For inspirational purposes, I subscribed for a while to a Tumblr feed called Unfuck Your Habitat (frequently, for obvious reasons, abbreviated as UfYH.) It specializes in encouraging people to keep their living spaces livable through "twenty minutes at a time," "as much as you can handle" work. Users frequently post before-and-after pictures on the Tumblr site to show what they accomplished in twenty minutes, or in a few "20/10s" (sessions of twenty minutes of work, ten minutes of rest). It is popular among people who suffer from depression or other disabilities that make it hard to get up and do things like a day of thorough spring cleaning, or people whose habitats are so far gone that they don't know where to start.
It's also probably nice for a lot of folks that (unlike something like FlyLady) it isn't aimed squarely at an audience made up of, what used to be called, with no trace of irony, "housewives."
The UfYH website has some helpful, systematic ideas and basic cleaning instructions, and there is also an iOS app (called, I believe, "Unfilth Your Habitat" to get around the obscenity rules at the Apple Store) and now an Android app with a few tools (timers, to-do lists) for the method.
I bring this up because the other day on the UfYH Tumblr someone asked about the Marie Kondo method:
Have you heard of Marie Kondo’s “KonMari” method of tidying/organizing? If so, what do you think? ... I kind of have to call bullshit on her claim that none of her clients has ever regressed. Are they terrified of her? Does she select only clients who are unlikely to regress? Thoughts?
Answer (emphases are mine):
So, I get like at least a half dozen asks a day about Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up, which up until now I’ve chosen not to address because, to be honest, I still haven’t finished reading the book...
Broadly, I think there is no one system that is likely to work for everyone, UfYH definitely included. I think that if a system speaks to you and you agree with the principles behind it, you’re far less likely to regress back to your old ways. So I don’t think that’s bullshit, necessarily, that she has clients who don’t regress; she may just have clients for whom her system is the right fit.
From what I can see, UfYH and KonMari differ in two major ways.
First, she advocates “decluttering” (not a word I use, ever, really) [bearing notes: KonMari's translator uses the term "discarding"] by category: so, all clothes, then all books, then all keepsakes, etc., and says that a “little-by-little” approach doesn’t work. Obviously, UfYH is based almost entirely around “little-by-little” and focuses on the fact that trying to go through all of your clothes in one shot can be completely overwhelming and itself an obstacle to getting organized. I think the people who find UfYH useful need a little-by-little approach so that they can get started, keep going, and eventually get to a point of maintenance, rather than crisis.
Second, KonMari advises you to only keep items that “spark joy” in you. While I think this is a great concept, I’m somewhat of a realist and a cynic and I know for a fact that my home will never be a carefully curated collection of items that only bring me joy, and I think lots of people live the way I do. I have items that are necessary, items that are useful, and items that I really need to have around, many of which do not “spark joy.” I believe wholeheartedly in paring down your belongings to what you really need or want, but I also think that there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t have an emotional connection to your cooking utensils.
Do I think the KonMari method is bad or wrong? Of course not. I think everyone should use what speaks to them and what is useful and applicable in their own lives. It’s a vastly different approach than mine, which is good, because people are complex, and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. I think it’s great that her method works for so many people and has inspired so many to try to get their homes and messes under control. I want everyone to have a home they’re comfortable and happy in, no matter what journey they take to achieve that.
A note on the joy-sparking thing: With the help of a translator, Marie Kondo did an English-language IAmA on Reddit some time ago in which someone asked her
What about keeping objects that don't spark joy but that I don't want to spend money or time replacing right now and which are still helpful - for example a computer, a mattress, a toothbrush, a frying pan, a suit, a blender, a coffee table? Should I keep these if they don't spark joy but I still use them regularly?
So those things are helping you every day. Because you are using them.
Even if they are not sparking joy, they are helping you every day. They are making your days go by - meaning, you have not realized that they are making you happy. They are sparking joy to you, subconsciously. So it's you, just not realizing that sparks joy for you. So you should convince yourself that they are sparking joy, and you should prioritize their status, because they are making your day, everyday. Then, gradually, you will start seeing some sparking joy concepts from those items.
Be grateful for what you have, I think, is a more usual way of putting that in perpective.
(The Reddit IAmA is not terribly long -- 148 comments -- and is well worth your time if you enjoyed Kondo's book.)
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So, can you do it all at once or is that too big of a job and it's just going to make a big mess that will remain after you get distracted from it?
Here are some points about the system that if you heed them will go a way toward solving the problem.
(1) You're supposed to sort quickly. Go with your gut, your first impression. Don't pause to think too hard about each item. Just pass it through your hands and ask yourself (let's say the item is a book) "Does this item make me happy when I see it on my shelf?"
(2) If you have too many things in a category -- and Kondo does not specify how many is "too many" or what limitation (space? attention? time?) makes the category too big -- you are supposed to break the category down further. For example, you are supposed to put all your books on the floor and sort them all at once unless you have too many books to do this. She suggests some categories of books, but only so that you can see the order in which to tackle categories ("general pleasure reading" comes first, reference books later). It is clear that the only purpose of the categories is to deal with as many books as you can manage at once, and to deal with like books together.
So, for example, I dealt with all my personal "pleasure reading" at once, over the space of a few hours spread over a couple of days, using space in a spare room. I went through my shelves, pulled out everything that counted as "reading for pleasure," and put it on the floor; then I sorted it into three piles:
- sparks joy in me personally when I see it just sitting on the shelf (the KonMari book criterion): this pile, when complete, went back onto my bookshelves, in a section that I marked "complete" and didn't pull from again
- to be considered later for whether it sparks joy in me as part of my homeschooling library: this pile was temporarily stored in a spare bedroom until it was time to consider the "homeschooling library" as a set
- neither: these went right into boxes that I taped up as they became full
But I could have broken "general pleasure reading" into smaller categories: pop science and novels would have been the two largest categories, and those would have each fit on my dining room table, and I would have been forced to finish each category in one day by dinner time. They are both kinds of pleasure reading, and so they compete with each other for my time and attention in one sense, but they please me for different reasons, and so I think novels and pop-sci could be considered separately as subcategories.
It was pretty obvious to me that "homeschooling curricula" was its own category, and "books meant for the children to browse but which really belong to me" was also its own category. I get the impression that you should break it into categories that are as large as you can handle -- the benefit of small categories is that you can be done with a "session" more easily without it being a multi-day messy project, but the benefit of large categories is that it's easier to discard.
(3) Can't stress this one enough. Have plenty of boxes and tape (and some trash bags -- some stuff will not be in good enough shape to donate) ready to go before you start. Fill a box, seal it right away, get it out of your house ASAP. Mine went to a fundraising garage sale.
No matter how you do it, it's a long-term project, but it really does break down into manageable pieces very well, and there's an order to it; this method gets you straight through the "But where do I START?" paralysis.
First: Restrict yourself to discarding your own unloved stuff, not your other family members' stuff.
Then, she says, start with clothes. If you have too many clothes to pile them all on the floor at once, start with tops. And so on.
When clothes are done, move to books. If you have too many books to pile them all on the floor at once, start with general pleasure reading, and so on. I extrapolated from that to say: If you have too many general pleasure reading books to deal with at once, start with one easy-to-define subcategory of pleasure reading (such as novels). And so on.
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I finished clothes, and I finished books, and now I'm about to discard "papers." The timing is good because it's the end of a school year, and so I'm drowning in papers that I need to cull.
A very important note here is that "papers" does NOT include things that are kept for sentimental reasons. Even if they happen to be made of paper, these -- old love letters, photographs, children's dear little artworks, etc. -- differ fundamentally from insurance policies, credit card statements, envelopes with important addresses on them, immunization records, tax forms, and the like. Sentimental objects come last of all. When, having just finished "books," one gathers "papers" to discard them, sentimental paper-based objects are passed right over.
I am starting this just as I get back from a weeklong vacation from the Internet, and so I decided to practice the paper-discarding technique on my email inbox first, while I gather papers together. Kondo's rule is to discard every paper unless
- it is currently in use, or
- it is needed for a limited period of time, or
- it must be kept indefinitely.
That is a funny way of putting it, but note the difference in the verbs. It "is" in use, it "is needed" for a limited period of time, "it must be" kept indefinitely. Note the absence of verbs like "want" or modifiers like "might." When you turn it into asking yourself a question about whether to discard something, you wind up asking:
- Must I keep this thing for I don't know how long? (Yes to relatively few things. The title to the house and car come to mind. The children's birth certificates. Contractual documents. Tax records -- technically only must be kept for a few years but that's pretty long.)
- Do I need this thing for a known period of time? (Yes to a larger category of things. The kids' immunization records, which I'll need only until the next doctor's appointment when I will get a new copy. Standardized test results, which I need to compare from year to year but which will become moot as each child graduates high school. Receipts for things that have not been delivered yet. Forms I need to fill out. Mail that I need to read.)
- Am I using this thing? A large category. I think of it as, "If I didn't have this thing, would it mess up some project I'm currently working on?" A lot of schoolwork-related papers belong in this category at any given time. Right now I have a lot of scratch paper that I'm using to plan next school year, for instance. And I have a pile of schoolwork for the high school kids that I want to summarize into a sort of "report" for my own records and for H's records.
When it comes to storing papers, Kondo suggests only three files. They are not quite the same as the three categories of "things not to throw away." The three files are:
(1) Needs to be dealt with
(2) Contractual documents and other items that are infrequently accessed
(3) Items that are more frequently accessed
Yup: that's how she puts it. "Infrequently" and "more frequently."
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Before I started going through my email box yesterday, I created three new folders:
- 00 Deal With
- 01 Save - Access
- 02 Save - Infrequent
(The numbers are there to defeat by brute force the email program's automatic file-alphabetizing feature.)
I began going through my inbox with the goal of emptying it, sorting everything I don't delete into one of those three top-level folders.
Very quickly I realized that it would be helpful to have another top-level folder for the specific purpose of keeping email purchase receipts just until my Amazon, etc., orders arrive undamaged. These are, technically, a kind of "Save - Access" document, but there are so many of them and they only need to be kept for a short time, that really they should be grouped together. So I created a fourth folder:
- 03 Orders - Purge
and its name is a reminder that every so often it can be purged completely when I am not waiting for any orders to be delivered.
It took me all day, but I got my inbox to empty. I still have a gaggle of folders to go through with names like "Archive 2009" and "Rome Trip" and "History Schoolwork" -- not that I really have to delete things, since my email folders are searchable and I have an unlimited-space account. I could just move the whole file-tree into "02 Save- Infrequent." It's more so that I can comb through them to find out, once and for all, if anything in there really ought to go into "Deal With."
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So that's today's project. Once I've finished that, I'll actually "deal with" the things in "00 Deal With." Some of this "dealing" will involve printing things: turning email into Papers. And then I'll begin tackling the first of the two boxes on my schoolroom counter, boxes which have been collecting a slow drift of papers for the last few weeks, boxes of papers: one labeled "School Paper" and one labeled "Non-School Papers."