Tidying Up Isn’t So Life-Changing


It’s the season for diet crazes, words of the year, and the fascinating but not-so-life-changing idea of tidying up, made popular by the Japanese author Marie Kondo.

After watching the show I can confidently say that I adore Marie. I want to be her friend. She is pleasant and kind and smart. I also appreciate that she is not so rigid about her own method that she cannot flex her best practices for unique situations. Not only is she just wonderful, it turns out that tidying up works for some people – lots even – based on the number who bought her book long before we could binge-watch her. I think this is terrific, but tidying up just isn’t life-changing for me. Here’s why:

It deals with how much I have, not how I ended up with so much. It’s terrific to have less stuff, especially things you don’t find useful. It’s also terrific to organize well and fold nicely. But I kept asking myself, “How did they get so much?” or “Why do they have so much?” and at the end of some episodes, “Why are they keeping so much?”.

It solves the clutter problem, but only temporarily.  Tidying up is terrific, and it has absolutely brought a breath of fresh air to some of my friends, until two weeks later when the Christmas presents were finally put away – they were disorganized, recluttered and unfolded. It’s awesome to take 150 bags of trash out of your house, but how do you keep from bringing it back in and spending another couple weeks digging out of the madness a few years from now?

It relies on the often-elusive feeling of “sparking joy”. If I emptied my closet of everything that doesn’t spark joy, I would likely have a pair of earrings left. Most of the everyday items we live our lives with don’t spark joy for anyone. I mean, I need a skillet to cook food, but it doesn’t spark joy. To Kondo’s credit, she does ask the follow-up question, “Do I want to bring this into my future?” which is helpful, but still leaves folks who think they need to keep everything for when they might someday need it with mountains of stuff.

For me, there is a bigger question: “Why do I have this?”

Either you have it because you actually use it, because you think you will use it, or because it means something to you. 

Tidying Up

We keep things we actually use.

This one requires little conversation, unless you don’t know what you use and think you use everything or have a storage issue – then you may want to consider the frequency with which you use things to help you prioritize what to keep. For me, if I haven’t used something in 12 months, four full seasons, then I give it to someone who will use it (we do the same with kids toys!). In the past, we’ve actually tested this theory by putting items we were unsure about in a bin in our basement. The agreement was that if we didn’t open the bin for a year, we donated the items, and wouldn’t you know that neither of us even remembered what was in that bin 12 months later?

We keep things we think we will use.

The justification “I might need it” is why so many Americans are drowning in stuff. It’s why the show Hoarders can even exist. There is often a mental health component to those struggles that I don’t claim to understand, but I can say that for most of the people I know who are drowning in stuff, whose drawers are crammed full and cabinet contents fall out when they open them, there is some underlying fear at play. It could be the result of a childhood where they didn’t feel secure and they keep stuff to make sure they don’t go without. It could be that their identity is on shaky ground and they use stuff to prove their value to themselves and others. It could even be that they keep everything for fear of what others will think if they don’t – especially from older to younger generations. I hear that one a lot, and for me the answer is that I have to live in my house, so I need to do what allows me to live there in freedom.

As an example, we were gifted both a large and small food processor when we married eleven years ago. (Bless my heart, I must have thought I would be processing all the things.) Turns out I never used the big one – never – and I only used the small one once, in eleven years. So when I was feeling overwhelmed in my kitchen like I didn’t have enough storage and daydreaming about a bigger house with a bigger kitchen I opened the cabinet and asked myself “Why do I have this?” and the answer was two-fold: because I might need it and because a person who means something to me gave it to me. The trouble is, if I apply that logic to everything we’ll be moving in a couple years for a bigger house with more space and more storage for things I don’t actually use.

Fear-based decision-making says: I might need this. It is often cushioned by the scarcity mentality that if you were to need that item, there would never be another. Freedom-based decision-making says: I do not use this item. If I need it I can get the same results with something else I have, or I can borrow it. In my case, this looked like acknowledging that I have a regular blender and an immersion blender with a chopping attachment that I use often that would do the job. I also know 10-15 people that would allow me to borrow one. 

We keep things that mean something to us.

Sentimentality is a huge driver for keeping things. This is one of the toughest to tackle, because it’s the most emotional. It requires we discern the difference between our feelings and facts, and that is hard work.

In my house, when it comes to sentimental items, we have decided that if an item means something to us then we want to use it or see it. It should not be in a box buried in the basement. We display the things that remind us of the people we love. Additionally, we don’t have to keep everything to remember everything (which is really that we don’t have to keep everything to remember everyone). For me, this meant that instead of keeping the entire collection of China that I would never use, I saved the platter for special occasions. 

Fear-based decision-making says: I have to keep this because I love ___ so much. Or it might say: If I don’t keep this it will mean I am not grateful for the gift. Freedom-based decision-making says: The person who gave it to me is NO LESS MEANINGFUL if I can’t/won’t/don’t use the gift. They intended for me to use it. Turns out I don’t. I choose to honor them by giving it to someone who will. 

We honor the people and experiences we love by how we live, not what we keep. 

If you have the space to keep things you might use and live comfortably and sleep peacefully in your home, then keep them. But if you are anxious, can’t rest, have trouble focusing or completing tasks in your home, avoid having guests, or find duplicates of things you purchased because you couldn’t find the original, then it might be time to do some work. Yes, I mean the kind of work that requires heavy-duty trash bags, but also the kind that requires some intentional thought and conscious conversation (if only with yourself) about the life you want to have. Only you know what that life looks like and whether or not the life you are living resembles it. A well-organized and beautifully folded drawer is a wonderful thing, for sure, but if you’re having to purge and reorganize and refold constantly, then tidiness only scratches the surface.

Years ago, when we started the journey to living with less, we found so much freedom. We have a medium-sized home with space to move and room in our drawers and closets and cabinets. Moreso, we actually use what we have. We genuinely love the things we keep. They make our lives better and more full, and (dare I say it?) they even start to spark joy.


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