The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: How to Clean Up Your Life
It was 7 AM, and I had been up all night tiptoeing around shampoo bottles, socks, hair clips and electronics.
I was sorting my belongings, and the piles of things I planned to donate to charity dwarfed the ones that would make it back into my closets and drawers. I would discard my beloved TI-89 calculator from high school, along with a beautiful antique pouf chair that I’d carried home all the way from a store on Polk street to my apartment across town. I got not one but two compliments on it during that walk, and a cab driver even asked if he could buy it off of me. There was no sum of money that would compel me to part with that chair. So what made me get rid of it early that morning?
In her book, Kondo, a Japanese organization expert, shares an elegant process to tidy up your belongings. Hold every single item you own in your hand, she teaches, and ask yourself one simple question: “Does this spark joy?” By answering honestly, you curate your way to an organized living space. Along the way, she says, you allow the rest of your life to fall into place in a way that feels like magic.
She’s right. The moment I finished my tidying extravaganza, my room looked amazing. A couple friends had also read the book, and we proudly swapped photos of our immaculate closets. The only inconvenience: I no longer owned pants, and that made for an interesting week.
But as I settled into my new space, I couldn’t help but notice something extraordinary happening. Almost immediately, unrelated areas of rest of my life were becoming more fulfilling, more interesting, as if I had stumbled upon a Super Star in Mario Kart and turned invincible. I was happier, enjoyed getting dressed in the morning, signed a few great deals at work, and started ditching unhealthy relationships with impressive speed.
I didn’t realize how these things were connected until I examined the tidying process a little closer. Kondo’s philosophy had begun sneaking into all parts of my life, encouraging me to cast off excess baggage, and training me to be a better, more authentic human being.
That process is the true value of Kondo’s book: a way of living that creates the mental conditions for happiness. In this piece, I’m going to share that philosophy with you, and explore how it can transform everything from your apartment to your relationships, your attachments to your sense of self.
The KonMari method
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo instructs the reader on her tried-and-true “KonMari method.”
The first step is discarding. You bring every single one of your belongings onto the floor, one category at a time, and hold each of them in your hand. As you do so, you ask yourself whether the item “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, you must discard it or release it to a new life through donation, resale, or the trash. If it still sparks joy in that moment, you may choose to keep it in your life.
That’s right: your feelings are the new standard. As Kondo writes, “Many people may be puzzled by such vague criteria as ‘things that give you a thrill of pleasure’ or ‘click point.’” But that emotional intuition, she says, is more effective than tidying methods with clearly defined numerical goals, like “Discard anything you haven’t used for two years” or “Seven jackets and ten blouses is the perfect amount.”
The issue with these quantitative methods is that you’re tidying based on other people’s standards, while only you can really know whether an environment makes you happy. It’s an extremely personal process that can’t be outsourced, just as your authenticity can’t come from someone else.
It might feel funny to make decisions based on emotions, and it certainly did for me at first. But I saw the value as I noticed how my belongings managed to evoke surprising feelings even when I gave them a cursory glance. I realized I could manipulate my physical environment to improve my mood.
“When we honestly confront the things we own,” she writes, “they evoke many emotions within us. Those feelings are real. It is these emotions that give us the energy for living.” By listening to those emotions, “you will be amazed at how things will begin to connect in your life and at the dramatic changes that follow. It is as if your life has been touched by magic.”
The second step of the KonMari method is storing. Now that you’re surrounded by only your most beloved items, store them in your living space so that when you open a drawer, you can see everything it contains at first glance. This helps you find things faster, be more aware of what you own, and remember to use things that you love (or discard them in the future).
The end result is a living space that makes you happy everywhere you look and reflects your authentic preferences. Your eye will land on a picture that reminds you of laughter with your best friend, and will no longer “catch” on the old Shins poster fraying on the wall. Everything feels lighter, more peaceful, and super functional in a way that is perfectly tailored to you.
Maintenance then becomes surprisingly easy. When you adore your belongings, it’s easier to motivate yourself to carefully fold and store them after the day is done, rather than throw them on the floor. Besides, your space will be so nice that you won’t want to mess it up.
But if you take Kondo’s method and run with it, you can create a nice living space for your mind, too. Your life will feel touched by magic, which is actually just the process of cultivating greater self-awareness.
That process, which I want to share with you now, raises five key questions that will help you create the conditions for real personal growth.
How many belongings, commitments, and activities are in your life?
For many of us, the actual answer is astounding.
Tidying your belongings first requires you to acknowledge every single physical belonging in your life. You need to touch every single sock, every kleenex box, every dish towel you own before you decide to discard or keep it. This forces you to confront how much stuff really floats in your sphere of being. The real problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know.
I certainly didn’t. I’ve never been a messy person, and my life apparently fit neatly into my small San Francisco apartment. I thought I was a minimalist who had a handle on her belongings. Wrong!
The simple act of taking all my belongings out and touching each one was flabbergasting. To put some numbers to it, I thought I had about 15 things hanging in my closet. Turns out I had 43 items in that space. And this 3x multiplier extended to every area of my room.
So I wondered: Did the 3x multiplier apply to the non-physical stuff in my life? If I didn’t consciously recognize the objects that I stared at day in and day out, I surely didn’t have a good grip on the intangibles I’d mentally committed to: the dozens of friends I needed to call back, the additional action items I’d taken on at work, the stacks of books I’d added to my reading list.
Acknowledging the existence of your socks is good practice for acknowledging your own intangibles. How many obligations do you have? How many hobbies are you pursuing right now, and how many are just squatting on your to-do list (“I should really sign up for judo next month”)?
Our mental clutter can be just as draining as our physical clutter. Why? Because it creates an unfulfilled objective, adds additional mental weight, and distracts you from what really matters.
Are you hanging on to physical and mental “things” that distract you from achieving what you want?
When I told my friend Mason about the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, he insisted that his living space was under control. A few days later, though, he said the philosophy had helped him with his computer.
Like many of us, Mason would read an article and see a link to another interesting piece, so he’d open a new browser tab so he could get back to it later. This happened a few more times — an ebook he wanted to check out, a cool TED talk, a helpful Slideshare — and soon enough, his browser was full of 10 to 20 tabs that stayed open for weeks at a time.
This gave him anxiety every time he opened up his computer, because it greeted him with an ever-present to-do list. What’s more, these tabs were right next to the one tab that contained a project he was actually working on at the moment. Every time he went to click the active project tab, his mouse hovered dangerously close to a row of distractions. His tabs were like my socks.
It was only when he realized that those tabs were slowing down his computer’s performance that he realized they were slowing down his mental CPU as well. He closed them all (bookmarking only the ones that brought him joy) and started from scratch. His mind immediately felt clearer, and he had an easier time focusing on the things he needed to complete for work.
Whether it’s a browser tab or a hobby, excess things in your life slow you down. Free up mental energy to grow in positive ways by discarding activities, thought patterns, and behaviors that don’t serve you.
Do you have room in your life for new growth?
Clutter does more than distract. It can actively block positive growth.
Imagine a bookshelf three feet wide. It holds a discrete number of books, and physically blocks you from adding new ones until you remove old ones.
In the same way, we each have a personal capacity for commitments, activities, and goals that we can actually deliver on with quality.
Of course, our capacity isn’t set in stone. Our brains are highly plastic, we can develop productivity habits, it’s healthy to stretch ourselves, and so on. But for your current “level” of juggling mental commitments, are your hands so full that you have no room for new, meaningful ones?
One morning, I held in my hands a book called How to Draw in 30 Days. I had diligently completed 15 of the days a year ago, and now I had to decide whether to finish the last half of the program, or let go of my goal to learn how to draw. Thanks to the complete absence of joy I felt when I held it, I realized it was time to move on. I felt a small weight lift off my shoulders as I tossed the book, because I hadn’t just been hanging onto a book, but to an outdated expectation (and a failure) associated with it. I didn’t even know that burden had been there until the book was gone. If I could let go a few more unfulfilled hobbies, I’d be that much lighter, and would have the mental energy for future pursuits that suited me better.
Discarding possessions is the physical-world version of making room for the life you want to build. That’s valuable in and of itself, but more importantly, it’s excellent training for the non-physical realms of your life.
Do you own your belongings and habits — or do they own you?
Tidying up your belongings is more complicated than simply throwing away some percentage of your possessions, and making room in your life is harder than just crossing items off your to-do list.
The very act of discarding something, tangible or not, is difficult because our brains are wired to fight the effort. Loss aversion describes a consistent human tendency to avoid losing things we already have, because the pain of a loss is twice as powerful as the joy of a gain. If you spend a lot of time hand-picking things in your life to discard, you’re battling a built-in force that prevents you from doing so successfully.
The result? A life in which you don’t own your stuff, but your stuff owns you. A life that’s shaped by loss aversion, guilt, and simple habit. A life that doesn’t allow you to truly care for the things you think you treasure so deeply. As Kondo writes:
The fact that you possess a surplus of things that you can’t bring yourself to discard doesn’t mean you are taking good care of them. In fact, it is quite the opposite. By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings. Just because you dispose of something does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity. Through the process of selecting only those things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.
To make it easier to say goodbye to your mental and physical “stuff,” try these techniques:
Acknowledge that something has given you great benefits while you owned it. Kondo encourages readers to say thank you to each item before tossing it. If you get rid of yellow shirts you’ve never worn, say, “Thank you for teaching me that I don’t like yellow shirts.” You won’t make the same mistake of buying yellow shirts again (until one truly sparks joy, of course).
Donate or sell the item, and imagine the joy that it will bring to its next owner.
Remember the benefits (discussed above) that you’ll get when you get rid of just one mental or physical thing: less distraction to deliver on what truly matters and more space to grow in positive new ways.
Another good way to reframe your loss aversion is to focus on what you’re adding, not subtracting. As Kondo writes, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what to get rid of.”
Try imagining your own joyful life: picture a blank slate and welcome in only the items, activities, and people that bring you joy. The end result will be a smaller and more roomy life than if you had hand-picked items to cut out of your status quo.
Do you truly like the life you lead?
When I tidied up, I was surprised to find that many of my belongings had actually been giving me negative emotions. A necklace from an ex-boyfriend conjured bad memories of our clawing breakup. A book about taxes provoked anxiety about my 1099s. A red silk holiday dress flooded me with guilt. I’d spent way too much money on it and never wore it, because honestly, it made me looked like a Christmas present.
I didn’t like these belongings and they made me a little unhappy every time I looked at them, yet I hung on to them for years. In some cases, more than ten years, through six apartment moves.
Because whenever I decided to keep an item, I was using decision-making criteria that put very little weight on my authentic happiness. Instead, I was using criteria that prioritized duty and what I thought would make me happy based on other people’s standards.
The latter is sneakily problematic. We soak up our friends, parents, and the media’s ideas of what happiness looks like, and it’s easy to disconnect from our true standards for joy. Kondo writes, “Only you can know what kind of environment makes you feel happy. The act of picking up and choosing objects is extremely personal.”
An important step to loving the life you lead is to start making more decisions based on the intuitions you have about your own happiness, even when they conflict with what you perceive as your duty — your duty to like, your duty to store, your duty to keep.
For those of us who have a strong sense of “should,” it’s very easy to make 100% of our decisions based on duty, which can lead to a caged, depressed feeling and decrease our motivation. The goal is to shift away from duty and toward the criterion of joy.
So how do we retrain our brains to make decisions based on joy?
By starting small.
Let’s say that you’re in the discarding phase of tidying, and you pick up a towel you use almost daily. It’s perfectly functional, but you realize that you don’t like the color. Do you keep it?
You might tell yourself that it would be a loss of time and money to throw out a towel and replace it with a better color. If you make a decision based on duty, then you “should” keep it, in the name of not being wasteful, in the name of saving money, in the name of basic gratitude for your good fortune to even have a towel.
With joy-based decision making, you might acknowledge that you dislike the color of the towel and then discard it, making room for a new towel in a color you like. You’ll need to replace it, so you spend a little time and money doing so. But it’s probably worth it, because every time you touch that new towel, you’ll be a little happier. You’ve reduced a little daily friction in your life and added something that makes you a bit happier on a daily basis — and perhaps even increased your own self-worth by a towel-sized amount. If you donate the towel, you might then be creating a small piece of joy for someone else.
Along the way, you’re also preparing. When you tidy with Kondo’s method, you practice joy-based decision-making hundreds of times in little ways, where the resistance isn’t as high as it might be for larger decisions. After all, you’re just discarding a towel, not a marriage. You’re fine-tuning your decision-making skills in preparation for larger ones down the road.
Meanwhile, these tiny happinesses start to add up.
Ready? Try tidying in other parts of your life
To get started, use the KonMari philosophy in small ways this month:
Gracefully decline a coffee invite you’ve been dreading, and replace it with a coffee date with someone you’re excited to meet.
Allow yourself to relinquish an old goal that you don’t care about anymore.
Swap out a routine exercise that you (routinely) dread with a workout you truly enjoy.
Fill your “work plate” with only projects that you’re interested in. Consider passing on a project that you “should” take but otherwise don’t care about.
Remember: the process of tidying the physical belongings in your living space equips you to create a joyful life in the rest of your world. So if you really want to succeed, try getting rid of some pants first. Then watch your KonMari method scale up to the big decisions.
Ella Banks - author of 7 posts on The Art of Charm
Ella Banks is a San Francisco-based writer and editor who works with tech companies and self-published authors. Previously, she was in product marketing at Google. In her free time, she runs the hills of SF and listens to vintage jazz.
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