Ask the Right Questions, Part 1: De-cluttering Your Life

If you follow this blog, you already know that I’ve struggled with clutter for a long time.  I’m not good at getting letting go of things, even if they’re broken or unnecessary, or have outlasted their usefulness. However, within the past week, I’ve thrown away or donated eight trash bags full of clothes and four boxes full of books. I never thought I was capable of downsizing so effectively!

For my entire life, I’ve dragged boxes of obsolete junk with me across the country and around the world. I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars in shipping fees, and lived for years smothered by the volume of my possessions. I thought I would never be able to change—but in the end all it took was a slight mental shift sparked by this book.

Image result for the life changing magic

Now, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up isn’t the best written book, and its quirky style might not be for everyone, but it cuts to the core of why people like me struggle to part with useless objects that fill our homes—and why it’s so important to get rid of them.

According to Marie Kondo, when cleaning your living space, the question to ask is not “Should I keep this?” or “How often do I use this?” or “Do I need this?” or “Where can I put this?”  The only question you ask is: “Does this object spark joy?”

It’s an insanely simple question, and it’s one that can only be answered intuitively. The more you think about what to do with an object, the more you’ll rationalize keeping it—even if you already know the answer in your gut.

Why do we rationalize holding onto things that don’t make us happy? Kondo summarizes this beautifully:

“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Think about it. It’s an amazingly profound statement, and it applies to so many aspects of life beyond cleaning! When we make choices in life, we instinctively know which choice will make us happy—and yet reluctance to move forward or fear of what might happen often prevent us from making that choice.

Taking this lesson to heart, I’ve been able to part with clothes that I thought I’d wear but never did—often because I wanted to present myself as someone I’m not. I also got rid of so many books—ones I thought I “should” read, but never truly wanted to slog through; ones I thought looked sophisticated or impressive on my bookshelf but never read; and ones on topics I thought I should know more about but never bothered to investigate. Through the process of asking myself if each book and article of clothing made me happy, I learned that I was trying so hard to be someone that I’m not, and that I was using my belongings as a mask.  Not only was I creating a façade to impress others, I was making it harder to discover what I truly valued and to live the life I wanted to live.

I also learned that I’m not fully ready to let all of those aspirations go. I’ve learned, and I’ve made progress, but I’ve also cheated in a few key areas:

  1. Fancy clothing: I own a whole lot of blazers for someone who doesn’t wear blazers. Most of them still have the price tags on! I know it’s silly to keep them, but I love the idea of being the type of person who wears blazers! (Maybe it’s because my professional life is a mess…)
  2. Foreign language books: I stopped learning Spanish in college. I stopped studying Japanese when I left Japan. I’ve had no motivation to study either language since then, but I like the idea that someday I might pick up where I left off. (According to Kondo, “someday” means “never.” I know she’s right, but I’m keeping them anyway!)
  3. Magazines: I don’t read magazines fast enough to keep them from piling up. I’ve unsubscribed from most of them, and thrown out most of the ones I kept to read “someday,” but I’ve still kept a sizable stack. My plan is to go through them and save only the articles and recipes I’ll want for future reference. I realized that if I let them sneak back into the bookcase I’d never go through them, so I’ve put them in a basket by my bed so they won’t slip under the radar!
  4. Teaching materials: I wrote about this in my last post. I’m allowing myself a chance to sort out my feelings about teaching, and so even though they don’t bring me joy, I’ve allowed these resources to occupy a few shelves for the time being.
  5. Bad artwork: I’m a terrible artist. I’m not proud of the monstrosity I created at PaintNite, but I worked hard on it and it brings back fond memories!

I’m a huge believer in learning through making mistakes—sometimes you need to do the wrong thing a few times to convince yourself to get it right! I’ll eventually do a second round of tidying—and I hope that round two will bring me further clarity about my life. Until then, I’ll celebrate the progress I’ve made so far and embrace the process of sorting through the fears and false hopes to find out what brings me joy.

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11 thoughts on “Ask the Right Questions, Part 1: De-cluttering Your Life

  1. I’ve been home for a few months in between jobs, and I thought I had downsized enough until I read your post… I have tons of blazers that still have tags, that I don’t fit anymore… lol (I tell myself I will definitely fit into this one soon). I feel proud that I can even stand up straight in my closet without stepping all over shoes, belts, purses and clothes. As for artwork… I have all my sons old pictures from elementary that I won’t through away… thats my extent of artwork… my husband and son both say… throw it all away because its embarrassing but I keep it for me and my memories. I will check out the book you read… GREAT post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work downsizing, and that’s awesome! Still, I would definitely recommend this book–I’ve already recommended it to a bunch of my friends! I can relate to the dilemma surrounding things with sentimental value–I also have a few old mementos (mostly t-shirts from events in high school), but I’ve decided to get rid of some after taking pictures of them. I’d rather have the space than the objects, and the memories are the most important part for me. Anyway, read the book–I hope it makes you as happy as it’s made me!

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  2. Over the years, I have downsized. Some not by choice, other stuff I let go of because I no longer saw the point of holding on. Some stuff (mostly the not by choice stuff) I miss dearly. I am now at a point where all my earthly treasures fit (including all my clothes) into the trunk of my car. It’s an odd feeling of detachment, but it is what it is. I applaud you for diving in! Best of luck!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s extreme downsizing! I’ve often wondered whether I could do something similar–live in a tiny house with only the bare necessities. Do you feel happier living with less? What were the biggest challenges you faced in downsizing?

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      1. Great questions! The bulk of everything was lost in an extreme way and I never had the desire to recollect stuff. I lost some treasures and would not wish that type of downsizing on anyone. Last August, facing a life direction change, I went for broke (by choice) and got rid of mist everything I had been hanging onto (including 12 years worth of magazines. If I need an article, it’s on the Internet).

        I had to learn that I am not the sum of stuff. My value had to come from elsewhere and not what I possessed. There is simple joy in being simple. Like making pasta from scratch, it’s a lot of work but well worth the effort!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Losing everything is a rough way to downsize–I’m so sorry you went through that! In downsizing by choice, it’s interesting how the reasons we have for hanging onto things fall away when we decide to live with less. I’m very excited by the idea of having less “stuff” in my life–I know it will take a lot of work to sort through and get rid of things, but I’m ready to take that step! (My downsizing won’t be as dramatic as yours, but I’m hoping to achieve a “joyful simplicity” too!)

          Liked by 1 person

  3. We just moved to a teeny tiny apartment in Portland and were forced to downsize! Luckily I had just dived in this book and I was amazed at how much easier it was to do. Growing up in the Army and now married to an Army man…I’ve moved every 2-3 years my entire life and junk adds up so fast. “Does this give me joy” really packs a punch. Keep up updated on your downsizing endeavors!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! There’s so much more downsizing for me to do, but I’ve never felt so motivated to tackle the clutter! I can’t imagine moving so frequently–that must be a challenge, but also kind of exciting!

      Liked by 1 person

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