Since we were freshman in college, each year has brought with it additional space. Shared dorms turned into individual singles, first apartments came with basement storage units next to the communal laundry machines, and by the time we merged our households, we had an entire garage and basement ready to welcome the unwieldy accumulation of material belongings which we referred to, like any good American, as our stuff.
The decision to travel full-time prompted a decade-overdue examination of all the items we had intentionally or unintentionally brought into our home. This wasn’t just an afternoon of whittling down a few basement bins for the neighborhood garage sale. This was an all-out purge of anything and everything we owned that wasn’t a) necessary for full-time travel or b) worth paying to store while we were gone.
This was an all-out purge of anything and everything we owned that wasn’t a) necessary for full-time travel or b) worth paying to store while we were gone.
With these tight parameters guiding us, we reduced our bloated three-story townhouse down to just a handful of items that now create a U-shaped perimeter around the old Toyota in our storage unit. This post will give you the game-changing rule and the 15 question formula we leveraged during our month-long dash to downsize for full-time travel.
The 80/20 Rule
We were introduced to Pareto’s 80/20 rule by Tim Ferriss in his life-altering book The 4-Hour Workweek. (Seriously, if you haven’t read this and you feel like your life could use a shock to the system, this book is the ice-water bath you’ve been looking for.) In his examination of productivity, Ferriss insists that 80% of the results almost always come from 20% of the work.
A small collection of belongings were embedded into our daily routine while the vast majority of our stuff sat idly by untouched. This 80/20 distinction became the crux of our entire downsizing crusade.
As we looked around our over-stuffed home, we realized that the 80/20 rule underpinned our daily interactions with our environment: 80% of the time, we used 20% of our stuff. The same dishes went in the dishwasher each evening. Each weekend, the same clothes came out of the dryer. A small collection of belongings were embedded into our daily routine while the vast majority of our stuff sat idly by untouched. This 80/20 distinction became the crux of our entire downsizing crusade.
Think of a Heat Map
There are a few tricks to identify the 20% of your stuff you use 80% of the time. Our favorite strategy was to visualize our environment as a heat map: some items were warm from constant use while others were cool from infrequent use. Alternatively, ask yourself which items you’d notice first if they were suddenly missing. What would be difficult to do without? And if you’ve got the luxury of time and space, you can be particularly thorough by relocating all items from a particular room and then taking stock of which items you actually go retrieve over the course of two weeks. This can be especially helpful with storage spaces that tend to be jam-packed like closets or kitchen cabinets.
It’s not a stringent, anti-materialistic strategy. Instead, the 80/20 rule protects your belongings that provide the greatest utility and joy.
Why It Works
The 80/20 rule is an efficient downsizing tool for a few reasons. First, it creates a bright line between the stuff you use and the stuff you don’t. This focus on current utility, instead of hypothetical future use, is a much more helpful sorting tool. Second, the 80/20 rule consistently eliminates duplicative belongings or one-task gadgets. These items never make a showing in our daily routine, and we shouldn’t hesitate to get rid of them. And finally, the 80/20 rule fits beautifully with downsizing because it still recognizes the 20% of your stuff that you constantly use and adore. It’s not a stringent, anti-materialistic strategy. Instead, it protects your belongings that provide the greatest utility and joy.
3 Things to Remember
Before we get to the questions, here are three important things to keep in mind during the downsizing process.
1) Storage Is Expensive
Storage space at a decent facility can get pricey fast. This monthly expense should provide significant motivation to be a picky sorter. A high quality mattress, a paid-off car, expensive bedroom furniture, your best pots and pans. These are the items to keep: necessary for a future home and cheaper to store than to repurchase in the future. This logic comes with a caveat of course. Do the math and figure out when that equation would no longer balance. A decade of travel might mean you sell everything, put a few important documents in a safe deposit box, and hit the road free as a bird.
Right now, you’re after the freedom that comes from reclaiming the physical and mental space that your stuff currently occupies.
2) Perfection Is Impossible
You will get rid of things that a week from now or ten years from now you’ll end up needing and have to repurchase. That’s ok! It’s impossible to predict the future. That’s why the 80/20 rule focuses on actual utility instead of hypothetical use. Right now, you’re after the freedom that comes from reclaiming the physical and mental space that your stuff currently occupies.
Ruthless honesty is crucial here. If your home looks anything like ours did, the remnants of half-finished projects and someday aspirations will be the hardest items to part with.
3) Move Fast and Be Honest
As you sort, move fast and be honest. Use the flowchart below and follow your gut reaction. If you find yourself meandering through the well this could be useful if…logic, get rid of that item and start in on the next stack. Ruthless honesty is crucial here. If your home looks anything like ours did, the remnants of half-finished projects and someday aspirations will be the hardest items to part with. Remember that you’re creating space for a travel goal you’re actually following through with. Buck up, get rid of the crocket hooks and the half-build kegerator, and focus on the adventures ahead. Ok, enough with the second-personal self talk. On to the 15 questions!
Tips For Where Your Stuff Ends Up
As you divvy up your items into these final six buckets, here are a few pieces of advice for each category.
After the scrutiny of the flowchart, you’ll get rid of more items than you’ll keep. But there’s a reason that gifting comes before selling, donating, or throwing out your stuff.
- The giver’s glow is a real thing. It feels so good to see a friend dive into the puzzle or fill the picture frame that spent years in your basement in its original plastic wrap. Making a few bucks off Craigslist doesn’t compare.
- But remember to ask folks first. Don’t pawn your stuff off on hesitant recipients. For all you know, they’re trying to downsize too! Our favorite strategy was telling friends and family, “Hey, we thought of you when we came across this item. If you’re interested, we’d be happy to bring it by.” Give people an easy out so that you don’t accidentally add to someone else’s 80% of idle belongings.
Anything that wound up in our sell category we posted to Craigslist. After nearly a month of navigating this world, we have several pieces of advice.
- Make sure anything you post to Craigslist is either worth at least $10 bucks or is difficult for you to move yourself. A Craigslist post tends to make your to-do list proliferate. Create a monetary threshold to ensure that the flood of coordination is actually worth the time it takes.
- If you have smaller miscellaneous items that aren’t worth posting individually, consider bundling them with similar stuff and sell the collection as a set. We made a considerable chunk of change with this strategy. We sold a book bundle, a kitchen bundle, a workout bundle, and so on. Don’t budge when people ask if they can just buy the Keurig or the megaphone. If you bend on the all or nothing approach, you’ll wind up with trip after trip to Goodwill.
- As a group, the Craigslist community is a flaky bunch. Adopt a first come, first serve strategy. We got sucked into the Sure! We’d be happy to hold that for you! vortex too many times and rarely emerged with a dime. Wait until someone is actually driving your way before you tell them you’ll hold an item for them.
- Here’s another Tim Ferriss strategy. If you have less than a week to downsize, create just one Craigslist post. Give a specific day and time, highlight your best stuff, and from there, keep it simple: first come, first serve, best offer. Schedule a donation pickup for the next morning and call it good.
As a group, the Craigslist community is a flaky bunch. Adopt a first come, first serve strategy.
Just a few thoughts as you make some feel-good donations.
- Think local first. We donated an entire grocery cart full of school supplies we’d collected over the years to the elementary school down the street. The teachers lit up when we came through the door and started picking out items for their classrooms. It was the best donation we made because the items were immediately put to a good use.
- Take a picture of whatever you donate. When tax time rolls around you’ll be grateful you paused during your downsizing sprint long enough to create an inventory for your deduction.
- In the same vein, remember to ask for receipts whether you drop stuff off at your local Goodwill or schedule a pick up with Habitat for Humanity.
Take a picture of whatever you donate. When tax time rolls around you’ll be grateful you paused during your downsizing sprint long enough to create an inventory for your deduction.
There are many items that are tempting to just chuck in the trash, but here are a few tips to keep the earth in mind while you downsize.
- We went on a digitizing/shredding binge as we filtered through years of old paperwork. We love this app which helps us snap pictures of important documents and keep up our nearly paperless system.
- With downsizing on this scale, you’ll likely wind up with more recycling than your bin can hold. Hop online and find the closet collection center. You can drop everything off in a single trip and often these bigger operations will take things your normal collection streams won’t, like glass.
- Somehow we ended up with batteries, paint, and old gasoline to dispose of. A quick search helped us find the nearest toxic waste drop off center.
We’re weirdly proud of our storage unit. Here are a few tricks as you load up the stuff that’s actually worth paying to store while you’re gone.
- Don’t guesstimate when it comes to your storage unit’s size. Use painter’s tape to outline the potential dimensions and identify the smallest unit possible. Plus, the leftover painter’s tape is perfect for securing drawers during a move without damaging furniture.
- Use the vertical space in your storage unit. Heavy duty shelves like these made all the difference for us.
- Protect your stuff. If an item made it all the way through the flowchart to the storage unit, it must also be worth keeping dry and pest-free. Our primary strategies were mattress covers, plastic bins, and these crazy ziplock bags that, with the help of a vacuum, become airless bricks. They’re perfect space savers for clothing, bedding, or pillows. We also set out ant traps, a few bars of Dial soap to deter mice, and moisture absorbing tubs like these.
- If you have a car that’s paid off and worth storing, here are a few tips. Put a wheel chocks behind the back tires for safety and add fuel stabilizer to keep a fresh tank of gas from going bad. Lock the car and then disconnect the battery to keep it from draining while you’re gone.
Packing for full-time travel is a whole other can of worms. Another flowchart for another post. In the meantime, let us just say this:
- You need considersly less than you think you do.
- You should be able to carry everything you’ve packed at once. For us, that’s a backpack and a duffle each with our hands free for Odin’s leash.
Thank you so much for checking out our downsizing strategy! If you’ve downsized recently, what was the most daunting part? What have you noticed in hindsight? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below, and until next time, happy travels!