Moving advice: save the mental grit for BIG decisions and allow yourself to let the small stuff go

Guest post by Heron

Living room

We moved two weeks ago. I usually like moving, but this move was particularly hard. We loved our place, but our landlord was selling it and couldn’t guarantee that the new owners would let us continue to rent. So we moved, and I found myself feeling taxed.

Some people think we have a finite amount of willpower each day. Some days we make big decisions, some days we make little decisions, some days we make a lot of decisions, some days we make only a few. If we use up our finite amount of willpower early in the day, we might not have enough later to make the “better” decision or exercise our will-power.

This theory has been used to show how hard it can be for people to break the cycle of poverty. Using extreme self-control to cut costs and making heart-breaking decisions for your family every day can deplete your willpower very easily, making it more difficult to make those (already) impossible choices, applying for yet another job, or thinking about going back to school.

Moving, I found, is a willpower-depleting series of decisions and self-control. I’m not even going to talk about FINDING a place to live in the first place. That process has its own place in the valley of the damned. For me, it was just the move. As we packed, we purged a lot of our belongings. In the first few days we donated six bags of clothes and nine bags of books. We recycled paper, metal, and glass. We sold and gave away furniture and bikes.

And as the move got closer, my willpower frayed.

“Do we want to save this (old book/slightly cracked picture frame/ripped blanket/unopened box of pencils) or should we donate it?”


I was completely surprised and rather disappointed by my vehement nonchalance. I am not a wasteful person. We are environmentalists and live a relatively thrifty life. But we threw out a LOT of stuff. And each time we did, I felt guilty. And the guilt sapped my willpower. And then we’d have to make another decision. And we’d throw something ELSE out. More guilt. Less willpower. Another decision.

Like the sneaky hate spiral, the guilty-willpower vortex spun out of control until I had a breakdown. Not fun. But when I emerged from the other side, refreshed by a night of NOT packing, I realized what was going on. We were making a TON of decisions and I needed to save my willpower for the big ones. For example, what are we getting on our moving-day pizza?

I needed to realize that it was OK to throw out that picture frame (totally crappy anyway), if it meant I could make better, self-affirming decisions later on. My life as an environmentalist is not disaffirmed by each thing I don’t reuse/recycle; rather, it is affirmed by my long-term commitment to greener living. Throwing out a frame doesn’t erase a lifetime of recycling. One bad decision doesn’t erase all the good decisions. In fact, it makes the good decisions easier.

So, next time you’ve had a hard day and want to chuck the newspaper in the trash instead of walking to the recycling bin 5 feet away, do it! It just may allow you to make a fabulous decision the next day.

Comments on Moving advice: save the mental grit for BIG decisions and allow yourself to let the small stuff go

  1. This is similar to how my psychiatrist explained my anxiety spiral. I have an anxiety disorder, if I make a bad decision, it frequently cascades into a zillion bad decisions, followed by a total meltdown over something so insignificant it’s practically NOTHING. The trick is to take good care of myself, and practice good limit setting and self-talk. That way I can make better decisions and recover better from a bad decision thus not allowing the spiral to begin in the first place. It sounds terribly easy, but as anyone who has an anxiety problem can testify, it’s actually quite a balancing act. Sounds like you found a way to navigate a stressful situation and manage the next ones better

    • Miranda said: “The trick is to take good care of myself, and practice good limit setting and self-talk.”

      I think this is definitely true. It’s crucial to learn how to prioritize good decisions, but it’s sometimes hard to even notice that you’re MAKING decisions.

  2. I went through this when we moved too. And I continued to go through it when camping out in our fixer-upper home for a couple months. I would paint and fix and repair for a few days and then have a melt down because I couldn’t stand keeping my toiletries on a floor covered in sawdust for one minute longer. My husband worked so hard to get us the house and often I repaid him with hissy fits worthy of a 7 year old child. Willpower definitely is a finite resource and sometimes you just have to cut yourself a break. For me, this was taking a shower for the first time in a week and going out for dinner like a normal person.

    • I think that treats (like showers!) can replenish willpower. For me, it’s often indulging in NOT doing the thing I have to do, and telling myself it’s ok. Better to take a moment away from the stressor than cause yourself more stress.

      • I am doing this right now. Was just told yesterday that our place is going on the market and have to look for another (with 2 cats and two dogs this is a total nightmare, and we only moved here 8 months ago) so have allowed myself time to process that and have ignored my thesis (due today, but extension allowed) for two whole days. It’s all I can do to stay sane.

  3. This is so true! Since I know I’ll be moving this summer to another state, I’ve been working since January every weekend to slog through my belongings (which really haven’t been thoroughly gone through in 6 years) and toss or donate everything I don’t use. I also try to be environmentally aware and the thought of throwing out all these old hair and beauty products I used to use before I switched to mostly natural products is /killing me/. But you make a really good point and I’m going to try to look at it from that standpoint from now on. 🙂
    I’ll admit another factor in me wanting to get rid of this is hearing the stories about an older relative who became quite the hoarder before she finally was moved into a care facility – though scrimping and saving everything runs in my family, I’m trying to avoid that fate!

    • Thanks, Rachel! My mom always said “when in doubt, throw it out.” I’ve tweaked it a little: “when it doubt, get rid of it in a way that makes you and other people happy!”

  4. Yes! Thank you for this post! I recently learned firsthand the guilt of trying to be eco-friendly during a big move!

    My husband and I just finished a very rushed move ourselves when his company was suddenly bought out and we had to relocate from Pittsburgh to Seattle. I’d never even been to the west coast, and we had about a month to get ready – and even though the company paid to hire movers to help us, getting prepared was just one long willpower-draining process all on its own even without any heavy lifting!

    I know exactly what you mean about not wanting to waste anything. We were downsizing from a three-bedroom townhouse to a one-bedroom apartment, and so we had to purge more than half our furniture, in addition to a sizable chunk of our wardrobe and about 15 – 20 boxes of books (that was maybe the hardest).

    Luckily, we found charities in our area who would do curb-side pick-up of donations for free. So we’d schedule a pick-up every week or so, and then whatever we were ready to give away, we’d stick it out on the curb on the day of the pick-up. It was just one step above “just throw it out!” but at least we knew someone would benefit from it. We also were lucky to live in a city with free bulk trash removal and a neighborhood where it was really common to leave furniture out on the curb for others to adopt before trash day. Some of our too-crappy-to-donate pieces ended up waiting for trash pick up – but not one of them actually made it! Neighbors scooped them up within a few days, sometimes even a few hours, even broken pieces. I’m pretty sure some of the wood has now been repurposed into student installation art projects. And that makes me smile. 🙂

    • Amen to leaving stuff on the curb! College students and dumpster-divers are perfectly happy to rescue stuff in my town.

      Next to our dumpster – very visible from the street – I’ve left a table, shelves, TV (with the working remote taped to the top), and printer (with the software CDs taped to the top). All were gone within a day, and I know they were probably picked up by someone who will use them.

  5. Thank you for this. My husband and I moved from Japan to America last summer, and it was incredibly stressful. I still feel guilty about all the things we were throwing away. This article gives me a bit more perspective on the whole thing: we were having lots of small earthquakes which were especially frightening after the big one, getting my husband’s visa was taking longer than expected because the Embassy was behind schedule again because of the earthquake, and I was still grieving my father, who’d died less than a year before. OF COURSE I was freaking out and having crying fits and completely incapable of making decisions! It’s nice to realize that I wasn’t being unreasonable, and to try and let that guilt go.

    • Kate, that is an intense experience – a lot of willpower and micro-decision making on top of several hugely traumatic experiences. Let the guilt go! You made it work for you!

  6. I am moving tomorrow and Thursday. Ahhh! This post struck a chord with me, because I hate wasting things and initially we had a donation bag and we were still doing our dishes and then I hit a wall. Our current apartment is…well I’ll post about it another time, but we finally brok down and bought paper plates and plastic cups to eat off of these last few weeks. We’ve just been chucking out stuff because it’s a hassle to drop of donations because we don’t have a car and we work during the day. The last couple of days are the worst. It’s like a feeding frenzy, but with trash and oh…it’s ridiculous. Hopefully, we won’t be moving again soon, but if we do I will be more prepared and will not stretch my willpower beyond it’s reach.

    • Thanks, Jen! This sounds a LOT like our move. At the end I was just throwing things out of the backdoor towards the garbage cans. We actually LEFT a bookshelf in the apartment because it made me feel a little rebellious. 🙂

  7. I’m a little less than two weeks from moving day, and I know there are many garbage bags full of “could have maybe been recycled/freecycled/etc” items in my future.

    It doesn’t make me feel great, but you’re right, neither will agonizing over every picture frame.

    We were lucky enough to have a ton of advance notice for our move, so for the past 6 months I’ve been slowly culling my collections and taking periodic trips to Goodwill. But I know there will still be a bunch of stuff that we pitch at the last minute.

    The electronics are the worst – you can’t throw them away, and you can’t make arrangement for e-waste on short notice, so we end up taking bags of old modems and cell phone chargers with us to sit in the closet at the NEW place until the next move.

    • Slow and steady is DEFinitely a good pace. And you’re totally right, getting rid of electronics and batteries and printer cartridges and CFLs all sucks.

      Some people have e-recycling at their work, but a lot of people (me included) don’t.

  8. Heron, this is something I needed to read today, as I’m getting ready for a move & facing mounds of clothing & other……stuff from the past fifteen years. Overwhelming to say the least.

    • Sara, so glad it came at the right time! I hope your move goes smoothly. And if it doesn’t, I wish you tasty food and drink and good friends and loud music and lots of easy decisions to help you recover. 🙂

  9. Thank you SO much for this, a pep talk I really needed. We are moving from my late mother’s house to a place yet to be determined out of state– it’s been one “guilt spiral” after another as I try to send our stuff and her stuff out. I can’t manage freecycling but have dropped off load after donation load, so I’m trying to get over myself so I can focus on the big stuff– this entry said it perfectly about not sweating the small stuff! I’m one who zeroes in on the extremely small stuff, so I’m keeping this page bookmarked. 😉

    • Thanks, Leslie! Sorting someone else’s things has even more emotional freight. I can’t imagine the willpower you’re exerting going through your mother’s stuff and your own.

  10. It’s funny how your state of mind changes when you pack…the whole ‘THROW THE FUCKING THING AWAY’ is like a dream state. We just moved from Maine to New Mexico last week (driving two cars that whole way with a trailer, so space was limited) and once we got here to Santa Fe, we were like “oh man, I can’t believe we threw that out, we could’ve found space!” despite the fact that when we threw it out we were like NO, I’ve always hated that! At the same time, it felt so good to purge those things in preparation for a new start and a new beginning. Loved this article and your perspective 🙂

    • Thanks, Caitlin! Sometime it’s very cathartic to yell FUCKING CHUCK IT at the top of your lungs. Yeah, there were a few things I regretted chucking, but in the end, I was calmer and happier and ready to make the decisions about WHERE ALL THIS FUCKING ART GO ON THE WALLS?

  11. My advice would be that if the BIG stuff is keeping you from doing ANYTHING, you have to either let someone else make the decision for you or occupy yourself with little stuff until the big thing solves itself.
    My example is That Damn Buffet, my great-grandparents’ sideboard that has been a white elephant for everyone. It’s a beautiful piece, full of history. It’s also freakin’ huge and cumbersome and was almost certainly never going to fit in my new apartment. Dropping it on the curb wasn’t an option, selling it was a heart-breaking option, taking it with me seemed impossible, sending it to my parents’ house was probably the only possible solution, but SO HARD. Finding a new apartment, signing the papers? Not as hard as deciding what to do with this single piece of freakin’ furniture.
    I hummed and hawed about it so much that I was losing entire days of progress on the phone with my mom, whining about “What are we going to do with That Damn Buffet?” SOME sort of decision had to be made about it. Then all sorts of logistics of how to transport and store it. I just buried myself in “What are we going to do with this stack of magazines from 2009? What are we going to do with this bag of clothes that I’ll never wash to donate to Goodwill?” that I finally just said “Ya know what, Damn Buffet? You’re coming with me. We’ll figure it out when we get there.”
    And everything worked out. Like things do. But I seriously let that decision ruin full days that I could’ve used to make lots of poor decisions about how to dispose and donate my stuff!

    • Totally! This sounds like another theory I love, called “Structured Procrastination.” I could write another 100 posts about that. Essentially, structure procrastination says that procrastination helps us get other things done. So the fact that the Damn Buffet was hanging over your head allowed you to get all the other super important (but smaller) decisions made. I do this all the time: give myself a huge, insurmountable, dreadful task to do, and suddenly I’m doing all this other stuff in my life that I’d been putting off.

  12. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m going through this right now. My husband and I are moving in 2 1/2 weeks, downsizing from a 2 bedroom to a 1 bedroom, and the purging is killing us. Partly because we just got married and we will no longer have room for the (very) few things we received (and now can’t regift because everyone will know it was a wedding gift). It’s also a whole new area, away from everyone we know. It starts to feel insurmountable sometimes, and you are afraid one decision (nomatter how little) could topple everything.

  13. This just happened to my husband and I! We loved living in our little rental – a converted garage with a nice big private yard and plum trees. Then our landlord told us the house was being foreclosed. While there was a possibility we could stay as renters, there was no guarantee. After enduring weeks of prospective buyers traipsing through our already cramped 300 sq ft home, we decided to get the ef out. I remember agonizing over every little thing, and feeling so drained from making so many decisions about things that were TOTALLY NOT IMPORTANT. Thankfully, my husband does not have this problem, and didn’t think twice about chucking the broken/moldy/useless crap into the garbage. He was able to keep the end in sight and push forward, while I was a useless, overwhelmed pile of sadness and defeat.

    Thank you for your perspective. If it’s a choice between reducing my waste or keeping my sanity, I choose sanity!

    • It definitely helps to have a partner to balance things out. My partner and I traded off roles. Sometimes he’d be strong and I’d be the one having a hard time and sometimes he’d have a hard night and I would be the steady one. Moral: it’s always good to have someone around to chuck your shit out!

  14. Man, I ABSOLUTELY know how this feels. I had to move out of my apartment into my father’s home with my husband just weeks after our wedding, with no money and no jobs. We were depressed, stressed, and doing the ‘right thing’ became increasingly more difficult as time went on. My husband is the child of a hoarder, and so it was a little harder for him to see things get chucked out, but at the end I was manic.

    The other day I was at Ikea, looking at coffee tables, and I thought to myself, “Hey, what happened to my old crappy coffee table? Did I put that in storage?” I then remembered I’d thrown it in the dumpster (sacrilege!) with a lamp and some other crap on the last day of moving. I still can’t believe I threw away a working lamp. 😛 But it had to be done, for my own sanity.

    To be honest, though, living in a college town and watching people actually pulling our furniture out from the dumpster and drag it back to their homes made me feel a bit better. 😛

    You are the priority. And that 95% of the time that you deal with things in a rational and responsible manner – that well makes up for the 5% lapses.

    • TOTALLY. You are always the priority. If you’re not around to make good decisions later, that one good decision now is totally not worth it. Throwing away that working lamp probably set you up to make some AWESOME decisions later that week or month. And now some college student has the opportunity to throw it out when THEY move. The circle of life!

  15. “I needed to realize that it was OK to throw out that picture frame (totally crappy anyway), if it meant I could make better, self-affirming decisions later on.”

    I love this idea! What a great and unusual outlook : you have to conserve your decision making powers!

    Oh OBE how I love thee. I never know what I’m going to learn from you next.

  16. This made me feel so much better. I just moved yesterday and the whole experience has been terribly draining. I refused to get up today before 11 just because I didn’t want to deal with unpacking. My husband’s idea of packing is throw everything in a bag and sort it out later. So it’s been my job to go through organize and throw away things today, all alone. Depressed!!

  17. I needed this. As an environmentalist myself I have an extremely difficult time going through old things and deciding what to do with it. It doesn’t take me long to burn out and stare at things I need to get rid of but I put them down and walk away feeling both guilty that I haven’t cleaned and guilty that the item isn’t recyclable. It’s ridiculous and when I later think back on it I feel worse because I knew it had to go but I didn’t do anything.

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