How Downsizing Can Actually Make You Happier

Maybe you can’t bear to get rid of the box of old love letters from your high school sweetheart, or you’re hanging on to that eight-year-old Halloween costume “just in case.” Maybe you have too many outfits hanging in the back of your closet that clearly don’t fit you anymore or your junk drawer is starting to take on a life of its own. Maybe you’re one cardboard box in  your living room away from appearing on an episode of “Hoarders.”

Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, it’s safe to say that everyone could use a little nudge to declutter. Read ahead for some of the positive impacts downsizing can have on your life and where to start.

What is decluttering?

Before you even begin, it’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish. According to Melissa Levy, principal of declutter + design, “decluttering and are sometimes considered one in the same, but they really are different actions.” Levy says that the biggest upside to decluttering is “letting go of the past, things that ignite a negative emotion and forgotten items. This can create a more soothing atmosphere that can have a positive effect on your attitude and emotional well-being.

The biggest benefit to organizing, Levy says, is “not only knowing where to find something, but also knowing where to put something. You’ll be able to find what you’re looking for because you’ll remember where you put it!” In many ways, the two work hand in hand. Once you purge what you no longer need, you can organize the necessary items that are left behind.

What are the benefits of downsizing?

Not only can you get a feel-good buzz from dropping off loads of clothes to donate, there are tons of other upsides to downsizing. Sharon Lowenheim, certified professional organizer and owner of Organizing Goddess Inc. in New York, says getting rid of unneeded items can help you feel calmer and more in control of your life and help you find things when you need them. Additionally, Lowenheim says, “You will save money by reducing storage needs, eliminating redundant purchases, and avoiding late fees on bills.”

Nancy Heller, certified professional organizer and owner of Goodbye Clutter Inc., puts it this way: “For me (and for many of my clients as well), it’s about quieting the nagging voice in one’s head that says I ‘should’ organize ‘fill in the blank.’ Clutter is like a gnat. It keeps bugging you. It’s just plain annoying.” Not only can you scratch something off your to-do list, Heller says, but you also avoid having to look at a mess and eliminate shame when you have people over. (No more hiding things in your bathtub when your mom drops by!)

Where do you start?

When faced with an apartment that is bursting at the seams, it often seems overwhelming to begin downsizing. Organizational experts suggest starting with the area that’s bugging you most, and work your way from there. “Tackling your biggest problem first will give you the most bang for your time invested,” Lowenheim says, adding “it will also motivate you to keep on going.”

If you’re still at a loss as to where to begin, tackle your bedroom, Heller suggests. “The reason I think the bedroom needs to be clutter-free is because – in my opinion – a bedroom should be ‘quiet,’” she says. “It’s the gateway to good sleep, relaxation and rest, and that transcends all other facets of a person’s life. Piles of clothes on the floor or stacks of papers strewn about can quietly reproach you. They really do take a toll on you and the quality of relaxation.”

Other good places to declutter include wherever mail and other papers pile up, whether it’s your coffee table or your kitchen counter, Lowenheim says. Closets, attics and basements, where unused items tend to go unnoticed, are also good initial spots to tackle, according to Levy.

“Once you’ve ascertained the area [you’re] going to start with, work systematically around the area,” Heller says. “Shelf by shelf, surface by surface.”

How do you stay organized? 

Kathe Roberts, a professional organizer and founder of Top To Bottom Organization LLC, recommends that once you downsize, you stay on top of it just like you do other aspects of your life. “Just like you have a fitness routine to stay in top physical condition you also need a daily routine to keep your organizational systems in shape,” she says. “By just spending 15-20 minutes a day on putting items back in their ‘home,’ opening the mail and filing paperwork you stay on top of the clutter that is constantly flowing into your home. I call it managing the outflow (since the inflow is automatically happening). Larger projects such as purging clothing no longer worn or don’t  fit can happen twice a year,  and it’s a good idea to purge kids toys before birthdays and holidays to make room for the new.”

How do you not freak out?

It’s easy to want to give up when tackling an overflowing garage or an attic that is bursting at the seams, but even small improvements can go a long way. Roberts recommends using a simple three pile rule: divide everything into keep, trash and donate groups. “Those three categories as simple and straightforward as they are will go a long way in guiding your sorting and purging process,” she says. You can also set a timer for 30 minute increments so you can take a short break from downsizing without getting overwhelmed.

How do you let go?

One of the biggest roadblocks to getting rid of older items is the emotional attachment to these objects. “Often, people are tortured by the prospect of having to let go of sentimental objects, and it’s my job to guide them through the process by encouraging them to keep the ‘essence’ of what’s [important] about the memory,” Heller says. “That usually means being discerning and talking through the feelings [associated] with each object.”

Some suggestions from Levy include taking photos of items before getting rid of them, reusing items for a different purpose, or storing things with a commitment to reevaluate in six months.

Lowenheim suggest, “When considering whether or not to keep something, think about the life you are living now. Does this item fit into your life now, or is it from a past chapter in your life?  Surround yourself with the things that make sense for you to own now, and let the past go.”

Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor living in New Jersey. She has written for health and lifestyle publications including Women's Health and Brides. A proud dog mom of one, you can find her skiing or on the bocce court in her spare time.