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.
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:
- 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…)
- 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!)
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.