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Feb 23

Decluttering: Philosopher Ninja Style

 

Simple and uncluttered

Simple and uncluttered

This last summer I was introduced to an odd little book by Marie Kondo titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. A friend of mine read this book and was in the process of decluttering – and by decluttering I don’t mean sorting through the junk drawer in the kitchen and throwing a few things away. She was getting rid of half of her belongings; we are talking rented garbage dumpster and van loads of donations.It sounded radical and a little crazy as she tried to describe the process to me – in other words right up my alley.

My brother was visiting that week and on our way back from a hike we stopped by to pick up the book. As my friend was evangelizing her spiritual experiences with the decluttering process I could see the ‘dude, you’ve got some weird friends but I’m gonna try and keep an open mind’ look come across by brothers face. I smiled, grabbed the book and threw it in the back seat. Beers and laughter tonight, book tomorrow. I started reading the next day.

How crazy and radical can a book on decluttering be anyways?

Well, as it turns out we are talking about mind blowing, epic proportions of radical craziness here, most of it in a good way.

It’s kinda like what I would imagine if Martha Stewart ran Fight Club – radical, counterculture and very, very polite. It is a beautiful, well-mannered kick to the groin of consumerism.

As I read the book (it is a quick read) over the next day or two I realized that many people at first glance would think this is a ‘how to’ book; a tactical guide to decluttering – and it is in a way. But primarily this is a philosophy book, and that’s why I’m sharing my thoughts with you. Sometimes a philosophy so simple and brilliant comes along one wonders why nobody thought of this before.

So what is it all about?

In a nutshell, you go through ALL of your possessions, in a specific order, which Kondo perfected by working with thousands of clients over the years. You pick up each item and ask one simple question over and over again…

‘Does this spark joy?’

That’s it. You could actually summarize this book on a 3 by 5 note card. How hard could this be?

puzzle

Simple, right?

The only criterion is everything you keep must spark joy, and if it doesn’t it should be eliminated from your life. Now the nuance of the book is in the definition of joy and the arguments the author makes in defense of ‘fewer things bring you joy than you think’. There is a lot of beauty in her philosophy and it’s worth reading just for that alone.

Now the book is a bit odd in that the language and phrasing used will remind you of something translated from another language. Marie Kondo is Japanese and the book was written in Japanese and translated into English, so the style is a bit unusual. I was not deterred though, as the philosophy underneath is universal and very clear. Much of our unhappiness and frustrations in our life are due to ‘clutter’ that does not bring us joy. By getting rid of all the things that are joyless, we are surrounded only by things that make us happy.

It is addition by subtraction.

It seemed so simple and impossible at the same time.

How could getting rid of half my stuff make me happier? I mean there is a reason I bought all this stuff in the first place…right?

I strong armed gently convinced my wife to read the book we made the commitment to go all out KonMarie philosopher ninja on our possessions.

Ok, step one: Put all of your clothes from every closet/dresser/storage unit in a big pile on the floor…

…about an hour later looking over the mess I just created I remember thinking wow, this is going to be more work than I thought.

As it turns out, you really don’t realize how much stuff you have until it is sitting in a big joyless 4 foot high blob on your floor. It also turns out after the first fifty times you hold a shirt in front of you and ask it ‘Do you bring me a spark of joy?’ you really start to question your sanity. Have you just been tricked into joining some weird cult?

As the day wore on the pile didn’t seem to be changing as fast as I hoped. I was exhausted and I was still on pants. Who the hell bought all these? I had opened Pandora’s Box and there was no way through but forward.

 

What have I done?

 

Now what makes this method tactically different than the other 6000 decluttering books is the massive shock and awe effect. You literally throw all of your stuff in a huge pile, sort it with your joy meter and get rid of the chaff. And you wait until the very end to put things away.

This is moderately to exceedingly disturbing to ‘type A’ personalities with a mild obsession with order.

WARNING: if you do this method by the letter or even in the same ball park as the book suggests your house will look absolutely terrible for weeks. It will actually seem like you are making things worse as all your stuff will be strewn everywhere and actually seems to be multiplying.

It is a physically and mentally exhausting process.

If you make it to week 2 you will start to get a little pissed off at whoever introduced you to this madness.

By week 3 you will fall to your knees and weep when you discover another cabinet or box of crap in the shed you forgot about.

You don’t want to know what happens to your sanity in week 4…

 

The book recommends a very specific order to go through your possessions. This is another area where she diverges from most other decluttering methods. Most suggest you start with a room, cupboard or drawer and proceed in a geographic way. I actually found her category method to be superior for the following reason: It focuses the mind. When you are going through 50 shirts your senses are only tuned into shirts. There is nothing else in your life but shirts…so many shirts.

There is no distraction or ‘attention residue’. You are 100% focused on shirts and joy. There are no thoughts like ‘why is there a spatula, half used birthday candles and a box of expired condoms in this drawer?’ And yes, thoughts like these do take away from your focus. You will need all your energy for this decluttering marathon.

Joy

Sparks of joy…sparks of joy!

So what is attention residue you ask? There is a part of your brain still working to try and figure out the whole spatula/condom/birthday candle thing. That’s attention residue.

OK, refocus.

Now don’t get me wrong, as with anything radical and brilliant there are a few sprinkles of crazy thrown in for good measure. First of all NO ONE but maybe KonMari herself is nutty enough to follow this method exactly. It is hard core extreme stuff. She advocates keeping no paperwork. Her chapter on getting rid of books makes me cringe a little. She thinks socks have energy and feelings. After the first few chapters of this book I diagnosed the author with an extreme case of OCD and thought she needed intense therapy and a few doses of valium. While I still think this may be true, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Remember:

This is a philosophy book first, and a decluttering book second, and here is the take away:

Every material possession in your life either adds to or takes away from your joy. Nothing is neutral. Everything you possess takes energy to acquire, transport, store, categorize, find when you need it, etc.

It all takes either physical or mental energy, something that is not infinite.

As another great philosopher of our time said:

The things you own end up owning you.

-Tyler Durden

Our default setting is ‘more is better’. We evolved through most of human history in a time of scarcity, where hording resources of all kinds brought us joy and/or survival. We now live in a world of almost obscene abundance, and we have not changed our habits fast enough. We have not evolved. In so called first world countries most of us have too much. The clutter takes away from our joy rather than adding to. It adds complexity where simplicity is needed. We can’t see it though because abundance is all we know.

Everywhere we look from celebrities to television to advertising – more is better.

This is a lie that most of us accept as truth without questioning.

Taking this one step further though, there is more than just physical clutter. There is relationship clutter, appointment clutter, digital clutter, attention clutter, information clutter. These are in some ways more problematic because they are more insidious and harder to detect. They are no less joy sucking though. Having obligations with friends or family that you don’t enjoy, checking your email 17 times a day, having a calendar full of things you ‘should’ be doing because that is what a person of your social status/title/gender/income level does is all clutter. And it is largely invisible. It is the equivalent of all those useless programs that run in the background of your computer after 5 years and slow it to a crawl.

If we are not intentional about our lives clutter will fill it. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Marie Kondo introduces us to this concept through the tangible – the visible material possessions. She gives us a blueprint than anyone can follow. The real gift is the philosophy she gives us to apply to other areas of our life.

 

10 observations for those who like lists:

  1. Almost no one will follow this to the level of extreme badassness as Kondo, and that is fine. Read the one and two star reviews on this book and you will see people that don’t really understand the point of a book like this. The method is extreme to show you what is possible, not what you should necessarily do. Take the method to the point of discomfort and push as far as you can. If something is too much, don’t do it. Or do the stuff that is easy first, live with it for a while, and decide if the more hardcore stuff is for you.

  2. This stuff is awesome. I’m serious. After the pain of living in a disaster zone for a few weeks we got rid of about 30-40% of our stuff. The clothing purge was most tangible for me and closer to 50%. I have less, but I FEEL like I have more. It is an interesting paradox. When I look in my closet now all I see are clothes that I like to wear. I literally have increased joy when going to get dressed in the morning. My closet is visually more appealing, I can find things easier, and I have fewer decisions to make. This paragraph will seem ridiculous until you do it.

  3. Storage systems are for hoarders. If you can’t fit your stuff into a few cabinets or drawers you have too much stuff. I firmly believe this. I love being able to open drawers and see exactly what I have. Storage systems may look very tidy, but they only organize your clutter.

  4. It should hurt a little. I’ll be honest, going through this kind of sucked. It was emotionally and physically exhausting. It was like training for a marathon. Stay with it and you will be rewarded.

  5. It changes your mindset. I now continuously look at any possession and from time to time ask it ‘do you spark joy?’ Often times the answer is no and I get rid of it. Life is so much clearer when filtered through the ideas of freedom and joy.

  6. Compared to Marie Kondo you are an amateur. I think if I decluttered again and purged half of my existing possessions Marie would still come into my house and shake her head in subtle Japanese disappointment. I filled my massive recycle bin for the next several months with shredded paper, but I’m
    still not down to the 5 paper documents she likely has in her house. That’s ok, I’m getting there. Don’t compare your progress to hers or you will likely feel like a failure. It is not a contest.

  7. My socks do not have energy or sadness. I’m just going to chalk this one up to something being lost in translation. I love you KonMari but you went off the rails here. What I do believe though is its ok to think of possessions as something with purpose. The purpose of a shirt is to be worn. The purpose of a book is to be read. It is psychologically easier to part with a questionable object when you can visualize it serving its purpose by providing someone else with joy. Mindset shifts from ‘will I ever need this’ to ‘is this item fulfilling its purpose’. Get rid of your crap because most likely it is not.

  8. You will not miss 99.9% of your stuff…but you will miss 0.1% of it. Any filtering method that cuts this deep cannot help but make a mistake here and there. Don’t let this fact deter you. The cost of re-acquiring the few things you want back is minimal compared to the psychological and spiritual gains you obtain by decluttering in the first place. I helped my mom do this method and frankly she was a little concerned she would later regret some of the things she was getting rid of. I promised her if she found herself in this situation to immediately call me and I would order whatever product she wanted back and replace it for her free of charge. I have yet to spend one dollar this way. You just will not miss this stuff. I can count on one hand the things I have mild regret about purging and have not actually repurchased any on them.

  9. This is really an awesome template for moving forward. When you are acquiring something ask “does it spark joy?” Do this relentlessly. You will become much more selective and much less clutter will work its way into your life.

  10. It will probably save you money. As you become more discriminating about letting clutter into your life, you will stop buying things. You will learn to use your money to buy only things that bring joy and as a default setting you will spend less, but feel richer.

cassette tapes

Unfortunately, these did not make the cut

Try the method. There are so many upsides and limited downside. At a minimum your house will be cleaner and your things easier to find. On the other end of the spectrum it may radically change your life for the better.

It’s a beautiful philosophy and I’m putting the book on ‘the list’.

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  1. Joe (arebelspy)

    This book is RIDICULOUSLY highly praised, all over the Internet, and especially all over the MMM forums.

    Many, many threads about it, pretty much all praising it.

    I just don’t get it. Now, admittedly, I haven’t read the book. But I’ve read enough reviews that I think I understand it. And I still don’t understand it. 🙂

    Skim through this thread (for just my replies if you wish) first–it has some questions I posed, and a picture of all my clothes:
    http://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/off-topic/reality-check-thought-i-was-a-minimalist/

    So with that background/questions in mind:

    She says to ask “does this bring joy?”

    The problem is.. NONE of my stuff brings joy. It’s just stuff. So the answer would be “no” and I’d throw it out. Next item.. rinse, repeat, until I owned nothing.

    I have things that are functional, and they’re fine. They don’t bring joy, they’re just stuff. If they were lost, or broken, I’d replace them.

    But I have no emotions, good or bad, wrapped up in my things.

    The wife and I, last summer, got rid of everything we own, save a box in my mother-in-law’s garage with keepsakes (wedding album, birth certificates, etc.) and a backpack of things each. Getting rid of all of the things I owned besides some clothes wasn’t particularly difficult. But none of the stuff I kept, I had any more reason to keep than anything else, beyond utility.

    You wrote:
    “Every material possession in your life either adds to or takes away from your joy. Nothing is neutral. Everything you possess takes energy to acquire, transport, store, categorize, find when you need it, etc.”

    Up until that line, I had been thinking all my things were neutral. So I have a backpack of stuff. Basically all consists of clothes, some electronics (laptop, camera, ebook reader), and toiletries (contact solution and spare contacts, toothbrush, toothpaste). It definitely takes energy to transport. But they each provide utility. They don’t bring me joy.

    Therefore, I guess they’re all taking away from my joy? What’s the solution then? Get rid of all of that, own nothing, be a nudist, and live as Diogenes, in a barrel? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diogenes_of_Sinope

    I like the definition someone gave on page 2 of that thread: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris

    That works for me, cause all my stuff is useful, or beautiful (art, for example). The question that arose then, was what stuff do you own that’s NOT useful or beautiful? I don’t think I’ve ever owned things like that, so then it’s sort of a pointless definition, because it encompasses everything I’ve owned (even the stuff I got rid of last summer was useful at the time, just not when I only have a backpack worth of it).

    So I’m back to not getting it. Keep hoping someone’s explanation of the book will help it “click” for me (my thought when this article popped up in my RSS feeds), but not yet. I now think reading the book will leave me with the same feeling–I’ll read it, and still won’t understand it.

    My stuff doesn’t spark joy. Nor is it negative. I have no emotions wrapped up in any of it. It’s just stuff.

  2. TheHappyPhilosopher

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Joe. I hear what you are saying. It sounds like your problem is with the word joy, and I will admit when I first read the book we laughed at the idea of sparks of joy emanating from our possessions. I replaced it with happiness. You mentioned useful and beautiful. Things that are useful and beautiful make me happy. Language is tough because definitions vary slightly between people and moreso between languages. I imagine there is a Japanese word that has subtly different meaning. It is like mindfullness – an English word that tries to encompass a concept that has no real great translation.

    You are not the target audience for the book, as you are definitely a few standard deviations from the mean with regards to possessions, but I would recommend reading the book anyways because although it is geared towards material possessions there is an underlying philosophy that applies to more than that. It sets a framework for decluttering everything, and that is where the real value lies.

    Now if you are already there, you may not be impressed, but when I read the book my life was extremely cluttered. The book changed my perspective in the same way reading Jacob or MMM for the first time changed my perspective. If I was already there emotionally it wouldn’t have had the same impact. That is why the book has such high praise. Most people are hoarders with too much stuff.

    It is a manual for how to approach life with the pragmatic side of a decluttered house wrapped around it.

    You seem to have detached your ego almost completely from your possessions. I am envious and impressed. This is freedom, and therefore this book is about freedom. Freedom and happiness – my two recurring themes here and favorite topics 🙂

    But most people have not detached enough, including me. This book is for the 99% of people that have way too much stuff (rich industrialized countries of course).

    By asking the question of joy, I realized I was weighing the beauty, utility, etc against the energy required to keep it. It is about finding the balance. For some reason the ‘spark of joy’ question does a good job of accomplishing this. It is a brief meditation on each item you own. By holding in your hands and addressing it in this way I found the ability to let go of more than I have ever been able to.

    The book is ridiculous, profound, silly, and deeply beautiful at times. If you have a house full of stuff the method just works, and it works better than anything I’ve tried.

    I have a decluttering 2.0 post I’m working on which addresses the non-material things which you may enjoy 🙂

    This was a very scattered response, but I haven’t had coffee yet. (yes, my coffee makes brings me joy!)

  3. Sam S

    Good thoughts. I am glad you write about the book, because I like the book a lot, as I like philosophy.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Did you read her second book: Spark Joy? Want to know what you think of it, too.

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Thanks Sam. I have not read her other book, but I will put it on my ever growing reading list and go check it out from the library. Is it something new or just an expansion of the philosophy she laid out in her first book?

      1. Sam S

        It’s just an expansion of the 1st book. Hubby read the 1st book twice. I’m glad we share the same philosophy. Thanks for pointing out that it’s a philosophy book first and a decluttering book second.

  4. Physician on FIRE

    What?!? No more Dokken, VH, or Def Leppard?!? I hope you have duplicates on CD or vinyl. 😉

    You kept the Creedence, didn’t you…

    Best,
    -PoF

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Lol, I just saw this comment now. I will let this Dokken video speak for itself…

  5. Julian Pecenco

    This may be the best review of the KonMarie books I have ever read! Most are either totally fawning, or 1-star reviews saying, “She’s nuts.” I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,, and thought it was a little light, but it inspired me to try the method anyway. (I also read Spark Joy, which helps clarify some of the details.)

    For me, the books/method helped me blast through my clothes, papers and books (admittedly, I’d done periodic purges of all of the above over the years, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.) When I got to the “komono,” however, it got overwhelming. Lumping all “miscellaneous stuff” into one category doesn’t work very well for the average American with house full of stuff. Even trying to break it down into smaller categories has been overwhelming, and after a few weeks, I had to take a break from the entire process. Still, as you note, there are some really good concepts in there, and it works well if you can work through it.

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Thanks for the kind words Julian. I agree, clothes were definitely the easiest and probably where everyone should start.

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