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Death cleaning: The six basic principles

Have you heard of Swedish Death Cleaning? In this post, Filipa do Carmo of Khora Space Sorted reviews Margareta Magnusson’s book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” and explains how it works.

The six basic principles of Swedish Death Cleaning

If you found true joy in Marie Kondo’s decluttering tactics, then it’s very likely that you’ll fall in love with Margareta Magnusson’s new book “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”. The title might be somewhat off-putting, but this system is much more focused on the “gentle” side, rather than on “death”.

Death cleaning is what Swedish people do when they retire or slow down their working lives and have more time to deal with all the possessions they have accumulated over their lifetime. It’s about getting rid of the stuff they don’t need, so that their descendants don’t have to deal with it all.

In the author’s own words “it is a term that means removing unnecessary things and making your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”

Margareta Magnusson is a Swedish artist “between her 80th and 100th birthdays”, who studied at the Beckman College of Design. A mother of five, she has lived all over the world including Singapore and Hong Kong. Her debut book is a New York Times Bestseller.

Here are my top six lessons from the book, although I would recommend getting a copy, reading it and then passing it on to someone who might also benefit from reading it.

1  It’s not sad

Simplifying your life and making your day-to-day life easier should never be considered sad. Margareta has a wickedly dry sense of humour, so by reading her book you’re most likely to approach the whole process from a lighter perspective.

She also takes pragmatism to its most sublime when she writes things like “Some people can’t get their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them. Did they think they were immortal?”

2  Be gentle

Having said that, it’s also important to recognise that this won’t be the most cheerful task you’ve ever done. It’s important to be really kind to yourself throughout the process.

You will also find that the more you do it, the easier it will become and the less time it will take. The “practice makes perfect” principle applies seamlessly in this instance.

3  No time to rush

Unlike Kondo, Margareta’s approach relies on taking time to go through all your possessions and decide what to do with them. This is a slow journey taken over a long period of time. This means that you can work at your own pace and think well about what you want to do with the things you own. You can distribute them amongst your family and friends if you’re downsizing. Or, for things you are keeping, you can label them with instructions so that people know what to do with them when you’re no longer here.

Another important aspect is that death cleaning is a state of mind. You don’t have to wait until you’re 65 to start. The sooner you start, the easier it will be. If you are feeling overwhelmed with all the things you have, this a practice that you can start now, regardless of your age.

APDO blog Swedish Death Cleaning decluttering organising empty armchair window

4  Think legacy

One thought that might help you throughout the process is that death cleaning will make life so much easier for your loved ones. By discarding your things and taking full responsibility for what you own, you will not only feel empowered, but you will also be leaving only good memories and valuable references for your family. Grieving is painful; anything we can do to make it better will be highly appreciated.

Margareta has done a lot of death cleaning for her family and her testimonials of those experiences help us understand the importance of this practice.

During the process, keep asking yourself “Will this object give happiness to anyone I know?”.

5  Leave the best to last

As with Kondo, the best way to proceed is to start with the things that will be easier to part with. Your kitchen is a good place to start. You will probably have more plates than you need, duplicates and gadgets you rarely use. These are all good to donate.

“You may even have forgotten what it is you have there. Good for you, because you will now realize that you will not miss anything if you throw it away.”

Photos, personal letters and other memoirs should be saved for last. Margareta’s rule of thumb is to shred photos if you don’t know the name of the people in them. Also, she has scanned photos from her children, saved them on a memory stick and given each of them one for Christmas. Isn’t that a wonderful idea?

Pile of black and white photographs to be organised

6  Tell

Finally, it’s good to be up front about this process and tell the people around you know what you are doing and why. It will be easier to get the help you need and to find new homes for your unwanted objects. It’s also a good way to share the fond memories associated with some of these objects and an object with a story to tell always has special value.

If this post has inspired you to start with your own death cleaning or decluttering process, you can find your nearest professional organiser here.

Divorce agreement. Wife and husband can not make settlement

Divorce and Downsizing: 3 Steps to Letting Go of Your Belongings

Sarah Macnaught (Rightsize) specialises in helping clients to rightsize their homes and their possessions as they move through the divorce process. She is available seven days a week to cover all working hours and time-zones. Call 07792 298 595 or email sarah@right-size.co.uk for a free consultation.

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When people are going through a divorce I’m often brought in to help deal with their belongings. There are various scenarios. Sometimes the husband leaves to start a new relationship, taking the bare minimum of possessions. His wife is left feeling overwhelmed and resentful about having to deal with every single thing. So she calls me. On other occasions family lawyers and divorce coaches refer cases to me because their clients are arguing over Every. Single. Thing. As well as the negative moods and toxic atmosphere, couples fighting over joint possessions can lead to higher legal fees and longer settlement periods.

As a professional organiser and belongings coach I get my clients to approach dividing their belongings in various ways. But I encourage them to base each decision on this one value: “Is this fair and reasonable?”

Here are 3 steps to dividing up the home that all separating couples should follow to make the process as smooth as it can be.

Be Practical: Make an Inventory of Everything

Think like a removal company and draw up a home inventory. There are phone apps you can use – Sortly and Encircle are brilliant – and you can produce downloadable documents to share with each other and legal teams. Photograph stuff wherever possible and give each item some sense of size like this:

4 drawers obsolete black & cream computer cables

3 shelves football programmes

3 boxes old cosmetics

8 large boxes wine glasses

1 three-seater sofa

10 metres of DVDs

This will make you both stop and think. No, it isn’t fair for one partner to deal with everything. And the cost of setting up two new homes will be offset if belongings are distributed fairly and reasonably, just as financial assets are.

Be Mindful: Expanding into Two Homes

“If I keep (all) this, is that fair and reasonable?” Especially when children are involved, both homes will be family homes, so an even division of all utensils, furniture, clothing and toys is important. Though there are often things (mother-in-law’s ornate vase anyone?) that both partners will gleefully donate to charity rather than lay claim to. The excess of possessions in UK homes is well documented so there’s practically always enough to go around. One parent doesn’t need the standard British haul of 8 pots and 6 casserole dishes!

Also couples should think about their short term accommodation before making any decisions. One father told me, “I insisted on the 3-seater sofa and oversized armchairs from our 6 bedroom Victorian home. When the removal company arrived at my rented townhouse, absolutely nothing could fit up the narrow stairs to the living room on the first floor.  It’s all still in storage, two years later.”

Be Generous: The True Meaning of Conscious Uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin may have made conscious uncoupling a ‘thing’ but it was originally coined by US therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas in 2011. The idea here is that you give generously as you let go of your possessions – re-gifting large furniture you love but have no room for; selling old paintings and donating the proceeds to your favourite charity; setting up a Men’s Shed with all your DIY tools and materials. The bigger the act of generosity on your part, the better you’ll feel about letting go.


This guest blog highlights how versatile APDO members can be regarding the services they provide. If you’d like to find an accredited professional organiser near you, search here. If you feel decluttering and organising could be your dream career, visit the APDO website for details on how to join APDO plus training courses.