6 Organizing Habits to Steal from the Professionals Who Help Boomers Downsize

published Nov 5, 2020
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At her 9-to-5, Mary Kay Buysse gets paid to take out your trash. As the executive director of National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM), she helps aging seniors downsize and declutter their homes. But lately, she’s noticed a trend. 

Younger clients are reaching out for her expertise. Awash in stuff, clients in their 20s and 30s have the same amount of clutter it took older generations, or folks in their 70s and 80s, decades to accumulate.

The average home has 300,000 items in it, according to professional organizers, and Buysse believes this number will balloon as younger people age. “There’s a myth that millennials are this minimalist generation, and don’t have a clutter problem,” Buysse explains, “but it could be twice as bad just because of the fast and cheap delivery of goods.”

Before you consider your trove of stuff a lost cause, take a word of advice from downsizing professionals. Here’s what they’d tell their aging clients to start doing if they could’ve worked with them decades ago. 

Declutter the same way you read 

Jill Yesko, founder and president of Discover Organizing, has been helping people of all ages declutter their homes since 2003. She finds most clients don’t start organizing because they just don’t know where to start. 

For Yesko, that’s easy: the kitchen. “It’s probably the most important space in the house. That’s where you fill the soul, entertain, and create a space for healthy living.” It’s also where a lot of clutter accumulates without you noticing. 

To start, Yesko asks clients to go front top to bottom, left to right, just like reading a book. Clear out long expired foods, spices, and seldom used utensils, even if they came from a beloved relative. Reset the space to prioritize ease of access and retrieval. Make things you want to use everyday within arms reach, because if they’re not, you won’t use them, advises Yesko. 

Employ the Post-it method to kick things off

The key to keeping clutter at bay is making it an on-going process, explains Yesko, not a problem to be tackled only when you can’t stuff another sweater in your wardrobe. 

Yesko encourages clients to keep a stack of Post-it notes handy. Any time they come across something they haven’t used in a while, that’s broken, or they don’t feel they need, they simply stick a note to it. It doesn’t mean they should get rid of it today, but it’s a low-stakes way for people to remember to revisit the item in the next few days when they have the energy.

“You can be ruthless with those Post-its, without having to get rid of things immediately,” Yesko explains. It gets people comfortable with the idea of organizing as a lifestyle. Using Post-its can be training wheels for decluttering, and keep you from abandoning projects halfway through. 

Flip your hangers

“They say that 80 percent of the time, we’re only wearing 20 percent of our clothes,” Buysse reasons, but it’s hard to get clients to visualize that number.

With particularly stubborn clients who don’t want to let go of clothes, Buysse recommends that each time they wear an item from their closet, they turn the hanger the opposite direction of the others. In a couple months, they can actually see how much of their closet they’ve worn, and what items are generally ignored.  

Keep an ~aesthetic~ basket for donations

We often relegate things to donate into an undignified plastic bag, but bringing decluttering into the design of your home can make it a lifestyle habit, instead of a seasonal chore, Buysse advises. 

Keep an aesthetic basket, or an “outbox,” as AT’s Lifestyle Director Taryn Williford calls it, on display in your closet or bedroom, and make that the “drop zone,” for things you’re considering donating. Try to part with these items at least quarterly, or when the basket fills.  

Credit: Liz Calka

Tackle the mail like you would a sandwich

The dreaded mail pile can be a massive source of clutter in the home. Half-opened envelopes somehow become abandoned between the mailbox and the trash can, leaving not only a mess in their wake, but also unpaid bills or important notices ignored.

Cutting down on mail clutter is as easy as making a sandwich, advises Yesko; they’re both a process. You get the ingredients, make the sandwich, eat it, and finally, clean up. Mail should be processed the same way. 

Only retrieve and sort through mail when you have time to complete all of the steps. That means having time to open and attend to letters, and sort through and recycle the junk mail you don’t need.  

You wouldn’t leave out a slice of bread on the counter and call that a sandwich, just like you shouldn’t leave a utility bill half opened on your desk—that’s only completing half the job. Earmark time in the calendar, pour yourself a mug of tea (or a glass of wine), and take time to attend to—and dispose of—that dreaded mail pile.   

Don’t forget digital clutter

Living clutter-free also applies to the digital world, and when we see this space as limitless, we set ourselves up to treat physical space the same way. We end up paying a few bucks a month for data storage, which Buysee calls “the Millennal answer to a storage unit.” 

Shelling out for extra data storage not only puts off decluttering your phone, but it wastes money. Over ten years or twenty years, you might end up paying close to $2,000 just to avoid deleting old screenshots or infrequently used apps. 

Just because we can’t see the digital mess taking up space doesn’t mean it’s not influencing the role clutter plays in our lives. Buysse recommends going through albums every few months and deleting blurry, old photos you’ll never need, as well as taking inventory of apps you don’t use. 

While downsizing and decluttering experts work on large-scale projects with overwhelmed clients, they believe the secret to staying clutter-free throughout your life is developing small habits. Organization doesn’t occur all at once, and only through practice and small changes can the real habits stick.