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The Three Principles That Helped Me Declutter My Life

One woman shares how a little book about tidying up really did transform her life.

Photo Credit: Belathee Photography

As I unpacked from a road trip to Yellowstone, I glanced at the many stacks of papers on my bookshelves. I had long ago designated them as “to be sorted later.” I then opened a closet to hang up a jacket and felt a sense of dread. There, too, I noticed boxes marked “miscellaneous.” Yet again, I had failed to fulfill my annual resolve to delve into these boxes, purge the unwanted and unnecessary, and restore the loved. I had failed to start a fresh and vibrant life.

I rubbed my forehead and felt a sense of despair. Yes, I had a marvelous summer, filled with adventure. But if I couldn’t manage to clean up during my vacation, then when? As a teacher, the school year would be an exciting but hectic time. I’d be lucky to keep afloat in school papers. There certainly wouldn’t be time for personal-paper hygiene. I could only imagine how possessions would continue to accumulate as I entered my thirties and forties. If I, a single woman in her late twenties, could not manage to organize her possessions, how would it be possible if I married and had a family?

“I guess I’ll try to tackle a box a day,” I thought, but I knew that wouldn’t happen. I decided with a mental shrug that I would just have to accept living with clutter, again. At least I could keep most of it hidden away in closets. And under beds. And in the trunk of my car.

A few days later, I browsed through Barnes & Noble and picked up The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. It’s a New York Times bestseller (more than two million copies sold) with glowing reviews. Drowsy and snuggled in bed that night, I read the book. Excitement and enthusiasm surged through me page after page. I jumped out of bed and began sorting from midnight to 4 a.m. I continued to declutter for the next three days, stopping only to sleep, eat, and exercise.

Life-changing, indeed. If you need a boost, there are three ways this little book galvanized me and helped me truly declutter.

01. Uncover what you want your space to be.

To tidy up with success, Kondo’s philosophy is to eschew cleaning little by little and instead do one massive purge. Before beginning this gargantuan undertaking, spend some time reflecting on what you want your living space to be and why. For each why, ask another why. As I reflected, I thought, “I want a sparse living area, with physical space so that I have more mental space to reflect and write. Why do I want to reflect and write? Because a clear space refreshes my mind and brings me joy.”

This process of reflection was illuminating for me. I had fallen into the habit of rushing from work project to work project, stopping by social events when I could. I would attack chores like a madwoman at random intervals. As I paused to reflect on my ideal living space, I realized that I rarely allot time for the things that I love the most, such as writing. I recognized that I needed to structure my home to be conducive to writing. I also realized this meant that I had to decline social events on occasion so that I could have the time I need to write.

Each person’s “why” will be different. Some of you may want a home to entertain in. Others may desire a relaxing and rejuvenating atmosphere. Once you have discovered your “why,” you can get down to the business of orienting your space in that direction.

02. Only keep those items that give you a “spark of joy.”

The most illuminating principle from Kondo is this: Only keep things that give you a “spark of joy.” The author advises starting with clothes because we tend to have less sentimental attachment to them (with some exceptions). She says to take every single item of clothing out of your closets, dressers, etc., and lay them on the ground. Then pick up each item, one at a time, and ask yourself, “Does this give me a spark of joy?” If yes—keep it. If no—donate it. It’s that simple.

I found this process to be liberating. Many items were an immediate “yes” or “no.” Then I held up a hot pink sheath dress, and I thought, “This gives me a spark of joy! But I never wear it. I probably won’t have the opportunity to wear it.” Conventional wisdom would say to get rid of it—but it gave me joy, so I decided to keep it. Conversely, I was delighted to donate some practical clothing that I wore only because I felt that I had to wear it. I now relish opening my closet each day. Selecting an outfit that I love is quick. (And I always smile when I notice that hot pink dress).

Kondo has a very specific process for dealing with each category in your home sequentially, but ultimately the question of whether something sparks joy leads to a home with only the things that make you happiest, nothing more.

03. Have a designated place for everything (and I mean everything).

The wisdom of Tidying Up isn’t so much how to organize but simply that once you are left with only the items you love, make a place for each and every one of them.

One example that Kondo gives: the contents of your purse. She suggests emptying your purse at the end of the day, putting each item away in its designated place. It does seem counterintuitive to empty your purse each day, as Kondo points out. But she says that we often forget what is in our purses and even destroy purses by overloading them (mea culpa). Mine had the Mary Poppins effect going on for far too long.

I designated the top drawer of my nightstand for the essential contents of my purse. My first action upon arriving home is to go to my room, empty my purse, and place each item back into its specific spot in the drawer. The amount of random things that make their way into my purse each day astounds me. I now dispose of them or put them in their rightful place. It is a pleasurable part of my morning ritual to open the drawer and select what I need (wallet, sunglasses, notebook). I place them into my purse with my mind at ease that I haven’t forgotten anything important and head out the door. My shoulder no longer feels like it has an anvil strapped to it. And I’m no longer left wondering if my keys are actually in my bag.

Twelve trash bags, four boxes of books, three bags of clothes, and three days of total purging later, I am delighted with my home. I did have a moment of chagrin when asked for an important document that I shredded in the purging process. But I knew in an instant that I did not have that document, and I was able to resolve it quickly. The process took me about ten minutes as opposed to the hour I would have spent searching through boxes and drawers.

Kondo is straightforward about the fact that her book is not for everyone. As the following Amazon online review substantiates: “My wife read this book and threw away a bunch of my stuff. I had to hide things in my truck to keep them off the chopping block. I no longer have a charger for my old iPod; she threw it away. I hate this book.” I can see how Kondo’s philosophy has the potential to transform readers into tidying zealots. So I keep in mind that not everyone wants an ultra-streamlined house or lifestyle. For those of us who do—this book is a gift from heaven.

I appreciate that this new approach isn’t about perfection. It’s about having the freedom to channel my energy and drive into activities that matter to me and feed my soul (such as writing this article!). I’ve thrown that tension and dread stuffed away in the back of my mind out with the trash and replaced it with a new sense of energy and purpose. I’d say that’s pretty magical.