Less is more, space is freedom, possessions weigh you down, clutter makes you sick. So tidy up. Decluttering is the new big thing, and a quick Google search will reveal a slew of best-selling books on the subject, all published in the last three years. So rush off and buy them all – you’re bound to find space for them.
In the spirit of minimalism, I believe that almost all the truly practical advice in the many, many books written on decluttering can be condensed into one page. But it’s worth looking at what’s on offer.
KonMari – the decluttering queen
KonMari – the best-selling Japanese decluttering guru and author of – so far –four books on the subject. Hmm, I wonder if she does irony, especially as she devotes quite a few pages to getting rid of books. The KonMari method is really nothing new – go through all your stuff, get rid of what you don’t need and/or don’t like (or, in KonMari-speak, what does not ‘spark joy’), and then organise the rest of it so that it’s tidy, hygienic and easy to find.
I’ll bet you couldn’t have thought that up yourself. What does set her apart from the rest, though, is her quasi-military OCDness. Rather than clear room by room, clear category by category and in the right order – for example, completely organising all your clothes before you start on books. But for serious anal-retentiveness, nothing can beat the KonMari folding method. Yes, there is a special way to fold socks, T-shirts … everything.
If you want to get to the source, rather read Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding: How to Get Rid of Clutter and Find Joy – it’s the book that inspired Marie Kondo to take minimalism to its maximalist extreme.
Zen and the art of minimalist maintenance
Let’s face it, Asia is the heartland of decluttering. Any Feng Shui practitioner (or book) will start with decluttering. Or you can go one better, and clean two birds with one Tenugui towel, as described in Shoukei Matsumoto’s A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind. This one is a bit hardcore for non-Zen monks. He describes in detail exactly how to clean every room in your home – pretty much assuming a relatively clutter-free space – and even how to shave and brush your teeth. But what’s special about his approach is that he very definitely connects the state of your home with the state of your mind and body – ‘if the bathroom is kept clean, you can keep your heart clean as well.’ And I particularly like his advice to ‘keep only things of good quality. They are the final products of many people’s diligent work. They are the kinds of things that you can continue to use again and again for many years.’
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning
The fabulously-titled The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is less philosophical and very pragmatic. Whereas KonMari suggests you throw out anything that does not ‘spark joy’, Margareta Magnusson suggests that you dispose of anything that a) you don’t need or want now, and b) will not have value for the people who have to sort out your estate. So reconsider that vintage suit (with the lapels) that Granddad wore to your christening, Mom’s old darkroom equipment (what’s a darkroom?) and your first doll Clarissa (one-eyed and legless) that you’re keeping for sentimental value. Will your grandchildren think the same way?
Magnusson recognises that there are things you may want to hang on to that others may not value, or that you don’t want others to see. She suggests you keep these in a separate box, well labelled, giving your heirs the freedom to dispose of them as they see fit. Or, for example in the case of journals, to destroy them according to your instructions.
Most importantly, she emphasises careful filing of all documents, and making sure that everything is easily accessible. Well, duh! That’s pretty good advice for living, never mind preparation for dying. To creatively misquote Gandhi, ‘Plan as if you’re going to live for ever, and plan as if you’re going to die tomorrow.’
Local is lekker – Suzelle
There are loads more, and you don’t have to go all the way to the northern hemisphere, and you don’t have to clutter your shelves with books. Our own beloved Suzelle has produced a delightful (and somewhat derivative, but who cares?) guide to decluttering. Granted, she only does one cupboard, and she doesn’t say much that’s new. She suggests that, for every item you ask:
- Is this something I am emotionally attached to?
- Have I used this in the last six months? (Okay, skiing equipment for overseas holidays does not count.)
- Do I have multiples of this item?
And then assign each item to a box labelled either ‘keep’, ‘sell’, or ‘throw away’. It’s a bit limited, a fact clearly illustrated by Suzelle’s trademark indecision, but it is entertaining, and the ‘after’ shot of the decluttered cupboard is decidedly inspiring.
Don’t you hate it when your life has become a mess and you can’t find any of the things you’re looking for? Suzelle
The Jen Stern real-life cascade method
While every decluttering book, website, blog or vlog I’ve ever read explains in great detail the desired end, they are a bit thin on the details of how to get there – the actual mechanics of getting rid of all that shit, and how to deal with that moment when you stare at the McGafter that someone left at your house in 2011. So the Jen Stern real-life cascade method is the perfect combination of getting things done today while accommodating your procrastination tendencies (and we all have those). And, best of all, you can decide for yourself how (or even whether) to fold your socks and underwear.
In the spirit of minimalism, rather than writing a book (or four), here’s some practical advice on tackling a truly chaotic drawer, cupboard or room – or that box that hasn’t been unpacked since you moved in 1997:
- Firstly, no matter how many drawers, boxes or cupboards there are, do one at a time.
- Label three boxes ‘Discard’, ‘Keep’ and ‘Cascade’.
- Keep and discard are usually pretty easy decisions.
- Anything you’re unsure of goes into the Cascade box – don’t dither, cascade it and leave it till later.
- Discarding automatically reduces clutter, so it is probably the most important part of the process. Sort the Discard box into throw away, recycle, donate, give away and sell (the latter only for things that will sell for enough to make it worth the hassle).
- Contact the lucky recipients of the intended gifts, and if they don’t gleefully run off with the bounty immediately, move the stuff to the donate box.
- Then put the donate box in your car, and drop it off next time you pass a charity shop. If you put it on the passenger seat rather than in the boot, you’re likely to do this sooner. (You can keep books separate, and drop them off at the library.)
- Throw away and recycle the rest. You now have more space for the next step.
- File, sort and/or properly store the stuff from the Keep box. Create ‘a place for everything’ and then put ‘everything in its place’. If you can’t find a place for it, put it in the Cascade box. An exception to this rule is to create a ‘man drawer’ even if you aren’t a man. It’s that place where you keep things that are really uncategorisable – but limit it to one
- At this stage, resist the temptation to buy pretty ‘organising’ boxes and files. You probably have lots of containers, so use those until the decluttering is complete, at which stage, if you still want the pretty ones, you can reward yourself.
- Put the Cascade box in a predetermined but visible place – not a corner of the garage.
- Once you’ve sorted a few drawers, cupboards, rooms or whatever, and you have flexed your sorting muscles, tackle the Cascade boxes in exactly the same manner, slowly reducing the size and number of boxes. Repeat this process until you have reached the desired level of unclutteredness.
- Learn to let go. Remember, possessions are a means to an end – they are not the end itself – and, if you can’t find something, you effectively don’t have it.
Keep it going
Decluttering is hard work, and it can be stressful, so, having finally cleared your space, how do you keep it serene? Keep reminding yourself of why you are doing it. A clean, decluttered home is a creative space in which you and your family can thrive, while a cluttered home can be inefficient, depressing and even dangerous. So make a few rules to keep your space clear:
- Be realistic – have a Cascade drawer, or box. If it’s a box, make it a pretty one, and keep it in a prominent position where you can access it easily.
- It’s a good idea to have a separate Cascade box for your children, or even for each child – and get them into the habit of regularly sorting them.
- If you get a new possession, make sure there is a space for it – most effectively by getting rid of what it has replaced – and then keep it in its space.
- Proactively tackle the spaces that naturally attract clutter like magnets attract iron filings – your handbag, your car, your desk – and clear them on a regular basis, either daily or weekly.
- Tackle the Cascade drawer or box (and also your children’s Cascade box) on a monthly basis.