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Tidying up: Decluttering your space and its unexpected benefits

Decluttering your home

I finished reading The Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. In the book, she explores her method for decluttering the homes of thousands of messy clients around the world. She champions counterintuitive organizational methods.

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Why bother decluttering?

Kondo argues that our possessions are the physical artifacts of our decisions. Thus, a messy room indicates that our minds are disorganized. The state of our belongings is a reminder of what we value and plan to maintain. Ordering the home helps us order our lives. It helps us focus on the objects and thoughts that matter most to us. It helps us reduce decision fatigue and streamline our priorities.

Declutter once and for all

Because clutter begets clutter in mindset and in physical order, Kondo recommends tidying everything in one big session. She has observed in her organizational consulting career that gradual decluttering leads to frustration. For details on why, grab the book. The theme of batch processing of organization comes up in several places. You don’t have to do it all in one day, but this should be done over the course of a week or two. Envision what you want your home to look like.

How to attack the clutter

Lay out all your belongings in categories. Each respective category should be laid out in it’s own respective open space in your house. You won’t be moving your objects from one meta-hoarding space to another.

Discard what you don’t need first. Her method for choosing what to discard sounds hokey. But, it seems to work for me. Hold each object in your hands and note how it makes you feel. Do you love this object? Does it bring you joy? Do you feel guilt about it? Do you fear losing it would effect your future? Do you fear you’ll be disrespecting a family member or your own memories by discarding it? If you want to create your home as a joyful and guilt-free place, the objects in it should be thoughtfully chosen to evoke these feelings. How does it feel to walk into your living room and think: “I wish I could get a new TV, but my cousin was so nice to fix this one for me, I couldn’t get a new one.” Do you really think you’re cousin would be happy to know you’re not getting the TV you want because they fixed it? If an item doesn’t bring you joy or a sense of wholeness, get rid of it. Don’t dump it on another family member, don’t store it for future use. Get rid of it.

The Decluttering Order

Kondo specifies an order to discarding things, ordered from easiest to hardest to discard.

  1. Clothes

  2. Books

    1. Discard everything but the books you love keeping and the ones you are reading. Don’t keep around books you’ll “read someday”. The time to read a book is within a couple months of attaining it.
  3. Papers

    1. Discard all except items you are
      1. Using now
      2. Need for a short time
      3. Need forever
    2. Keep them all in the same place.
    3. Discard manuals, keep warranties (until they expire.)
  4. Miscellaneous

    1. Discard product boxes, you rarely need them.
    2. Throw away excess cords and spare items.
    3. Discard health craze items (ab roller, weight loss machine, etc).
  5. Mementos/Photos/Nostalgic Items

    1. This is difficult, but important, because it helps us come to terms with our past and keep it where it belongs (behind us.) Our space should reflect and amplify who we are, not who we were.

Storage

Kondo doesn’t like storage. In a contemporary society with Amazon and local stores, it is unneeded. Regardless, some things are prudent to keep around. They are best kept in closets out of the way (mentally and physically). Similar items should be kept together (clothes with cloths, electronics with electronics, etc…) They should be ordered vertically so each item can be easily picked from the storage area without having to dig through a stack or pile.

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Offseason items can go on top of shelves.

Hang sponges so they dry out. Keep bathroom items out of the tub area so they stay dry and don’t collect scum.

Keep items off the kitchen counter. This is a space for food preparation.

Remove words on items showing words. They bring “noise” to an area. Get the book for a deeper discussion as to why this is.

Bags can go inside each other to maximize space.

Specific advice on clothing storage and folding

The book has some important tips on storing and folding various types of clothing. Keep your clothes vertically folded and standing next to each other. Not stacked. You’ll have to watch videos for a better explanation.  Everything gets folded and placed into drawers in your closet unless that is impractical as is the case with coats, jackets, skirts, suits, dresses, and some pants. Socks never get balled up (and stretched out.)

When are you done?

When you feel like your space clicks and doesn’t have any excess objects. This is purely qualitative. Kondo finds applying metrics only upsets people and leaves us feeling out of touch with the process of having the space the way we want it.

When to stop the decluttering

Every item will have its place in a room. It will be simple and natural to return it to that place when you are done with it. The items left after the declutter will feel important and worth treating well. It will naturally be easier for things to have a place, when there are fewer items vying for places.

Her clients show more respect for their belongings and feel a deeper sense of gratitude for them. They come to an understanding of what they value. They learn to let go of physical possessions that are holding them back.

The Magic of Tidying Up

The book was on my list for a while because it’s at the top of Amazon organization lists and I have a fascination with optimizing space. Programmatic organization first interested me last year when an NPR show pointed me to a book on personal organization by a computer scientist. The Magic of Tidying Up was one of my favorite reads of all time. I definitely recommend you get the book for a more rigorous  examination of the ideas explored here.

Over the past few months, I’ve been striving to live in a more simple environment. I’ve been purging belongings I don’t need. As Kondo mentions in her book, our fear of needing things is overblown. I can’t even remember the things I’ve discarded. And I notice that my mind is freed up to think about the tasks and thoughts I want to focus on, rather than on the clutter of objects in my space. Having a messy space means constantly being physically reminded by the objects around you “where does this go?” “what should I do with that?” “I should address this thing on this paper”. Clutter begets clutter in the mind and the world. I think it’s good to have things and think about the things in your physical space. But, these things should be thoughtfully ordered such that your mind is focusing on the things that bring you joy and fulfillment; the things that order your life to the production of the tasks that move you to your goals, whatever they may be. Are their objects in your space, on your desk or in your drawers, or on your floor, bring mild discontentment into your life? If you’re OK with that, ask why.

Finding opportunities right in front of you

My friend invited me along last summer for a weekend of drinks, food, boating, and revelry in Pittsburgh with a group of friends I hadn’t spent much time with before that point. That weekend happened again two weeks ago. We ate savoury foods, wandered the hills of Pittsburgh’s suburban ring, and cruised the greenish waters of the Monongahela in the basking sun. Three guys in the group I knew well, and two I didn’t know so well.

 

During the trip last year, one of the guys I didn’t know so well got to chatting about how underrated his current city of Cincinnati is. Being the traveler I am, I was intrigued. I’d never heard anyone brag about Cincinnati. I’d written it off as a small town with a few sports teams and maybe homicide or two. But, I told this guy I’d visit. This guy I’d only met once. We conversed a bit on that original Pittsburgh trip and I knew we had a few common interests. I was intrigued by the idea of Cincy and was determined to make a trip happen.

 

Here’s what I did differently than everyone else did. I didn’t spend 5 years talking about how I heard “Cincinnati was a cool town” or how “I’d go there someday.” I waited 8 months until it was reasonable to start planning for this summer’s travels, and I started chatting with this new friend online. I pushed us over a possible weekend, which I based partially on dates that had reasonable flight prices. I bought the flights and confirmed the time with my new friend.

 

This is simple in concept, difficult in practice. People love making excuses not to travel and not to expand their friend circle. Excuses someone might make in my situation:

 

  1. It’s weird to visit someone you’ve only met once.
  2. It’s a long flight and traveling is annoying
  3. I can’t get off work
  4. Cincinnati probably isn’t as fun as he says. It’s just a third-tier city.
  5. It’s probably dangerous
  6. It will be “awkward”
  7. I’m so busy and have so much to do at home.

 

We make time for important things. We weather the storm for things we really take joy in. If people genuinely don’t want to travel, or even if they can’t, that’s fine. But don’t be the person that constantly says how they “wish they could go visit Europe but just don’t have the XYZ right now.” If you have the resources, make it happen. If you don’t, then fine, accept that and make the changes in your life to make it happen. Don’t have the resources at hand to make something happen but never do it. This is an expression of dishonesty, laziness, and an admission of ineptitude. You and others will view your statements as wishes, not guarantees. Your language and verbal declarations of desire can be more than wishes.

 

The trip ended up being amazing. My new friend is interested in food blogging. I met a ton of his friends, bounced around business advice, went to a packed pool party, played soccer with his co workers on the Bearcats’ home field, ate at 7 new restaurants (I’ll do a non-emailed post on that), and wandered around the Kentucky hills overlooking the Ohio. This was way better than an average weekend at home. All because I took action and made it happen.

 

Two lessons:

  1. The best way to make connections with new people is through people you already know. Surround yourself with good friends, ask them to introduce you to other friends. Be willing to try new activities and enter new social circles. Chances are you’ll find surprising opportunity there. Two books come to mind. Connected gives a sociological look at the power of real-life social networks and the penetrating and two-way impact our lifestyle choices have on one another. Did you know your verbal decision to vote statistically determines whether or not over 10 other people in your social network will vote? The other one is Never Eat Alone. The author explores how the way you arrange your life with your social network will change the way you see the world. He has an insightful podcast commentary on how he arranges his dinner parties here. Socializing comes natural to some people, for others it doesn’t. But don’t feel like if you’re an introvert that planning and structuring your social interactions is manipulative. People genuinely want to meet you. They want you to take the effort to talk to them and visit them. It took Harvard 80 years to figure out that happiness is greatly attributable to the quality of our relationships. Don’t let it take you that long.

 

  1. Don’t be a person who publicly makes excuses not to go to events or travel or try new things. If you prioritize other things (like time with family, exercise, alone time, work time, significant other time), then make that clear to your friends. If you don’t want to go, politely decline. Your friends and acquaintances can’t help you grow if they don’t know what you want. This is especially true if you say one thing but mean another thing. Stop “wishing you could” and start taking action. Figure out the steps you need to take to get yourself in the position to do the things you love or think you might love. Find reasons to do things. Learn to convince yourself to do new things by reminding yourself of the positive aspects a decision to take part in something with new friends might have. Be resourceful. Tony Robbins is right in emphasizing that most of Western society gets unhappy not because we don’t have the resources, but that we don’t have the resourcefulness. What are we telling ourselves subconsciously when we constantly wish we could travel? Or how much we want to lose weight but just can’t? Or save money but just have too many bills? Or find a healthy relationship but can’t take control of an unhealthy situation? We’re telling ourselves that we are a victim to our circumstances and current resources. Is that something we want to be telling ourselves?

 

Living a Joy-Filled Life

Why think about choices?

I’ve been soul-searching recently. Delving into my attitudes towards myself, my career, my relationships with friends and dating. I’ve reflected a lot on the nature of choice and motivation. Two questions continually resurface themselves.

  1. What are my values and beliefs?
  2. What does my ideal future look like?
  3. Is that ideal vision reasonably achievable and aligned with my values?

Where do our beliefs originate?

I’m slowly training myself to see the advice I’ve gotten from parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, and books is not what defines me. This advice is important to me, but it isn’t 1) my belief system or 2) the belief system I need to rebel against. It is a set of beliefs I’ve gathered that help inform my personal beliefs and practices.

I’ve found I am often motivated to figure out ways to 1) satisfy others’ expectations or 2) rebel against others’ expectations. Neither of these is a healthy decision-making method. This realization is not a slight on the people I love and surround myself with. It is an acknowledgement that I am responsible for the choices I make and the lifestyle I live. I alone can be assertive, express personal integrity, make conscious choices, live purposefully, accept myself, and be responsible to my family, friends, community, country, and religious institution.

With this personal responsibility comes tremendous power. It requires tremendous vigilance against my inclination to satisfy others or to rebel against others.

Over the past few years I’ve leaned towards challenging the status quo of the communities I am a part of. I felt these communities (family, friends, church, political system) assumed that I would: wait patiently for an acceptable wife (because good things come to those who wait), give up everything for my eventual kids (because it’s my duty and I’m a selfish millennial if I don’t), buy a house in a boring neighborhood, severely restrict my ability to travel, deal with crippling anxiety over the fact that I don’t control anything in my life anymore, and live a life that was somewhat happy but lacked adventure and spontaneity. These are gross generalizations. Reality is never so simple. I don’t mean to discount these things. I do believe they are valuable. But they are valuable because I find them valuable, not because I either desire to express obedience or rebellion against the powers and people who preach these values. My association of my own life choices with a reaction to others’ is the source of the judgements I’ve made about those choices. Thus I hear others’ say things like “marriage is all about sacrifice” and “it’s not as easy to travel when you have kids” and my immediate reaction is to fight against these things because they sound terrible. A healthier option would be to evaluate the pro’s and con’s of each lifestyle choice from the way their ultimate impact on my life as a whole. The way people I see as authority figures and influencers communicate their “life advice” feeds into my reaction to them. However, it is my duty to take what they say in this context: people are naturally inclined to present themselves as heroes and martyrs and leave out the positive aspects of decisions. The positive aspects of marriage, children, and sacrifice are difficult to communicate because these are lived experiences, whereas the loss of one’s freedom is nebulous and easy fodder to fearmonger single persons.

Looking back at past choices

I can admit that I’ve certainly erred on the side of adventure and spontaneity. I’ve sought out travel, company, and activities that feed this desire. This desire was and is primarily based as a reaction to the beliefs I feel it is assumed I am supposed to have by those around me. Don’t misread this that I’ve destroyed my life or made destructive and dangerous decisions. I haven’t. But, I’ve lived and made choices with the fear that, if I don’t, my ultimate fate rests in a boring, pointlessly sacrificial life. I often allow fear, guilt, and respect be the benchmark for my choices, whether a benchmark to follow or eschew.

Short-term thinking

I was living for pleasure. Pleasure in rebellion. Pleasure in doing my own thing. Pleasure in feeling free from the belief systems which I felt had predetermined my life in ways that made me extremely uncomfortable. By pleasure I mean short-term reactionary behavior.

Reactionary Thinking

At the heart of these choices was reaction. I wasn’t doing what made me joyful and satisfied. I was was reacting. I am reacting. Reaction is not self-definition. It is not true freedom. It doesn’t represent respect towards oneself or towards anyone else. Reaction is not an act of personal integrity. It is a poor motivation to do something out of pure spite or pure obedience, without other reasons.

Joy and Pleasure

The contrasting, yet similar words, joy and pleasure come to mind. Pleasure is reactionary. It is a response we get from reacting to our senses. It can be a reaction to the way our bodies feel, the way we feel about a person, a belief system, or a reaction we want to have to any situation. Pleasure is not bad in itself.

Joy is a deeper sense of satisfaction that something we see or do aligns with the way we believe or wish the world would be. Joy lasts. Joy has a sense of personal ownership. If you feel joyful about something it is because you felt you a personal stake in  what happened. Joy can lead to pleasure. Joy is usefully pleasureable. But joy is deeper than pleasure. Joy can withstand periods of heartache and trials. Joy has no baggage. There is a fullness of meaning to it that you know when you feel it.

I don’t believe that pleasure is bad. Pleasure in a cold glass of beer on a hot day. Pleasure in seeing a pretty girl walk by. Pleasure in completing a paper or complex work task.

Identifying joyful things 

But all our lives need joy. Joy is an indicator that we’re living a life…

  1. Conscious of itself
  2. Accepting of itself
  3. Responsible for the impacts of our actions.
  4. Assertive
  5. Purposeful
  6. Wholly integrated between our thoughts, words, and actions.

Identifying the things in our lives that are purely reactionary (or purely obedient) to a set of rules or expectations others have of us will increase our sense of meaning and purposefulness and bring a sense of joy to our lives. This applies to people of any belief, religion, or lack thereof.

What brings you joy? What brings you pleasure but not joy? What in life are you doing to satisfy or react to others’ expectations?

In visioning one’s life. I believe we need to evaluate those things that bring us joy and double down on them. Then we should find the things that we’re doing for pleasure (i.e. reactionary or obedient). And these things should be evaluated. This exercise will help us live a happier, more sustainable, and more fulfilled life. It will help us find our own voice and desires within the context of a noisy society, community, and friend group, and family.

Owning your life

This isn’t to say you’ll end up with beliefs different from those around you. The point is that you’ll end up owning your beliefs. You will stand by them. They will bring you joy. Almost all of us have the ability to seek out what we believe to be true and just and valuable in this world and to strive to double down on those things. We also have a need to eliminate short-term, reactionary thinking.

 

Taking the journey to define one’s own values is important. It helps clarify where we can be fulfilled and where we are wasting your time. It will be evident in the things that bring lasting joy vs. things that are reactionary or obedient for a quick sense of pleasure.  Every person, despite having differing beliefs, can live a life that is integrated in thoughts, words, and actions. This life can provide deep fulfillment and joy that comes from within, not as a reaction to anyone or anything else.