—————-This is the first of a series of posts published every two weeks that will loosely follow Marie Kondo’s decluttering and organization techniques. Every post will offer an actionable goal to complete. Thanks for journeying with me!———————
This one is longer than normal—sorry. If you want to jump to the actionable goal, scroll down to the first assignment and then check out the “parting words” section at the end. But I encourage reading through because I think the commentary will make sense of things.
Why do this now? In my job as a realtor I get to witness the same thing over and over again: one of the most stressful things about selling a house is getting the stuff out and getting the house presentation-ready. Some clients have literally over 40 years of stuff to dig through and cultivate. It’s enough to give anyone a heart attack. What usually happens is that when a client finally gets to that point of getting their house presentable, they say, “why didn’t we do this before? I feel so much better in this house now!” I’m not at all saying that people should get their houses tidy and organized just because some day they might sell the house—that doesn’t make much sense. Rather, I’ve noticed that people who have tidy, uncluttered houses breathe easier. They can actually relax in their own homes. They feel like they have guilt-free time, finally, to play games together (or whatever). They snap at family members less.
Selling real estate has got me thinking about stuff a LOT. Why do we hold on to it? What is it for? Do we really need what we have? Another thing I’ve seen especially among clients who are making a last move is that they have a lot of stuff they’ve kept for a long time, and they just can’t seem to let go. They’re significantly downsizing, so they absolutely CANNOT take it, so then they want their kids to take it so that at least someone they love will have it. But the kids don’t want the china/furniture/books/pictures—they just don’t have the same importance for them. Years of sentimental accumulation ends up going to either a thrift shop or the landfill. My point is this: the old adage, “you can’t take it with you” is right. That doesn’t mean that you need to be utterly ruthless with culling your stuff, just a little more thoughtful. That’s what this blog series is about: journeying together towards feeling more at home in your home. Who doesn’t want that?!
The Plan Rome wasn’t built in a day. I’ve been a messy person my entire life, and I have three other messy people who share my house. I’m not expecting to be Mary Poppins overnight, but I am aiming for achievable progress that will translate at some point into a more consistent breathable existence in my own home. Every two weeks on Monday I’ll publish an actionable goal. The aim is to make the goal super-doable for busy people (like myself). I think part of the problem that people like myself struggle with is that when you look around and see a lot of work, you just want to fling your hands up and say, “forget it!” Or you do 10 minutes of work and hardly make a dent. You get distracted by some other mess and before you know it, the day is gone. The aim is to move beyond this destructive cycle, and we’re going to have to go to the root of the problem: the sheer quantity of stuff that we have. So we’re going to start with purging for a few weeks. I’ll give you the first exercise after a note about Kondo.
If you’ve not yet read Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it’s worth a gander. It’s short and sweet and you can probably gut the book in an hour if desired. Kondo is Japanese, and I’ve found her perspective so inspiring. My own take is that Americans have a very unhealthy relationship to stuff, partly by accident. We could surmise that Americans come by our stuff honestly: we’re a country of generally ambitious, creative people who like to show off our successes. This often translates into buying things for ourselves (because, we’re told by diamond companies et al. “you’re worth it”) or for others. Every society buys things (I think!), but we definitely have a different attitude towards stuff than people in Switzerland, for example, who are some of the richest in the world but think it’s rude to be flashy. In America, we feel obligated to give little bags of stuff at birthday parties and to give a staggering abundance during the holidays. Buying for ourselves and others is often what “care” looks like in America. I challenge you to think about all the unspoken rules that you might have when it comes to buying, either for yourself or for others.
The other problem that we have in America that has led to this unhealthy place with stuff is the simple fact that stuff is very inexpensive AND variegated. We are inundated with SO MUCH VARIETY and options, that it’s no wonder that we’re drowning in stuff. On one hand, it’s a good problem: I don’t know, maybe you really need and use that avocado peeler every day that didn’t exist 10 years ago. On the other hand, now you have an avocado peeler to store, along with your ladles, slotted spoons, whisks, and gobs of other kitchen utensils. Don’t get me wrong: I love variety and novelty. But I think it short-circuits our brains. We see the Nightmare Before Christmas mug and think, “I love that movie! I must have this!” And then before long, we have to rent a storage unit just to accommodate all of our interesting things.
Cost: stuff is cheap. Too cheap. I’ll just say it: it’s an environmental disaster that we can go to Target and buy a crate of cute and nice $1 items that we don’t need. I love those things too. But it’s a serious problem that we can buy clothes and many other products so cheaply. The bottom line is that we need much more ego strength/will power to NOT buy things than ever before in history, and we just don’t have it. We’re too worn out, and plus, buying gives us a pleasant little jolt. Until we get home and have to find out where to store the stuff.
Marie Kondo approaches stuff differently. For one thing, she encourages talking to your stuff and blessing your house before decluttering. What difference does it make to treat your house and stuff as if they’re living things? The answer: all the difference in the world. Read on.
First Assignment: Tackling the Clothes
We are starting with drastically culling our clothes, partly because we all have too many and partly because hey, we might even reduce the amount of laundry we have to do. We’re going to do it the Marie Kondo way, which means treating our clothes like they’re alive.
Kondo says to start the culling process by kneeling on the ground, eyes closed, hands folded in lap. Silently greet your house and bless it. Ask it if it will cooperate with you. It sounds weird to American ears, but by doing this, I think we will begin to appreciate everything our houses have already provided and to be mindful of their untapped potential. When we’re at the point of feeling frustrated and fatigued by our stuff, we’re mad at everything, including the house, but especially ourselves. This blessing is an important first step to seeing the house for what it is: an ally. When you have an ally, you feel less under attack, and maybe then you can begin to get to the root of the problem which likely lies within. You might feel weird about it, but just try it. See how you feel and see what happens.
Next, take ALL of your clothing and heap it in a pile, on your bed if you like. I know—you DON’T want to do it. You think it’s unnecessary. Making a pile is a classic Kondo move, and the point is all about being aware (and SHOCKED!) by the staggering quantity of stuff that we have. There’s no way around the pile. You must do it. When you’re shocked, only then are you primed to be able to feel the joy that will help you decide what you need and want and what you must give away.
Next, hold each thing and see if it “sparks joy” or not. Does it make you feel good? Keep it. Does it make you feel bad? Kondo says to thank that item and let go. That’s all there is to it. Now, you may need to keep some things that don’t necessarily feel good because you have a legitimate use for them. Maybe you need snow pants a few times a year, but you don’t necessarily “feel good” about them. Keep those items, but I’m willing to bet that there are fewer of these than you’re holding on to.
Once you’ve got your give away pile, I suggest immediately bagging it up and putting it in the car for a thrift shop drop off. Don’t let it linger. Out with the bad air. Fold the other things and put them away (google Marie Kondo folding, as she has specific suggestions that you may find helpful). You’re done!
But it’s not always that easy. Decluttering is hard to do because it requires that we directly confront ourselves, our desires, and our many mistakes. In fact, I think this is precisely why we’re all drowning in stuff: we don’t want to confront ourselves. It’s easier not to. As you work through this process, you’ll find that you want to hold on to things that don’t spark joy. Why is that?
We often hold on to things out of guilt and obligation and out of sentimentality.
1) Guilt and obligation: these items were either gifted to us by someone else, or we bought them ourselves. Maybe our parent or grandparent bequeathed us something that meant a lot to them, but means nothing to you. I’ve received a lot of things like that over the years: china, porcelain figures, jewelry boxes. If you want to hold on to something (maybe ONE thing) because it evokes a fond memory of grandma then do it. That counts as “joy,” I think. But I found that I was keeping the porcelain figures just because I felt bad about passing them on, and these are precisely the things that we need to let go of. I’ve received books and clothing and all sorts of things as presents from various people over the years that I never liked but held on to because I just felt bad about getting rid of them. Well, what good is it to surround yourself with things you don’t like? It’s even more damaging if you surround yourself with things that evoke feelings of obligation and guilt. Let it go. Recognize the loving intention behind the gift, say thank you to the thing, and then get it out. Grandma will be ok, and you’ll be amazed at how refreshing it is to not have that stuff that perpetually produces guilt trips on you in your house.
You probably have stuff in your house that you don’t even know why you’ve kept it. I recently got rid of a bridesmaid’s dress that I’ve had for about two decades. I’m not sure why I kept it, as I never really liked it the first and only time I wore it. I think I just had it in my head that it wasn’t the sort of thing to give away. Out with it!
Maybe you’re the one putting the guilt trip on yourself. Maybe you just bought something you shouldn’t have and now you feel like you have to keep the thing. The shirt doesn’t really fit right but you liked the color and you got it on sale! Return it if you can. Maybe it was a splurge a few years ago and you really liked it at the time, but it no longer fits. I’ll say more about this in a minute, but again—consider what you’re doing to yourself. You’re surrounding yourself with things that make you feel guilty and bad. This does not create breathing space for you in your house. Thank the thing and let it go!
2) Sentimentality: We all have things that we keep for purely sentimental reasons. Maybe you have a pile of baby clothes that you don’t want to give away. Or you’ve got clothes that you think your kids will one day want to wear. Or you’ve got a great dress that you used to fit into and you’re hoping you’ll wear again once you’ve got your diet in check. All of these things can add up.
Here’s some suggestions: take that box of baby clothes or race shirts and send it to someone on Etsy who turns things like that into quilts. If you think you’re going to turn it into a quilt yourself, give yourself a hard deadline. If you don’t do it by then, send it off to the Etsy person or donate the clothes. Otherwise, you know that box will sit for a decade or more. When you have a quilt made from sentimental stuff you’ll have a functional item that showcases those old patterns and fabrics that remind you of those sweet times with your baby love or that awesome race where you got a PR. Those items will be properly loved then, rather than stuffed in a box somewhere. Don’t fall under the delusion of thinking that your kids will one day dress their babies in those clothes, though—sorry, but they won’t.
If you have some really cool clothing items that your kids may want one day, here’s what I’ve seen: most of the time, kids don’t want these things. They mean something to you, not them. But if you’re really sure about it, designate a very limited area (one box or part of a rod in your closet), and let them take that space and nothing more. If you have more stuff than can fit in that very limited space, you have too much. Out with it.
Those skinny jeans that you think you’ll get back into: I get it because I’ve been there — optimism dies hard. If you LOVE those jeans or that dress, put them in a box under your bed. Give yourself a hard deadline to get back into them. Mark it on your calendar and start TODAY by eating kale and chicken. (If you don’t want to do what it takes today to get back into those jeans, when will you?) When that date rolls around if you don’t fit into them, out they go. Again, don’t keep things around that make you feel guilty.
Other tips for sorting clothes: Is the shirt too tight? Don’t like the cut? Is it too stained to wear in public? Only one sock? Get it out.
As I’ve discovered in doing this, I have items that I haven’t worn in forever that I think, “it’s so cute! Of course I’ll wear it! I just need leggings (or fill in the blank).” If you have a few things that you really don’t want to part with and you think you’ll wear, then go ahead and create a trial section in the front of your closet. You MUST wear those things THIS WEEK to see what you think about them. Do they feel good? Do you like how they look? Will you actually wear them more in the future? If no, get them out! I’ve realized that I have a lot of cute clothing that fits me but that is just not my style, no matter how much I wish they were. I’m not going to wear them no matter how much I think I might or how much I think I should. Don’t hang on to stuff just because you think you should like wearing it. Even if you look great in it, if you don’t like wearing it, get it out!
The end result should be clothes that you actually wear and like that reasonably fit in your closet and drawers. If you have multiple closets or have to walk all over the house to get your clothes, you probably have too much stuff. It’s ok to store a few items that you actually wear once a year somewhere else, but that shouldn’t take up too much space.
Sorting with Kids and Partners:
You should involve your kids in this process, no matter what age they are. Kids (and partners, maybe) will likely have a limited attention span, so don’t push too hard. If they’re toddlers or babies, you’ll be doing the real sorting. If they’re older, it’s good for them to understand why you’re doing this—ultimately, to create more breathing space in your own house.
Sometimes kids have a hard time figuring out what sparks joy. Maybe they think everything sparks joy. If you need to do it, an easy way to help them figure this out is to designate one drawer for short sleeved shirts (for example). Do their shirts fit comfortably in that one drawer? If not, they’ve got too much.
I’ll admit that I’ve gotten rid of my kids’ clothing and toys in the dead of night without asking (those pipe cleaners were SOOOO IMPORTANT!). I can’t in good conscience recommend this to others because I don’t want to get in trouble. But what usually happens is that they don’t even notice what’s missing and if they do, I explain that it was time for the thing to go live somewhere else.
I’ve also told my kids that if they’re tired of sorting, I’ll do the rest of it but they can’t complain later if I get rid of something they liked. This might work for older kids (mine are 10 and 7), but a good alternative might be to set a timer for 20 minutes and have them chip away at the pile, then get a break. Do what works for you.
Partners—it’s tough if you have a partner who is not on board with the process. I don’t think this is worth dissolving your relationship, so don’t fight about it. Explain that the ultimate goal is a happier house for you all to live in so that you can spend more time together. If they’re not convinced don’t make a big deal out of it. It may just be that when your partner sees what you’re doing and observes the difference that decluttering makes, he or she will be inspired to go after their own stuff.
Ok, you have two weeks until next time! Bless your house, then thank your clothes and get them out. And don’t forget what this is really about: it’s not just about cutting down your stuff, it’s about not collecting too much stuff to begin with so that you can relax in your own house again. It’s about spending more time with those you love and less time being ruled by the things you’ve mindlessly invited into your home. It’s about examining your own motivations and feelings about stuff, as well as analyzing your consumption behaviors. Treat your stuff like living things. Think of stuff as invited guests in your house. Do you really want to invite just anyone to come live with your family for an indefinite period of time? No, that sounds awful! Think about this the next time you’re clicking on Amazon or eyeing the sales aisle. What stuff/guests do you want to invite to live with you or your family? Your home is sacred and should be treated as such. What stuff deserves to be there, taking up space in your home and taking time with you and your family? Which guests just make you feel bad or guilty? Out with them!
Instead, surround yourself with joy.
Until next time,