The power and gratification of decluttering

In the current era of consumerism, people have a habit of buying things as a means to happiness. We’ve all heard the term “retail therapy” and many indulge in it every time they have had a bad day or feel depressed, like a bandage to cover a problem. The process of accumulation eventually makes it hard to neatly store the things we already own. In a 2012 study of 32 middle class families in Los Angeles, UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families found that only 25% of households could actually store cars in their garage because there was too much clutter in them. 

So, it was no coincidence that on January 1st, just in time for New Year’s resolutions to come into effect, Netflix released a bingable eight-episode show called “Tidying Up” based on Marie Kondo’s best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” The show inspired a frenzy of purging across the country and all of my social media accounts were flooded with before and after pictures of my friends’ newly KonMari’d homes. Manypeople posted photos of their socks perfectly folded in stacks that would make Marie Kondo proud, and furloughed government workers spent their time off making mountains out of their clothes and donating trash bags full of household items that no longer “spark joy.” I wondered if all this was just a hype, like a yearly weight loss resolution that would die down by February. Nonetheless, I decided to indulge in the show and see what the hype is about. 

Who am I kidding? As a person who takes joy in decluttering and organizing, almost at an obsessive-compulsive level, surfing through Pinterest pages of neatly organized pantries and watching shows like Marie Kondo’s is what I live for. As I watched the show, Kondo immediately appealed to me; she was the “Japanese Mary Poppins” who transforms people’s lives by teaching them how to declutter their homes. 

Her method is simple: You divide all the stuff in your house into categories: clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellaneous), and finally sentimental items, and then you touch each item to see if it sparks joy. If it does, you keep it and if it doesn’t, you thank it and discard it, almost like breaking up with a past boyfriend who no longer makes you happy. Through the process tears are shed, marital rifts are resolved, and people are left happier and less anxious. 

This may seem overly simplistic, but in fact a number of studies have show that clutter increases anxiety and decluttering reduces it. A 2009 study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, concluded that clutter sometimes leaves a person feeling more depressed especially if guests comment on the mess. Another 2011 study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that clutter often means there are too many things around you to stimulate you, which in turn makes it hard for you to focus.  Angela Betancourt, who has a professional organizing business in Gainesville, Florida called “The Joy of Less: Decluttering & Home Organizing,” says that “after decluttering, her clients typically experience less stress and anxiety, more inner peace and self-confidence, stronger decision-making skills and improved health habits, like better sleep.”

It is precisely for this inner peace that I maintain a tidy and clutter-free life. I still remember when the decluttering bug first struck me. I had always been clean and tidy and loved organizing but was nowhere near a minimalist, and I cherished my things just as much as the other person. The difference was that I would neatly place every item in a labeled “home” so it would look tidy. It wasn’t until I got to college and moved seven times in five years that I realized the need to declutter and started to value minimalism. My rule was simple: I only needed to live with as many items as could fit in my small car in the event that I had to move again. This sparked a life-long journey to keep only the necessary and loved and get rid of the rest. Decluttering and organizing to me meant more than the occasional spring cleaning: it was a way of life. My husband quickly caught on to the habit because, after all, a happy wife is a happy life.

But in spite of being obsessively committed to decluttering and tidying, I realized I, too, had something to learn from Kondo. In between the “I do that, too”, “she’s me, pintsized” and “ok, that’s not rocket science,” I realized the KonMari method went beyond folding clothes into thirds. Her method is transformational because it induces gratitude; we thank our possession the way we thank people, practically animizing objects as if they had feelings.  

I realized how my obsession with tidying went beyond the aesthetic look of it and deep in to the emotional detachment to material things, and the stress relief that came along with disposing them. I was the anti-Kondo: the ungrateful one who lets go of things in a heartbeat. Although I was initially skeptical about her requirement of thanking each item that is to be discarded, I slowly began to see the value in it. There was something spiritual about greeting homes and thanking objects; it reflected closely some teachings in Islam. The greeting of the house was almost like we do as Muslims, when we ward off the devil when entering our homes. The thanking of the clothes was like saying “alhamdulillah” (“praise be to God”) for all God has blessed us with. Kondo’s spirituality was beautiful, and I started incorporating the principles into my regular tidying routine.

The tidying routine, however, is an endless process and if you love it like I do, it never seems tiring. My friends often ask me how I keep the house tidy at all times and have unsuccessfully tried to catch me on a “bad” day. I never had an answer to the question till I watched the show and realized that like all tidying enthusiasts, I, too, followed my own KonMali method (as a pun to my name) and had a certain set of, till now, unsaid rules and principles to prevent clutter. Some of the rules are as follows:

  • Everything must have a home: If it doesn’t then you don’t need it. If everything has a set place where it belongs then you immediately know where something should go and put it there. If an item occupies no specific location when not in use, it becomes clutter.
  • Practice a new type of retail therapyInstead of appeasing a bad day through more clothes and shoes, practice organization therapy. When I’m feeling down or just need a break from my two toddlers’ constant fight over the yellow crayon, I go to Home Goods or Target and browse through the dozens of beautiful storage boxes and containers and think of the areas in my home that could be housed in a new grey paisley box.  
  • Pick a theme: Not only is sticking to a theme aesthetically pleasing, but it also helps prevent impulse buying and the resulting clutter. I picked a less common color theme for my kitchen and it prevents me from buying the unnecessary cute red toaster on a Black Friday sale because it won’t fit the theme.  Someone once asked me why I haven’t gotten on the Instant Pot bandwagon yet and I told them I will once it comes out in a Robin egg blue.
  • Finish one category or area before you start a new one: The process of decluttering is a messy one but stay focused on the end result. Everything will always look messy during the process like the mountain of clothes Marie Kondo requires every client to make in the middle of the room at the start of the decluttering process. It forces you to finish the task so that you’re not left with a messier place than you started with.
  • Get the family involved: Marie Kondo also stresses this point and it couldn’t be more important. In our house, tidying up is a family thing: my husband married into it and my kids were born into it. That said, it can be fun, too. I had my kids help with the laundry at a very young age and by the time my son was 18 months, he had learned his colors by sorting through pairs of socks.
  • Factor in the time it will take to tidy: I have a rule that everything must be tidy before I leave the house. This commitment requires a little bit of extra time in the morning to get ready but since everything is organized on a daily basis, I save a lot of time from not rummaging through piles of clothes or drawers full of stuff to look for something I need.
  • 1-1 rule: If you buy one item, you must get rid of one you already own. I especially put this rule into practice with shoes: if I want to get one, I must be prepared to donate one that I already own.
  • The power of patterns and consistency: Use matching hangers, stack everything neatly ala Khloe Kardashian’s stacked cookie jars, and have all labels face the same direction. If I buy ten cans of chickpeas on my weekly Whole Foods run, I must stack them in the pantry so that all the chickpea pictures face the same direction. It may sound like a tedious process but it takes only a few extra minutes and you would be surprised at how much tidier it looks.
  • Do it now: Don’t put off what can be done now. Fold clothes as soon as they dry, organize groceries as soon as they come in, throw out junk mail as soon as it hits the kitchen counter, replenish diaper bags as soon as you get home. If you leave it for later, chances are you’ll never get to it and it’ll eventually become a part of the home’s new, albeit cluttered, décor.

Maliha Cheema has a Phd in Development Economics, but her true passion lies in decluttering and organizing spaces. If you have any questions about organizing tips, please email at maliha.cheema@gmail.com

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