It's that time of year where our thoughts turn to spring cleaning. I generally keep the house quite tidy, but this is very much an acquired skill on my part and not something that comes naturally. Thankfully Hubby is more of a minimalist and I have learned a lot from him over the years about being more selective about the things I choose to keep around the house.
Even so, lurking in the furthest reaches of our attic storage space was what we referred to as "The Heap" - a collection of storage boxes that we had never properly sorted following several house moves in recent years. And, as they say, mess breeds mess ... so whenever we had something lying around the house that we weren't quite sure what to do with, we just added it to The Heap.
A couple of years ago, I decided that enough was enough and that it was time to tackle The Heap for once and for all. I rented a huge skip and, starting in that store room, I began clearing out all the clutter in the house. I continued working downwards through the house until not a single storage space in any room in the house was left untouched.
It was simultaneously one of the most difficult and most rewarding things I have ever done.
The biggest hurdle for me was letting go of unwanted gifts. I am a tremendously sentimental person, and discarding gifts from loved ones felt like I was slighting the person in some way. What got me through it was the realisation that holding onto these things over many, many years had created a completely untenable situation whereby a large portion of our house had essentially become a no-go area. Hubby and I work hard to create a beautiful home, and allowing this pile of unwanted items to accumulate was completely at odds with our goals for our house and the life we wanted to create for ourselves.
Once I had learned to part with sentimental items, throwing away other junk was a cinch! By the time the refuse company came to collect the jumbo skip, it was packed to the brim - and our house (plus the garage) was the tidiest it had ever been.
But the human ability to adapt is a funny thing, and soon this wonderfully clutter-free home became the norm ... and then I started to crave an even greater level of tidiness. It was about this time that I started to hear a lot of people talking about a new book that had just made it to the #1 spot on the New York Times best-seller list: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (affiliate link) by Marie Kondo.
Marie Kondo is a Japanese cleaning consultant who has used her years of experience to create The KonMari Method (an anagram of her name) which, she claims, is a life-changing approach to tidying up. In the book, she describes tidying as a very basic life skill, but not one that is acquired naturally; rather she suggests that it is something that should actually be taught in the same way as other essential life skills, such as cooking. Her emphasis, therefore, is in simplifying the process involved so that everyone can be successful at it.
Kondo's method relies on embracing the task of tidying your home as a once-off special event. We don't need to struggle to make tidying a regular habit because this, she claims, will inevitably cause "rebound". The naturally less-tidy among us will certainly be happy to hear that! Instead she advocates that tidying should be done thoroughly and completely as a one-off endeavour so that one can really appreciate the benefits of it. This in turn becomes a motivating factor that prevents relapse.
The process begins with discarding first. Kondo disagrees with sorting by rules such as "throw away anything you haven't used in a year" because she says that it encourages a rational way of thinking, and rational thought is the root of many pitfalls ... such as fretting about how expensive something was, or wondering if it might be useful sometime in the future. Plus focusing on throwing things away can cause unhappiness. Instead, we should be thinking about what we want to keep. Kondo's method and is simple: we should hold each item in our hands and ask ourselves: Does it spark joy? The goal is to have a home where we are surrounded only by things we love.
We should be choosing what we want to keep rather than what we want to throw away.
One of the tenets of The KonMari Method is that one should tidy by category, rather than by location (room by room). She makes an excellent case for this in the book, and outlines the optimal order in which to tackle one's belongings. Then she delves into each category separately with more in-depth advice about the challenges faced by each.
Because my greatest emotional challenge when decluttering is dealing with unwanted gifts, I found that section in the book particularly helpful. According to Kondo, "The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not “things” but a means for conveying someone’s feelings." I love how this refocuses the mind on the emotions rather than the material thing, and provides a way of holding onto the cherished sentiment while discarding the unwanted stuff.
Kondo also cured me of one of my big stumbling blocks when it comes to clearing out my wardrobe: that is, keeping clothes I don't like with the intention of only wearing them around the house. "Downgrading to “loungewear” is taboo,” she says, because "it doesn’t seem right to keep clothes we don’t enjoy for relaxing around the house. This time at home is still a precious part of living. Its value should not change just because nobody sees us. So, starting today, break the habit of downgrading clothes that don’t thrill you to loungewear. The real waste is not discarding clothes you don’t like but wearing them even though you are striving to create the ideal space for your ideal lifestyle." These words were particularly striking because I work so hard to create a beautiful home for my husband and I, but yet I had never really considered that the clothes I wear in the house should be commensurate with that lifestyle.
Start by discarding. Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.
When we first moved into our new house, my goal was to include as much storage as possible in each room because I thought it would make it easier to keep the house tidy. However my recent decluttering marathon has led me to eliminate as much storage as I possibly can. You should see the surprised look on people's faces when I tell them this! But I have realised that more storage leads to more clutter. So I donated several storage cabinets to charity shops, leaving me with less places around the house that I can mindlessly fill with stuff. This is a point that Kondo also addresses in her book, as she claims that putting things away only creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.
One point on which I disagree somewhat with Kondo is her insistence that clothing should be folded rather than hung. She does have her own unique method of folding garments that maximises storage space, and I appreciate that this is an important consideration for many people. But unlike urban areas of Japan, space is plentiful here in rural Ireland. For me, a greater priority is a consideration also addressed by Kondo: that in order to reduce clutter, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out. And putting something on a clothes hanger is much easier for me than folding something into a drawer. However, this is not a criticism of the book per se as I acknowledge that this is simply a preference based on my own personal circumstances.
On the other hand, I did find Kondo's emotional attachment to her belongings, particularly clothing, to be a little disconcerting. Her distress at one client's mistreatment of her socks is one case in point, but it's possible that her sensitivity towards inanimate objects may be a reflection of her Shinto beliefs (something that she briefly refers to at the end of the book). In any case, if we are surrounded by objects that we have personally selected because they bring us joy, then it makes sense that we should treat those objects with due care.
The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.
The final chapter in the book addresses the life-changing aspect of The KonMari Method. Again, there are some spiritual undertones to this, but she also makes some strong claims on a purely practical level. As she points out, "our possessions very accurately relate the history of the decisions we have made in life. Tidying is a way of taking stock that shows us what we really like.”
She also discusses how the process of decluttering develops one's capacity for decision-making and may even force us to confront emotional issues. Plus living in a tidy home is less stressful and less distracting, freeing us to focus on the next important issue in our lives.
Kondon's approach is simple, yet elegant: "In essence, tidying ought to be the act of restoring balance among people, their possessions, and the house they live in."
Overall, this is a very enjoyable little book, written in a conversational tone that makes it a very easy read. The early chapters delve more than I think necessary into Kondo's childhood interest in tidiness, but it is also jam-packed with genuinely helpful tips for dealing with clutter, as well as practical suggestions for effective storage and organisation. Although it is somewhat over-emotional at times, I must also acknowledge that untidiness does indeed tend to go hand-in-hand with emotional difficulty; from hoarding in the most extreme cases, to the more commonplace scenario where busy lives and everyday stresses leave us with little time or inclination to sort through clutter. Indeed, the strength of this book (and I suspect its worldwide success) is in enabling us to accept and deal with our emotional attachment to the objects in our home.