Break it down, get it done

Renovating a historic house takes a while. We’re not moving any time soon. Since I know the move isn’t immediate, I’m trying to look at the next few months as an opportunity to move fewer things. Because we have…a lot…of stuff.

I suppose the growth has been gradual. In 2011, my (smaller) family moved from a 2-bedroom apartment in New York City to what seemed like a palatial suburban house. We bought new furniture but still had lots of open space. We hosted a party not too long into our tenure here and people exclaimed when we opened the coat closet to put their coats in there and there was…nothing else but their coats.

Ten years and three children after that move, we’ve filled that coat closet, partly with off-season clothes that came out of the master bedroom closet, which we half emptied to accommodate a crib, rug, and chair — a space that serves as the toddler’s bedroom. The new (old) house has space for all of us but at least some of the stuff that occupies this house isn’t worth taking along.

So I’m trying to clean it out. But “clean out house to get rid of stuff” is a large to-do item. Overwhelming really. Which is why I spent some time yesterday breaking it down into more doable chunks.

I made a list of all the spots to be addressed. This is a very granular list. I didn’t just say “my office.” I separated out the desk drawers, the corner baskets, the filing cabinet, the wire files, the book shelves. Honestly, I am thinking I will make each drawer its own separate project. Same with the basement. The closet downstairs has three shelves, and each needs to be its own entry. Each bin in the basement needs to be its own separate line on this list.

That’s because the goal is to have each section take 30 minutes or so, rather than all day. I don’t have all day! Sometimes even what seems like they might be small projects takes longer than expected. My daughter and I cleaned off the two basement craft tables a few weeks ago, and it took an entire weekend nap time. That is not the way I wish to spend nap time! One craft table, or even half a craft table, might have been easier to tackle

But the good news is that when a project is broken down into small enough parts, it feels pretty doable. Indeed, I’d venture that 100 small projects feel, in total, more doable than 20 big ones. Because a list of 20 spots would include something like “garage.” And the garage is not going to get cleaned out in 30 minutes, or even a weekend toddler nap time.

Have you purged before moving? How did it go? Any recommendations on what to do with old stuffed animals?

Photo: Mr. Bunny is a relatively new addition — a gift from the big kids to the baby last year. But some members of what we call the “stuffy pile” have not emerged in…a while. 

21 thoughts on “Break it down, get it done

  1. It is a fabulous feeling to do what you are doing! I purged before moving – and then still ended up doing another round while unpacking. It just felt ‘lightening’ to chunk the trash, donate the still usable. You’ll be so glad you did it!

  2. I purge constantly and subscribe VERY diligently to the idea that ‘just in case’ are the three most dangerous words in the English language. Most things that you’re saving ‘just in case’ are never needed (or, if they are, can be re-purchased for relatively low price…and this is actually required pretty infrequently). To be fair, this tends to go for day-to-day type things, not big things like a snowblower. But generally, if I haven’t seen or used an item in a year, then there’s no reason for me to keep it.

    (yes, I realize there are special circumstances for items that are kept for specific purposes and may not always get used – see snowblower above, or that nice dress for a wedding, etc. But generally, ‘stuff’ that hasn’t been used in a year has no place in my home.)

    – schedule a GreenDrop or Purple Heart pickup a few weeks out if you know you’ll have a lot or large stuff to donate. I find that sometimes I’m ready to get rid of stuff but then I can’t actually remove it from my house for a while (if pickups are being scheduled too far out) and this is stressful. Pre-emptively scheduling the pickup gives you at least a round 1 deadline for getting it done!
    – when you clean your small areas, don’t just move stuff to another area to deal with later. It needs to be categorized as trash, donate, or keep. And if keep, then put in its home/place in your house…otherwise, you’ll just keep moving the stuff from place to place and have to deal with it multiple times.
    – I know that some (not all) animal shelters will take donations of old stuffed animals, along with towels / blankets / sheets. Maybe worth looking into?

    1. Someone after my own heart! I don’t believe in keeping anything “just in case”. My friends were astounded that my (very expensive) wedding dress was in a charity shop within a week of our honeymoon but I can’t say I’ve ever regretted that decision nor about 99.9% of any of the other things I’ve gotten rid of.

      1. Oh, I love it! I don’t meet many others with the same mindset (and my husband is…shall we say…the OPPOSITE of a purger). I can count on one hand the number of things I regret getting rid of. Good luck paring down before the move!

        1. KGC and Louise, you speak my language! No “just in case.” Streamlined. Simple. Spend time on people and experiences, not managing stuff!

  3. Purging before moving is the best. There’s the advice to pretend like you’re moving to declutter, But there’s nothing like actually moving. We moved to a bigger house because our little kids are 4 big teens with lots of friends. Are use it as an opportunity for what I called a midlife cleanse. Basically did what you are doing, organized at a granular level, decluttering drawer by drawer. I would just wash the old stuffed animals and give them to a shelter.

    1. @Elizabeth – I’m interested to see the number of people saying shelters might take stuffed animals. I was under the impression from earlier purge attempts that organizations didn’t really want them because of the risk of potential bedbug/lice/etc. issues. I may just have to look harder!

  4. We had our son, who LOVES stuffed animals, narrow his choices to keep into one box. We then let him add a few more. The rest were washed then donated to a homeless family shelter.

    I think we got rid of a good 40% of our stuff before moving to a 2x larger house. Section by section is the way to go.

    1. Laura,
      I really like this approch. I often feel paralised with the tought of clesning up the garage or the kitchen. Too big to tackle. What i have done lately is to make a daily clean of 15-30min every day. And then i go by areas and put a time behind. One week i would do the bathroom starting Monday morning 15 min and having the weekend for a potential longer session. Next is the washmachine room and i give myself 2 weeks and so on. It makes it more manageable.

  5. You know that we did this over a few months two years ago before moving to be nearer to your family and your brothers’ families. I felt as if I were making daily trips to the Goodwill bin at our local supermarket. It was hard for me to part with books but I did several book give-aways at our church and then it made me happy to see friends take my books home. That worked for our smaller church–wouldn’t work for yours, I think. I donated several bridesmaid dresses to the school corporation’s costume shop. And I learned that my junk could often be someone else’s treasure when I posted it on Facebook–like our old electric typewriter or my button box. I think there were four requests for that button box!

  6. One of my goals this year is to declutter and organize every room and closet in our house, including the garage. I assigned a room for each month. Well, I started in my office (January) and made a decent dent (lots of paperwork to sift through), but I still have more to do before it is complete. I did enough that my college aged son has a place to do his school work, and I can use my laptop comfortably. It is almost March, and it’s not finished, yet. So, I have put this goal on the back burner until after Easter when I will have more time open up. However, now that I have read your post and how you have broken down your rooms into smaller sections (a drawer at a time), I may try doing that. What a wonderful suggestion!

  7. I love your idea of making the list of placed to sort/declutter very granular to even the shelf level. My more generalized lists have not worked. One thing I’ve been want to do for months is thin my closet and get rid of stuff I don’t wear or like. The thought of taking the Marie Kondo approach (dumping it all on the bed!) is overwhelming, and I know myself well enough that I would soon hit decision fatigue. Taking one shelf, one drawer, one section of the hanging items, at a time makes perfect sense to give a person a sense of accomplishment.

    1. @Jane – yep if I dumped it on the bed it would still be there weeks later and I would be sleeping somewhere else. This project needs to happen in small chunks!

  8. When we moved a few years ago we discovered that I was a “purge before the move” and he was a “move everything then see what you don’t want.” And three years later he is still unpacking boxes. I definitely went a little “scorched earth” the closer we got to moving day.
    When my husband’s parents died, we had to go through their house that was full of forty years’ worth of stuff and decide what to do with it all. Most of their things were in pristine condition- they just very rarely threw things out. Figuring out what to with their stuff was a really heart wrenching and taxing process. A lot of it just went into the trash- our things are not as valuable as we want to think. (Adam Minter’s book Secondhand is so eye opening about this issue.) Now when I am decluttering, one of the questions I ask myself is, “Do I like this enough to want my daughter to have to figure out what to do with this when I die?” I also ask myself this when I am tempted to buy something frivolous.

  9. People make fun of me for having decluttering/purging as a hobby. It is true though! I don’t see why I would want to have things I don’t use or love just because they at some point entered the house. More stuff also means needing more space which eventually comes down to a money issue.

    About breaking up projects: so true. I kept procrastinating a larger writing project but finally now put it on my list as very small to dos. I am still not super motivated, but at least I get it done. 😀

  10. Another good way to donate stuff is through local buy nothing facebook groups. I donated a ton of craft supplies and books this summer when people were bored at home and baby/kid stuff goes fast! Some organizations like goodwill and Salvation Army actually trash a lot of the things they get (because they get too much!)

  11. I’m so glad to hear that you break things down granularly, too! I love making lists and checking things off, but like you said, “clean out garage” is a big job. It would just stay on my list for a while even if I was actually working on it. I use tedious toddler-watching time or other times when I’m not really able to do something to plan these types of things out in my head and add them to a list.

  12. I completely relate to the overwhelming feeling of trying to downsize and declutter before a move, especially when you’ve accumulated so much stuff over the years. Breaking the cleaning process down into smaller, more manageable tasks is definitely the way to go, and I love the idea of creating a detailed list of every area that needs attention.

    As for old soft toys, there are a few options depending on their condition. If they’re in good shape, consider donating them to a local children’s charity or shelter. Some animal shelters may also accept gently used stuffed animals to comfort their furry residents. If the toys are too worn or damaged to donate, consider repurposing the fabric for a DIY project or recycling them if possible.

    Overall, taking the time to declutter and streamline your belongings can be a refreshing and cathartic experience, and it’s worth the effort to lighten your load before a move. Good luck with your cleaning projects!

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