Declutter: 5 Keys to a Saner Move

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We’re moving…

Not cross-country, not out of the city, not even out of my building. Just to another floor. And, into a lovely, larger, lighter place. You’d figure, for a laid back, outwardly chill zen renegade dude, it’d all be okay…but no.

It blows!

Being in our new place will be great, but the process of getting ready, getting moved and getting settled. Not fun. So, I’m breathing through it and, as always, trying to figure out what the experience can teach me…and you. After all, my pain should be your awakening…

1. Parkinson’s Law Applies to Stuff as Well as Time.

Parkinson’s Law says:

The work needed to complete a task will expand or contract to perfectly match whatever amount of time you’ve allotted.

So, if you give yourself a month to write your next book, that’s how long it will take. And, if you give yourself a year, 364 days later, you’ll be bitching, moaning and deep into your 8th can of Red Bull rushing to get it done on time.

Parkinson was a smart bloke, but I wonder if he ever moved?

Because, if he did, I bet he’d have extended his theory to stuff. I’ve lived in studio apartments, one bedrooms, two bedrooms, lofts, 3 bedrooms, houses and more. And, no matter where I end up or who I’m with, one constant always holds true…

You will accumulate precisely the volume of stuff your living space can hold without breaking floor joists or rupturing closet arteries.

Actually, that’s not quite right. If I’m gonna be honest here, we need to modify this rule to allow for as much stuff as can be held in your home, a modestly priced storage unit and your in-laws attic.

2. How Far You’re Moving is Irrelevant.

People are saying to us, “man, you’re lucky, you’re just moving 3 floors away in the same building.” Lucky my ass! In fact, it’s easier to move farther away. Here’s why.

When you’re moving farther away, you line up a team of people to help with everything from packing to storage and moving. But, when you’re moving within the same building, you start to have these idiotic thoughts about how much money you’ll save by not having to hire a moving company.

I mean, c’mon, how hard could it be, it’s only a few floors. And, you don’t even really have to pack, right, because nothing’s going to break on the elevator.

Sounds great…until 3 days before the move when you finally realize you’ve amassed 16.2 times more stuff than you thought you had and after 2 days of packing and no visual cues that’d suggest progress, it dawns on you what an awful idea going it alone was.

You’ve still got to pack the exact same volume of stuff that needs to be packed for a cross-country move. By then, of course, all the movers are booked, leaving you rifling through your gmail contacts to see which of your slacker (read, “blogger”) friends you can pay with pizza and beer to stop playing Rock Band on a week day long enough to lend a hand on moving day (FYI – I’ll tell you how that works out in a few days).

The only saving grace, of course, is that you don’t have to pack those boxes that remain hermetically sealed at the back of your closet from your last move 5 years ago.

3. As Your Closets Go, So Goes Your Brain.

All of which leads me to a conclusion. I’m actually unusually non-pack-ratish. If I were living alone, I’d likely have a giant open space with a bed, a dresser, a desk, my Macbook Pro, some outdoor adventure gear and a Lisa Grubb painting of a giant technicolor dog I bought on the street outside the Met in NYC a dozen years ago, before she became famous.

I don’t have a lot of my own stuff. I wear my notebook computers out every 3 years, drive a 10 year old Jeep Cherokee, own two pairs of Lucky jeans, 2 sweatshirts, 1 suit and enough t-shirts to get me through a week. When I travel, I take half my belongings with me, they all fit in a backpack.

But, I don’t live alone. I share my space with my wife and daughter and let’s just say their relative levels of anality and zest for accumulation differ quite strongly from mine. for them, more space means more room for stuff. And, more room for stuff means, well, more stuff. Which leads to a long, slow slide into the “stuffification” of whatever place we end up in.

Until, we all wake up on day and say, “holy crap, where’d all this stuff come from.?!”

Now, it’d be half funny if that was the end of it. Problem is, I’ve come to realize…

The state of your space almost always reflects the state of your mind.

If your space is bursting at the seams with stuff and you’ve long ago lost any sense of why anything goes anywhere, there’s a really good chance your brain and your bigger picture life are living and breathing that very same disheveled experience. Some people can function well in persistent squalor. I can’t. And, I’m willing to bet most people are the same, but they don’t realize how dysfunctional and less effective they are, because they’ve been operating under the burden of physical and emotional clutter for so long, there’s no “less frenzied” control mode to compare it to.

But, here’s the really cool thing. You can, to a certain extent, reverse engineer your way into a better state of mind and daily living experience by starting with your stuff. By, stripping away the excess, donating it to folks who are far more in need of stuffed animals, elephant mugs and lightly worn clothes.

In fact, I witness a similar outside-in evolution as a yoga teacher. Students most often came to the mat in search of some purely physical experience and goal. And, they found it, losing weight, getting strong, ameliorating pain. But, over time, as the outside began to morph and evolve, they’d discover a deeper evolution of mind occurring. Physical transformation led to psychological and spiritual liberation.

4. The Preemptive Strip & Give.

As we got ready to move, we went through this very process with my daughter (at least that’s the room it started in). Over the years, she’d accumulated buckets full of toys and more than 100 stuffed animals that sprawled across a high shelf and were not part of her daily experience. Over one long afternoon, we cajoled her into giving well over half of her toys, stuffed animals, belongings, clothes and even furniture to other families and kids in need.

Over the next few days, the volume of stuff in her room dropped about 70 percent. We weren’t sure how she’d handle it. Would she morn the loss of her stuff? Would she harbor resentment toward us for nudging her rather strongly to depart with it? We got our answer last night. As she lay in bed with my wife, she leaned over and said, “mommy, it’s so much more peaceful in my room now, it just feels calm.”

As much as the process of moving sucks, as we trickle that unburdening out across all of our stuff, I have to say it feels so good to be released from cacaphonic undertone of stuff that’s taunted our collective sanity from the safety of nearly every nook and cranny for years.

5. Post-Move: Recreate a Saner Place to Live & Work.

Picture 2And, once we’re in our new, larger and lighter space, the challenge will be to keep to our renewed commitment to a paired down, simplified, better organized place to live and work. To keep our stuff to a minimum and create a cleaner, more livable…calmer…space.

Thankfully, just a couple of weeks ago, my friend Erin Doland, who also edits Unclutterer, came out with an equally fabulous book called Unclutter Your Life in One Week. Like the blog, it’s packed with practical tips, tools and strategies that move beyond your workspace and deal with clutter on the level of both practical actions and shifts in mindset (seriously, get it now, so you know what to do with all your new holiday stuff).

So, as we settle into our new place, I’ll be leaning heavily on Erin’s organizing genius to create a renewed living and working space that keeps the clutter out and the calm in.

And, I’ll also be rereading The Power of Less by another friend and hugely generous-blogger, Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.

As always, wondering if anyone else had shared in similar experiences?

Or, maybe dealt with totally different “stuff styles” with spouses, lovers, partners and beyond?

Share your thoughts (and advice) below…

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35 responses

35 responses to “Declutter: 5 Keys to a Saner Move”

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  3. LisaNewton says:

    I find moving a pain in the neck, but also cathartic at the same time. Although regular spring cleaning is always good, I rarely get into all the real nooks and crannies of everything. Moving forces you to do just that.

    Speaking of which, even though it’s not spring, I need to do a little cleaning out.

    I wish you luck with your future “paired down” life. I’m going that way myself and find it extremely enlightening, in more ways than one. 🙂

  4. Bonnie says:

    I feel your pain. Just relocated from Boston to Santa Fe… 1 person = 6,000+ lbs of “stuff” including 32 boxes of books. This was after giving away ~400 books, furniture & art supplies I was never going to use.

  5. Tisha Morris says:

    Great post, Jonathan! You are exactly right on that your home is a reflection of your life. And, in fact, that is the cornerstone of my business. A very common problem that I see among clients is the mismatch of what you call “stuff styles”. It can be a big problem that just has to be compromised on with each partner respecting the other parnter and perhaps drawing out some lines.

    As you’ve probably realized, moving is THE BEST opportunity to declutter. Decluttering is simply the removing of items that are no longer serve in your highest and best interest and thus will create space for something new to come in, material or energetically.

    Ultimately, you will FEEL so much better and be so glad you did it (as your daughter was so intuitively quick to point out)!


  6. Andy says:

    >The state of your space almost always reflects the state of your mind.

    This also works the other way around, it’s not easy to work in a cluttered space.

    Despite spending about 4 months throwing stuff away, donating to charity and giving stuff to friends I still ended up transporting lots of extra boxes to the new house. This filled up the “spare room” which was supposed to be an office. It was not a good working environment, piled high with boxes and three large bookcases looming down on me.
    With guests comming at Christmas we needed to make that spare room into a guest bedroom. Yet more sorting, some freecycling and packing stuff into the loft and we now have a nice calm reading room/bedroom.

    Unfortunately de-cluttering is never over. I’ll undoubtedly have to have another session on this after Christmas!

    • Timo Kiander says:

      I try to reduce the amount of clutter I have by going through my stuff frequently and deciding what goes and what stays. By that way when I happen to move I have less things to pack and get rid of in general.

  7. It was a little over 13 years ago that I moved from St. Paul, MN to Austin, TX. As I prepared for the move, I started 3 piles: pack, give to friends/family, take to St. Vincent de Paul.

    Day 1: “Pack” pile huge, other piles small
    Day 3: Significant sentimentality burned off and the f/f and SVDP piles increased.

    My mother, for whom my pack rat ways were a constant source of irritation, even began to say “Are you sure you want to give that away?”

    There were 2 things that I vividly remember from this exercise. The first, I had an ENORMOUS vinyl record collection. Thousands of albums, jazz, r&b, rock, pop, classical. I had been toting this collection around for years. I decided, and it was a painful decision, to give the entire collection away. I have never regretted it. The recipient was thrilled beyond words. My records had a good home. 🙂

    The second revelation came when I got to Austin and began unpacking (less than a third of the stuff in my previous home), after unpacking the first 20 boxes of essential stuff — I found myself thinking again and again “I paid MONEY to have this stuff moved, I actually paid money!”

    • Andy says:

      I initially found it difficult to get rid of things unless they were “going to a good home” and felt guilty about stuff going to landfill that were still functional. However once you get over the idea that other people just don’t want your things either then their percieved value decreases. The fact you’ve kept them out of landfill for the last 10 years is good enough so as long as you recycle as much as possible then don’t feel guilty about this.

  8. Ken Gregg says:


    Wonderful that you can do this on your own. Although I agree completely, I think I need an intervention. But I’ll try. Anyone want a box of 25 year old computer books? I have 3.

    Everyone should move at least every 3 years.

    • Andy says:

      Ken, I find it very hard to chuck out books, probably due to years of librarians telling me how valuable books are. However computer books/manuals do quickly become obsolete and many of them were published in such large quantities that they have no value. I’ve kept a few with generic topics and sold/donated some of the more recent ones. The rest went off to be recycled and made into newer documents.

  9. I’ve seen an exact correlation between my obsession with the ‘stuff’ of mine that’s, as far as I know, still in my ex’s garage, which I’ll never see again, and my ability to forgive and move on.

    The more I let go of my need for that ‘stuff’ (I could probably list three things I actually want, and the rest is ‘on principle’, whatever that means in my head) the more I can let go of the resentment and give myself (and the people around me) some peace.

    We’ve planning to move to Ireland from NorCal. I’m already looking around at stuff thinking, do I really wanna lug this junk to Eire? No? Then fer cryin’ out loud, why is it taking up space in my music room? Huh? Huh? (This reasoning has also prevented occasional roadside stops to collect furniture which only needs ‘a little work’.)

  10. Vanessa says:

    Ah…moving. You are right, it makes no difference whether you are moving across country or across the street – it sucks. That’s all there is to it. As a military spouse I can vouch that moving is the best declutterer there is. We always had a yard sale before and after a move. My favorite decluttering advice comes from Peter Walsh who suggests you picture how you want your life to be and what it looks like. As you look at things around your house, or things you want to bring into your home, ask yourself if it brings you closer to this vision. Nine times out of ten it is a resounding “NO!” Good luck with your move. I am NOT envious!

  11. I have moved at least 11 times in my life. Not once did I move by choice. The worst two- When I moved with a boyfriend from a duplex into a smaller apartment next door. It was endless shopping carts up and down stairs. The next move I asked my brother in law to get a small truck to move me. Instead he borrowed a pickup truck. That meant at least 10 trips back and forth. I took the final trip realizing my stuff had been transported in the most haphazard way and the boxes, so carefully marked, were in complete disarray at the other end. Yes I was grateful for the help but the big truck/one trip idea was really the best.

    I have much more stuff now. Yes I expanded into the space. But my next move will be by choice and I will have a separate office space that is not my living room. In the meantime, I feel your pain and the excitement the new space gives. It is like starting a new phase. The energy of a new place changes you so much you might be surprised.

  12. Donna Lehman says:

    Amusing AND useful. Yes, if there’s space – we tend to fill it with ‘stuff’. Most of us, anyway. And having moved from just one block to another, as well as cross-country three times, I agree that the distance doesn’t really matter.

    De-cluttering can be cathartic. But think about it before you toss. I’m a huge geek about family history, genealogy and traditions. I’ve carted around old, red vinyl LPs that were my father’s – though we have no turntable to play them on. It’s just a reminder of another era. Granted, not everything has sentimental or historical value. But I wish I had a few more things from my father to help tell stories to my children and grandchildren, since he’s no longer with us to do it himself.

  13. I have moved house 23 times in my life, twice to the other side of the world. And I TOTALLY relate. The best part is the realisation that you just don’t need all the stuff you have around you. Coming back to Australia from the UK in March we had to itemise everything we owned (just like Baker at ManVsDebt) – and we cleaned out so many of our things in the process. So incredibly liberating. The fresh and very zen space and energy this creates is so valuable…and while we have to let go to bring new things into our lives, why should this apply to the “physical” stuff?

    I love that guys seem to be so much better at doing more with less – but I’m pretty certain my wardrobe will never be as Zen as yours :).

  14. Moving a short distance sucks because in many ways it’s actually more work (yes, I’ve done it). Best thing you can do is hire some guys to just carry all your shit between floors for you. Because unless you have elevators, you are going to kill your knees on the stairs (like I said, done that).

    Good luck and congrats on getting an upgrade! (And thanks for the links to those resources!)

  15. Jonathan, Here is a solution for old tech books that might be fun for your daughter.

    Here is one link to get you started-

  16. Tim Brownson says:

    A guy goes into an old fashioned cobblers to take his shoes to be mended. The cobbler gives him a ticket and says they’ll be ready in 10 days or so.

    The following day the shoe owner has a tragic accident and is hospitalized in a coma after being hit by a bus. He’s in hospital for 10 years, but eventually makes a full recovery.

    A few days after he is out he finds the ticket stub. “I wonder if the old guy is still at it” he thinks, and set’s off to check.

    The store is still there and he walks in to see the old guy working on some shoes in a cobbler stylee.

    “I know it’s a reach” he says “but I brought some shoes in for repair a long while ago and you gave me this ticket. I was wondering whether you still had them?”

    The old guy takes the ticket and studies it carefully before disappearing behind the counter without saying a word.

    Almost 5 minutes elapse before he reappears and thrusts the ticket back into the guys hand. “They’ll be ready on Monday” he says and goes back to doing shoe related activities.

    So the moral of the story is don’t get hit by a bus and expect the local cobbler to speed up because of it, or something like that anyway.

  17. NomadicNeil says:

    I’ve moved more than 20 times in my life and I would say that it’s the major reason for trying to own as little as possible. Not because I’m an anti-materialist or anything but purely because I hate packing!

    Because I have so little with me it’s been easier to move to Thailand than to the other side of London.

  18. carol says:

    I also find moving really cathartic. My family of 5 thinks I’m a little too zealous about getting rid of things, but I’ve gotten to the point where I like giving away the out-grown clothes, and my husband has turned me into a big fan of the library. We all have a “do I really need that?” kind of attitude, thanks to a couple of moves similar to what you describe!

  19. Bravo! I am a huge believer in “less is more.” I organize processes, spaces, and people for a living and I can FEEL the shift in energy when “stuff” gets reduced. This was a wonderful article that I’ll be sharing!

  20. Very timely article. I’m something of a wanderer and have moved numerous times over the years. Point 2 is especially insightful, I found moving 10 miles more tiring and stressful than moving 3,000 miles. I also agree with your sentiment that clutter makes us “dysfunctional and less effective” – a constant distraction that is right in front of us and yet invisible at the same time. My girlfriend and I will probably be moving again in a few months and I’m already in the mindset of freeing ourselves from a lot of “stuff” that clutters our lives on more than one level. Excellent post and best of luck with your move.

  21. Sean Cook says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    My family and I are just on the other end of this equation, having moved from State College, Pennsylvania to Athens, GA, so I can totally identify with pretty much everything you are going through.

    After 9 years living in our house, we had a lot of crap, totally due to keeping stuff we had random and not so sensible emotional ties to, cases of “I might need it later,” “well, I paid good money for it,” and more than a little bit of “I’ll deal with that later.”

    We visited the goodwill donation center 3-5 times a week, rented a dumpster, sold and gave away stuff left and right, and then still managed to fill 22 linear feet of a 28 foot ABF trailer. I now totally understand the reason people go with full-service movers.

    Getting rid of junk can be quite cathartic. We had a water softener tank rupture in our basement a few years ago and it was much easier then, because stuff was just ruined. It made some of the decluttering easier, but even after all that purging, we still have way too much, including what I would call “souvenir paper”…notes from people, copies of newspaper articles I wrote back in college, drawings by our kids, drawings we did as kids, etc.

    Now, on the other end, I still feel compelled to keep purging, and moving to a house with different storage options has pretty much dictated that the decluttering must continue. So I encourage you to keep at it. I am doing my best to stay with it myself.

    You should count your book among the great de-cluttering guides out there. I discovered it as I was going through the process of getting certified to be a life and career coach, and it gave me the inspiration and courage to go ahead with my plans. I left a steady job at Penn State University after being there 14 1/2 years, to see if I can do the things I enjoy and think I am good at. Your book was a great help to me and I am so glad I found it. Keep doing what you are doing. It is great.


  22. Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Jonathan – I hope your move goes well. As you say, moving to another floor doesn’t mean it’s easy.

    I am planning to sell my house after Christmas and I’ve been told I will need to declutter before I show anyone round. Like you, alot of the stuff isn’t mine – it’s the kids. I hope I have as much success as you did with the stuffed toys.

    Anyway, I have no clue where to start, so I’ll be checking out Erin and Leo’s books for sure. I haven’t moved for 8 years and I want to emigrate, so it would be crazy to pay for a lot of junk to be shipped across the Atlantic.

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  24. Hey Jonathan,

    Totally agree moving is a pain, and moving everything a short distance is a real pain! You go through all that work, and your reward is perhaps a different view out the window!

    I recently picked up and moved across the country, and although most of the big stuff was done by others, the real trauma is when you get up in the morning and all your support systems are gone or different. From where to get a great cup of coffee, to doctors, dentists, post office, etc., it’s all different.

    Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. As we all know, excitement is a type of stress, and without that type of stress, we would surely all be really bored.

    So enjoy your cup of excitement…then get back to work!! We need you!

  25. Well, you’re fully right! I must admit I love to accumulate stuff, stuff, stuff. Why is that ?
    I’m a collectioner, I love to recicle, I have a shop that sells old stuff, I consider that each old object has a story to tell. Also, I have a School of Performing Arts for children and a workshop to make the props and the costumes. Can you imagine how much stuff I need to do these things ? But it’s true. It’s just too much. I have 5 storage rooms full of stuff and sometimes I can’t find what I need. I spend more time trying to find things or tidying up rather than actually using the stuff. I also think that I need to recycle, I have a feeling of guilt when I throw stuff away that no one wants. I’ve been obliged to get rid of things that I could have really used for my Musicals:
    it’s an illness but I feel terrible if I have to give up some of the stuff.
    It’s wrong but what can I do ?

  26. Every time I move, I throw a way a ton of stuff. Mostly books and clothes. It’s just amazing how much crap one can accumulate. I have to move from China to New Zealand next year. Gonna have so much stuff to sell or throw. Going to enjoy it. In New Zealand, I’m going minimalist. 🙂

  27. […] has written an insightful, astute and entertaining post about his, er, moving experience — Declutter – 5 Keys to a Saner Move.  It’s worth the time to click over there and read it…and read the comments left by […]

  28. I wrote an article for Zen Habits called Low Stress Ways To Declutter Your Life and Move House. It’s here:

    What a shame you didn’t read it before your big more. Not sure if you have garage sales in NY City though:)

    Enjoy your new home!

    PS. Please remove the link if you deem it spam. I never know what is or isn’t…

  29. Dataflurry says:

    I just got finished moving from a 4 bedroom house in July of this year in Phoenix, AZ. It was the hardest thing I have done in a long time, almost had a heat stroke. The one thing I would have done differently is mark boxes better, it would have saved a lot of time!

  30. My house is for sale and I look forward to starting with a blank (and larger) canvas. I run a business from home which makes things even more difficult. I have too much stuff and I can’t wait to get rid of the stupid things I have accumulated over the years. Thanks for the book recommendation, I think I’m going to have a look at “Unclutter Your Life in One Week.” Sounds good!

  31. Jonathan,

    I like your honesty about the overwhelming experience of realizing the amount of stuff you had. Stuffification! I think that’s how it is for a lot of people. I help people clutter bust for a living and they are always amazed at how many things they have. And, how much it is no longer a part of their lives. I figure we are encouraged to acquire and not to let go. The emotional attachment makes us hang onto things even though they aren’t a part of our lives. Your honesty helps people take a look at their own stuff and hopefully they might feel a desire to let things go.

  32. Zoli Cserei says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I can especially relate to Parkinson’s Law. I’m an addicted sudoku player, and usually a puzzle takes me about 8 minutes to finish. Just three or four days ago, late in the evening my mom was shouting at me to turn the computer off finally, just after starting my daily sudoku challenge. I first thought that I’m gonna mess up the whole puzzle, but the urge and the hurry actually made me concentrate more, and since less time was allotted, I could finish in just a little bit more than five minutes. Nice article here.

    Have a great holiday,