Most of us blame a lack of time for not pursuing what’s actually important us. Our lives are full of obligations, commitments … and stuff. So much stuff. If there’s a “first world problem,” it isn’t that we don’t have time, it’s that our stuff takes up too much of it.
One of the first movies I saw as a child was “Labyrinth.” In one scene, the heroine, Sarah, encounters a junk witch. The witch shows Sarah all the toys and knick-knacks that are special to her, and piles them up on Sarah’s back, gradually transforming Sarah into a junk witch too. To free herself from the spell, Sarah has to let go of all the things that weigh her down. After all, they are just things.
That scene has always stuck with me. In college, I didn’t envy the guys with fancy cars and big stereos; I envied the guys who were perfectly happy to live in an almost-empty room with a couple of books on the shelf, and three or four shirts hanging in the closet. At one point, I lived in a tiny efficiency apartment: a place so small, I had to leave all my stuff at my parents’ house. It was, by far, the favorite of all the places I’ve ever lived. It was still messy sometimes, but it was so much emptier than every other place I’ve ever lived that I actually had space to breath. Space to live.
Ever since then, I’ve been a fan of what is now trendily called “voluntary simplicity.” The only problem is that I was never very good at it.
In 2015, almost two decades after coveting my neighbor’s sparse closet, I discovered Marie Kondo’s book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I expected it to be another version of the decluttering tips I’d seen countless times before. To my surprise, it was radically different. I bought the book, started reading it, and couldn’t put it down. As a lifelong slob, it was exactly what I needed.
1) Tidying should not be an ongoing chore. It should be a once-in-a-lifetime special event in which you go through everything you own, and discard everything that does not “spark joy” when you touch it.
2) Rather than working through your belongings by location, you work by category. First, clothes, then books, then papers, then miscellaneous items, and finally mementos. The idea is that each category of item is more difficult to sort through than the last, so, like “progressive resistance” in exercise, you work your way up to the bigger challenges.
3) Gather all the items from each category into one place — like the floor — and then pick up and make a decision about each one. If you find something from an earlier category that you forgot about, it automatically goes in the discard pile, because it wasn’t that important to you.
4) We hold onto a lot of things because of either an attachment to the past or fear for the future. Here, Marie Kondo is ruthless: “someday means never,” she writes. The time to read a book, for example, is when it first enters your life. If you bought something and never used it, get rid of it.
5) Everything in our lives has a purpose, and that once it has accomplished its purpose, we should let it go. So, for example, the purpose of a birthday card is to let you know that whoever sent it to you wanted you to know that they were thinking of you. The card fulfilled that purpose, and now you can get rid of it. Old report cards, school binders, art projects and various other things that pile up for the sake of nostalgia cost you more energy than they give you, and you should get rid of them.
6) Things don’t have feelings, but we have feelings about things. So, when we discard something, we should — out loud — thank it for its service. A lot of people scoff at this, but I think of it as working something like prayer: if you thank God for something, it’s not because God needs the gratitude, but because you benefit spiritually from expressing it. Saying, “Thanks for the good times,” or “Sorry I never got around to reading you,” as you put a book into a pile to give away may or may not have some quantum effect on the item itself, but it certainly gives you that tiny bit of closure that helps you let go. For things that are more difficult to release, that can be important; by following the same ritual for every item — starting with ones that are easy to discard — you develop the skill of letting things go.
7) Don’t try to clean up your family’s stuff; they’ll just resent it. Instead, lead by example. Once they see how much happier you are, they’ll likely want to do the same thing. If not, the fact that your own stuff won’t be weighing on you like the Labyrinth junk witch will make you much more tolerant of other people’s messes. According to Marie Kondo, when you get upset about other people being sloppy, it’s largely because you’re upset about your own clutter.
8) Identify things that are truly necessary. Unfortunately, we all have things that we need — like tools, important documents, or office supplies — that don’t “spark joy,” but that we can’t get rid of. For these items, Marie Kondo recommends …
9) Designate a place for every item you own, and keep storage methods as simple as possible. Marie uses and recommends shoeboxes and shoebox lids for almost everything. Whenever possible, store items standing up or on edge: folded shirts, pencils, even carrots can stand in the fridge drink holders. This sentiment is certainly not exclusively Japanese; for centuries, the English have been exhorting themselves to have “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
10) Store all items of the same type (books, clothes, etc.) in the same place, and give each family member their own space, to be exclusively theirs. It can be as big as a room or as small as a box, but it must be one spot each person call their own. Clutter is caused by not putting things back, therefore, “Storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out.”
11) Treat your belongings with care and respect. Beyond the obvious reason — cared-for items last longer and work better — Marie feels that the energy we project towards our belongings actually affects them in a tangible way. Is this true? Maybe someday quantum physicists will be able to tell us. Until then, it’s a matter of opinion.
“The things we own are real,” Marie Kondo writes, “They exist here and now as a result of choices made in the past by no one other than ourselves. It is dangerous to ignore them or to discard them indiscriminately as if denying the choices we made … If we acknowledge our attachment to the past and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us. This process in turn helps us identify our values and reduces doubt and confusion in making life decisions.” Putting your house in order, once and for all, according to Marie, frees you from the burden of dealing with mountains of stuff, allowing you to “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”
Taking The Plunge
Could getting rid of stuff open up my mind enough to be a better husband, father and professional? After finishing the book, I couldn’t wait to get started. I’ve never had any interest in fashion, and have been working on simplifying my wardrobe for a while, so I figured the clothing step would be easy.
As soon as I started working through the pile, I was surprised by how easy it was to determine whether something sparked joy or not. Shirts I wear all the time went in the donation bag, while others I had forgotten about made me smile and reminded me how much I loved them. A letter jacket from high school that I had stubbornly held onto far more than I’d ever worn finally told me that it was time to go. I was never really that person anyway, I realized. I had wanted to be the cool guy with the cool jacket, but I never was, and I never will be. The white linen suit, on the other hand, stays. I don’t wear it often, but I’d like to wear it more.
A few other surprises: even though I usually dress casually, I got rid of all my jeans and rain jackets, and kept all my suits. Perhaps this is because the suits are more expensive, but it’s also because I just like them more. Maybe I’m actually somebody who would like to dress nicely more often. I did get rid of all my ties though. I hate ties.
Throughout the process, I felt a tightness in my chest. It was almost difficult to breathe. Even though I’m not nearly as attached to clothes as I am to other possessions, it was hard to let this stuff go! The hardest was the handmade sweaters that my mother made for me, years ago. They’re beautiful, but I never wear them. Never. Neither do my kids. This was a real test. I thanked them for keeping me warm when I was little, and freed them so that they can keep other children warm.
After finishing this first phase, the tightness in my chest wasn’t as bad, and I felt something a bit like a runner’s high. But only a little. The worst was yet to come.
These were my books. In my family, books are precious, almost sacred, objects. My dad has a personal library of close to 10,000 volumes. I grew up surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with everything from dimestore detective novels to obscure legal treatises in obscure languages. Books were, in many ways, the family my father never had. Growing up in that environment, I developed a very unhealthy attitude towards books: on the one hand, I love them because they are beautiful repositories of wisdom; on the other hand, I hate them because my childhood was so choked with books that it often felt there was no room for me. I almost never bought books, because my dad gave me so many that I never really wanted to purchase any of my own. And, of course, the fact that they were gifts adds a layer of guilt and sentiment that makes them even more difficult to get rid of.
But, I started this process, and I’m not a quitter. I popped open a Smirnoff Ice Screwdriver, and started stacking them up. As per Marie Kondo’s instructions, you can’t leave anything on the shelf. It all has to come down and get piled up in one place so that you can go through one at a time without stopping or getting distracted. As soon as I started, I felt exhausted and miserable. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get rid of more than a handful of these things. But, as I climbed, sweating heavily, over the piles of junk in my garage to pull down book boxes that I hadn’t opened since I moved into my house, a thought occurred to me. Books want to be read. Donating these books wouldn’t be rejecting them, it would be freeing them to find a home where somebody would read them. I started to feel a bit better, and was able to complete the task.
After packing up 10 boxes to sell/donate, I’d barely made a dent. Also, I noticed something interesting: I didn’t want to thank the books I was getting rid of. Instead, I was angry at them! I felt resentful that they had made me feel obligated to hold onto them for so long, silently reproaching me for never reading them. I did struggle with a few things, of course. For example, I’d been holding onto my comics collection, with the idea that my kids might enjoy it some day. But I realized, am I doing that for them, or for me? They’ll want to read something else, not my “Plastic Man” and “Uncle Scrooge” comics from the ’80s. Next stop: eBay.
Although, for the first time ever, I actually have space on my bookshelf, I probably kept more than I should have. Marie Kondo keeps her collection at about thirty “Hall of Fame” books that she re-reads constantly. After packing up 18 boxes for the Girl Scouts yard sale, my personal collection was still fairly robust. Partially, this is because I like to have reference books on topics like gardening, construction, and woodworking. I may never read these books from cover to cover, but do I want to be able to look specific information up without having to rely on the internet. Also, I found myself rebelling against Marie Kondo’s assertion that the time to read a book is when it first enters our life. I started to feel that by getting rid of the books I really had no intention of reading, I might free myself to get around to the books that I actually do want to read. It will be interesting to see if I follow through on that.
The next category of items to process is Papers. A few years ago, I discovered David Allen’s GTD system, and went through all my papers at that time, purging fairly comprehensively, and neatly filing what was left. So, I figured this would be relatively easy. Wrong again. Even though a GTD precept is to continually re-evaluate your commitment to everything in your life, I haven’t been very good about doing that. In fact, my filing system basically allowed me to hoard all my papers, rather than making decisions about what to keep. According to Marie Kondo, every piece of paper that isn’t a legal essential (contracts, tax records, etc.) or something that sparks joy (love letters, etc.) should be discarded.
Going through this collection of binders, files and envelopes (some of which date back to elementary school) stirred up so many memories of people and experiences, it almost felt like I was stuffing my entire past into a Hefty bag. Marie Kondo advises her readers to remember that they should focus on the life they have now, rather than clinging to the past, but that’s easier said than done. Thinning out my clothes was no problem; getting rid of books was a bit of a challenge; throwing out papers definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone. Does nostalgia help us to make more of the present, or does it merely hold us back? Once again, I probably kept more than I should have, but I still dumped a mountain of stuff. It was easier than I thought to put the stacks of childhood drawings and high school and college notes into the bag, but carrying it out to the trash can gave me a painful emotional response that reminded me of attending a funeral. Once I throw these things out, they are gone forever. Nobody will ever see the pictures I drew as a kid, or read the notes left on my dorm-room door. And why should they? What does all this stuff do for me, or for anyone else? How much psychic energy does it take, and how much does it give?
As I pondered these questions, I realized that I had forgotten to thank the items, as Marie Kondo had advised. Probably looking like a crazy person, I went out to the trash can, opened it up, and stuck my hand through a hole in the trash bag. “Thank you for keeping a record of my life,” I said. “I have to move on now, and it’s time for you to go back to the Earth. Thank you, and goodbye.” Bizarre as it sounds, I actually did feel better after doing this. I suppose, in the same way a funeral service allows us to say goodbye to someone who can no longer respond, saying goodbye to our physical possessions allows us to close the wound their absence has left. Unlike losing a friend or loved one, however, discarding non-joy-sparking possessions allows for new, more vital growth.
At this point, I started to understand one point in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” that hadn’t made sense to me when I read it: the idea that this once-in-a-lifetime event should be done in less than six months. Six months? It seemed to me that it should be done in a couple of weeks at most. But, now I see that it would be very difficult to do a complete job in just one pass.
When I was finished processing my papers, what used to take up half-a-dozen boxes and an entire file cabinet can now fit into two boxes and a single file drawer.
The next category of items is called “Komono” in Japanese. The closest English translation seems to be “miscellaneous” or “stuff,” because this covers everything from kitchen items to yard tools to CDs and DVDs.
Because, like most Americans, I have an overwhelming collection of stuff, I had to break this up into categories. I started with office supplies, including everything in, on, and around my desk (aside from my actual computer, which is kind of non-negotiable at this stage in my career).
Part of the KonMarie process is pulling all your junk together, so that you have to face exactly how much you have. Even though I had moved the previous year, and intentionally whittled away a lot of stuff at that time, this was a pretty horrifying pile.
I quickly realized that the “does it spark joy” criterion really doesn’t apply to this type of thing. Moreover, although I do use most of this stuff, I only use it infrequently. Highlighters, colored Sharpie markers, art supplies … When I need them, I need them, so it doesn’t make sense to throw them away, but I really don’t need them at my fingertips, cluttering up my desk. Marie Kondo recommends shoe boxes for storage of items like this, but I don’t have any empty shoe boxes.
I took a look in the garage and realized that what I did have was an empty toolbox. Perfect! Aside from the expendable things like envelopes and file folders, this stuff is all more or less tools anyway. I only need one pen and one pencil at a time; I just need the others as backups when the current ones get used up or lost.
One of David Allen’s GTD guidelines is to pick up each item only once. Pick it up, decide what to do with it, and act accordingly. I kept that in mind as I laboriously worked my way through the pile. I sorted the various types of pens and art supplies into Ziploc bags, and packed them in the toolbox for easy retrieval. I discovered that, once my desk drawers were empty, I had room for the folders and notebooks that normally clutter the surface of my desk. I also found myself rediscovering things like fountain pens and calligraphy pens that I had puttered around with a few years ago, and then largely forgotten about.
Like going through my books, and discovering that what was left was what I was really interested in, cleaning out my desk reminded me how much I really enjoy various kinds of art. I’ve never been particularly good at drawing, painting or calligraphy, but I enjoy it, and creating space in my desk made me feel as though I might have space in my life to actually do those things.
The overwhelming benefit of the KonMarie system seems, to me, to be addition by subtraction. By getting rid of the things that clutter my life, I found that I had much more space and time than I had thought. While sorting out my desk supplies, I took a break to sit on the floor and pet my dog for a few minutes. I don’t remember the last time I did that. I’m not sure I’ve EVER done it before. All the garbage — or, at best, unnecessary flotsam and jetsam — that filled up my personal space exerted far more pressure on me than I realized. Without the feeling of tons of crap weighing down on me, I actually feel free, for the first time since I had that tiny, empty college apartment, to spend time on things that matter to me.
Four Years Later
In the four years since I took the plunge, I’ve continued to adjust my belongings to my needs (as opposed to vice versa). For the sake of frequency-of-laundry convenience, I now have more t-shirts, underwear and socks than I did when I first pared down my wardrobe. However, I have steadfastly avoided purchasing books I don’t anticipate reading more than once, or items that I don’t have a place to put. Importantly, I don’t miss any of the things I got rid of.
The most lasting change I’ve noticed in myself is my attitude towards possessions. Instead of perceiving them as objects of desire, I perceive them as commitments. Buying something doesn’t just mean having it, it means taking care of it and finding a place for it. Is it worth it? Most things aren’t.
As a society, we are like the Labyrinth Junk Witch. Clinging to things that crush us; accumulating things that overwhelm us. Countering that kind of cultural inertia takes more than positive thoughts, it takes a practical, accessible system. Based on my experience, I believe that Marie Kondo has given us exactly what we need to free ourselves.