Not sure where to begin? Local experts offer their top tips for downsizing.

People hate to move. Year after year, pollsters come up with increasingly inventive questions to prove it. Thirteen percent of respondents to one 2019 survey said they’d rather spend a little time in jail—jail!—than pack up their belongings and schlep them to a new place. Americans consistently rate moving to a new home as one of the most stressful life events a person can face, worse than divorce, job interviews, and wedding planning.

And yet, relocating when downsizing has its perks. With a slight shift in mindset, moving can offer a clean slate, an opportunity to tidy up, and a chance to take stock of both possessions and priorities.

It helps to know how to begin. Sheilah Sable, owner of Call Sheilah!, has been helping people find their footing for six years as a move-in, move-out specialist, and concierge. First, she says, make some space.

“It doesn’t matter where we start, but we have to create a dance floor, a staging area,” Sable said. The living room floor, a dining room table, a home office: any space can become a command center for your move, preventing feelings of being overwhelmed and helping to create a sense of control.

Michelle Kavanaugh, owner of Organizing Senior Moves, suggests people start small. A junk drawer is a great place to begin. While it’s often tempting to tackle the big messes first, that approach is a recipe for burnout or even injury. “By taking it one step at a time, you’re more focused on who you are and what you need,” Kavanaugh says.

Another helpful approach is to collect similar items and group them together. Whether it’s coffee mugs, cleaning supplies, or black dress pants, it’s tough to organize anything without taking inventory first. The hard part, of course, is choosing just a couple of favorites in each category. Most people don’t need more than one or two favorite coffee mugs, and parting with the items that don’t make the cut will conserve time, money, and energy.

Both moving/downsizing specialists emphasized the emotional drain that can accompany the Herculean task of sorting, packing, and moving a lifetime’s worth of stuff. Sable says women, especially, can struggle with shame and a sense that they should be able to do the job by themselves.

“Asking for help is a spiritual act,” Sable says. “You don’t have to do this alone.”

In fact, Sable includes emotional support as part of her services. Clients can text her when they find themselves needing a pep talk. Sometimes, they find a little encouragement helps even more than an extra set of hands to pack and carry boxes.

Kavanaugh says it’s her policy never to ask anyone to get rid of photos and to help people get rid of as much or as little as they want. “Our houses become homes, filled with stuff from memories and experiences,” she says. “Our things make us who we are. I have a lot of respect for that.”

Working in finite shifts can help manage the emotional and physical strain of moving. At Organizing Senior Moves, working sessions are never longer than four hours per day with a lunch break in the middle. Anything more, they’ve found, leaves clients feeling drained. Especially for seniors, pushing too hard can physically to falls or even heart attacks.

Every move is different, and some people have an easy time downsizing and walking away from items that have accumulated over the years. But for nostalgic types, both experts suggest finding ways to honor and acknowledge favorite possessions. Sable suggests photographing beloved, but functionally useless items, like worn-out clothing. Creating a scrapbook pays tribute to the objects that brought delight and comfort without weighing down their owner.

Kavanaugh recommends donating items that won’t have a place in a new home but that are still useful. She’s even filled her van and helped clients deliver furniture and other goods directly to people who wanted it. Her company also collects vases for hospice care.

Both Kavanaugh and Sable specialize in managing not just precious possessions, but the memories that are inevitably attached to them. The key, they’ve learned, is to have faith in the process.

As Kavanaugh often reminds her clients, “You bought this house. You made it a home. We can take these items and help you make a new home.”

Top tips:

“I believe in a visual solution.” — Michelle Kavanaugh
Choose one room and go through all the cabinets and drawers, one at a time. As you finish each mini-task, place a sticky note nearby with a smiley face or the word “done.”

“If your kids are thriving, start charging them for storage.” — Sheilah Sable
Many parents of adult children get bogged down in their kids’ possessions. If your kids aren’t struggling, charge them a storage fee and kindly set a deadline for them to remove their things.