Tidying, Tidying, Tidying…

Reading through Marie Kondo’s book on tidying up with a sample of the stuff I’ve got buried in my basement

It started with fulfilling a dream of a home gym and a friend having sent me this book after a discussion on cleaning up my basement.  The book sat on my shelf for probably a year un-read just waiting for the opportunity to be opened. Long after Marie Kondo’s method has swept the world, here I was heading down the path of building a home gym increasing the flexibility of my own training and to avoid the hustle and bustle of commercial gyms.  My basement on the other hand was not prepared for this transition. I moved into my house back in 2009 with my ex and accumulated the contents of a variety of houses. The combination of my grandparents belongings (all passed away), my dad’s stuff (also passed) and the entire collection of childhood toys that my parents kept in their own basement. A smorgasbord of toys, magazines, video games, hockey cards, and the list goes on.

As I dived into the clean-up effort my goal was one bag of garbage a week. This doesn’t sound like a lot but I’m lazy and wanted to get rid of stuff using my cities very own garbage collection system which allows for two bags a week. No trip to the dump for me. Four weeks in I had shifted all of the boxes from scattered everywhere to one side of the basement; it felt like progress although the pile had grown in height by almost double. Less spread, more pile.

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up seemed like the perfect book to read as I undertook this grand scheme. The fundamental idea of the book is quite sound in theory but for me quite difficult to undertake. Discard first, organize second. It became clear a few chapters in that my system was fundamentally backwards to the tidying up method suggested my Marie:

“…the secret of success is to tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible, and to start by discarding.”

Well I had the right idea about discarding first. One garbage bag at a time is in essence discarding first yet Marie is quick to point out you should be doing this all in one go. The benefits of this encompass getting it all done at once so the project feels complete and you don’t became derailed over a longer-term clean-up effort. There is also the risk that if you spread it out you will accumulate even more stuff as you are cleaning. This was, and still remains, a hurdle for me. I can’t envision going through the roughly 75 boxes down in my basement in one shot; it’s overwhelming. For better or worse after reading the book this was the area where I struggled to get behind. One garbage bag at a time is more my style; consistent and effective and allows me to get in and out. Chipping away so to speak.

It became a challenge after this point to get back into the book knowing that I’d ultimately already made the decision to NOT follow the method suggested. Marie would not have been impressed. So why did I continue? Moving through the book it became clear that Marie fundamentally practices, and educates on, a form of mindfulness except it comes with a different label. The idea of discarding rests on the principle of everything kept must spark joy in your life. This was a new way of looking at the process for me and backwards to my current process. piles of stuff sitting here and yet I’m seemingly unwilling to get rid of it for one reason or another. A bag a week is easy when you have 10-20% of the stuff having no attachment but I’m moving into the more attached piles. Marie nails this on the head for me by focusing on the idea that we really need to identify what we want to keep as opposed to not wanting to get rid of. My focus always moves toward not wanting to get rid of anything due to the attachment I’ve placed on these items; they may not spark joy but I come up with reasons why I should keep it. This is a point I think everyone can relate too.

So what areas struck home for me?  Marie goes through many of the more difficult objects each of us get hung up on and provides straight forward solutions and reasoning to make it easier to discard.  Clothes, books, mementos, and the list goes on. Books were  particularly close to my heart as I typically never get rid of my books. My discard pile of books is quite small for the reason that I feel like I’m collecting them for something or I may re-read them at a later date. A couple of useful thoughts Marie poses resonated with me:

“In the end, you are going to read very few of your books again.”

Very true. All of those University text book that might be useful to keep around.  When will I actually read those given the pile of unread books I currently have? I’ve cracked them open maybe once since I’ve left University with many going unopened.

“People with large book collections are almost always diligent learners. … Of all my clients, less than 15 percent put such books to use. When they explain why they hang on to them, their answers are all about what they intend to do ‘someday’.”

It was a realization to read this knowing it applied specifically to me. At least half of the books on my shelf are kept simply with the idea that I’ll revisit them someday. Truth be told there are only a few books I’d ever read again or have read again. I could count on two hands the number so what’s the need for hundreds? Sadly my books aren’t in boxes in the basement but resting peacefully on a shelf in my office. So clearly I have more tidying to do beyond my basement. Another of Marie’s lessons. Don’t focus on areas but rather do the same type of objects all at once! Oh Marie, you will be disappointed in me but I need to get this basement tidied up!

Komono is the term used to define miscellaneous items and includes a broad range of items including CD’s, office supplies, and even the random old equipment we have sitting around. This category makes up 90% of the stuff in my basement primarily because at some point I made the decision that it would be a good idea to keep everything from my childhood and my parents didn’t disagree. Or maybe it was the other way around? The details are foggy. It’s a strange feeling to have so many childhood toys that sit in boxes for years and yet not want to get rid of them!  There is that attachment voice going off in my head. My attachment voice says well don’t throw them out you can sell them.  All well in good but my problem has been not actively trying to sell anything!

“Too many people live surrounded by things they don’t need ‘just because’.”

It’s a truthful statement that I carry around with me now as I look at all of this stuff.  ‘Just because’ isn’t a good reason and yet it seems to be the one I’m holding on too in some cases. Sometimes it feels easier to simply let the stuff sit then make the decision to get rid of it. Thinking about all the work involved with getting rid of something. It’s not hurting anyone by sitting down in the basement and yet subconsciously it is always there in the back of my mind. Knowing that one day I’ll have to clean it up. One day I’ll want to develop the basement and then what. Reading through these passages allowed these thoughts to bubble to the surface as if I was practicing mindfulness and being present with all the voices in my head. Negative thoughts about getting rid of things that have some unnameable value in my mind; rest with it. Thoughts about getting rid of stuff that belonged to my grandparents and dad; rest with it.  One of the nice things about taking my time is that I do have time to rest with these thoughts making it easier the next time I go down there to simply throw stuff out with a clearer head.

Although I started out with a mindset of this book and methodology not being for me it slowly started to align with my own mindset. Although I may not be doing it all at once the rest of the book rang true. I’m hanging on to way too much stuff. It may sound nonsensical to say I now go through the items and ask myself if they spark joy but that is exactly what I’ve found myself doing over the past couple of weeks for my one garbage bag. What may have taken me 30-45 minutes now takes me 5-10. Marie has found a system that if we can get behind makes the act of discarding things  easier. A system has provided to focus more on what we want to keep through the joy it creates rather than the negativity of getting rid of something. As I digested this method it became clear that really the negative thoughts of discarding were just a form of attachment that could be dealt with through the process of letting go.

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

As I passed through all of the specific and useful recommendations I found the book narrowing in on this thought process going on in my mind. The book does not refer to itself as a mindfulness book and yet I found myself reading passages that could have been written by Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh had they written on on cleaning / tidying up:

“…letting go is even more important than adding.”

The thought of letting go of an item is really no different then letting go of a thought. Although in mindfulness we focus so much on sitting with thoughts then letting them go we tend to associate a lot of emotions to objects themselves. I pick up up an item and can immediately recall how I used it, when I used it and the emotion I felt, who gave it to me, and the feeling it gives me thinking about what I may one day do with it. Hard to believe that something inanimate could trigger a wide variety of feelings.

“When one or the other of these thought patterns makes it hard to throw things away, we can’t see what we really need now, at this moment. We aren’t sure what would satisfy us or what we are looking for. As a result, we increase the number of unnecessary possessions, burying ourselves both physically and mentally in superfluous things. Te best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.”

The habits we use to latch on to thoughts is no different then objects we have in our house. It all starts in our mind. Marie talks about the negative thoughts we deal with associated with objects and discarding them:

“The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful. It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past.”

There is definitely a pile of stuff in the basement that this applies; namely a lot of things handed down through the family that I personally don’t have an attachment too but feel obligated to keep. And so I finished off Marie’s book with a lot of good suggestions on how to tidy, not only my basement, but my house in general. Using principles that were simple and effective and rooted in mindful practices I’ve been going on about for some time. The idea of sitting with thoughts, feelings and emotions and then letting them go. Choose to keep the items that spark joy and let the rest go. Simple and effective. If you find yourself in a similar situation then try it out and see how it makes you feel. Otherwise pick up Marie’s book and see if there are any helpful ideas that would apply in your own tidying project.

Extra Resources:

One of the interesting subjects that Marie Kondo focuses on is clothing and a rather unique folding method. I’ve now tried this on socks and underwear and have to say that this system is great. I can now see everything in neat orderly rows and as Marie would suggest the items are no longer stacked and being treated poorly being crushed under the weight of other clothes.

Kondo-Mari Folding Method

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3 thoughts on “Tidying, Tidying, Tidying…

  1. When I read the sentence about doing it quickly, “in one shot”, it reminded me all those times I was either trying to tidy up or had to move. We (humans) are sentimental (even if we do not admit) and tend to attach to things, people, places, situations, especially those that fall within our comfort zone. Have you seen George Carlin talking “about stuff” 😉
    When there is no urgent need, it becomes hard to throw away things as you indeed think that you may need/you will read, etc. one day. When there is no other choice (e.g. you have to move to another country with a limited luggage space and there is no one you could leave some of your stuff with), you have to do it quickly, without allowing yourself into the thinking (emotional) part. It can be better, or not necessarily. Once I had to move to another country with a couple of suitcases, and after a quick packing/throwing away, there were a few things I have regretted having got rid of. Another time when I had to move abroad but could leave some stuff (okay, a lot of stuff) at my parents’, after a few months I could not even remember what I had there; when you do not even remember, for sure you do not need or miss it (conclusion: you had too much).
    In Japan minimalism is quite popular, but we also have to remember that the living space is generally extremely small and in the event of an earthquake, a lot of (potentially falling) things at home might be dangerous… at the same time, here it is probably less likely that one day you go through your basement and discover e.g. an old painting, original book edition or some other treasure, which would not exist if someone in the past did a proper tidying up… 😉

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    1. Thanks for the big response! In my case I have a large basement that is out of sight, out of mind! It’s easy to simply put stuff there where I never have to look at it. The problem is that it slowly builds up! You are right though; if I had to move it would be a big clean-up but would be nice to get rid of stuff.

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