The Mighty DeCluttering Project and that KonMari book

I have had quite the obsession over the past few weeks.

I tend towards hyperfocus on projects – I work a lot better when I have one major task to focus on rather than several little tasks. This is one reason why I have to set aside specific times for “deal with emails and committee work” otherwise my current Super Project will just steamroller everything.

My obsession is decluttering. And reorganising. And tidying.

My obsession – to those not currently blessed with access to my excessively voluminous Facebook presence – may come as a surprise. I’m not generally a domestically inclined person. I like things to be nice and clean and organised – and food mess makes me gag – but I’m rarely willing to put in much effort to make that happen (except for cleaning up food mess, because of the gagging).

Partly due to my natural character, and partly due to my chronic illness / fatigue load, my response to an unmade bed is usually “Well, bugger” and falling into it face first; my response to a pile of clean laundry is generally “yup, it’ll fit” and shoving it into the drawer in whatever way manageable; and my response to clutter on my desk getting in my way is to open the nearest drawer and shovel it in. Life is too short to waste time being neat.

That has often been how I roll. Eventually the clutter and the crap and the chaos (ooh, alliteration!) builds up to a point where I crack. I can almost feel it happen. There’s a little snap in my brain, as of the high E string on an acoustic guitar snapping, a little “ting!” followed by whiplash and a sting on your hand and suddenly everything must be just so or so help me God I will fucking end you. And I go on a cleaning warpath, until my energy runs out, which is usually about six hours. Anything not tidied, organised, washed or thrown out after six (very intense) hours hits a “Meh” button.

Given this tendency, I seem to be the kind of person for whom the KonMari book (“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising” by Marie Kondo) was specifically written. Too lazy to maintain a complex environment to a high standard, but desperate to have a simple environment to deal with? That’s me. All me.

I admit I was skeptical at first as to how a book could teach me to tidy – isn’t that like teaching me to wash my hair? Who doesn’t know how to tidy? – but after recommendations from two very different friends, I caved.

Apparently, the answer to “Who doesn’t know how to tidy?” is “pretty much freaking everyone.” Apparently, there is a way to tidy your house that means you don’t have to do it over and over again – so you avoid “rebound”, as Ms Kondo refers to it.

The number of times Husband and I have rolled up our sleeves and sorted out our house, and then looked at it with sighs of satisfaction and declared determinedly that now we will keep it this way are uncounted. We both respond badly to mess. It makes us irritable and depressed and makes it hard to concentrate on any task at hand. We both have a habit of removing to a café or a library to work when our own space is disordered (or even if we just need a change of scene, to be honest, but in my case there is often a stylised “I am an artiste! I cannot work under zese conditions!” response).

And I’ve been slowly becoming aware over the past few years that we have too much crap. Way too much crap. Ludicrous amounts of crap for two people with no kids. We moved from a medium sized flat to a large-ish house with lots of storage to a much smaller house with almost no storage and in that time my Mum moved into a retirement village and suddenly I had to deal with all the crap I’d been stashing at her place and that process has wreaked some havoc upon us.

So what’s the basic secret of this KonMari decluttering method? What are the key features that prevent what the author refers to as “rebound” and what I refer to as “wait a minute, didn’t we tidy this two weeks ago”?

As near as I can tell, there are basically two broad issues (there are other details that I shall delight in writing about, but these are the take home messages).

  1. You have too much shit and you don’t even like most of it that much

KonMari does not phrase it this way. She is very polite. This is Kate-phrasing. This describes about thirty combined years of Kate-and-Husband shit, brought from various sharehouses over the years and acquired as gifts with good intentions and love or just somehow accumulating and breeding over time (three pocket knives? What are they, self-cloning?). This is study notes, conference programs, birthday cards, old essays, records, two record players (one defunct), old computer software and games (floppy discs, people. I’m not even kidding), soft toys, knick-knacks (“And the dust. OH THE DUST.”), worlds of excess clothing, manchester (how many towels?!), board games that we never play (some we fully intend to), DVDs from childhood, jewellery that I never wear, posters we will never put up (but in that process we have found some to set aside for framing).

In short, I have filled our car – a Subaru Forester, no less – five times with things to be taken to the charity shop (I like Parents Without Partners in our community) or the transfer station. This includes the passenger seat. I actually put a seatbelt around boxes, leaving only enough space for me to actually drive the car, and see out the side view windows. The seatbelt is there to prevent bags and boxes from toppling and also to prevent my safety conscious car from shouting at me to belt in my “passenger” (I call him “Mr Crap”).

I have found a local muso to take my Rolling Stone and Audio Tech magazines; Husband is certain he can find someone to enjoy the old Hyper magazines we have (they’re in excellent condition); and, after seeing what they go for, I plan to sell my N64 on eBay.

Basically, it’s impossible to keep a space tidy when it is full of shit. So we need to get rid of that excess shit. That turns out to be about 90% of the work. The “KonMari” method recommends focusing, not on deciding what to discard, but on deciding what to keep. The things you keep are supposed to “spark joy”. I feel this is a bit too specific, and ignores things that do not spark joy but which are necessary, otherwise our horrendous electric stove would be sitting on the nature strip, alongside two boxes of tampons and three bottles of insect repellent, but it’s basically a good principle. Due to cash flow issues combined with weight loss, I’ve also kept my really boring $5 t-shirts from Target, as I like to not be naked. These do not spark joy. They do spark non-nakedness and a lack of arrests for public exposure, which I suppose are joyful things in their own way.

  1. Your shit is disorganised and you don’t have a system

“Keep things with other similar things.” It doesn’t matter if it is annoying to get something out – you need to get it out, so you’re going to do that anyway, and you spend more time with it not being out, so it’s more important that the storage system actually works. Don’t go nuts on storage solutions – you won’t actually need most of them after the Mighty Decluttering.

One good example of the disorganisation is our kitchenware drawers and cupboards. We did throw out a good deal of it, but to my surprise, when actually stacked systematically (and it took me a bit of fidgeting and planning to come up with a system that fit the dimensions of our cupboards and categories of cookware), our pans and trays and tupperware and mini-appliances do actually fit in our cupboards. All it took was proper stacking and a good notion of what goes where.

The key here is that we have maintained this system for four weeks. Husband is in charge of the kitchen in our house, and he is not greatly inclined to spend ages stacking things (I can get quite stuck into it), and the kitchen is still really tidy. The kitchen. Still tidy. For four straight weeks. That’s a record for us. I feel a trophy is necessary, except that would be more clutter.

One other example is the bathroom cabinets. I would basically go through these once a year and reorganise all the medications and whatnot (I have trays in the drawers for this, because otherwise a pain-filled Kate cannot usefully tell a solicitous Husband where the codeine is, especially if one requests over the counter codeine and instead receives prescription codeine. Oh, that was fun. Also, I couldn’t drive anywhere for several hours), and they’d get messy again.

It turns out that, after a rapid whirlwind discard of expired and near-to-expiry things (cough lozenges. We always buy these and never finish the packet), it was much easier to reorganise. I also threw out a metric fuckton of makeup I never wear that had gone crumbly. I probably wear make up about four times a year. I really enjoy it, but only when I’m in the mood, so it’s not worth keeping more than foundation, a couple of lipsticks and a few shades of eyeliner.

I can even keep the drawers tidy. I fold clothes now – and not just in an immediate burst of enthusiasm, but consistently and when I’m not in the mood as well. I’ve maintained a clothes-folding habit. More on that later.

It seems to be about being realistic, about being honest with yourself – not “I might use it or wear it one day” or “it might come in handy”, but “okay, I’ve had this for how long and it has not been of any use to me at all.”

How I have departed from the KonMari method

I haven’t taken all of the book as gospel, although it is all basically good advice and even the parts I have ignored are supported by fairly compelling arguments (except possibly all the animism, but that’s adorable and I like the idea of it anyway).

One of the ways we departed from the method was that, instead of just doing all the discarding first and then tidying, we discarded and then reorganised what we kept as we went. This made things take a bit longer. Also, once things are tidy, you suddenly start to get more annoyed by remaining flaws in your house, so we’ve taken advantage of this deafening roar of motivation to fix things that have been irritating us: the fly screen window in the dining room has been busted ever since we adopted Abby (that correlation does imply causation; we witnessed it personally). I’ve now fixed it (embarrassingly, it took about five minutes and no equipment at all). The doorknob on the front door has been wobbly and loose and becoming increasingly likely to detach over the past year. Husband has now replaced it. Other doorknobs in the house have worn out their threads to the point that you can get trapped in various rooms. They have now been replaced. We even started dealing with car issues we’d been putting off – service for the Ford, wheel alignment and new tyres for the Subaru.

Basically, once we started putting our house in order, we started to feel the urge and the space to put the rest of our lives in order. This is actually exactly what KonMari predicts in her book, but we did it simultaneously with the decluttering.

Also: we didn’t discard CDs. We keep those as backups. We didn’t discard (many) books. I got rid of a few that I don’t feel emotionally attached to in their paper forms, which cleared up a shelf in my study (actually, desk space. I was using it as a “bottom shelf” but it made my desk feel very cramped and cluttered, so I’m pleased to have that space back), but the vast majority of books have been kept. They make us happy. I kept probably about a hundred times the memorabilia that you’re supposed to keep – because I found that handling it did “spark joy.” I have two plastic crates of memories that I genuinely enjoy going through. How often will I go through them? Probably not often, but I am delighted that they are there.

What I learned was that I know that. Previously I felt guilty and grumpy about having all that crap down in The Vault (the downstairs storage area). Now I feel good about it. That’s what I decided to keep, rather than just keeping it by default. I did get rid of about two thirds of it, but what I kept matters to me.

I don’t empty my bag out every day as KonMari recommends. I’m considering making it part of my routine, but as an absent-minded person I think it would be too easy to forget all the things I have to carry with me. Not just “keys, phone, wallet,” but extra things like medications, painkillers, salt for adding to water, sunglasses (prescription), handkerchief, thing for cleaning glasses, earbuds, pens, diary, Kindle or current paperback – all things I carry and actually use on a daily basis.

The thing is that, while KonMari recommends getting rid of most of your books (you already have the information, apparently) and various other things, she also acknowledges that different things bring different people joy, and if those things bring you joy, then by all means keep them! Just make sure you’re not keeping things out of habit: things that will not make you happy, that will just take up space.

Surprising Consequences of Decluttering

When tidying was described as “Life-Changing Magic”, my initial response was to make a loud raspberry noise. I am very mature that way. It’s cleaning, for God’s sake.

Except… it does seem to genuinely function as described. Having a streamlined space makes my brain feel more streamlined. I feel like I have more space in my head to think about my life. It’s hard to describe, but now when I walk into a tidy, organised bathroom, there’s a happy little sigh in the back of my head. The same with my study, with the kitchen, with the dining room. There’s a bit more of a struggle with the bedroom and lounge room – very “lived-in” spaces – but even they have been profoundly improved by the process.

The motivation to tidy up and organise other aspects of our lives has come as a surprise to Husband and myself. We didn’t expect to suddenly book in the car services we’d been putting off, or replace the broken door handles, or nail down the damaged boards on the back deck properly – those things just suddenly seemed worth doing and perfectly manageable. Some things are natural consequences – you cook more when your kitchen is clean – but others are genuinely surprising.

Another one is folding. I suddenly decided that I would try to fold clothes. KonMari said that “folding clothes can be fun!” and I thought immediately “What a load of horseshit!” but decided to give it a try anyway. I wouldn’t describe it as fun.

I would describe it as extremely mindful. When I lay out a piece of clothing, be it t-shirt, pair of socks, or jeans, and then work out how to fold it in and roll it up (I tend to roll things up), I am focusing solely on the feeling of the fabric in my hands, the colours and images on it, the neatness of it. Once it’s done, I place it in the drawer such that I can see all my t-shirts at once. No more rifling through a pile looking for that one black shirt with the design on it that I want that looks like the other black shirts I have without designs on them. It’s just there.

Instead of a frustrating task that I want to put off (mostly because of over-stuffed drawers that won’t close), I now look forwarding to folding and putting away laundry. I close down and just have a quiet sensory experience, just me and the fabric and the drawers. It won’t work that way for everyone, but for some of us, it might turn into a mindfulness exercise.

Another surprising consequence is that my resting heart rate has gone down about five bpm on average since I began this project. Some of that will be because I have such a specific ongoing project – I get stressed when I don’t know what I’m doing the next day, so ongoing projects are very good for me – but some of it is because I don’t have that constant itching at the back of my brain that says “you should tidy that. You should clean that. What’s that doing out? Where is that thing you were looking for? Why is that out where you tripped over it?” and so on.

I am happier with less stuff. This surprises me because I unashamedly like stuff. I like gadgets and books and pictures and memorabilia. These things make me feel comfortable and safe. It turns out that more was not better, and I have not only decluttered my house – I have decluttered my head.

It is immensely satisfying.

Now, onto the rest of the home improvements… (clean roof. Clean gutters. Clear back deck and paths. De-cobweb house. Re-do weatherproofing of house. New oven/stove unit. The list goes on).



4 thoughts on “The Mighty DeCluttering Project and that KonMari book

  1. I just read this book! Some of the weird stuff (e.g. the animism you mentioned) seems like it should have been more off-putting, but somehow her commitment to being really quite weird was an important part of the reading experience. And the end result was me actually planning to KonMari my stuff soon.

    Her little gender-essentialist bit about how men and women do different things with their loose change because evolution got my hackles up, but then I realised that I have coins 1. loose on my desk, 2. in a jar on my desk, 3. in a plastic ziplock bag that is sometimes in my bag and sometimes in a drawer, and 4. sometimes in my wallet. Which is kind of hilariously apposite.

    • Ugh, I’d forgotten the men vs women stuff – I admit I probably just let a lot of that wash over me along with the unapologetic animism. It would make me twitch when I first read it, then just sigh and keep reading the rest. Also I can’t remember where she thought men or women would put their loose change; ours went in the key bowl by the door until I cracked and took it to the bank (it was nearly $100 at that point). And yes, her happily obsessive personality really worked for me as well and made up for a lot of it.

      • Men are more likely to have it in their pockets or spread on an exposed surface, because of their natural tendency to want to be ready to provide for the home. Women are more likely to keep it out of sight in some kind of container because something something. Probably something to do with domesticity/nesting. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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