How do some people keep tidy while the rest of us feel like we are battling a tidal wave of stuff?
My work means I’m interested in all aspects of positive psychology that bring happiness, clarity and enable us to be our best – nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, fulfilling work etc. Our home environment is a key component – what’s the point of a beautiful home if it’s hidden under mess? I’ve looked into minimalism, and been put off at the mention of eliminating the kettle and toaster – not practical! I don’t want to be extreme, I just want to live in a calm and pleasing home, without too much effort.
Enter Marie Kondo’s best-selling book on tidying which has created a global fan base and sell-out talks, one of which I attended. A Japanese tidying consultant whose books started as tips for those on her waiting list, her presence in person is almost ethereal. The approach is simple – tidy by category, and keep only items that spark joy.
Much has been written about this already as scores of people explore her approach. I’m interested in how it applies to those of us busy with families, work, and in the digital age. How much time and effort do you have to put in, and what do you really get out of it?
What’s so special about Kondo’s approach?
1) Tidying by category, in a carefully chosen order, was a revelation. You start with the most personal possessions such as clothes, then books and move to the more communal possessions, which is when I started involving my husband. I gained a huge amount of clarity tidying by category, and importantly, deciding on homes for my possessions by category. I realised I had been stockpiling toothpaste by storing it in 3 different places – and kept buying more as I never found it when I ran out. Consciously deciding on the best home for items produced a number of ‘ahah moments’ as things just seemed to click in their rightful home – very different from the overwhelm of previous tidying efforts.
2) Kondo’s mantra of only keeping objects that spark joy allowed intuition and excitement into the process. De-cluttering can sound clinical. The ‘magical art of tidying’ recognises it requires both heart and mind to create a space you love. Marie gently coaches you through each category, helping you understand how you relate to different types of possessions and how to identify what to keep. She knows the familiar pitfalls and the emotional ties we hold to unread books, notes, worn and unworn clothes etc after helping 1000s of families. She makes tidying feel like a spiritual act.
How long should it take, and is it really a ‘one-off’?
I wanted to know how long this process takes on average. Kondo says this is a one off act that you never have to think about again. In practice, we work, we have families and busy lives. I found the process quite emotionally draining for certain beloved categories – in my case notes and journals. It wasn’t something I could do in one weekend. In person Kondo concedes that for busy working parents, breaking down big categories such as clothes into further sub categories and spreading these out might be helpful.
Online I saw that even the ‘one off’ Kondo process was taking some people a full year. Because it also involves everything, e.g. the stuff you store at your parents’ house. And in our case, our toddler’s stuff.
It took me a month to do 80% of it, using mainly weekends and a day of holiday. My husband joined in too and we cleared a total of 40 bags and bin liners out that month. There were a lot of trips to the recycling bins and charity shops. I was like a person possessed. Then two very busy months went by and over Christmas we needed a ‘refresh’ –jewellery drawers got messy after about a month. To complete that long tail, the final 5% of the process, I’m planning to take a couple of days off work. I want a totally clear mind and to focus on it. It is just not happening after work and toddler.
How do you apply Kondo’s approach busy family households?
Kondo has been criticised for not mentioning how this works for those of us with young families. It struck me that the earlier in your life you do this, the better! It is a lifetime mindset yielding life-long returns. That’s not to say it’s ever too late. But I do feel excited that my daughter will grow up with this philosophy. We asked Marie how a baby has affected her approach and response was that it hasn’t – I want to ask her the same question in a year’s time! I’ve taken a Montessori approach getting accessible drawers for my daughter’s toys and she herself has embraced it, as they a high sensitivity for order at that age. It has transformed our downstairs. Having kids is another reason for regular refreshes as they grow and change.
And what about digital clutter?
Marie doesn’t really mention digital clutter. And yet today for most of us this is an exponentially growing area of stuff. Once I was into the process I felt I was cheating if I ignored these gigabytes. Marie does say save physical photos till last as they are the most sentimental. I spent hours tackling my bursting digital photo files, reducing their volume from 100GB to 5GB, investing in a cloud-based digital photo frame so that they are actually seen, and moving all my other files to the cloud. It has been enlightening. And now I can access all my files and photos from any device.
Tips for making it work:
- Make time: Give yourself a day or two to really get stuck in otherwise you won’t break the back of it and you won’t start seeing the benefits. Take time off or use a weekend – it is worth the investment.
- Wait: Don’t start before you’ve read the book. It’s designed to support you through. I was itching to get started but I’m glad I waited.
- Share: If you can lure in your partner it will really help, especially when you’re flagging and need to cleanse the freezer! Gentle encouragement is required because you have to be mentally ready to embark on this journey. And with both of you on board, it’s easier to maintain. We now say things like, ‘what’s the best home for the thermometer?’.
- Maintain: I asked Marie about how to maintain this long term. She said she spends very little time tidying on a daily basis but twice a year she makes sure she removes anything that doesn’t spark joy. Translating that to those of us who aren’t professional tidiers, I think that means at least a seasonal refresh here in the UK!
What benefits have we experienced?
- Tidying is easier, almost enjoyable! It feels more purposeful restoring things to their home
- Getting dressed is easier – you can actually see the clothes you’ve chosen to keep.
- Daily time saved looking for things, and money saved, or not wasted e.g. on contact lens subscriptions by realising I have too many spare.
- I’ve learned what is important to me and needs to be cherished.
- Things that have been buried away are now visible to see – these needn’t take up much space, such as the digital photo frame and all those GBs of photos
- My daughter is learning about and involved in tidying.
Most importantly, my head is clearer. This affects everything – the decisions about how to spend my time, what to read, what needs attention, what sparks joy. As Kondo said, ‘let’s imagine this clutter as your mind’, and so as you get on top of your stuff, you get on top of your life.
Maya Gudka is a Leadership & Strategy Programme Director at London Business School (LBS), an Executive Coach and Happiness Club founder. She writes about her experiences for LBS’s Business Strategy Review and Psychologies Magazine. Find out more at MayaGudka.com , on LinkedIn, and @MayaGudka on Twitter.