My Great Decluttering Experiment: Part 1
Four techniques, four weeks, 20 years of stuff. Could I get organized once and for all?
I moved into my St. Paul, Minn. house in 1999. It’s not a large house, but on that moving day 18 years ago, as my husband and I sat eating pizza on the floor in an empty room with some friends and our twitchy cats, it was impossible to picture a day when we wouldn’t be able to walk through some areas. We barely had enough furniture to make it look lived in. We didn’t even need the upstairs.
And yet that day of disorder did come. Bins stacked to the ceiling. Floors covered in clothes. Boxes teetering on landings. Impenetrable closets filled with God-knows-what. A garage we couldn’t park in. An impassable basement.
How did it happen? Gradually. The net result of sharing these 1,700 square feet not only with those two old-man cats and my musician/collector/ADHD-suffering husband, but later two children, a dog and two guinea pigs.
You May Ask Yourself, 'How Did I Get Here?'
Our girls grew from busy babies into much larger humans with ever-expanding interests. These days, the younger one is a fifth-grade singer, ballet dancer, sewing nut and collector — of dolls, rocks, fabric, necklaces, sticks, Barbie clothes, shiny things, pretty boxes, sewing kits, stationery, lip balms, stuffed owls and, well, you get the picture. The big one is a teenage jazz pianist who loves to paint, draw and eat in her bed — and whose nutty professor approach to organization is, like her father’s, attributable to ADHD.
Then there’s me: idea person, patron of all the arts, lover of projects, hater of waste. There’s also this messy thing called life: layoffs, illnesses, marital strife, money troubles. Like most people, we’ve had our share.
And so nearly two decades after that moving day, I found myself sitting in my house, surrounded by stuff and not knowing what to do; embarrassed to invite in newcomers; strapped for time, cash and energy and occasionally indulging in fantasies of a fire and a fresh start.
I needed a plan.
Same As It Ever Was
It’s not like our house was never clean, never presentable to guests, never passable. Trouble was, it never lasted. Within a week or so, whatever I'd organized would become disorganized.
Over the years, I had tried different things. I flirted with FlyLady, the organizing czarina Maria Cilley. I subscribed to Real Simple. I hired a home organizer. I bought a drawerful of books on home organization. I created elaborate filing systems for papers. I helped alphabetize record albums. I installed shelves for stuffed animals. Some of it stuck, but most of it didn’t. It was the home organization equivalent of a yo-yo diet.
I had seen some of my friends transform their bodies by enrolling in workout bootcamps or doing other 30-day challenges. What, I wondered, would happen if I could create a 30-day home organization bootcamp for myself? It was worth a shot.
In December, I began. I selected four popular books on home organization and decluttering and set out to listen to one audio version of each per week, following its advice as I went about the business of decluttering and organizing.
I was determined to conquer my clutter once and for all.
And you know what? It worked. My great decluttering experiment really did change my life — or at least my mindset. Also, I found $1,000. More on that encouraging discovery — and exactly how my life changed — later. But first, let’s start with the first book.
Once In a Lifetime
I had resisted reading Marie Kondo's bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, since first hearing the hype. The last thing I needed was to add another book to the towering stack by my bed or another item to my to-do list. I did, however, listen with interest — and eagerly share my opinions — as my friends discussed the Japanese organizer’s wacky-sounding advice about not balling up socks and such.
Even though I was compelled by Kondo’s “spark joy” approach to decluttering, I chuckled at memes that made fun of it. And I felt justified in my resistance when I saw a book catalogue advertising a spoofy title called The Joy of Leaving Your Sh*t All Over the Place. Yeah, who needs decluttering advice anyway? It’s not exactly brain surgery.
In reality, though, it was the idea of “tidying in one go,” as Kondo recommends, that held me back. It seemed impossible for a stretched-thin person like me to pull it off.
In December, I decided to see what her tidying up magic was really all about.
The First Book: Marie Kondo
Big idea: Kondo’s premise is this: Surround yourself only with objects that spark joy and and get rid of the rest. Doing this will change your life in magical ways.
Eye-roll factor: It’s easy to find reasons to roll your eyes at Marie Kondo — because she’s completely insane! I’m no shrink, but her lifelong obsession with tidying and organization smacks of serious OCD. The way she personifies inanimate objects such as socks, giving them human feelings, is downright cuckoo bananas. And, yeah, if I were single with no kids or pets (as Kondo seemed to be when she wrote the book), surely I could be tidy, too. As a matter of fact, I was very tidy back then. Take that, Kondo.
Shrug factor: Another hurdle to hearing Kondo's message, for me, was all the references to Japanese life. While I’m fascinated by other cultures, I found it hard to relate to some of her clients’ struggles, such as her long example about collecting coins while visiting shrines and the etiquette for discarding them.
Then again: So what if Kondo is nuts and not always relatable? She’s also a genius who has dedicated her life to mastering the art of tidying. Once I let go of my resistance, I found her advice and techniques to be a revelation — and her claim of “life-changing magic” not far-fetched at all.
Big takeaways: This book set me on a course that has forever changed how I think about organizing my home and my stuff in general. And I came to the following conclusions, all of which were reinforced and enhanced by the other decluttering gurus I consulted in the coming weeks:
- A vacuum can spark joy; so can a bra.
- Tidying “in one go” doesn’t mean one weekend — it’s a six-month endeavor.
- It helps to declutter by category, not by room or drawer.
- Store everything vertically.
- Once an object has done its job, it’s time to let it go.
- There’s no one-size-fits-all perfect amount of stuff.
I’ll delve further into these takeaways in upcoming installments of My Great Decluttering Experiment. In the meantime, I’ve bagged up a mountain of clothes to take to Goodwill and now feel calm contentment instead of exasperation every time I open my scarf drawer.
It was remarkably easy to say good-bye to the many cute, colorful scarves I put in the bag once I realized they had already served their purpose in my life — some of them way back in high school. In doing so, it felt like I was making room for whatever’s next.