When was the last time you sifted through those old photos you keep in that box in the basement?
How about all those holiday cards with lovely sentiments? Or notes sent to you all those years ago that have since been stacked in a pile held together by a faded rubber band in a miscellaneous drawer? Or files filled with decades worth of tax and banking statements?
What about the shelves of random tools and odd-sized kitchen pans and other culinary gadgetry that hasn't been put to use in years? Why is your garage full of broken lawn chairs, rusty bicycles and moldy books?
If you don't know why these questions are being asked, you aren't a baby boomer.
After decades of acquiring and collecting, boomers are finding themselves tripping over the tangible relics of their lives and wondering what to do with all the stuff.
Marilyn Allen knows this panic all too well. Not only is the Missoula boomer a professional de-clutter counselor, she's in the midst of moving into a smaller home, like so many other empty-nesters and soon-to-be-retirees.
"This is a very difficult time in people's lives," Allen said recently while giving a seminar sponsored by Lambros Real Estate. "People spend the first 40 years of life eagerly accumulating stuff and then they spend the next 40 years trying to figure out what to do with it.
"It is so easy to get overwhelmed by sorting through the emotions and memories that are associated with all of the stuff."
Allen owns a business called Smooth Transitions, which provides individuals and families the emotional and physical assistance needed to make a change in living arrangements.
Allen doesn't like to use the word "downsizing," because not only does it have negative connotations, it isn't really all that accurate.
Downsizing is sometimes a rough word because some people associate it with giving up the best parts of their lives, she said. "I like to use ‘rightsizing' - which is filling your home with the right amount of stuff for life today."
In recent months, Allen has seen firsthand what happens when empty-nesters don't unload their life collections as they age - even if they don't ever intend to move from their home.
There comes a time when a person no longer has the strength to box up and move things, but keeps collecting them.
Allen has been in a lot of homes, but even she was surprised this year when she was asked to go into the home of an elderly person and help with the process of de-cluttering. The home was filled from floor to ceiling with clothes, books, cards and other household items, and the only way to navigate the rooms was by following what she called "goat trails" through the forest of stuff.
In some instances, a cluttered life is physically dangerous for people, she said. De-cluttering, though, can be emotionally liberating and give a person peace of mind because there's less to take care of or worry about.
So where do you begin? How do you start?
"You start today," Allen said. "Downsizing - or rightsizing - is not a quick thing. It's almost a grieving process as you get rid of things and it is very stressful."
If your overall home needs an overhaul, Allen's advice is to start with the obvious places, like the entry or kitchen. If you have a place like your basement or garage where you store all of your excess stuff - vacation knickknacks, worn-out running shoes and those useful but outdated coats - start there.
Once you know where you are starting, commit to de-cluttering that space three times a week, for an hour at a time.
Be prepared with the tools of professional moving managers, Allen said. What are they? Seven large containers labeled "Keep," "Sell," "Gift," "Donate," "Relocate," "Recycle" and, finally, "Don't have a clue."
"As the containers fill, seal them up and get them off the premises," Allen said. "Once that ‘No clue' container is filled, if in six months you haven't looked into that box, donate the items or throw them away."
When it comes to photos, go through your collection and toss out all the blurry ones, the ones that are redundant and the scenery images. With books, keep the ones you love and reread, and unload the rest. Whatever you do, don't double stack books because the books in back will never be seen again.
Talk to yourself while you are cleaning and listen to the words you use, Allen said. "If you are saying, ‘I could use that for ...' that means you probably won't use it and that you haven't used it. Dispose of that item or repurpose it."
On the list of things that clutter our lives the most: excess clothes in closets and drawers, magazines, shoes, work gloves, old photos, old uniforms, materials for crafts, unused recipe books, old paints, furniture to fix, old pens, expired vitamins, makeup samples, keepsakes, dishpans, and special occasion clutter like holiday towels and themed bed linens.
Why are we holding onto special occasion items and storing them where they aren't seen and used? Allen asked. And then she urged action: "If you must hold onto things, burn the candles and use those fancy sheets."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at email@example.com.