7 Essential Steps to Declutter, Downsize, and Rightsize Your Books and Anything Else

In a recent survey, one reader suggested I write an article on “downsizing.”

Hmmm, I confess that at first I mentally set that idea aside since I don’t have much experience with downsizing and wasn’t sure I had anything to offer. Although I helped my mom downsize from her house to a condo, then to independent living in seniors housing and later into more care, my only other experience came when my husband and I moved to the U.S. for his seminary training. At that time we downsized from our one-bedroom apartment to the four large boxes and two carry-ons that went with us on the plane, but since we lent furniture to friends and stored a lot that we re-assembled when we moved back north of the border, I’m not sure that really counts.

But once I knew I would be completing my pastoral ministry and moving out of my church office, I knew that I would need to make some decisions about what to do with my wall of books. Would I have a new office to move them to? Would I have room for all of them at home? Or would I more likely need to downsize, and how would I do that? It looked like I would soon have a downsizing experience of my own to share with you.

Here’s how it’s going for me so far, and if you’re downsizing your books or your whole household, perhaps these steps will help you too. At the end of this article, I’ve included other helpful links, some with more specialized tips for seniors or caregivers. If you have some wisdom for me and other readers, please do add your comments below.

1. Instead of downsizing, think rightsizing

Rightsize means to change to an appropriate size, which I find more positive than downsizing. After all, changing things up or down isn’t the main issue; instead, I find it more helpful to focus on the right size given the circumstances. In my pastor’s office, one entire wall was a combination of shelves and cupboards, and as I grew into my role, I upsized with resources for ministry. By the time I left, I had the equivalent of three tall bookcases of books. My new office has room for just one small bookcase, and by making better use of existing space at home, I could find shelf space for maybe the equivalent of another bookcase. But if I wanted shelf space for all of my books without acquiring additional bookcases, I needed to rightsize my books so they would fit.

2. Start by eliminating duplicates

This was the easiest place to start and might seem the most obvious. I had a number of duplicates–two editions of the same book, or a hard cover copy and the paperback, or an advance copy and the published version, or an extra copy received as a gift. Plus my husband had some of the same books in his office, and we agreed it was now time to limit ourselves to one copy between the two of us. I’m not yet ready to extend this to the library, but that could be a next step to eliminate any overlap with books in the library too.

3. Ask yourself, is this useful?

Of course my gut reaction is that all of my books are useful! But as I’ve been clearing space at home to make room for them, I’ve gotten rid of other things that have outlived their usefulness. Like an old Zip drive and storage diskettes that have long been replaced by my portable hard drive and other data storage. Empty boxes, unused planters, and old magazines that I haven’t used or even looked at in years and needed to be recycled or given away.

4. Ask yourself, does this spark joy?

While some criticize this question from Marie Kondo as overly simplistic, and while I’m sure I’ll have more than the thirty books she keeps at a time, I find her idea of sparking joy a helpful one. Some books make me smile because of the memories they hold for me, like browsing in a bookstore while on vacation or reminding me of a favourite professor. Some books were written by friends, some came into my life at significant times, or bring me joy in other ways.

5. Work in stages

If you have time, start early and work in stages, so you can make decisions without rushing. If I had taken this advice more to heart, I would have started before I actually moved any of my books. Instead, I moved everything, and while I’ve done some unpacking, I still have boxes of books in the dining room and in our spare room. It’s not the most convenient, but since we have room for the boxes at least for now, I can still work in stages. The books I use most often and that I’m using now for current writing projects have been unpacked and shelved. The others can wait. And if any of my books are still patiently waiting in their boxes a year from now, that might be a good sign I’m ready to let them go.

6. Find a good home for what you don’t have room for

I’ve already recycled and given away some items to make room for more books at home. And I’ve already sold and given away some books. Others will be donated to a local charity. Rather than continuing to store books that are duplicates or not in active use, I’m glad to know that someone else can make good use of them. I’m grateful for the joy of reading and for resources that have helped me be effective in ministry, and I’m glad to pass them on to a good home too.

7. Organize for retrieval, not for storage

Long ago I read in I-don’t-know-where to think of a filing cabinet not as a place to store files but as a way to retrieve them. After all the point of filing things is to use or refer to them later. I think of my books that way too, so whatever I keep, I need to be able to find. In my office I had mentally numbered all of my shelves, and kept a file on my computer that listed what books were on each shelf. So right now although many of my books are still in boxes, I can still find what I’m looking for since the books were packed by shelf, and each box is labelled Shelf #6 or Shelf #10, and so on. As I’m finding new places for all of my books, I’ll create a new list so I can find them, which will also help me the next time I need to rightsize.

Other Helpful Links:

How to Declutter and Downsize Your Home Effectively – 9 Essential Tips

“Tips for downsizing wisely, whether you’re moving or simply freeing up space in your current home.”

How to Downsize: 5 tips for smaller living from the pros

My favourite tip from this post that’s not included in my tips above: “Enlist help and remember to breathe.”

Purging and Pruning Post-Epiphany

A wonderfully eclectic post by Shirley Hershey Showalter, including her personal reflection, some poetry, three helpful filter questions to help guide your decision-making, plus the official trailer for the new Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.

Senior-Friendly Guide to Downsizing

Most of the tips in this post apply to anyone who’s downsizing, and special attention is given to seniors considering legacy gifts early, taking time to reminisce, and using downsizing as a time to bond with family members.

Downsizing a Home: A Checklist for Caregivers

Sorting, packing, paperwork, and more–a helpful guide if you’re helping a parent move.

Writing/Reflection Prompt: What has helped you to declutter, downsize, and rightsize?

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10 thoughts on “7 Essential Steps to Declutter, Downsize, and Rightsize Your Books and Anything Else

  1. I live a “lifestyle” of de-cluttering. I try hard to… not acquire un-needed stuff in the first place, not let stuff accumulate, and donate stuff routinely. Yet…books are a struggle. I do purge books, but the problem is that I probably acquire 10 new books for every 2 I get rid of. Good tips in your post! Sometimes you just have to get realistic and ask yourself “what is the probability I will ever need this book?” At this point in my life though, with books, I err on the side of caution. I am active with Bible teaching, writing about the Bible, occasional preaching – so I’d hate to get rid of books that could help me in the future.

    1. I am so with you on your approach, Laura. I’m also reluctant to get rid of a book too quickly, and since I want to support other authors and review books, my library keeps growing! While for some like Marie Kondo, thirty books might be fine, for you and in my writing and speaking, books are valuable resources and the tools of our trade so to speak, so the right size for you and me would likely be more. Still this time of transition is a good time for me to do some pruning 🙂

  2. We are slowly downsizing our office books at my workplace. We re-homed 2 of them this week to the archives collection at the university of Alberta. It was nice to see them going to a good home.

  3. Thanks for mentioning my blog post, April. Once more, we are kindred spirits. I too love the expression of “re-homing” books. And I think the distinction between storage and retrieval is very useful. We have gone from four filing cabinets to two, so we are heading in the right direction!

  4. If I am asked to give up the most precious thing or treasure in me, that is with no doubt “writing.” By accident or by grace, writing has become more than part of my life, whatever I do or wherever I go. And I know writing cannot go solo without reading that is incarnated to a form of book. So books are my life itself. Many books read or unread yet stored in shelf in order! Nevertheless I visit Amazon.ca today again and buy some books unexplored and challenging. What if I am asked by Jesus to follow him giving all things up today! Can I put down the pen I’ve cherished for the long time and aside all the books that are still dog-eared and follow him, empty handed? So I am still stuck with a stack of books and unfinished writing. O Lord when?

    1. You write my heart, Joon! Writing and reading definitely go together for me too, and I can’t imagine life without them. But fortunately that doesn’t mean I need to personally own and house every book. I have some e-books although I much prefer physical copies, and I think of the public library, the college library, the church library as part of my library too–housed and cared for by others, but a rich resource that is mine to browse and use.

  5. A couple of times, when moving to a different house, I have given some of my spiritual books to my congregation for more people to enjoy. It’s easier on me too, as I can still get the book if I want.

    1. Great idea, Mildred – I love the idea of giving books away for others to enjoy, yet still being able to get access. I would occasionally do book give-aways as part of a small group leaders meeting–to resource leaders and to pass on books from my library.

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