I stopped by to visit with my friend Amy Jo the other day. While reading this blog, she had noticed I made an off-hand comment about wanting to sell my old laptop. “I’ll buy it,” she said.
“Great,” I said. “And while I’m at it, I’ll bring Ossley some books. I’m purging again.”
Long-time readers know that I’ve been on a decade-long quest to combat clutter. Back when I was a spendthrift, I bought a lot of Stuff. When Kris and I were together, our house and garage and workshop were packed to the gills with Stuff. Even while we were married, I started the process of purging. The more I travel — and while doing so, survive with only a backpack of possessions — the more I realize that, despite having purged a lot of my things, I still own far too much.
Now that Kim and I are prepping to do a lot of RV travel, I’m even more motivated to get rid of the things I no longer want or need. When I stopped at Amy Jo’s place to give her the books and computer, we chatted about the whole de-cluttering process.
“We’ve been getting rid of things too,” she said. “We keep downsizing our home, so we have less and less space for stuff. Plus, we don’t like the mental burden of owning so many things.”
She showed me a book that she’d borrowed from the library: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. “Have you seen this?” she asked. “It’s all the rage on the internet right now.”
I leafed through it while Amy Jo explained the author’s thesis. “Kondo says that you should only own things that ‘spark joy’ in your life. If you don’t love it, you should get rid of it. And you should get rid of your stuff all at once, not in stages. Anyway, I think you might like the book.”
That night, on my drive home, I stopped to buy a copy at Powell’s. Amy Jo was right. I like the book.
The KonMari Method
Marie Kondo is obsessed. She’s a clean freak. Ever since she was a little girl, her passion has been cleaning and organizing. She loves to de-clutter. And because she’s Japanese, her obsession is tinged with elegance and beauty. Here’s a taste:
An avid fan of home and lifestyle magazines since kindergarten, I would read a feature on how to put things away and have to try out each suggestion immediately. I made drawers out of tissue boxes and broke my piggybank to purchase nifty storage items. In junior high on my way home from school, I would drop in at a DIY store or browse at a magazine stand to check out the latest products.
As I say, she’s obsessed. In fact, some of her anecdotes are almost alarming.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a fun book, but its core concepts could easily be conveyed in a magazine article — or a blog post (like this one). Just as I believe money management is a psychological issue rather than a logical one, so Kondo feels about cleaning. It’s not enough for a space to be tidy. “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved,” she writes. But the problem still exists so long as you have too much Stuff. Kondo claims the real key is to discard as much as possible.
Here’s a rough outline of her method (which she’s named after herself, the KonMari Method):
- Tidy up in one shot rather than little by little. Gradual tidying doesn’t solve anything. When you clean in one fell swoop, it’s like hitting the reset switch on life.
- Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely. “Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding,” she admonishes. If you start putting things away before you’ve finished purging, you run the risk of getting distracted. Plus, it’s only after you’ve pared down your possessions that you can decide how to best store them in your space.
- Keep only those things that “spark joy”. I think this is the key to Kondo’s philosophy. She says that we ought only own things that make us happy. Most advice on de-cluttering focuses on whether items are used or useful. But Kondo argues that this sort of thinking leads us to choose what to get rid of rather than what to keep, and that’s backward. She wants readers to handle every item and ask, “Does this spark joy?” She writes: “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” Sounds lame, right? In reality, the advice is surprisingly effective.
- Sort by category, not by location. “Tidying by location is a fatal mistake,” writes Kondo. Instead of cleaning one drawer or one room at a time, instead tackle one type of item at a time. She even recommends a specific order. “The best sequence is this: clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos…Sticking to this sequence sharpens our intuitive sense of what items spark joy inside us.”
- Don’t let your family see. Tidy on your own. Don’t consult with your partner, your parents, or your children. Doing so will only cloud things. Work on your own.
- Once you’ve finished discarding things — and by this, she means selling them, donating them, giving them away, or putting them in the trash — only then is it okay to store them. Even then, Kondo aims for joy. She wants readers to “store your things to make your life shine”. Follow the old adage, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That may mean changing some of your habits. (See below for an example of how I changed the way I’ve stored my shirts for the past 45 years.) In particular, Kondo recommends storing things standing up rather than flat.
- Forget about “flow planning” and “frequency of use”. Kondo says that most organizational systems are based around how often things are used or how convenient it is to retrieve them. This is a mistake. If you need something, you’ll find it and pull it out. It’s much more important to make things easy to put away. She writes: “Clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong. Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort to get them out.”
- Eliminate visual clutter. I’ve always admired the Japanese aesthetic, and a large part of that is how clean everything is. No surprise then that Kondo applies this ideal to de-cluttering. Her advice: “By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space much more peaceful and comfortable.” Only display belongings you appreciate. Don’t clutter your shelves and floorspace with knick knacks and notes and piles and so on. Keep things clean.
Perhaps that all seems overwhelming. It’s not — or it shouldn’t be. It all boils down to this: Start by discarding. Keep only those things that “spark joy”. Work first with clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous, and lastly, mementos. After purging, organize your space for maximum efficiency (and minimal visual clutter). Do this all at once rather than incrementally.
You’ve finished the process when everything is in its place.
Putting Theory into Practice
So, how effective is the KonMari method? From my experience, it’s awesome. Seriously.
Two weeks ago, I spent my Saturday morning applying Kondo’s ideas to my clothes closet. It took me three hours, but after I was finished I’d eliminated a couple of bags of clothes and drastically reduced the space I needed to store the stuff I kept. I was particularly pleased with how much I could fit into my dresser drawers after watching some YouTube videos about the best way to fold shirts, socks, and — gasp! — underwear. (I’ve always mocked people who fold their underwear. I take it all back. I’m one of those folks now.)
Look at this beautiful image:
Forty-eight t-shirts, all in a row. (But who needs 48 t-shirts?)
I used to store my t-shirts in two messy, mounded drawers (one for cotton, one for wool). Now all of my t-shirts fit into a single drawer — and it’s easy to tell what’s what. (Yes, I know I have too many t-shirts. I suspect I’ll re-apply the KonMari method in a few months, focusing more intently only the shirts that “spark joy”.) Similarly, my sock and underwear drawers used to be disasters. Now it’s quick and easy to find what I want:
By folding the socks and stacking them on end, I’m able to get my ties and belts in the same drawer.
It does take a bit more time to fold things properly, but I’m okay with that. Actually, I think it’s kind of fun to fold my clothes into tiny, tidy packages.
After sorting my clothes on Saturday, I spent four hours discarding and organizing books on Sunday. Then I moved on to records and DVDs and compact discs. When I’d finished, I’d packed my Mini Cooper with stuff to sell and donate. In the process, I freed up several bookshelves (enough to get rid of an entire bookcase!) and three entire cupboards in our living room. Wow.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up isn’t for everyone. If you’re naturally clean and tidy, there’s nothing new here. If Kondo’s “keep things that spark joy” message causes you to roll your eyes, you won’t have patience for this book. But I think that most folks could profit from putting the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing into practice.