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Out of Sight is Not Out of Mind

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For a brief time in 2011, I had a place for everything. I discarded more than half of my possessions, with the idea of owning nothing that didn’t have its own hook, spot or shelf. Once everything had a home, I could put everything away in five minutes, and wake up to a clear space and a clear mind.

It took about a month to do — and about six months to undo. When I wrote about my success, I gave it the ambitious title “Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever.” Things eventually reverted to tolerable clutter. It never got back to a clothes-on-the-floor level of messy, but there are objects on the dining room table that are never used for dining, and books living on surfaces other than my bookshelves.

I have never forgotten the uncanny peace that comes from a home devoid of chaos. It’s a completely different home-life experience, free of a certain kind of tension that you only notice when it’s gone. Every item sitting out is an unresolved issue, both in the real world and in the mind. They give your day-to-day life a sense of perpetual unresolvedness, like you’re always in the middle of renovating or switching to new software at work.

I’ve been meaning to do it again for four years now, but it’s an enormous job, and the benefits seem to wear off too quickly. Unless you’re born organized, decluttering is a fight against gravity and entropy, and maybe some other inalienable laws of the cosmos.

The problem was my method. I thought tidying was just a matter of making things look nicer. While I was going closet-to-closet, purging and re-stacking, a tiny Japanese woman was developing a science around the idea of “everything in its place”. Now she’s got a million-selling book and a three-month waiting list for her services.

Her name is Marie Kondo, and she says our conventional notions of tidying set us up for relapse. When we’re children we’re told to tidy our rooms, which we know means “get everything off the floor and out of sight”, and we generally don’t develop the concept of “tidy” any more deeply than that.

Marie says tidying up is something that should done in one single, thorough effort, and it should last a lifetime, because it’s as much a rearrangement your philosophy as of your home. Our homes — and consequently, our lives — get messy because we have fearful and unhealthy relationships with our possessions. Where you keep your things is important, but it’s less important than which things you keep, how you feel about them, and why you have kept them. 

A family member gave me the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I’ve begun the process. Kondo’s prescriptions contradict almost everything I did when I first purged my apartment.

Some of her main tenets:

Aim for perfection, in one swoop — quit trying to do a little bit every day. One chapter is entitled, “Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever.” Tidying should be dramatic and thorough, because it represents a dramatic change, not only in what you own, but how you relate to what you own. Before you’re done, every item you own will have been handled and examined.

Sort by type of possession, not by room. Last time I went room to room, closet to closet, pulling everything out, purging things I could do without, and then putting them back neatly. This method makes for a clear space (for a while) but it focuses too much on what each room looks like at a glance, and too little on why we keep the items we do, and how it feels to own them. In Marie’s method, you go through all your clothes first, then books, papers, mementos, and so on. Gather every single book in the house into one place before deciding which to keep.

Do it in two distinct phases: discard, then arrange. In the conventional room-to-room method, we do the discarding and arranging at the same time. Choose something to keep, put it on the shelf. Choose something to toss, put it in the bag. Instead, go through each category of possession individually, donating whatever you’re not keeping. Once you’ve purged every category in this way, go through them all again and assign each item a home.

Keep only items that evoke joy. For each item of each category, hold it in your hands and see if it sparks any joy for you. If not, it’s detracting from your experience at home. Donate it. This criterion sounds vague, but it’s far superior to the usual ones: discard things that no longer work, that you haven’t used in a year, or which aren’t “useful or beautiful”. None of these tests work in all cases, because we keep different kinds of possessions for different reasons. Should I discard photo albums that I haven’t looked at in a year? Should I keep an old vase just because it’s still beautiful? The “joy criterion” seems to answer the broader question of whether an object belongs in our lives or not.

Be wary of storage. When we’re holding onto something that brings no joy to our lives, it’s either out of an unhealthy attachment to the past or an unhealthy fear of the future, according to Ms Kondo. A room that looks tidy but contains unwanted items in storage containers still feels cluttered, at least to the owner of those items. Decluttering is a kind of soul-searching — it requires us to make decisions about our values and our expectations for our lives — and storage is a way of dodging that important work.

The Joy Test

There’s a lot more in the book, but the central commandment is to apply the joy test to every item you own, right down to the post-its on your bulletin board.

Otherwise we end up with too many possessions that evoke negative emotions: shame, guilt, regret, revulsion. When you look in your closet, chances are half the clothes in there make you feel bad for one reason or another. You either never wear them, or they look dumb on you, or they cost a lot but don’t fit, or they were gifts you don’t like. This stuff is pure baggage, and we keep it everywhere, not just in our closets but on our bookshelves, in our garages, on our walls and in our cupboards. Cutting these emotionally draining objects loose is an amazing feeling.

The joy criterion seems to apply to everything else in life too. Suddenly I’m looking at all of my choices this way. If I have to choose between working on X or Y, I go for the one that evokes more joy when I consider it. Which fitness program should I follow? How should I schedule my day? What should I order at the restaurant? Should I keep working, or go for a walk?

The answers are surprisingly practical for an intuition-based method. But it makes sense, because the joy test leads directly to living from our values instead of our habits. You’d think we already do this, seeking joy by default, but often we’re working from another motive that doesn’t always serve us in the long term: familiarity, fear, gratification or sense of control.

There are some items that are necessary, even though they don’t seem to elicit any joy. Tax records, for example. But the joy criterion is broad enough to work here too — I know I’d rather have my records organized neatly by year, in crisp folders, than have them joylessly rubber-banded together into a large brick at the bottom of a filing cabinet. The joy test makes the emotional effect of each possession clear.

I’m going through everything this way over the next six weeks: clothes, books, tools and utensils, papers, mementos and even food in my cupboards. I’m done my books so far, and it’s wonderful to look at my bookshelf and see only books that bring me joy. I hadn’t realized how much of an effect my possessions have on how it feels to be home. I want my whole house to feel like my bookshelf.

This will be my 21st official experiment, and I’ll update my progress on the experiments page, with pictures. I invite you to do it along with me if it interests you.

What is the possessions situation in your home? Are you anywhere close to having a place for everything? What is ideal for you?


Photo from here

Jerry July 19, 2015 at 11:27 pm

The timing of this post is uncanny. I also just read Marie Kondo’s book (as well as “The Joy of Less” by Francine Jay), and my wife and I are currently going through our possessions to try declutter our home, and in a broader sense, to simplify some aspects of our lives. We find some things easier than others (she struggles with sentimental things, and I have a hard time with those “just in case” items), but what we have done so far in the past 2-1/2 weeks has been illuminating. I agree with Marie Kondo’s idea that, once you experience the joy of a tidy home with a place for everything, it is difficult to imagine ever going back. Very interested to read your ongoing thoughts on this experiment.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:34 am

She does recommend doing the more sentimental things last, to avoid getting hung up. I find it interesting that even things we hang onto for sentimental reasons can make us feel bad.

Milda July 21, 2015 at 5:11 am

Oh, but they do. I love tidying up (and, for my surprise, as I read I understood that when I devote a couple of days just to that, my approach is kinda similar to the tips you wrote from Marie Kondo’s book). But I have to say that, for me (an art student), tidying the kitchen or wardrobe is a lot more pleasant than my own working space. The “just in case” storage of materials and old works I keep for “sentimental” reasons are the hardest thing to get rid of. Nevertheless, it feels really good to get all the free space and less clutter in it…so yeah, a thorough cleaning is a must once in a while.

Thank you for this article (and others, very interesting to read), I was inspired by it and just went to my wardrobe and threw out a heap of old clothes. Yay. :)

Jaimi Allers July 20, 2015 at 10:35 am

Uncanny for me as well!

Curtis July 21, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Very helpful article. I also used to think that things like this were uncanny. But Marie Kondo’s book is a current bestseller, so it’s not surprising that many people are interested in becoming happier in their physical surroundings by simplifying, organizing, and eliminating joyless clutter. I disagree with the minimalist movement in that many of these people have no art on their blank white walls. That I think would be terrible for a lot of people. I think consumerism and a lack of time to look for things is making people very interested in a somewhat minimalistic approach to surroundings and possessions. It extends, for me, to very recently even get quite adamant about no spam emails. Why should any of us be forced to spend our time reading junk from people we don’t know about things we don’t want? I have been thinking about this, and I am ready to do this now, and I am happy to immediately start this project with David and you all. There is a lot of clutter about me. I know I needed some general principles and a philosophy like Marie Kondo’s. Thanks for the thoughtful and well-written article, David. Your writing just keeps getting better and better.

Joelle July 19, 2015 at 11:55 pm

This is the second time I’ve stumbled across your blog after finding it and then losing track of it and I’m so glad I came across it again! I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon going through posts and there are so many thought provoking questions that I’ve come across from reading your words so thank you!

I haven’t bought this book yet. I’m number 200-something on the wait list at the library so I might have to suck it up and just buy it. It keeps appearing in my life in random ways and I’ve been itching for a solution to clear our clutter once and for all.

Mimi July 20, 2015 at 5:01 am

Yes definitely have a read of Marie Kondo’s book. It’s not only cute in writing style but also very practical and saved me from being overcluttered with not just things but also my thinking. There’s the Kindle version that can be bought with one click if you can’t wait to get it.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:35 am

Given the length of the waiting list it’s probably worth buying, if for no other reason than it will save you money by helping you make better future purchases.

Vilx- July 20, 2015 at 2:45 am

Hmm… could you please elaborate about that “joy vs gratification” part? The way I see it, the joy test is geared toward short-term gratification. Like, it brings more joy to stay in sofa and watch TV than to exercise, etc.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:37 am

Gratification implies a short-term, fleeting feeling of pleasure, often unhealthy long-term. Joy implies a kind of timeless pleasure.

Sophie July 20, 2015 at 3:17 am

I’ve read this book and really enjoyed. I actually read it twice. You summed it up quite well. I’m hoping to implement it soon. I would be interested to see how you go. You kind of need the chrome extension ‘controlled multi-tab browsing’ in real life so that every time you buy a new shirt a pop-window appears in real-life and says ‘You have decided not to own more than 7 shirts.’ We need personal accountability extension to help our current self match up with our envisaged future self.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:39 am

Heh… I’m sure there’s a browser extension out there that will sort my closet.

Minikins July 20, 2015 at 3:29 am

Much as I believe that we should not have so much stuff, I resist the hype about the magic of tidying. It’s not a complex psychology or philosophy or art. It’s another book which, in hardback or paperback will add to the more stuff we have already.

I think it is actually a question of belief (as usual). When you have a faith or belief system you know what’s important in life. You don’t have to look at a battery charger and wonder whether it gives you joy. It doesn’t.

I appreciate the book gives a system for clearing out stuff and mess and aims to elevate your feelings about yourself and your place in the universe.
But life is messy, with or without clutter. Our lives, minds, history, relationships are not show rooms and were never meant to be. It doesn’t matter if you live in a jungle, a favela, a penthouse or a council estate. What matters is what matters. The rest is just noise that doesn’t require any attention or focus so you can either live with it, leave it, donate it or dump it.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:42 am

I think most people will notice a dramatic difference between a tidy house and an untidy one. It was night and day for me.

Valerie August 5, 2015 at 5:22 pm

I just ordered the book and have not received and read it yet, but poked around online a bit about the method. My understanding is that a battery charger that does its job and functions well is one that sparks joy. If the cable is too short and you can never put it on the sideboard where you want it, but instead have to put it on the floor next to the power outlet, and the connection is loose, so sometimes it charges right away, and sometimes you notice after a while that it’s not charging – then it doesn’t spark joy.

Katie September 8, 2015 at 2:45 pm

“I think it is actually a question of belief (as usual). When you have a faith or belief system you know what’s important in life. You don’t have to look at a battery charger and wonder whether it gives you joy. It doesn’t.”

I don’t think this has much to do with beliefs. I think the bare bones of this is that we really don’t realize how our surroundings affect us and the power we have to change that. This method gives us a simple way to realize what is truly important to us. It DOES matter if you live in a “jungle” or a “favela” and it DOES matter what we allow in our spaces. Our mind takes in and processes way more than we see at surface level and we naturally assign feelings to our possessions. By willingly surrounding ourselves with negative emotion inducing objects (however slight and unnoticed they may be) we live with more friction and less purposeful intent than we need to. And by ignoring their impact on us, I am sure we add on a layer of guilt and lowered self worth. I see this more as taking control.

Mike July 20, 2015 at 5:16 am

I find that having a minimalist and orderly home is practically impossible when I have a wife who actually prefers clutter, and when I have a one year old boy who leaves chaos in his wake. What would Ms Kondo recommend for those of us who live with family members who don’t really give much thought to tidiness?

Admittedly, I sometimes agree with my wife that the problem is not clutter, but how I respond to it. I feel tense in a messy house, while my wife feels quite relaxed. This leaves a moral and philosophical conundrum: do I try to convince my wife of the virtue of letting go of things she doesn’t need, or should I focus more on the virtue of letting go of my need for simplicity and order?

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

She addresses the common problem of partners with different habits. I live alone so I didn’t pay much attention to it. I’m probably biased but I do think clutter is intrinsically stressful, even for people who seem to prefer it. She suggests doing a thorough decluttering of your own personal space (office/den/whatever) first.

Ife July 21, 2015 at 6:46 am

Yes, I came here to ask this same question! I may have to check out the book and see what she suggests for living with people who like (or at least don’t care about) clutter.

Denise July 20, 2015 at 5:19 am

It sounds like a nice idea – I’m naturally very tidy – but what about when you have a roommate/spouse/significant other who isn’t?

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

See my response to Mike.

Charlotte K July 20, 2015 at 5:19 am

I think you will find, unless you have been dedicated to acquiring things since the last time, that it IS easier this time than the first time you did it. For one thing, you won’t be averse to letting things go the way you may have been first time around. And you will have less to begin with, even though you have more than you did when you de-cluttered the first time.
I found a lot to like in Marie Kondo’s book, but I couldn’t do it all at once. I’ve been de-cluttering for about 6 years now, and it has shifted my attitude about stuff completely. Even if I occasionally have dirty clothes on the floor (when it’s just too hot to pick ’em up)

I like the idea of the app (above) that tells you when you’ve ordered over your self-assigned limit! Made me laugh. But I have attempted to do a similar “control” on clothes, and wear a very basic workday uniform now. My closet has room to breathe. This has been my favorite result of reading Kondo’s book.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:48 am

It is easier this time, especially since so many unused items were tossed a long time ago. I have been consciously keeping my possessions down for years, but they still expand. It’s amazing how much stuff our society produces — we so easily end up with too much stuff when we’re not even trying.

Paula Millhouse July 20, 2015 at 6:10 am

While packing for vacation I found your article perfectly timed.
Thank you for sharing.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:49 am

Have a good trip!

Lorrie Beauchamp July 20, 2015 at 6:43 am

Beautiful post; your integrity is compelling. I recently went through my jewelry, thinking that I should be wearing my baubles instead of safeguarding them. I have a gold-and-diamond ring that an ex-partner bought me; to my surprise, wearing it evoked all the negative tension that had characterized the relationship. It brought no joy whatsoever, and reminded me that the emotions surrounding our “stuff” are as attached to them as we are. I sold the ring and never looked back. Purging is an important part of cleansing.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:52 am

This is what has surprised me so much — how much emotion is tied up in our things. Much of this emotion is anxious or sad, even if they’re from people I love. I think this is what Kondo’s book addresses that nobody else does, and it has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.

Curtis July 21, 2015 at 12:22 pm

This is a very insightful comment, phrased in just the right way.

Chris July 20, 2015 at 7:20 am

I’ve wanted to do this for a bit. I got the book from the library and started doing it. Issue is that my wife thinks it’s BS. It’s funny because we’ve been told that organization is the key for years now, but we’re all noticing that it just doesn’t work. This method can’t be any worse than the crappy ones we’ve been using for years!

Side note: her folding method for shirts is fantastic for stuffing things into a padded mailer when I’ve sold it on eBay!

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:56 am

I’m interested to see how it holds up once I’m done. Being organized is amazing, if you do get all the way there. But my problem is I didn’t know how to make it last. I still had the same habits that created the chaos in the first place. So we’ll see.

Alex July 20, 2015 at 7:30 am

My wife and I read Marie’s book in the past few weeks and we are excited to begin this experiment as well. We have also found that it impacts us beyond just out stuff. It also impacts our acquiring of new stuff. Recently, on vacation, we didn’t buy many of the things we might otherwise (mostly kitch), because we couldn’t imagine any of it bringing us joy!

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 8:58 am

By the sounds of it you are lucky to both be on the same page about it.

I am also noticing the book affecting my purchasing already, even with things like groceries. I didn’t realize how often I justify purchases for practical-sounding reasons (this is almost 50% off what I normally pay, so I should buy it) without reflecting on whether it makes me feel joyful or crappy.

Katherine July 20, 2015 at 8:06 am

i’ve been doing this for about fifteen years now – it started when i got deeply into feng shui, then began shifting it into a kind of neo-feng shui, very practical, very joy based. my question was: does it bring love and joy? and it was about the vibration of it, in the mind, heart, body. with this object, is love present?

and yes, this method works wonders. but heads up, because the whole love thing shifts too :) watching the flow of the material world, catching objects before they enter, watching what gets bought and brought into the home, helps. keeping the inner eyes open as we move through our home on a moment by moment basis helps.

it all gets down to more deeply surrendered consciousness. and having an afternoon a month with music, wine and dances with objects so that it all gets seen in a light of joy, so what is not-joy shines more clearly.

ps – love your emails . . . lots of joy and creativity there . . .

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

Yeah… the word “Joy” is not normally in my vocabulary, and I still feel funny saying it. But it’s a shorthand for something a little more specific — what exactly does it feel like to own and keep this thing? What would it be like to let go of it?

Emily July 20, 2015 at 8:08 am

I actually read your original experiment when I read KonMari’s book and was further googling about decluttering – didn’t realise it was four years ago for you!
I loved the book and the “spark joy” method – it just resonated with me. So many people discount it with “well I don’t find joy in my toilet cleaning brush!!!!” or something similar but I think maybe they should learn to feel joy in more things – like how nice your bathroom is after being cleaned, for instance. :)

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:04 am

I do understand the “Of course I don’t feel joy in my toilet brush!” reaction, and perhaps it’s just how different people need things said different ways to understand the concept. I can see the “spark joy” question not resonating with some. But it sure does for me. Sometimes a possession just feels inexplicably wrong for me, and it is a relief to get rid of it.

My toilet brush, not that you mention it, is in a stainless steel cylinder that is always smudged and dirty and I totally hate it, but I wouldn’t have been conscious enough of that if I was never prompted to actually pick it up and consider how it makes me feel.

Rhonda July 20, 2015 at 8:35 am

This was awesome. We just moved and I have been going through everything; some has been thrown out; some donated but there are still some stuff in storage containers. I wanted to donate the items as I don’t want to be a pack rat as my parents are but they are blankets and my son’s are like “no” blankets stay no matter what. I am going to have him read this article. The only thing I can say I kept are my childhood books that I hope my grandchildren might enjoy as I still find joy in them.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:07 am

Best of luck to you Rhonda. I’ve found it really interesting how some mementos really do evoke joy after all these years, and some really just make me feel guilty or sad when I look at them. I just took for granted that I would keep them all, and never really was conscious of what each was doing to my mind.

Clay Nicolsen July 20, 2015 at 9:03 am

I read Marie’s book several months ago. Wow, what an eye opener. I won’t repeat all the good comments above, but I’ll share two of my biggest take-aways.

I have a hobby, well, too many, actually, and the stuff I collect and work on is out in the garage. Even before I read the book, I would go out in the garage, look around, and be overwhelmed by a feeling of…panic. Now I know why. Time to start getting rid of most of it, except for those few joyful items.

Regarding emotional attachments to things. When we pick up an item that evokes a powerful memory, the item is just the trigger. The memories are there, in our hearts and minds, forever. If the item itself brings you joy, keep it. If it really serves to bring up a memory, then realize that you don’t need the item to remember that place or person or time, and you might not need to keep it.

Great book, and I always enjoy your writing!

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:09 am

Thanks Clay. I’m constantly surprised at how negatively I feel about a lot of mementos, even if they’re associated with someone I feel positively towards. In any case, you’re right, the object isn’t what’s important.

Nellie July 20, 2015 at 9:04 am

I am a minimalist. I have always been this way. I also have a taste for the very fine, unique and often costly therefore only have what I truly love but not much of it.

I’ve been married to someone who never threw anything away and loved stuff – any and all kinds of stuff – scattered, stacked, stuffed everywhere. It ALL HAD MEANING for him.
There were psychological consequences. Research shows that it is WAY HARDER on the minimalistic, organized person to live with her (his) opposite than the other way around. It’s true.


I love architecture and interesting shapes and forms and how light changes the mood of a room…
and I love people but not all their stuff.

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:13 am

This is interesting, thank you. In my unscientific opinion I do think clutter is intrinsically bad for everyone, not matter how comforting it can be. I think hoarding is totally a fear response. I have never met a happy hoarder.

Nellie July 20, 2015 at 9:21 am

David, I’ve followed you for a long time and I love your blog! I’ve shared it with The Tulsa Minimalist group.

Nellie July 20, 2015 at 9:23 am

ummm… not really ‘followed YOU’ but your blog…

Elizabeth Keith July 20, 2015 at 9:10 am

“the joy test makes the emotional effect of each possession clear.”
amen to that. the clothes are the worst for women.
when: i weighed 132 and had a silk blouse and pink short skirt..
but: i wore them when i was separated and having an affair. i hung on to them because they represented a time of freedom in my life; personal victory over weight and sensual needs.
they stayed even after they represented a time of complete anger, grief and confusion in my life. where looking back, i detested myself for self harming choices.
they finally went to goodwill after 7 years.. good timing :)

David Cain July 20, 2015 at 9:15 am

This has been the big insight for me: that the reasons we hold on to things are complicated and often have little to do with the object’s practical value. This is why the “joy test” succeeds where the “have I used it in a year” test fails — it begins to address the real reason we own what we own. When it comes to possessions there are all kinds of subtle layers of emotion and clinging going on that we don’t even notice, even though they affect our moods all the time.

Meena July 20, 2015 at 9:34 am

I recently was able to reaffirm my minimalist tendencies, and after about 3 rounds of decluttering over 4 months I’m down to about 450 items. (I’m counting for fun and to help with decision making.) There are still a few more extra items so I’ll do one more round, then should have the perfect amount of stuff.
I also wanted to sort everything by category, as mentioned, so that whenever I moved it wasn’t total chaos before and after. My boxes tended to end up being a hodge-podge of different types of items, so finding things was difficult. In my new system I have about 8 storage bins (as I was sick of trying to find boxes) and each bin has a specific category, so finding things is much easier. I realized that if I didn’t insist on the bins being full, then it would be more organized (no more mixed categories). I still have a bit of clutter, but with a lot less items it’s easier to deal with. My bedroom (in my shared home) just seems to be a vast expanse of empty floor space. And most things permanent homes are the storage bins; I don’t really feel a need to display pretty items – no art or knick-knacks displayed, and I have minimal furniture to put things on anyhow. I only have a couple reference books, otherwise it’s electronic or library, so no book shelves needed.
Anyhow, minimalism is a way of life for me. It’s made me feel so much calmer and content with my life.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:31 am

Hi Meena. I have about a half-dozen Rubbermaids in the basement that I will have to go through, and if I remember they are not very organized. I expect I won’t be keeping much of it — they tend to be the things that I obviously don’t use but keep because I don’t want to regret getting rid of them. But if I was going to regret getting rid of them I would also regret keeping them locked in the basement.

Christine July 20, 2015 at 11:17 am

“…decluttering is a fight against gravity and entropy, and maybe some other inalienable laws of the cosmos.”
That made me smile, thanks. I’m now going to blame my messy apt on the inalienable laws of the cosmos. :)
Just kidding…I’m going to see if my library has that book and check it out. Thanks as always for another insightful post!

Free to Pursue July 20, 2015 at 11:18 am

I needed this post this week. I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the Tiny Homes concept lately. I think it’s because I can’t help feeling that part of why we own so much is that my husband and I are two people living in 2,200 sq ft…ridiculous! All that space is making it easy to avoid making decisions about “stuff”.

Last year I managed to get rid of 1,000 items in 60 days. That felt amazing! I’ve continued purging since then, but hardly enough as far as I’m concerned. The house is still a mess. I think this post is just the kick in the rear I needed to get myself back into gear.

Thank you also for the book recommendation–I’ve added it to my library list. along with “Reading Like A Writer”.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:34 am

Isn’t it amazing that any of us have a thousand items in the first place? A thousand things! It’s so strange what has become normal for us.

Reading Like a Writer is great. It is particularly geared for fiction writers though, but I have learned a lot from it.

Deb July 20, 2015 at 12:29 pm

I read this book a few months ago and really liked it and was impressed that it had completely new (to me) ideas about de-cluttering. Unfortunately, the only visible result of my having read the book is that my sock drawer and my shirt drawer are very neat because I converted them to her folding method. Surprisingly, I have been able to maintain them like that. Your post has inspired me to start again. I just do not have time to do the all at once method but I can do much smaller bites “all at once”. Maybe after a pass through the house in smaller bites I will be able to tackle all my clothes, all my books, etc. Tonight – the computer desk! I will be very interested in following your experiment.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:36 am

“All at once” can take a while. I think she said it can take months for some people. I have a list of main categories of possessions, and then for each I have subcategories. I can do a subcategory (such as socks) in an hour or two. It will take as long as it takes. I have a 1BR apartment and I expect it to take four to six weeks.

Mel July 20, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I’ve also read the book a few weeks back and been slow at implementing it. I did get rid of a few clothes to start. I am still motivated to keep continuing.

David, I’d love to hear perhaps a 6 month update, 1 year update on how it works out for you.

We’ve recently acquired quite a few items because we moved from being renters to homeowners and landlords. A few things we never had before, we have now, mostly gardening equipment.

Jayson July 20, 2015 at 3:14 pm

New follower, started tracking 2 posts ago. Funny timing, I just went through clothing last night with my wife and books are scheduled for next weekend. It’s a lot of work. I’m exhausted and still need to do the folding part tonight. :(

The feel, however, is liberating. I’m excited to march on to other areas (except pictures, ugh).

So, will you revisit the success of Experiment #9? Is it a failure, lesson learned or a work in progress?

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:38 am

Experiment #9 was a success. I had moved since doing it, and quite a bit of time had passed, so I’m not surprised it didn’t last forever. But I did learn a lot about what I need and what I don’t need.

Pisces July 20, 2015 at 10:31 pm

Uncanny for me as well.. or maybe synchronicity….but again, we must be on David’s site for a reason … because we ruminate about the same things :)
I just returned MK’s book at the library (yep, no books in this house, sorry mom – MK would give me a high five) and I was inspired enough to kondonize the drawers and to have a “talk” with my socks (I lost my son’s interest and I got some suspicious looks once I’ve reached this level). My enthusiasm winded down but I plan to continue as soon as my PMS hits again (sorry, girls, that’s the truth) – it’s a cathartic process. By the way, David I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work -we are all in the same pot :)

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:39 am

Thanks Pisces. I haven’t spoken to my socks yet, but I know they will have a lot to say. So many widowed socks.

Burak July 21, 2015 at 2:05 am

Inspiring! I’m planning to apply this idea on my PC life as well: ever-growing bookmarks, daily-pumped emails, dispensable desktop items and so on. This is, to me, not any less distracting than utterly scattered physical objects.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:41 am

That’s a great idea. I think I might do that once I’m done physical possessions. You could go through bookmarks, photos, shortcuts, documents… wow that will be a lot of work.

Melissa July 21, 2015 at 5:11 am

David, I just recently started following your blog (you’ve officially been added to my Feedly list!) and this post is so perfectly timed. I read MKs book while I was laid up from ankle surgery in February, but immediately implemented what I could while recovering. I unloaded half my wardrobe and maybe 20% of my stuff, and it was really liberating. Lately though, I’ve still be unhappy with the clutter, so I’ve been doing a second round of Konmari, and have been much more ruthless. I’ve been doing it in the evenings after work, and around my petsitting (sidehustle!) but I’m finding that this is a process that, for me anyway, needs to be done in one swoop. One, I live in a studio apartment, so I don’t really have anywhere to store stuff to donate except for my car, and two, I think the momentum of the process is really helpful. I look forward to seeing your progress!

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am

I think some ruthlessness is necessary. Certain things should be a bit scary to let go; if it’s easy then you probably kept too much.

Marylin July 21, 2015 at 11:27 am

I too am contemplating a complete “stuff” renovation. I always tend not to want to let go but all of a sudden, I feel the need to let go of things.
Tax records and all things similar is logical, and making them neat and tidy is a great idea by the way.
My biggest problem is the emotional stuff, like ribbons from the flowers from my mother’s cremation. What about things you have inherited from departed loved ones and they were given to you to cherish? I have so many more of these examples. Many of these possessions do not give you joy, but they are important, or at least I was important enough to receive them. For someone trying to tidy life up, this isn’t easy.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 9:00 am

Things from loved ones, especially deceased ones, are difficult to get rid of. But I think often they are liberating when you do let them go. I have things of my Dad’s that I know I will be parting with. I think joy is the perfect compass here — he would want me to be happy more than anything else.

Rob July 21, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Great perspective, even with a spouse this is a great way to approach things. However, it seems to be meant primarily for young or older couples. Multiple children at varying ages (especially teenagers) is already an exercise in tolerance and chaos as they try to become themselves, and consistent organization at any level is a challenge. It would be hard to keep an organizing focus like this without micromanaging behavior.

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 9:01 am

Work on whatever scale you can. She recommends curating your own things this way, even if you can’t do it with the whole household.

Edward July 21, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Think if I went by the “joy” method I’d have a completely empty home except for some photos, music, and (maybe) a cowboy hat. My brother forms emotional attachments to things. I learned from observing him at an early age what sort of nightmare hoards can result from having feelings for stuff. So I slowly detached completely from physical objects. Instead of asking myself, “Does this bring me joy?,” I generally have to ask, “Would a US Marine keep it?,”–because that sets a pretty high bar for object value. (BTW, I’m Canadian.)

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 9:02 am

I think there is a happy medium somewhere between a nightmare hoard and a lone cowboy hat.

Cait Flanders July 21, 2015 at 5:45 pm

I think you know how I feel about this experiment. :)

I’m really excited to hear how it goes the second time around. As you’ve already said in other comments, it’ll likely be a little easier this time than the first time… but there will probably still be a few items that trip you up.

I got rid of 70% of my stuff this past year, following a similar method (but didn’t read the book until after I was done) and love the feeling of living in a space where everything that surrounds me is used often or truly cherished.

With that being said, I just packed all of my belongings into 8 small boxes, in prep for a move, and have lived without all of that stuff for a few weeks now… and I don’t need/miss much of it. So I may do one more purge, when I unpack. We’ll see!

Good luck, friend. :)

David Cain July 22, 2015 at 9:04 am

Hi Cait. That’s another advantage to it — moving is a much smaller operation. Each possession has so many little costs, in all kinds of places.

Cecilia Poullain July 23, 2015 at 8:43 am

Interesting. I’m good at tidying – it’s something I do pretty naturally. But I’ve just worked out that tidying up is taking up a far too big part of my life: its a project, which is relatively satisfying, but which is taking up a place in my life where other projects ought to be. I’d be very tempted to read the book, but it’s probably the very last thing I should be doing right now!!!
By the way, does she talk about how to deal with kids’ possessions? It’s just taken my three weeks on and off to tidy my children’s rooms while they are away on summer holidays (I only have two children, luckily)…

Judith July 23, 2015 at 10:34 am

Just spent the afternoon capturing and reorganising all my passwords – a long overdue piece of tidying as they were all over the place!

Adam July 23, 2015 at 4:51 pm

Hey David,

I’ve been slowly working my way around my place de-cluttering and such room by room, but I think I am going to try this new “joy” approach. It seems like a better alternative than what I’m currently doing. Thanks for sharing!

I do have a question for you though, and it’s about something I’ve struggled with the most when trying to keep everything in its place: how do you handle incoming papers and how do you store/sort them?

I recently made an “inbox” type of tray for things like receipts that I need to hold onto temporarily, but it inevitably become like a junk tray full of various papers. I guess I just need to be more disciplined about regularly cleaning it out, but I was wondering if you have any tips or methods that have worked for you.


mike L. July 25, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Synchronicity indeed. Great topic. I think it’s very interesting and curious that the impulse to de-clutter and downsize our lives are now at the forefront of Consciousness. What’s really going on here??

mike L. July 26, 2015 at 12:08 am

…hey, who got rid of the “like” buttons here…

M. Elaine Estes July 26, 2015 at 6:51 pm

I really like this advice! I am a joyful person and this just fits me!! Thank you. I moved into my condo last July and still have things that need to be weeded out. This will help a lot. Now is there a way to get motivated??? lol

Mike July 26, 2015 at 7:04 pm

This reminds me of Gregory Bateson’s excellent Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which begins with a series of dialogues (“metalogues” Bateson calls them), the first of which begins:

“Daughter: Daddy, why do things get in a muddle?

Father: What do you mean? Things? Muddle?

Daughter: Well, people spend a lot of time tidying things, but they never seem to spend time muddling them. Things just seem to get in a muddle by themselves. And then people have to tidy them up again.”

And then they begin to talk about entropy, more or less, but in everyday terms and in an unexpectedly playful way.

I highly recommend the book—it provoked many thoughts for me, and I think you in particular would appreciate it.

postman2015 July 27, 2015 at 7:43 am
John July 28, 2015 at 9:14 am

I came to a realization about mementos. We often save things because they remind us of a person (usually dead). But we often save them hidden away, out of site, except for maybe a picture or two.

Rather than consider saving each memento as you encounter it, I think it makes more sense to consider each person (or event) that you wish to remember. Keep a one or few of the most important mementos for that person, and display them (or use them, if possible) and get rid of the rest. I don’t need 500 pictures of my dad and every last piece of furniture he built and gave to me to remember him. And the pictures in a box in the closet serve no useful purpose.

So in the same way that you gather all your clothes in one place and deal with all your socks at one time, you should deal with all the mementos of each passed loved one all at once. Choose a one or a handful that mean the most to you, and get rid of the rest.

Curious August 17, 2015 at 1:54 am

“a tiny Japanese woman”?

Gerard October 9, 2015 at 8:48 am

@Curious, I’m not sure her tininess is relevant (except insofar as her clothes might take up less room than mine!), but I believe her perspective has a lot of “Japanese woman” in it. The small space ethos, for sure; the minimalism; and the sort of kawai-animist way that she attributes emotions to her possessions, which for some people makes her sound crazy but for me was a fun and energizing metaphor for considering value and joy.
I think it’s fair to say that her Japanese-ness has contributed to the positive reception the book has received, too; western hipsters been fond of Japanese minimalism for at least a century.

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