– Nan Fairbrother, The House in the Country
One major thing that traveling around the world with just a backpack for 8 months taught me was that I need a whole lot less stuff than I thought needed. I had absolutely everything I needed on a day to day basis, and it fit in a bag on my back. Another surprising thing was that I treasured these few possessions I had with me. I thought I’d be so sick of them by the end – looking at and wearing the same things over and over, but I found myself endlessly fond of them. I had a specific outfit I wore on travel days – for flights and train trips. I looked so appreciatively at that top and those pants whenever I put them out the night before – they were familiar and brought me comfort.
When I got home, I knew I wanted to take a close look at the stuff I owned and re-evaluate what stuff I need in my life.
I wanted to simplify my possessions for three main reasons:
- I want to continue to make travel a priority in my life, even after I go back to working full time. I want to save money for more amazing trips. I know that simplifying my possessions down to what I truly needed will make it much easier to stop buying unnecessary things and bringing them into my home.
- I live in a one bedroom apartment in NYC. When I live with my possessions fully filling every storage area in my apartment, it’s hard to keep it organized. Closets need to be cleaned out every 3-6 months. New possessions don’t have a place to go.
- I want to feel less tied down by my possessions. I felt like I owned too much – and it was a burden. I want the things I own to feel like the items I carried with me around the world felt – I want them to bring me joy and I want to appreciate them, not feel annoyed by them.
In the US, we live in a culture that is constantly bombarding us with the message “you need more stuff to be happy,” or “this _____ will make you happy.” It’s not just through advertising, it’s in the media we consume, the blogs we read, the shows we watch, and probably also from our friends and family. It’s ridiculous and sort of sad that we need help with getting ourselves out of this mindset and this lifestyle, but it’s the truth. A lot of us, myself included, need to work hard to change this culturally ingrained mindset of constantly wanting new stuff.
I always thought that I am decently good at getting rid of things. I have no remorse about donating things I no longer need. But I still had accumulated a lot of stuff. My apartment is always clean and tidy on the surface, but since it’s a small apartment in NYC there is limited storage and my closets and storage areas were bursting with stuff. It was impossible to get things out or put things away without moving other things around and cramming stuff together. I also had a lot of stuff that I wasn’t using but had a hard time getting rid of – mostly irreplaceable, sentimental things. I felt like I needed help getting to the next level of minimizing my possessions. Having just the right amount of stuff stopped me from buying things during my travels, and I knew it would help at home too.
Enter Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
I’ve seen this book everywhere lately – it was published last year and has been all over bookstore displays themed for New Year’s Resolutions and improvement. There are a ton of books about cleaning and organizing your home, but I think this one became so popular because her philosophy is so simple. She doesn’t have a million storage ideas for jamming things into your home in an organized fashion. She teaches you this: discard everything that doesn’t bring you joy first, then what’s left will be easy to store and organize.
“To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To get rid of what you no longer need is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a closet or drawer that you have forgotten its existence? If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude.”
The book is divided into two sections: how to decide what to keep or discard, and how to store the things you do keep. I found the first section most helpful for me, but got a lot of great tips from the storage section as well.
This book will help everyone in different ways, since we all struggle with letting go of different types of things, but here are some examples of ways I minimized my possessions thanks to Marie’s philosophy and guidance:
CLOTHING. I had way, way too much. A medium sized closet packed full, and a giant six drawer dresser filled to the brim. I dress very simply – I don’t like spending time worrying about what to wear, so I’ve build a wardrobe of basic, easy to care for things that I like. And yes, most of these things are black. My friends give me crap about not wearing more color, so over the years I’ve also bought pieces that are more colorful and stylish, to spice things up every now and then. I got rid of enormous piles of clothing, and most of it fit into two categories: basics I had too much of (when I find something I love I buy a ton of duplicates) and colorful, stylish things that didn’t end up working out – I didn’t feel comfortable in them, and I didn’t wear them. What remains: my basics, still in duplicate but now a much more reasonable number, and only the pieces that are in the best condition; and dressier and more colorful options, but only the ones I feel great in. My dresser drawers and closet now all have a lot of breathing room, and I’ve emptied an entire large drawer & closet space for Graham to use.
BOOKS. This entire project started with my book collection, and I ended up getting rid of over 250 books. Marie’s advice on keeping only what brings you joy was somewhat helpful here, but as Marie is not a book collector (as I write about later on in this post) I had to develop my own tactics. What ended up working the best for me was thinking about the number of books I’ll be able to read in my lifetime. Many of my books are unread, with new titles added to my list all the time. I also love to re-read, so I often revisit my favorites. I learned to look at a book with the perspective of “Would I want to read this book very soon, above all the other unread books?” Thinking about that made me admit that maybe a book would be interesting to me someday – if I had unlimited lives to read books, but that in reality it was unlikely to ever be read. Those books are now passed along so that other readers can enjoy them. I still have over 1300 books, but now they all fit comfortably on my shelves, with room for new books. I also made a recurring event on my calendar to quickly but thoroughly glance over every shelf once per month to continue weeding my collection regularly. I might not discard many books every month during this exercise, but I do think looking at and thinking about my entire collection once per month will also help me purchase fewer new books.
SENTIMENTAL THINGS. This was always a hard category for me, because these things are mostly irreplaceable. But Marie’s advice on keeping only what brings you joy and letting go of the past was extremely helpful in this category. I kept the things that still bring joy. Many other things I thanked for their memories and let go. If I felt I needed to, I took a photo of the object and uploaded it to a private Flickr album. The Flickr album brings me more joy that the actual object ever did, because I can see it more often! I was also sentimental about a lot of clothing items – things I wore at special occasions, or t-shirts from important events – clothing associated with great memories. Marie reminds us that getting rid of an object doesn’t get rid of the good memories. Sometimes I snapped a pic of a clothing item for the Flickr album, but more often than not I already have photos of me in each item, and I realized that’s enough.
OLD NOTEBOOKS AND PLANNERS. This was another hard category for me. I had, in a tub under my bed, 10 years worth of old planners and notebook logs from each year where I logged my books read and other stuff. They are not my journals – those I love and keep. They are just old records and logs of the past. My planners held notes of everything I’ve done for the past 10+ years, and often times I jotted down quotes or song lyrics that were on my mind during a particular week. I never, ever looked at them, but it seemed like throwing them away was throwing away part of myself. I decided to let them go. First, I flipped through them and took a couple of photos for my Sentimental Things Flickr album. I took photos of the planner pages from significant weeks of my life – starting at Buddy Media, moving to Brooklyn, etc., and a few from normal weeks. I love the photos and can now look at them in my Flickr album, and the tub of old paper I never looked at is gone.
RANDOM STUFF. I got rid of a lot of “random stuff.” Things that were just sitting around, not getting used. Most of it was just stuff I don’t need: I haven’t used it in the 4 years I’ve lived in this apartment, so I got rid of it. One great thing about this project though is now that all my remaining things fit in my apartment so much easier, I can move things around to where I might actually use them. Example: I had a brand new waffle maker and fondue pot sitting in their boxes on a high shelf in my living room closet. There was no room in my kitchen for them. I never used them because they were such a pain to get out and put back away. Now that my kitchen is free from unneeded things, there’s room for both these things right up handy in my cupboard. If I don’t use them now that they are so easy to access and use, I’ll get rid of them at some point, but at least now they have a fair chance at being useful. I’m already planning a waffle brunch for this weekend.
There were only a few of her philosophies that I found too extreme to implement. They work for her though, and I’m sure for other people as well. I just find them so absurd for me personally that it makes me giggle a bit, so I’ll share them:
- Taking everything out of your purse at the end of a day and putting the contents in their own storage spot. This might be a good idea for people who switch bags or purses from day to day, but I use the same bag for months or sometimes years, and I would find taking everything out and putting it away at night and then re-loading it the next morning endlessly annoying. Plus, I’d probably forget things, and find myself at the subway station without my Metro card.
- Along those same lines, she recommends taking all shampoos and soaps out of the shower after use, drying them off, and storing them outside the shower. The thought of doing this makes my body tense up with unnecessary stress. Also, my bathroom is absolutely tiny – there’s no room to store them outside the shower! Maybe someday I’ll have a big glorious bathroom and an entire shelf of the cupboard could hold an assortment of shampoos and body washes, and I could pick the scents I am in the mood for that day. But for now, they are staying in the shower.
- Most of all, Marie Kondo and I do not see eye to eye on book collecting. Despite claiming she likes to read, Marie says she only keeps about 30 books at a time in her collection, and she keeps them out of sight in a shoe cupboard. She is a reader, but not a book collector. The thought of only owning 30 books does NOT bring me joy. And storing my books anywhere but proudly out on shelves where I can bask in their wonderfulness is out of the question.
I didn’t keep exact count of the bags of stuff I discarded, but I’d estimate that I got rid of over 30 bags of things to donate, and 10 giant trash bags of things to toss. My home now feels lighter and more comfortable. I have the things I need, it’s easy to get things out and put them away, I cherish the things I own, and I’m extremely happy. And I’m not buying things I don’t need! I’m not completely done yet – there are a few small areas and collections I need to go through, but I’m about 80% of the way there. It feels incredible.
This book is short, attractive, and a fast read. I highly recommend it if either of the following are true for you:
- You want to clean and organize your home. You can definitely attempt it on your own, but if you’ve tried and failed before to keep things tidy, this book could help you get things in order once and for all and prevent a “relapse.” The key is a very thorough discarding of things you don’t need.
- You want to stop impulse buying things you don’t need. I believe the best way to stop spending money on impulse purchases is to take stock of what you own, realize you have everything you need, and take joy in each of the possessions in your home.
Readers, if you’ve made it this far I’m assuming this topic is on your mind lately too. I’d love to continue the discussion with you in the comments! Please share your experiences tidying up and downsizing material possessions: wins and struggles alike, with or without Marie Kondo’s book as guidance.