Project planning--GTD-type questions to ask an elderly person for down sizing?

Jamie Elis

I am trying to help a friend plan a challenging project. It is proving hard to help someone think about desired outcomes who is focused on the process to the point of only seeing one option. But it has made me realize how easy it is to get fixated on employing a particular method rather than tailoring the process to the desired outcome. This older gentleman has a 23 year accumulation to clean out from his old two bedroom house. He has already moved into a house that is smaller, just bringing the bare necessities. He has about half the living space but has part of a basement for storage, so the total is about 1/2 the size of the first house. The items are books, furniture, family and professional papers, cloths of his and his late wife, photographs, LPs., sheet music, art work. games, band instruments, uniforms, linens, kitchen, etc, and some in order and others stuffed in closets and in piles. He believes that the contents of the piles, closets, wardrobes and china closets must all be sorted out before the items are moved but the sorting out has already taken about six trips and is not complete. I cant tell how incomplete but he thinks two more trips of 4 to 5 days each. It is a day's effort to get from one house to the other, either by plane or train. At this point I would think that the goal of getting the stuff he really needs and wants into the new place and rid of the rest would be better achieved by having it all shipped to a storage place near where he resides and working on it bit by bit. He does not drive and would need to have someone get him to the storage place and help him. Thus far it has been impossible to have a project planning conversation that is productive. He says he wants me to help but I can't get specifics from him. His idea of the next action is when to book the transportation. I think the next action is project planning. But, what questions can I ask that are useful to this end?
By the way. each trip costs about $400.00 in transportation. I would be grateful for any suggestions/ideas.


This sounds like the perfectionism, inflexibility, and unrealistic thinking typical of a hoarder. I think that what you want is advice on hoarding, hoarders, and perfectionism, not project planning.

Unfortunately, logical arguments like project planning don't work with a hoarder. Talking a hoarder into taking practical steps with their things is rather like talking an alcoholic into taking practical steps with their drinking - or talking a person who has a phobia of dogs into marching up to a barking German Shepherd.

I'm not trying to be rude about your friend, I'm trying to prepare you for the strong possibility that you will be unable to truly help him, no matter how much you want to, because he won't allow you to do anything productive.

Have you seen what he's gotten done in the six trips, and do you agree that two more trips will probably do the job? Or has he, as I would unfortunately expect, really accomplished very little in the six trips, so that two trips will just be a drop in the bucket and he could very well spend the rest of his life at this?

I wish that I could tell you a bunch of websites and books and strategies that work with hoarders. has a fair number of resources about hoarding to get you started, but unfortunately, the main thing to know about hoarders is that they can rarely be helped. I'm not trying to talk you out of trying, I'm just hoping to keep you from feeling that you've done something wrong if it doesn't work out.



Jamie Elis;82526 said:
He believes that the contents of the piles, closets, wardrobes and china closets must all be sorted out before the items are moved but the sorting out has already taken about six trips and is not complete.
I would tend to agree with him. It's a lot easier and better to sort now and only move what is really needed. BTDT and still, 10 years later, trying to clean out the storage sheds we have of stuff that we'd "get to later". I'd have been better off to take the time to do the sorting initially rather than try to wait and do it "a bit at a time"

I'd start by asking him questions about what he wants his life to look like now, what will he do, what tools will he need, what hobbies does he have, what things will occupy his time. Have him describe a perfect day now and one in a couple of years. It can be overwhelming to look at decades of stuff to sort and it's a lot easier to focus on the tiny bits like how to arrange for transport rather than face the real task which is what do I want to do with my life and does this stuff help me do it. I'd suggest trying to get him out of the runway level and up into the higher levels to think about why he wants to get rid of stuff, and what stuff is going to be important and why he wants to keep things first. Write down those things and take some time to really think it out.

If there are large categories of items that are clearly no longer needed help him go through the house and get those out and gone now. That will free up space to see and think about the other stuff that is left.

Also having a neutral 3rd party there to actually help with the individual decisions may help but only if the overall plan is clear. (I don't need to keep the old golf clubs because I only liked to play with my wife and don't enjoy it now kind of thing.) The overall decisions need to be made before you can make a reasonable choice on stuff to keep.

Oh and don't force him to get rid of things just because you think they are worthless. Just guide him into keeping what is really of worth to him. That's why the higher level view is important.