Overheard in a coffee shop in Seattle: “Sunday used to be family day. Now we spend it sorting our basement and garage; we’re trying to get rid of stuff.”

Stuff! The treasures we’ve collected along the path of life. We love, hate, or need our stuff. Often, we don’t know why the heck we bought things in the first place!

Whether downsizing or just sick of the clutter, eventually we are faced with the task of dealing with our stuff. It can be an emotional and physical ordeal. Some declare, “It’s the hardest challenge I’ve encountered.”

Sorting a lifetime of possessions means making decision after decision about what to keep and what to let go. All the while, we’re taking an emotion-filled walk down memory lane.

Decluttering and sorting is physically demanding, but it’s the emotional piece that really wears on you. This leads to bouncing from place to place; never completing anything.

Don’t despair! There are strategies for conquering the chaos without losing your cool.

Remember the adage, “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time”? This philosophical insight is especially applicable to the challenge of downsizing your home. Develop a strategic approach and break it down into manageable tasks. This will keep you from being overwhelmed.

Keep your eye on the prize

In a sentence or two, jot down your thoughts about why you want to declutter and downsize. Include mental images of the outcome and the positive feelings you’ll experience. Everyone’s motivation is unique and outcomes will differ.

Here’s an example: “I want to tidy up so that I am surrounded only by the things I truly love, need, and use. If I choose to downsize, moving will be easier. At that point, I’ll be living in a more efficient, easier-to-maintain home, which will allow me time to travel.” In a nutshell, the why/benefit: “LESS STUFF = FRENCH RIVIERA”. This equation works for me!

Keep work sessions short

Grab the kitchen timer or use the timer on your phone. Create a motivational musical playlist; my purging song list includes “Let It Go” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”

Pick an area in which to begin. Perhaps the guest room or a section of your garage? If you’re just beginning, start with “low hanging fruit” and work in an area that’s least likely to tug at your heart strings. You’ll get into a groove before tackling tougher stuff.

Once you’ve chosen an area, pick your starting point. For instance: Begin at the bottom left of a bookcase.

Set your timer for 15 minutes. Only go through the items on that shelf. The items you no longer want, place in a pile. Put the things you’re keeping back on the shelf.

If you can’t decide, ask yourself three questions: Do I love it? Do I need it? Do I use it? If you can’t answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, it’s time to give the item a new life.

When you’ve completed a row, move up, shelf by shelf. When the timer goes off, stop!

Now, it’s time to manage the “don’t want” pile. Is it an item for donation or is it something I need to run by a family member? Create boxes for each category but keep it simple.

As you fill boxes of donation items, move them to your car. Drop them off at a donation site the next time you go out.

Employing this strategy, sorting for 15 minutes and followed by moving the “don’t want” items out of the house, allows you to see immediate progress. You’re motivated to keep going.

If you’re energized, keep working through additional 15-minute sessions until you call it good for the day. No matter how much or little you accomplish, at least you’ve taken one bite out of the elephant. Make a commitment to return to same area the next day and take another bite or two.

Bite by bite, you’ll complete the bookshelf and then move to the dresser setting next to it. Drawer by drawer, you’ll complete that too. By working methodically in small sessions, you’ll complete an entire room. Eventually, zone by zone, the entire home.

When the going gets tough, ask for help

Working strategically certainly helps but, at times, the going will get tough. There is no shame in asking for help. Here’s a tip: Don’t ask anyone who will add an extra layer of challenge. Ask a friend or family member who is focused; someone who is trusted and understands and supports your goals.

At times, “to keep or toss” decisions will be hard. Friends and family can play the devil’s advocate. They can also provide physical and moral support.

Generally, people will want to help. If you can’t find anyone, locate a nearby professional with a web search. The National Association of Professional Organizers’ website is www.napo.net; the National Association of Senior Move Managers is found at www.NASMM.org.

Karen Pfeiffer Bush is a senior living specialist and owner of two Seattle-based companies, Studio 65 Design (www.studio65design.com) and Housewarming (www.housewarmingseattle.com). Contact Karen at (206) 719-1662 or email her at karen@housewarmingseattle.com.