How to Stay Sane During a Move

Tips from a military psychologist who is gearing up for her ninth relocation.

Posted Oct 11, 2020

U.S. Transportation Command video still, taken by Oz Suguitan
The stress of moves can be mitigated by planning ahead
Source: U.S. Transportation Command video still, taken by Oz Suguitan

I’ve been in the military for 21 years and am getting ready for my ninth move. It seems like a good time to talk about the stress and anxiety associated with moving, not, of course, because I might be having any. 

If the military has made me nothing else, I have become a moving pro, but I hate the logistics of it and dread every move. Meeting new people, getting a new job, and going to new places is amazing, but executing the transfer of all of your stuff and re-establishing everything on the other end puts a damper on the excitement.

One important lesson I've learned is that much of the stress and anxiety can be managed through planning and preparation. In other words, take control over what you can early; the stress will be diminished significantly and your future self will be set up to successfully manage the move with minimal hassle.

Before the Move

The first cardinal rule of moving is: The less stuff you have, the easier and cheaper it is to move. In general, decluttering has psychological health benefits and the act of downsizing can be liberating.

Start going through drawers, cabinets, and closets six months out from a move. This will prevent an anxiety-laden mad dash to get it all done right before the move and allows for informed decision-making about what to do with individual objects. Take the time to trash things, donate things and sell things. And importantly, don’t acquire new things! Ask yourself, Do I like/need this enough to move it? The answer will usually be no. Thinning out your belongings well before a move is the single most powerful thing you can do to make life easier during the move and it will empower you along the way.

In that same light, do you need a new couch or television? Never buy new furniture prior to a move. Wait until you get to the new place. This will ensure arrival to your house in perfect condition.

Go on an “eat-down” several months before the move: Start using up all of the food you have. (You may be surprised by some of the great culinary combinations that you hadn't previously considered due to the need to use up what you've got.) This prevents waste, as you can’t move perishables, and you don’t really want to spend valuable time moving old boxes of pasta or canned vegetables.

Take photos of your belongings right before the move so that you can prove damage if it occurs. (Be sure to have a date and time stamp on the photos.) Something has been damaged in about one third of my moves. In my last move, all of my lamp shades were crushed, which was annoying though minor, but I’ve also had furniture sustain major damage. Be sure to document the pre-move condition of your belongings so that there will be no claim dispute. (If you kept your original purchase receipts, even better.)

Avoid major problems by not letting a moving company move your valuables and important papers; hand carry those or lock them up somewhere to retrieve later.

Don’t pack any liquids. Yes, it stinks to lose $50-100 in unused cleaning supplies, your favorite olive oil, etc., but you don’t need a spilled bottle of kitchen cleaner ruining a piece of furniture in transit.

Finally, ensure that your new house or apartment is ready on the other end. Is it clean? Is the electricity on? Was the roof destroyed by Hurricane Sally? Has the neighbor decided to store his car parts in your new yard? You get the idea. Make sure things are ready for your arrival.

The Move

The second cardinal rule of moving is: Take care of your movers. Have water, sodas, and snacks ready, provide easy access to a bathroom, keep a comfortable temperature in the house, and tip them well. You are literally entrusting them with all of your worldly possessions!

While taking care of your movers is paramount, it is unfortunately true that not all movers are built alike. Have several friends or family members with you when the movers are packing. The movers’ goal is to get you packed as quickly as possible. History provides stories of indiscriminate packing, including full trash cans, as well as reckless behavior with personal belongings, such as movers throwing boxes down the stairs or sneaking items into the trash that they had broken. I once had a mover show up completely drunk. You need more than one set of eyes during the packing of your belongings (and make sure you have the phone number of the mover’s supervisor if you encounter a bad situation).

Before the movers show up, put anything you don’t want moved either in your vehicle or in a closed-off room with clear signs not to pack.

Be sure to mark boxes so that they can be placed in exactly the rooms they need to be in on the other end to make for easier unpacking.

Do a door-to-door move if you can. This is a move where you are packed up and your things are driven directly to the new location. This prevents your belongings from being unloaded into storage and then reloaded back into the truck, and provides the least amount of opportunities for damage.

The least stressful and most successful move is one in which there is maximum planning and preparation and then lots of attention and involvement on the actual packing day. Nothing can make a move stress free but you can make your life a lot easier by taking control of what you can.