Love, success and juice cleanses can wait, apparently.
Decluttering – as embodied in the quirky Japanese import “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” – is the self-help topic that’s burning up the best-seller lists.
And while cleaning consultant Marie Kondo’s minimalist manifesto is a phenomenon unto itself, with Twitter testimonials (#tidying, #konmari) and hundreds of YouTube videos, it’s also part of a broader societal cleaning spree. Your friends and neighbors are accepting the 40 Bags in 40 Days clutter-removal challenge, listening to TreeHugger.com founder Graham Hill’s TED Talk (“Less Stuff, More Happiness,” with 2.7 million views and counting), posting photos of vanquished junk on Instagram, and snapping up popular get-rid-of-it guides targeting dieters (“Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down”), minimalists (“The Joy of Less”) and Christians (“Clutter Free: Quick and Easy Steps to Simplifying Your Space”).
“The whole decluttering thing is a huge trend right now,” says Kristin Collins, 40, of Raleigh, who has been on a self-described clutter reduction “bender” for the last few years. “It’s what everyone’s talking about.”
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How did decluttering rise through the ranks of the American self-improvement agenda? Part of the answer, experts say, is that we simply have more stuff than we used to – and our junk drawers are getting fuller all the time.
In a pioneering 2001-2005 University of California at Los Angeles study that sent researchers into the homes of 32 middle-class families to carefully chronicle their possessions, researchers found refrigerators covered with magnets, photos, calendars, memos and kids’ art; common spaces full of toys; shelves stuffed to overflowing with DVDs, books and mementos; and garages full of boxes, bins and rejected furniture.
“One thing that was really striking to everybody that worked on this study was just how much of a clutter crisis our families are facing right now,” says Darby Saxbe, now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “They were surrounded by stuff to the point where it seemed emotionally and physically stressful and taxing for them.”
Saxbe traces the clutter buildup, in part, to unprecedented access to deeply discounted consumer goods.
“We’ve got Wal-Mart, where you can buy anything for $10, and we’ve become used to this very acquisitive style, where if you can’t find your stapler, you just go buy another stapler,” she says. “I was just reading the ‘Little House on the Prairie' books with my daughter, and if they wanted a doll, for example, they had to make it, and it was incredibly labor-intensive.”
Collins, a communications professional who lives with her husband and their 9-year-old daughter, says that she doesn’t even have to purchase kid clutter; it comes to her.
“Birthday parties (mean) piles of presents, and there’s treasure boxes at school, and they come home with all these cheap junky toys and goody bags, and then grandparents are shipping lots of cheap stuff from Wal-Mart that breaks in the first two weeks and scatters on your floor. I feel like we’re at a point where it’s reaching a critical mass and people are just losing their minds.”
For 12 years, she says, she and her husband relegated unused and unusable items to the basement: toys, furniture, items inherited from his mother.
“When I would think of my house, I would sort of have a bad feeling,” Collins says. “I would imagine a house sitting on top of a trash pile. And also there’s this mental energy: You’re always thinking about reorganizing it.”
Collins’ basement purge was pre-Kondo; others have been motivated directly by the Kondo book, which was a best-seller in Japan and Germany before hitting the U.S. market. The book, which is part cleaning memoir, part decluttering how-to, has spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times advice best-seller list, including several months at No. 1. We learn that, as a girl, Kondo was obsessed with organizing, even (voluntarily) straightening her siblings’ rooms, and that no storage system or product ever lived up to her standards.
Finally, she hit on the revelation that the possessions themselves were the problem and culled them mercilessly, keeping only those things that brought her joy. She built a system of decluttering based on that insight, as well as a business.
The book is an intoxicating mix of whimsy and austerity: In a true Kondo household, every object has its place and is returned to it religiously after it is used. Kondo makes the remarkable – and very seductive – claim that no one who has completed her private tidying course, which involves a one-time, full-home purge, has rebounded into disarray. No one.
Kondo calls her method KonMari – a mashup of her first and last names that followers use as either noun or verb – and fans acknowledge that “konmariing” is not for the faint of heart. But they say the rewards are deep and transformative.
“This whole Marie Kondo thing has changed my life,” says Jamie Gutfreund, the chief marketing officer at the digital marketing agency Deep Focus, who spent much of Memorial Day weekend whittling down the excess in her family’s four-bedroom home.
“Everybody who knows me right now is so tired of me talking about it, because I feel so much better,” Gutfreund says. “I really feel so much better. I (used to) lose my glasses every day. The whole thing is, you have to respect your items, and you have to put them in the places where they’re supposed to go. So now I’m putting my glasses where they’re supposed to go, and I don’t lose them – funny! I probably gained 20 minutes a day.”
There’s also an emotional aspect to decluttering, and for some a spiritual one. Like meditation and yoga, decluttering appeals to overscheduled Americans seeking calm and focus, Gutfreund says.
In her book, Kondo offers readers a vision of the uncluttered home as an oasis of calm: “I have time to experience bliss in my quiet space, where even the air feels fresh and clean; time to sit and sip herbal tea while I reflect on my day. … Although not large, the space I live in is graced with only those things that speak to my heart. My lifestyle brings me joy.”
Collins doesn’t aspire to Kondo-level domestic order, but she, too, has found that decluttering can have an emotional aspect.
“I am the opposite of a neat freak – I’ve always been a messy person,” Collins says. “But even I just feel a sense of calm when there’s not stuff piled in every corner of my house.”
Some tips from Marie Kondo’s philosophy:
- Declutter category by category (clothes, books, papers), not room by room.
- Start with clothes, then move on to books, papers, miscellaneous items and items with sentimental value.
- Take each item in your hand and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If the answer is no, get rid of the item.
- Discard first; store later.
- Designate a place for every item you own. When you’re done using something, put it back where you found it.