Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

"When you are choosing what to keep, ask your heart; when you are choosing where to store something, ask your house."
“When you are choosing what to keep, ask your heart; when you are choosing where to store something, ask your house.”

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing explores how putting your space in order causes “correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective.” Marie Kondo, the author, recommends that you defy conventional wisdom and start by discarding and only then thoroughly organize your space in one go.

All of this seems more relevant than ever. We’re surrounded by things only to buy more things. We have no idea what we have or what we need. Worse, most of these things are not things that we love. Getting rid of things and simplifying your life sounds easier than it is. In part because when we get down to it, we just don’t know how to make those decisions between what to keep and what to throw away.

The Japanese Art of Decluttering is not a simple technique. It does, however, address why most people fail to stay tidy.

The act of tidying is a series of simple actions in which objects are moved from one place to another. It involves putting things away where they belong. This seems so simple that even a six-year-old should be able to do it. Yet most people can’t. A short time after tidying, their space is a disorganized mess. The cause is not lack of skills but rather lack of awareness and the inability to make tidying a regular habit. In other words, the root of the problem lies in the mind. Success is 90 percent dependent on our mind-set.

To acquire the right mindset, she argues, we need the right technique. There is a fundamental misconception that the ability to tidy comes from experience. Most of us tidy up a little bit at a time. We should however tidy up in one shot. This brings visible results.

A change so profound that it touches your emotions will irresistibly affect your way of thinking and your lifestyle habits. …

When people revert to clutter no matter how much they tidy, it is not their room or their belongings but their way of thinking that is at fault. Even if they are initially inspired, they can’t stay motivated and their efforts peter out. The root cause lies in the fact that they can’t see the results or feel the effects. This is precisely why success depends on experiencing tangible results immediately. If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly and completely within a short span of time, you’ll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after.

What is Tidying?
The Japanese Art of Decluttering breaks down the physical act of tidying into two aspects: “deciding whether or not to dispose of something and deciding where to put it.” Tidying is a tool, not an end. “The true goal,” she writes, “should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”

There is a saying that “a messy room equals a messy mind.”

When a room becomes cluttered, the cause is more than just physical. Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder. The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue.

Why Storage Experts are not the Answer
We all want the quick solution: organize my junk better. But this does nothing to get rid of clutter.

What is the first problem that comes to mind when you think of tidying? For many, the answer is storage. My clients often want me to teach them what to put where. Believe me, I can relate, but unfortunately, this is not the real issue. A booby trap lies within the term “storage.” Features on how to organize and store your belongings and convenient storage products are always accompanied by stock phrases that make it sound simple, such as “organize your space in no time” or “make tidying fast and easy.” It’s human nature to take the easy route, and most people leap at storage methods that promise quick and convenient ways to remove visible clutter.

[…]

Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.

Why Tidying by Location is a Fatal Mistake
Kondo exposes why tidying by location doesn’t address the problem and recommends a way to avoid this common pitfall.

The root of the problem lies in the fact that people often store the same type of item in more than one place. When we tidy each place separately, we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying. To avoid this, I recommend tidying by category. For example, instead of deciding that today you’ll tidy a particular room, set goals like “clothes today, books tomorrow.” One reason so many of us never succeed at tidying is because we have too much stuff. This excess is caused by our ignorance of how much we actually own. When we disperse storage of a particular item throughout the house and tidy one place at a time, we can never grasp the overall volume and therefore can never finish. To escape this negative spiral, tidy by category, not by place.

Two Essential Actions of Tidying

Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.

There are two further types of tidying: daily and special event tidying. Daily tidying is the act of using something and putting it back. Special event tidying is putting your house in order. Until you have done the “once-in-a-lifetime” act of putting your house in order, any attempt to tidy on a daily basis will fail.

Start by Discarding

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

Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding. Failure to follow this order is one reason many people never make permanent progress. In the middle of discarding, they start thinking about where to put things. As soon as they think, “I wonder if it will fit in this drawer,” the work of discarding comes to a halt. You can think about where to put things when you’ve finished getting rid of everything you don’t need.

Deciding what to discard

This is where people often have the most trouble. Until reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering, I focused on how to throw things away, not why.

Kondo, however, totally changed my perspective on this.

There are several common patterns when it comes to discarding. One is to discard things when they cease being functional— for example, when something breaks down beyond repair or when part of a set is broken. Another is to discard things that are out of date, such as clothes that are no longer in fashion or things related to an event that has passed. It’s easy to get rid of things when there is an obvious reason for doing so. It’s much more difficult when there is no compelling reason. Various experts have proposed yardsticks for discarding things people find hard to part with. These include such rules as “discard anything you haven’t used for a year,” and “if you can’t decide, pack those items away in a box and look at them again six months later.” However, the moment you start focusing on how to choose what to throw away, you have actually veered significantly off course.

A better approach is to choose what you keep, not what you dispose of.

I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

You may wonder about the effectiveness of such a vague criteria, but the trick is to handle each item. Don’t just open up your closet and decide after a cursory glance that everything in it gives you a thrill. You must take each outfit in your hand. When you touch a piece of clothing, your body reacts. Its response to each item is different. Trust me and try it.

Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.

How to get Started

My advice to begin tidying not by room but by category does not mean that you should start with any category you like. The degree of difficulty involved in selecting what to keep and what to discard differs greatly depending on the category. People who get stuck halfway usually do so because they start with the things that are hardest to make decisions about. Things that bring back memories, such as photos, are not the place for beginners to start. Not only is the sheer volume of items in this category usually greater than that of any other, but it is also far harder to make a decision about whether or not to keep them.

In addition to the physical value of things, there are three other factors that add value to our belongings: function, information, and emotional attachment. When the element of rarity is added, the difficulty in choosing what to discard multiplies. People have trouble discarding things that they could still use (functional value), that contain helpful information (informational value), and that have sentimental ties (emotional value). When these things are hard to obtain or replace (rarity), they become even harder to part with.

The process of deciding what to keep and what to discard will go much more smoothly if you begin with items that are easier to make decisions about.

[…]

The best sequence is this: clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos.

What to do When you Can’t Throw Something Away

Human judgment can be divided into two broad types: intuitive and rational. When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as “I might need it later” or “It’s a waste to get rid of it.” These thoughts spin round and round in our mind, making it impossible to let go.

[…]

When you come across something that’s hard to discard, consider carefully why you have that specific item in the first place. When did you get it and what meaning did it have for you then? Reassess the role it plays in your life.

[…]

Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or lover. Some you will find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people, too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more.

[…]

When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role.

[…]

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?

Kondo argues that by keeping so much stuff, we’re not valuing what we have.

The fact that you possess a surplus of things that you can’t bring yourself to discard doesn’t mean you are taking good care of them. In fact, it is quite the opposite. By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings. Just because you dispose of something does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity. Through the process of selecting only those things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.

In a world where we often focus on how to get more than we already have, sometimes the best approach is to remove something we already have. “Letting go,” Kondo says, “is more important than adding.”

***

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering is a fascinating look into how to put our house in order and the psychology behind why we can’t let things go.

(image source: flickr)