how to become tidy

I admit it. My entire life, I have been a messy, disorganized person. It’s inherited; my parents weren’t tidy either.

One can argue about whether messiness is a problem. Aesthetically, it is not pleasing to the eye, but that’s not what concerns me. The problem is being unable to find items easily. Sometimes, when I need an item, I have to go searching through many boxes or piles of clutter to locate it. It’s stressful.

My defense has been to set aside a block of time and make a huge sweep of my environment. I do this periodically, organizing, tossing things, and cleaning up. This action is only triggered when my frustration level gets too high, or when someone comes to visit me and I feel compelled to make things look a little nicer for the sake of others. So it doesn’t happen often – maybe once a year.

You may wonder why I don’t bother keeping things looking nice for me. My viewpoint is that life’s too short to spend time shuffling my stuff around. I try to strike a balance. I spend as little time cleaning and organizing as possible, while keeping my space tolerable to me. In this regard, I think my standards are much lower than the general population.

I’m fed up with this process, though. Like many modern-day technology workers, I’ve moved my household many times in my life, on average about every 5 years or so. Every time I move, it’s clear that I’ve accumulated more stuff, and have more boxes of things to deal with. When I settle into my new abode, it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even bother unpacking most of my stuff. It’s a waste of energy and space carrying this stuff around with me, and it’s a maintenance chore to have to search through boxes when looking for something that I need. It’s the physical equivalent of spaghetti code, and it has all the associated problems of spaghetti code, only in meatspace.

Since my old method of dealing with the problem is a major fail, I’ve been looking for a better way. I picked up the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing“, by Marie Kondo. This is not going to be a rave review of her system, since I haven’t even started it yet. In fact, I’m still reading the book. I have a minor critique: The book itself could use some decluttering… it’s too verbose for its topic. As an aside, I picked up her book from the library. Whenever possible, I’ll get books on loan from the library – it helps to ward off clutter, and it’s a cost-cutting measure.

The system that’s presented is to go through groups of items one at a time, and to get rid of things that do not “spark joy”. Kondo says it’s easiest to start with clothing. You should take every stitch of clothing that you have and drop it into a pile. Then, you pick up each item one piece at a time, hold it in your hands, and decide whether it sparks joy in you. This a basic principle of her system: only keep items that spark joy.

That’s a problem, because I think that most of the items that I own do not spark joy in me. If I get rid of them, I won’t have much left. I guess a lot of my stuff falls into two categories: 1) things that don’t “spark joy”, but that I should not throw away, and 2) things that I really like (“spark joy?”), but that I don’t use so much.

Category one includes things like old tax forms and dish detergent. If you pick up a bottle of dish detergent, does it spark joy? Well no. But you use it every day and you probably don’t want your household to be devoid of dish detergent. Old tax forms do not spark joy, but you really want to hang onto them in case of an audit.

Kondo does admit that things like tax forms need to be kept. She believes that there are very few items in your home like this, and she may be right, but so far I have some doubts.

I am getting ready to start on Phase I of her tidying plan: sorting through my clothing and deciding what to keep, and what to give away. I’m pretty sure that I’ll find very few items that “spark joy”. As a general rule, I dislike shopping, and I tend to buy clothing for practical reasons: is it functional? Does it fit? (It is hard to find clothing that fits well!) What about my old office clothing, or the couple of suits that I keep aside for interviews? I actively dislike the clothing that I used to wear at the office, and I’m also not keen on my interview suits. But I may need them again, some day. Should I toss them because they don’t spark joy, and then later on, potentially have to shell out hundreds of dollars for replacements? I think Kondo would say “yes, get rid of it!”. Kondo never really addresses the cost of doing things her way; in her world, money is no object. At least, it is never mentioned as a consideration. It makes me think that her method is aimed at a certain class of people – people who can afford to pay a consultant to help them tidy up their spaces.

It could also be that I’m misinterpreting what she means by “sparking joy”. The things that spark joy for me are activities and experiences: for example, a blue-sky day spent skiing after fresh snowfall. The pants that I use around the house on a daily basis do not spark joy. But if I toss them, I’ll have to go find a new pair. And I find it hard to imagine I’ll find a pair that sparks joy. Pants just don’t do that for me.

I know in advance that I’ll have to amend her method. I’ll be keeping things that I need to keep – things that I use now, or that I know I’ll use in the future – even if they don’t spark joy. I’ll also keep things that I might eventually need that would be expensive to replace (interview suits). I’m still hopeful that her method will work for me. It’s absolutely true that I’ve kept far too many things in my life, things that I have little or no use for. I have boxes of old “tech” books that I’ve hardly ever looked at, and that are largely out-of-date. I’ve also got too many old articles of clothing that I don’t like, and that I can afford to give away. So I have some hopes for the system. I’ll write another blog post about how the system works as I go through it.

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