into the box to retrieve it. I donate it to the military base nearby for soldiers that move bases or come home from deployment and don’t have much with them…or have fallen on hard times. I see my husband is starting to follow suit now. I’m even flipping closets with him. I’m taking on his smaller closet and he’s getting my walk in closet. I think he’s following what I’m doing now, because he feels embarrassed that he now has more clothes than I do. haha

  • Sean Harlan

    Here is my situation… I will be moving out of my two bedroom apartment and into a vw camper this coming summer. From there I will be attempting to live the “van life” which is something I’ve always dreamt of doing. I yearn for the simplicity of this nomadic lifestyle. I have found the perfect vehicle and everything is falling into place. However, over the years that I’ve settled into the complacency of apartment life, I’ve since collected many household objects including antique furniture pieces that I’ve grown quite fond of. I’m struggling with getting rid of some of these things, convinced of the idea of being able to use them sometime in the future, when I find the place I truly do want to call home and decide to make a more stable residence. The fear of not having or being able to find unique items like these again is “poisoning” my efforts of simplifying and living only according to my direct needs. I am well aware of the sense of freedom you get when you live in the now, moment to moment but for some reason cannot stop thinking about these unforseeable future plans. I’m just seeking a different perspective, perhaps some guidance to get past this mind block and to begin focusing on my goal and what really matters. Can anyone help?

  • rdzk

    Someone wisely told me “if it has served its purpose” the answer is yes, then the attachment or sentimentality is accomplished. It does not need to be passed on. Also, often the good stuff gets lost in the bad stuff. If everything is precious, then nothing is precious.

  • rdzk

    This was shared by Lloyd in NM cafe shop from a dressmaker friend, who outfitted wedding parties: to keep expenses down, get the basic sewing machine that does all the needed tasks, and when it wears out, just buy another basic one. Avoids costly investments, repairs, time down, etc. This is very true, had an old castiron Singer that ‘ran’ –motor electrically worked, but would never ‘sew’ again no matter how many timings or adjustments because the mechanics were worn down. Now just get the 1st model janome, lasts a few years, and replace.