Home » Blog » The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

There are probably a million things you would rather do than tidy up your house or office. My personally, I’d much rather go out and run for an hour or play with my dog, Duke.

However, I just finished reading a book that provides a few incredibly valuable distinctions in the realms of productivity and minimalism. It was a book that I didn’t expect to get much value from, but was very impressed with the impact. It actually made me want to start tidying up!

I’m a few days into having put a bunch of my stuff in order and applying the “KonMarie Method” featured in the book was super simple and I do feel happier and more productive as a result.

A small and easy to read book that just might radically improve your overall level of happiness, and boost your productivity.
A small and easy to read book that just might radically improve your overall level of happiness, and boost your productivity.

The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up came highly recommended to my wife by a co-worker many months ago. Since that time, I’ve heard it mentioned on numerous occasions. This caused me to pay attention to a book that I would have previously discarded as something I already knew how to do. What really made me read and apply the techniques in the book, was my wife’s remarkable application of the methods to massively declutter and organize our basement and kitchen areas.

I consider myself fairly minimal, and after downsizing my life to travel the world for 18 months, didn’t think there would be a ton of value in “tidying up”. What I didn’t realize was that tidying up wasn’t just about organizing things. Tidying up is about getting clear on what brings joy, what items have finishing serving their purpose, and cultivating a higher level of discernment and respect for things and understanding where they belong.

The techniques featured in the book were created by a Japanese lady, Marie Kondo. In reading about her upbringing, she seems pretty high on the OCD scale when it comes to keeping things in order. What’s cool is that her method is designed for people who are not OCD. She claims that once you tidy up using her system, you will NEVER relapse into disorganization!

The other important thing to note is that her method applies equally well to organizing your home, as it does to organizing your work-space and the files and programs on you computer. If you are working in the technology industry, you will get a ton of value from applying the methods to how you work with digital content.

The Growing Problem Of Stuff

Did you know that the average size of a home in America has grown by over 1000 square feet since 1973? In 1973 the typical home was 1600 square feet, whereas in 2013 the average home was 2679 square feet! Home aren’t just larger today, there are more types of room – home theaters, dens, play-rooms, storage rooms….and much larger garages! Ironically, the house sizes have exploded despite families getting smaller.

growth in average home size

My own history bears this to be true, I went from living in a studio apartment for years and years (<800 square feet) to owning and furnishing a 5-bedroom 4-bathroom 3200 square foot home. Oh yeah – I was living in this massive house as a single guy 🙂 .

On top of that the self-storage industry is booming. It’s a multibillion dollar industry. A few years ago when I quit my job to travel the world, I sold off a ton of my stuff, including my car, but still needed to rent what I considered “the world’s largest storage unit” to house the remainder of my belongings.

Almost as big as this one from Raiders Of The Lost Ark
My storage unit was almost as big as this one from Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Good thing there were plenty of options for self-storage. Within a few miles of my home there were 6–7 different facilities, including several new ones. Across the country there are over 48,500 storage facilities at occupancy rates in excess of 88%. The self-storage industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the entire real-estate industry.

To get a better sense of the degree to which stuff takes over our lives, just look at your own garage. Can you fit a car in there or is that space just used to store your stuff? Take a look around the room you are in right now. How may items can you count that have been unused for 6 months or more?

Clutter Makes You Unhappy

Minimalism is a trend that has been growing steadily over the past decade due to backlash against the tyranny of excess stuff.

Stuff costs money. Stuff requires space to store it, which in turn costs you money. Stuff keeps you from finding things when you need them. Stuff weights on your mind, and like it or not, creates an undercurrent of dis-ease and anxiety that permeates your life. Put simply, having too much stuff creates greater unhappiness.

This last part is more than just conjecture. The way to test the theory that stuff (more specifically, too much stuff) creates unhappiness is to get rid of unwanted stuff, put the remainder in proper order, and see how you feel and operate throughout your work and daily life.

You can also observe the findings of social scientists (I’ve come across other articles citing studies from Princeton and UCLA researchers on this topic), who have found that clutter negatively impacts your ability to focus and process information.

As stated on the Unclutter.com blog:

The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy …” Even though you might be able to focus a little, you’re still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. The annoyance also wears down your mental resources and you’re more likely to become frustrated.

The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

The book is an incredibly easy read. I recommend the Kindle version, as it’s all text and not too long.

I found the insights in this book to fly in the face of commonly mentioned advice in other books and blogs on decluttering and minimalism.

The primary distinctions I picked up were as follows:

Thank your stuff

Decluttering Pro Tip: Thank Your Stuff!
Decluttering Pro Tip: Thank Your Stuff!

This sounds really hooky-pooky, and it is.

It also works wonders and makes the decision-making struggles of what to keep vs discard much easier. Before discarding or organizing, thank your stuff for what it has done for you. Those old trophies, the paper certificates, the books you don’t need to keep around; thank them all for serving their purpose BEFORE you start tidying up.

Saying “Thank You” to your stuff will make the entire process much easier and less stressful.

Tidying up is an exercise in decision-making, letting go and facing your fears

Tidying up is a powerful lesson in personal development.
Tidying up is a powerful lesson in personal development.

The level of decision-making required in tidying up is extreme. As a business-oriented guy, I used to consider organizing and decluttering as busy-work that I only did when I was procrastinating from getting real work done.

However, I now realize that it takes a very high level of discernment and decision-making to make clear and fast decisions thousands of times over. This is exactly what you do when tidying up.

The struggles in deciding which books to keep vs let go of are not that different from the struggles in deciding which customers or products to keep vs let go of. You go through through the same emotion turmoil for both types of decisions, just at different scales. By training yourself to tidy up swiftly and decisively, you will build a skill that will help you be more decisive at work and anywhere else in your life.

Beyond decision-making, there is a lot of fears that show up when you get hardcore about decluttering. You will see first-hand how attached you are to things – particularly old moments, keepsakes, journals and things you feel are particularly personal.

Tidying up is a powerful exercise in personal development.

Only keep things that bring you joy

 

Joy feels the way this looks!
Joy feels the way this looks!

A fundamental tenet of the book is to only keep things that bring you joy. The process is simple, hold every item you own and ask yourself “Does this item bring me joy?” If the answer isn’t a resounding “YES!”, then place in a trash bag to discard.

It’s not unlike the lesson Derek Sivers taught me about only doing things that are a “HELL YEAH!” and saying a firm “NO” to everything else. The more you say “NO” to, the more time and room you have to say “HELL YEAH” to things that really bring you joy.

Discard first

 

Pile of stuff in my office to be discarded.
Pile of stuff in my office to be discarded.

A common mistake people make is to organize their excess stuff neatly into boxes, and put them away and out of sight. This mistake is so common there are entire stores dedicated to enabling it (e.g. The Container Store)!

Organization doesn’t solve the problem of having too much stuff, it just hides the problem. The underlying tension and stress created will still remain and rear its ugly head at some point. Out of sign is NOT out of mind!

To get around this problem, focus on discarding items first. Then organize.

Don’t worry about selling used things

This is where I used to get really hung up when I tried to tidy up my place. I have a lot of stuff that seems to be useful. Old books. Old digital cameras. Clothes I’ve barely worn.

I’ve been moving boxes of stuff around with me for years just because it has value. “Some day I’ll have a garage sale or sell this stuff on eBay!” I used to say. Those days never came.

Instead of keeping things just because they have value. Thank those things for serving their purpose, and JUST DISCARD THEM. They are doing more damage to you taking up physical and mental space than they are worth.

Discarding means only two things:

  1. Take the stuff to Goodwill
  2. Throw it in the trash

Organize by category, not by room

This is my closet. My clothes have never been so organized. Look at all that empty space!
This is my closet. My clothes have never been so organized. Look at all that empty space!

Lastly, a common mistake people make when tidying up is to commit tidying up a specific room or area at a time. They say “I’m going to organize the kitchen today” or “I’m going to organize the bedroom closet”. The majority of blogs and articles about decluttering also give this wrong advice.

The mistake lies in the fact that if you only organize one area, you will have a greater tendency to relapse into disorganization over time.

For example, if you only organize clothing in your bedroom closet, you might feel great about things being nice and tidy in there. However, what about all the winter clothes in the boxes in the basement? What about the six jackets hanging in the entryway? What about the towels in the hallway closet? What about workout clothes sitting unfolded in the hamper in the laundry room?

Instead of tidying up just a zone or room (e.g. like a closet), tidy up a CATEGORY of stuff.

In this example, you would tidy up all your clothes, regardless of where they are. This way, everything will be put in a proper place and will be less likely to get disorganized again as clothes from elsewhere in your home find their way back into your bedroom closet.

Examples of other categories include: food, kitchen equipment, book, electronics, furniture, etc. Don’t worry about making a room tidy, focus on one category at a time, wherever those items show up at home or work (or your storage unit!).

Start tidying up today

I didn't just organize my office (electronics, furniture, books), I also organized all the files on my computer. Boom!
I didn’t just organize my office (electronics, furniture, books), I also organized all the files on my computer. Boom!

The life changing magic of tidying up is real but you will never experience this bliss unless you actually take action. And I really mean MASSIVE ACTION!

Set aside a specific day (or at least a few hours) to tackle a specific category of stuff. Thank your stuff for doing its job. Find all the places where that category exists. Discard everything that does not bring you joy. Put everything that remains in its rightful place. Enjoy the peace, pride and purposeful state of mind that results from being in tune with your home or workplace.

Also, don’t forget about your digital content. Apply the methods in this book to the documents on your laptop, including digital photos, music , movies and other stuff you haven’t used in years. You will find it easier to remain focused and get things done in the digital world.