KonMari Inspired Lifestyle Design: Creating and curating your ideal lifestyle​

I’d had such grand plans over the summer to really make headway through the KonMari process. Surely the halcyon days of the lengthy summer holiday would mean I would finally reach the milestone of tackling the komono category. Yet, somehow the weeks had slipped away through a wormhole of odd jobs, business about town, and the heady thrill of saying yes to all sorts of social engagements usually turned down due to the general workload and exhaustion of teaching. And suddenly here I was, staring at the dying embers of the last days of the summer holidays. And what was reflected in the glow of these embers? Not the sleek, tidy, minimalist abode of my dreams, but clutter here, there and everywhere.

Kondo warns that temporary clutter may well appear during the tidying process and, sure enough, things were piling up on the various surfaces in my room. Feeling the effects of not having finished the other categories yet, clusters of badly organised, ramshackle komono had taken up squatters rights in various places, giving my room a disordered, messy feeling and making it hard to store things that should have had a designated home. Not only was there komono clutter but I was starting to spot items from the categories I’d already tackled that now seemed ripe for decluttering themselves. A good example of this were the scarves that hung from the hooks on the back of my bedroom door. Although I’d already weeded out a fair number in the first two clothes decluttering sessions, as I gazed upon them hanging there I felt, instead of joy, the prick of annoyance. I realised that not only do I hardly wear any of them but that the door area would seem a lot more peaceful and calm without their gaudy presence drawing the eye.

Added to this was the fact that having had the colour and style classes with House of Colour, I could now spot newly unmasked traitors nestled amongst my clothes – items that were neither my colours nor style and were thus unlikely to be worn again with anything approaching enthusiasm and joy. Writing up the blog post on the style class had focused my thoughts on the importance of wearing clothes that make you feel good. As I mentioned then, my default home-wear was the slobbiness maximus combo of a hoody, t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms (often worn in a mix of colours that would have made Fiona, my House of Colour guru, bite her knuckles in horror). But inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s assertion that making an effort to look and feel good can do wonders for the propagation of your creativity and Kondo’s manifesto on creating your ideal lifestyle, I had decided to make a concerted effort with both my attire and my living environment.

At first this was hard to remember. I would sit down to start writing or be about to head out to the shops when I’d suddenly remember I had no makeup on. In some of the empty days of the summer holidays, with no plans to meet anyone, it seemed a waste of makeup to be putting it on for no particular reason. But, with a grudging sense of duty, I’d apply the basics of Touche Eclat, powder, blusher and mascara. I’d also try to put on clothes that I’d actually be happy to meet friends wearing rather than the sorts of clothes that might encourage security guards to follow me around Marks & Spencer’s. Again, this felt like a waste. Wouldn’t it be best to save my nicer clothes so they’re lovely and clean for when I do go out to meet people? And rather like a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it, if I wear my nice jeans around the house with no one there to see me, does it actually make a difference?

It didn’t take long to realise that making an effort with my clothes and makeup really did make a perceptible difference to how I was feeling both about myself and the day itself. I’d catch glimpses of myself in a mirror and be surprised by the pleasant looking reflection staring back. “Gosh, you look nice!” I’d think to myself. I also felt more ready for the day, more prepared, more like I was actively participating in it rather than skirting around the edges hoping not to be noticed on account of looking a bit scruffy. This video is a nice summary of the difference that making an effort can make. I particularly like the part about how you feel much more ready, willing and able to do something social when there’s no effort involved in saying yes because you’re already all ready to go. And there’s even science to back up the idea that clothing has more of an effect on us than we might like to admit. As explained in this episode of Invisibilia (from 31 minutes in), what we wear can affect not only how we feel about ourselves but even our intellectual abilities. Professor Adam Galinsky, from Columbia Business School, has shown that wearing a doctor’s white coat can make people perform better on attention tests. In fact, the participants wearing the coat made about half as many errors as the participants in regular clothes. And when they were told that the exact same coat was a painter’s coat, its magical test-acing properties evaporated. Just looking at the coat had no effect but there was something about putting it on that imbues the person with all the beliefs associated with that particular piece of clothing. Ergo, if you want to feel good about yourself and on top of your game, dress in your finery, and if you want to feel professional and confident, dress for success. They’ve even coined a term for this powerful symbolic association that clothes afford the wearer: enclothed cognition. With scientific fact supporting the idea that what you wear matters, I realised it was time to up my game in the daily fashion department.

Wearing my nicer clothes on a daily basis with no intention to see anyone initially seemed like it would be subjecting them to needless wear that might hasten their degeneration. But having decluttered my closets already, I was aware that clothes don’t last forever anyway. I need only think back to my collection of sexy knickers patiently waiting for their Prince Charming to come. Their hibernation had not been the cryogenically frozen state of stasis I had imaged it would be and, when unearthed, I had discovered time had taken its toll. In their drooping, wilted elastic was the lament to wear nice clothes on a daily basis. The special occasions you save things for are few and far between (and possibly never arrive). Best to make the most of your nice things and enjoy them while you can.

Thus it is important to enjoy your things in the here and now, enjoy their physical presence while they can give you their best and also reap the psychological benefits of feeling good about yourself and engaged with the day. But Kondo goes further than just urging you to appreciate your possessions in the present moment. She asserts that how you live on a day to day basis can help you create your ideal lifestyle for the future. A thorough declutter and tidy up can, she says, forge new paths and connections in your life, creating a vibrant and happy life, a life that seems as if it’s “been touched by magic”.  Tidying is, she says, the tool rather than the final destination. By undertaking it, you press the reset button on your life bringing about “dramatic changes” and making it possible to “achieve the lifestyle to which you aspire”.

One passage in Kondo’s second book, Spark Joy, seemed to hold particular relevance. She addresses the question of whether to undertake your tidying marathon before or after moving house. The answer is a resounding “before”. If you are looking to move house and haven’t yet found one, she urges you to begin tidying right away. By tidying up your current house and treating it and the things within it with the proper respect they are due, it sends a message to the “house network” that you are a worthy house dweller and this attracts another house to make itself known and available to you. Kondo says that many of her clients have found perfect and beautiful homes that are just right for them once they’ve tidied up and taken good care of the one they currently reside in. Now I’m currently in the market for a new house. I seek a reasonably priced one bedroom flat – a distinct rarity in London Town. Twenty years of living communally in a rotation of houses and housemates has finally grown wearisome. Which serves as a reminder of how one changes as they age. Once I remember declaring that I would always want to live communally with housemates because it was just so much fun. Just like I also remember swearing that I would only ever listen to Radio 1. Yet now I find the DJs silly, shouty and jarringly ebullient and as for the music…well, it seems entirely forgettable, jejune and, boy, they sure don’t make it like they used to, huh? Now I crave the peace, solitude and space of my own one bedroom flat where I can relax, undisturbed by others, listening to 6Music and Radio 2. If push comes to shove, then no, of course, I don’t really believe in a “house network” that gossips like ladies of a certain age about how clean and tidy you keep your house and serves as arbiter of whether you’ve proved yourself worthy of a prime piece of real estate. But rather like the atheist who sends a prayer to god as their plane falters in the sky, I figure I’ve got nothing to lose by believing in my time of need. Kondo claims that the “god of tidying is sure to reward us” when we tidy up thoroughly and decisively. Anyone who has ever tried to find a reasonably priced one bedroom flat for single occupancy in London will attest that only an act of divine intervention will achieve this feat. Thus, rather like Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

This seems to be one of the main differences between being a minimalist in America compared to one living in London. A lot of the reading from America extols the virtues of eschewing the American Dream of owning a large house in favour of a smaller dwelling. If only that was an option for me! What I want more than anything is just a little flat of my own. I would be perfectly happy in a tiny place. But my regular google searches of “micro-apartments London” yields only Pocket Homes as a viable result and there I languish on their waiting list. Not having a significant other to share the millstone of London rents severely limits your options. It’s like a tax on being a single person. Can’t get a boyfriend? Well, you can’t have a nice flat either! London, you’re such a bully. But you’re so cool that I want to be your friend anyway.

“Only when you know how to choose things that spark joy can you attain your ideal lifestyle”, says Kondo. So with the desire of currying favour with the house network combined with the active pursuit of designing and curating my ideal lifestyle, I set about decluttering again. Despite yearning to get to komono, I knew I had to revisit and audit the categories I had previously tackled: clothes, books and paperwork…

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The Konmari Method: Decluttering Books

Having decluttered my clothes and basked in the glory of my newly tidied wardrobes and drawers, I was keen to tackle the next category in the Konmari Method: Books.

I grew up in a house filled with books. My dad owned a vast number and always had several on the go at once. Without fail, come 4pm – afternoon tea time – he would settle down with a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits, remove the fringed leather bookmark, purchased at a National Trust property, from one of the books in the small pile by the sofa and indulge in some designated reading time. Frequent trips to bookshops and the local library were a feature of my childhood and I would read every night before bed. I grew up with the mentality that you read a book and then it was added to the collection on your shelves, becoming part of the tapestry of your life, a tapestry that said “I read this, this is me”.

Nothing seems to declare to the world what sort of person you are like your book collection. It speaks of your likes and dislikes but more than that, we equate a person’s choice in literature with their intelligence and core personality traits. When we moved into our flat and it became apparent that my housemate had so many books that some would have to sit behind others on the book shelves, it was a natural move to display the most impressive ones at the front – the classics, the ones by highly regarded authors, good quality contemporary fiction, and any with the words “Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize” printed on the front cover. While less impressive offerings – trashier scifi, the odd piece of chic-lit – were shuffled to the back, out of sight. We wanted the world (ie any visitors to our flat) to know that we were the sort of people who read Good Books.

Books have been the one category that a lot of my friends have said they just couldn’t part with and Kondo echoes this saying she has found that people often find it incredibly hard to declutter their books. We seem to feel particularly attached to books – possibly because, while we were reading them, we went on a journey with those characters. We lived through their trials and tribulations, we feel connected to them, invested in them. We spent quality time together, the book and I. Getting rid of it would almost be like getting rid of a friend.

But, according to minimalists, these reasons for keeping books – as a display of one’s ego in literary form and an interwoven attachment to a physical object – are not good reasons at all. It is an axiom, part of the dominant ideology of how we live, that people keep books, display books, and lug these books around with them when they move house. These books help form part of a representation of self. And when an object is used to anchor our identity and project this identity to others, it can be very hard to get rid of it. To part with it is like we are erasing a little bit of ourselves. Who will we be without our possessions to mirror one’s self back at ourselves? But you don’t need to pin your sense of identity on material possessions. If you want to declutter your life, feel empowered to do so – you will still be interesting, engaging and knowledgeable (assuming you do possess these qualities!) without a large collection of books gathering dust on your shelves. You will still be the person who read all those books without having to prove it by continuing to own the physical copy.

As for the feeling of sentimental attachment or nostalgia for the time spent with the book – whether it’s fiction or non fiction, the book led you, the reader, on a path through new information, ideas and discovery – but now it’s time for you to allow yourself to release the bonds you’ve created with these weighty piles of paper and printing. The purpose of a book, Kondo says, is to be read and to convey the information within it. Once it has been read its purpose has been fulfilled. The words within it contained meaning and when you read it, you absorbed that meaning. The act of reading that book has been experienced and thus the book’s work is now done – it has no additional meaning just sitting forever on your shelves.

The first stage of decluttering books, just like clothes, is to get them all out and put them on the floor. This may seem like a lot of effort and heavy lifting when you are able to see them quite clearly on the shelves. But again, Kondo stresses that this is an essential move as it is only when they are removed from the shelves and awakened from their dormant state that we can properly tell if they bring joy. While on the bookshelves they remain part of the backdrop, part of the wallpaper, making it difficult to tell if the book itself truly deserves to stay. She warns not to start reading the books – the thrill it brings that indicates it deserves a place in your life should be evident from just holding it in your hands. Kondo includes her own book in her discarding policy and urges readers to get rid of it if it brings no joy.

Despite a love of reading, my book collection was exceptionally small. Most of the books from my youth had been shed, like a snakeskin, along the way and in adulthood I hadn’t seemed to have amassed very many. My early to mid 20s had been spent clubbing and enjoying the various diversions London had to offer, activities that never seemed to leave much time for reading. And once I became a teacher, that took up all my time instead. It was one of the ironies of being an English teach that I never actually had time to read books. The only times in my adult life that I have done any concerted reading is when I’ve been travelling. Then it has been such a pleasure to luxuriate in a book – to have its reassuring weight on hand in my day sack whenever there was time to kill – waiting for a bus, waiting for a meal to arrive, that time spent resting in the hostel between the afternoon’s activities and going out for the evening, that time spent waiting for travelling companions to finish their washing or other chores before heading out to explore a new place, that time spent on long train rides in India feeling the breeze in my hair from the open windows in sleeper class, occasionally looking out through the metal bars at the passing landscape while I let the latest narrative developments sink in.

These books had been transient – it is the very nature of books read when travelling to be passed on once they’re finished. At first I remember this felt a little jarring. It felt strange to immediately dispose of a book once it had been read rather than adding it to the mise en scene of my life – adding its physicality to my possessions, my identity, the things that made me “me”. But I quickly learnt to revel in the process – the time spent in traveller’s bookshops or perusing the book collections in hostels, browsing the well-thumbed volumes or swapping with other travellers. A book that I had finished reading, rather than becoming dead weight in my life, became a thing of worth, a thing of promise and potential. It became the currency with which to acquire something new and exciting. It was a good feeling to know that the book would go on to entertain another person and that in return I would also get a new book, a new adventure to fill the idle hours. I think this approach to books has stayed with me – it seems infinitely more rewarding to pass a book on so it can continue with its purpose to be read and enjoyed rather than carrying it with you forevermore and have it sit in a state of eternal stasis on your bookshelf.

Despite all this, before I discovered minimalism, part of me had worried a little about what my diminutive collection of books said about me. Was it a failing on my part that I hadn’t nurtured a more impressive collection? As a grown woman, a teacher no less, shouldn’t I have a collection the calibre of which spoke of my passions, my wit, my intellect? Did my meagre collection make me look like someone who (gasp!) doesn’t really like to read?! For I know I have been guilty of judging such people. Oh, you don’t read books? Oh. Right.

And now I was about to make my small collection even smaller. But rather than worry about how it would make me appear to others (a poor reason to keep unnecessary possessions), I was looking forward to feeling unburdened, to having a little more breathing space in my life. I pulled my books from the shelves and spread them on the floor. At least this wasn’t going to take as long as the clothes! How funny that I hadn’t really been into clothes yet owned a mountain of them and that I loved books but owned hardly any. If you have a lot of books, Kondo recommends dealing with them in the following categories:

General (books you read for pleasure)

Practical (references, cookbooks etc)

Visual (photography books etc)

Magazines

As I had so few books, it was no trouble for me to deal with them all in one go and it didn’t take long to sift them into two piles: The keepers and the discarders.

The majority of the books in my discard pile were, interestingly, books I had not yet read. They were books collected along the way, most I wasn’t even sure of their origins. Somehow they had come into my life and I’d intended to read them but had never quite got round to it. Some of these unread books I had been carrying with me from house to house for 10 years or more! For some reason, whenever I was on the lookout for a new book to read, these unread books had never piqued my interest enough to be plucked from the shelves. A different book had always managed to wend its way into my hands instead.

This is precisely the reason why these unread books should be discarded, Kondo says. You tell yourself you’ll definitely get round to reading them one day – but “one day” never comes. Timing is crucial: there’s a window of opportunity to read a book when it comes into your life and if you miss that opportunity the chances of the book being read after that are greatly diminished. Maybe they were books that you definitely intended to read when you got them, maybe they came highly recommended by others, maybe some were gifts – whatever your reasons for having them, their main purpose has actually been to teach you that you didn’t really need them after all. It’s time to let all these books go. And don’t feel guilty about the ones that were given to you as presents – acknowledge with gratitude the good intentions they were given with and let them be free. And the same applies to books that you only got half way through. It’s best not to kid yourself that one day you’ll pick it up and finish it. The purpose of these books was only ever to be read halfway.

If you get rid of a book and you are suddenly gripped by a desire to read it, then just get another copy and this time actually read it, Kondo says. This thought offered a lot of comfort as I stacked up all the unread and half read books. If I ever really wanted to read any of these books with their unrequited literary offerings, I would easily be able to find another copy – after all, my school has a well-stocked library, there is a local library just round the corner from my house, all my friends have impressive book collections (and considering their eyes grow wide with fear when I mention my discarding endeavours, I doubt they’ll be decluttering those collections any time soon), there is a Waterstone’s five minutes away on the high street, I live walking distance from all the bookshops in the west end, and, of course, pretty much anything I could possibly want is a mere Amazon click away. I had nothing to fear from getting rid of these books. And I had much to gain as, rather than gazing upon them and feeling joy, I would gaze upon them and feel slightly guilty that my good intentions to read them had never come to fruition. Far better to be free of them and instead read books that have come into my life and grabbed me in the moment.

And what about the books that you have already read? Think you might reread them some day? Think honestly about the number of books you reread – it’s probably not that many. Don’t hang onto a book that doesn’t truly inspire joy just because you think you might want to read it again sometime in the future. If it turns out you actually do, then just find another copy when the time comes. And anyway, the funny thing is that, sometimes, when you reread a book, its beguiling lustre seems to have dimmed a little. You remember ardently loving it at the time but second time round, having already trod that path, it doesn’t grab you in quite the same way. Of course, this doesn’t hold for all books – maybe there are some that you might love with a great passion and you find new ways to enjoy swimming in those words each time you read it. Those would be keepers. But apart from those few that inspire such joy,  it’s best to let the rest go and fill any reading time with new books. With so many great books out there it seems a waste not to experience them – why cling to old books when you can go on new reading journeys and make new memories and connections?

But before I said a final goodbye to my books, there was one subsection that I did reread: Books from my childhood. I still owned a small number of books that I had loved as a child – some of my old favourites that had managed to cling to me while others fell by the wayside. I intended to give these to my sister (as she had made me swear not to discard anything from our childhood without first checking with her) and if she didn’t want them, I would give them to the charity shop so other children may get some of the same enjoyment they gave me when I was young. But before that, I plunged myself back into the past – into the world of Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, the Anastasia books and more. Being a teacher has taught me not to care too much about what others think (you’ve got to have a thick skin as a teacher otherwise you’ll spend far too much time doubting yourself and crying in the toilets) but despite this, I did feel a twinge of awkwardness to be pulling out a Judy Blume to read on the tube. And what did I find from rereading these much loved books from childhood? Well, I found they really are books for children! I didn’t particularly enjoy rereading them. Sure I enjoyed the nostalgia, the trip down memory lane but they didn’t grab me, I wasn’t excited and eager to pull them out of my bag whenever I had spare time. The purpose of these books was to be enjoyed when young and they had fulfilled that purpose admirably. Sometimes, when reading these books, I would get to the end of a chapter and go to turn down the corner of the page only to find a crease already there – sometime in the distant past, child me had also paused there. It was poignant to think of little me, with my unruly bushy hair, stopping at that point, folding the corner down and then turning off my bedside lamp as I lay under my pink duvet in the bed with its frame decorated with scratch and sniff stickers.

Some of my old books from childhood.

Some of my old books from childhood.

Here are two things I noticed from rereading these books – 1) I am now the age that the mothers in the books are (that weirded me out) and 2) a lot of the representations of the mothers were quite negative. They were pushy, demanding, emotional, vain and materialistic. The dads were represented in a much more positive way tending to be that sort of idealised father figure – kind, rational and comforting. I sort of wished I was at university and could write a dissertation on the representations of parents in books for teenagers from the 1980s and early 1990s.

First stop for the books in the discard pile was school. What better place to start off-loading my joyless books than with the English Department, a bunch of certified book lovers! I had hoped they would eagerly fall upon my collection and engage in some sort of Hunger Games like behaviour to decide who got what but they seemed entirely uninspired by them (they were decent books, I swear!). The ones that remained after the English teachers had listlessly picked through them were given to the school library, who were having a fortuitously timed book sale, or I took them to the charity shop if they were unsuitable for the school book sale (eg “Quit Smoking Today” by Paul McKenna…although maybe I should have just handed that to some of the kids who smoke at the bus stop).

I was pleased with some of the homes that my books found at school – a collection of reference dictionaries was taken by one of the English teachers for use in her classroom, a couple of books on art were eagerly received by the art department, and my old thesaurus was taken by a teacher who intended to have children in detention copy from it. He promised to frame this task positively by saying to the children that if they were going to spend time in detention they should use this time productively to improve their vocabulary. I would say that decluttering that thesaurus was actually one of the more emotional books to get rid of. I had been given it by my uncle for one of my teenage birthdays and I had loved looking through it and marvelling at the richness of language. It had helped me through my A-levels and my degree. But of course in this digital age it had become obsolete. thesaurus.com is now my writing companion, offering an unparalleled quantity of synonyms and such ease of hyperlinked cross referencing. It was sad to say goodbye to my trusty old thesaurus but I was glad it was going to a home where it had the potential to captivate other young people with its words – in my head, disaffected detention kids are now being inspired to turn their lives around thanks to the salvational properties of synonyms. And nobody is drawing penises in the margins.

There was one particular book that was claimed by one of the English teachers which I was very relieved that I didn’t have to take to the charity shop. It was a book given to me by an ex-boyfriend and in the front of it he’d written an inscription. These were the sorts of words that a girl dreams will one day be written to her. It was a declaration of love and heartfelt intent – sweet, personal and touching. But the relationship hadn’t lasted and now these words served only to remind me of what it felt like to break someone’s heart. And I hadn’t even read the book. Maybe that was a sign that it was never going to work. But the thought that this book, with its attestation of undying love, would end up on the shelf of a charity shop had been too terribly sad to imagine. That it would sit there on that shelf, speaking those words to whoever happened to pick it up, to have them pause and wonder what had happened to the man who had written with such feeling and to the woman he wrote to, for them to wonder at the twists and turns of fate that had rendered those words a snapshot of sparkling hope and belief now seen through the streaked grime of recriminations and regret…for the book to end up there, well, to me that just seemed so sad. The shelves of charity shops must be an elephants’ grave yard for the tokens and keepsakes of failed relationships.

So what was I left with once the discarding was complete? Currently I have 30 books. A few pertaining to my interests in minimalism, positive psychology, productivity and creativity, a couple relating to my hobby of swing dancing, a couple that I recently received and haven’t read yet but which are still in the window of opportunity whereby I’m eager to do so, and a little collection of books from my past. Just like with my clothes, I seem to have been drawn to keep one book from different stages in my life. So I have kept: The Ultimate Cat Book, a book about cat behaviour and breeds which I had loved when I was little, one book from my teenage years (a perennial favourite that I had still enjoyed upon rereading it), a book that I based one of my A-Level English Language coursework pieces on, a book called Representing Women that I’d read at uni and had fuelled my lasting interest in gender politics and media representations, and a little book containing a collection of postcards of the work of Christo and Jean Claude which I’d bought when I was living in New York and they had exhibited The Gates in Central Park. I also kept a book called Social Networks in Youth and Adolescence which had used a picture of me and my friends on the front cover. And I kept The Pocket Guide to Manwatching by Desmond Morris which I’ve only read half of but for some reason I really like it and it brings me joy. It certainly doesn’t bring my friends joy – it was one of the books I’d taken on my first backpacking trip and, as soon as we were through security, my travelling companions and I had eagerly rummaged through each other’s books to see what would be our entertainment in the coming months. Their faces fell when they saw The Pocket Guide to Manwatching. They couldn’t quite believe I’d used up one of our precious book allocations with a serious book about anthropology. I only read part of it after finding contemporary fiction more fun to read on the road, but I’d liked the book so much that I must have sent it home… unless I carried it with me the whole way round the world. I can’t actually remember but surely I wouldn’t have done that? But whether I carried it with me or paid the postage to send it home, clearly my love for that book was strong. And it still is – even though I’m not exactly sure why.

I also kept a couple of glossy books about countries I’ve visited and all my Lonely Planets. The LPs definitely bring me joy. The adventures we’ve shared together! The things we’ve seen and done! They provided me with guidance, information and reassurance. The countless hours I’ve spent pouring over them – reading, learning, planning, tracing routes on maps with my finger, cross referencing different choices, excursions and journeys. They had told me where to go, what to see, where to sleep and what to eat. Of course I’d strayed from their recommendations many a time but they were always there when I needed them – my starting point, my rock. These were my religious texts. I view other guide books like the sacred texts of a different religion. The Rough Guide? Fine if you believe in that sort of thing but it’s not for me. The LPs are my holy books and I worship their scriptures of freedom and exploration.

I nestled my slimline collection of books back onto the bookshelves. These were joined on the shelves by my laptop and headphone cases, as per Kondo’s recommendation to store as many things as possible vertically. I actually love being able to stow my laptop vertically on the shelf – I’d never even considered it before reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying but it’s so much neater than keeping it out lying flat on a table. And considering how much I love my macbook it seems right and proper that it should have its own designated and venerated spot in the bookcase.

Some minimalists suggest a Kindle as a great way to keep the physical clutter of books at bay. Now I love technology – from my laptop to my phone to my camera to my electric toothbrush – I don’t want something basic, I want something good. Yet I’ve never got on board with e-readers. I just prefer real books. I had worried about this little streak of Luddism – was my dislike of e-readers the starting point of a slippery slope to becoming the sort of person who jabs roughly and ineffectually at the screens of smartphones? So I breathed a sigh relief at research that justifies my preference for actual books with a whole raft of reading and comprehension benefits. Sure, the practicality of Kindles is a tough case to argue against but for now I’ll be sticking with real books.

Just like with discarding my clothes, once the joyless books had been removed from my life, I felt a little bit lighter and freer. I do think books look nice in a room and it’s nice to peruse a friend’s bookcase and have conversation sparked by its contents. It’s also nice to borrow and share books with friends although this practice is receding as more people get Kindles. But all I know is that I’m glad I got rid of the books I no longer needed in my life. Whether they’d taken me on magical journeys and the characters had felt like friends or whether they’d made me feel kind of bad that I’d never got round to reading them, it was undeniably nice to set the books free. Their weight, physical and metaphorical, had left me. I wished them well and hoped others would get pleasure from the words between their covers. A lot of minimalist literature says that by adopting the lifestyle and jettisoning your unnecessary possessions, you actually create more time to read, read with more leisurely enjoyment, and absorb more information and meaning from each book – I look forward to seeing if this holds true.

Decluttering Clothes the KonMari Way

I’ve always been a big believer in adhering to instructions. When I was young, no computer game could be fired up without first fully familiarising myself with the potential enemies and pitfalls detailed in the manual. This love of instructions has continued into adulthood and I can often be heard plaintively calling, “Wait, wait, let’s read the instructions first!” while my more carefree and happy go lucky (i.e. reckless and foolhardy) friends forge ahead with some endeavour.

So I was pleased and reassured that my journey into minimalism came with its own instruction manual, namely, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying” by Marie Kondo. The book contains detailed instructions of how to “put your house in order” based on Kondo’s years of research into the field of tidying, sorting and storing. Not only is there a set of instructions but she is adamant that they should be followed to the letter if you wish to attain tangible and lasting results from the process. And she makes quite some claims about the potential results – from never reverting to clutter again to the dramatic changes in lifestyle that this ultimate tidying event will bring. In short, she claims that the process is “life-transforming”.

Of principle importance is that you should tidy by category not by location. So somewhat counterintuitively you mustn’t first tidy your bedroom, then the living room, then the kitchen, etc. Instead you tidy by category and each category must be approached in the correct order: Clothes, books, paperwork, miscellaneous items, and finally, the biggie, sentimental items. Sentimental items are left until the end as you need to get your eye in and hone your ruthless discarding efficiency so that you can remain immune to the siren-like pull of these tug at the heartstrings items.

My other minimalist gurus, The Minimalists, also have suggestions on how to tackle your lifetime’s accumulation of clutter. You could play their 30 Day Minimalism Game which involves throwing one thing out on the first of the month, two things out on the second, three things out on the third, and so on. You can throw out anything on any day but by midnight of each day, the items must be out of your house and out of your life.

They also suggest you could throw a Packing Party. This is what one of The Minimalists, Ryan Nicodemus, did himself. This involved him packing up literally everything he owned into boxes, as if he was moving house, and then over the course of the next three weeks he only unpacked what he needed as he needed it. So items like a toothbrush, towel and bed linen were freed from the carefully labelled boxes straight away. But by the end of the three weeks 80% of his possessions were still boxed up. He had only unpacked the items that were genuinely useful to him, those that added value to his life. Everything else, that was still in boxes, he sold or donated.

Although both viable methods of decluttering, neither of these ways spoke to me like the careful systematic approach of the KonMari Method (as Marie Kondo has named her decluttering system). I did, however, find one of The Minimalists’ ideas helpful: their 20/20 rule. This is an idea to help you get rid of those “just in case” items, those things we hang onto because we think they may come into their own one distant hypothetical day in the future. I’m definitely guilty of hanging on to all sorts of things “just in case” (roll of gaffer tape purchased in the year 2000 for my first backpacking trip and to this day never used, I’m looking at you here). The 20/20 rule simply states that anything you get rid of that it turns out you do suddenly need can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes. Living in an area of London well served with amenities, I reassured myself that this rule would certainly hold true.

So having decided on the KonMari method of minimalism, I then set aside some time in which to begin the process. I had planned to start on a Saturday but then life happened and I didn’t actually get going until the Sunday. But never mind, I thought, still plenty of time! Why, I bet I can get both the categories of clothes and books done in one day! This proved to be entirely unrealistic. Just tackling my clothes turned out to be immensely time consuming, arduous and surprisingly epic. And this is from someone who isn’t even into clothes!

I’ve never really been one for fashion, mainly because I’ve never really been sure how to pull it off successfully. And I don’t particularly like shopping, I find the sheer volume of women’s clothing options quite overwhelming. Especially living in London – so many shops, so many choices, so many decisions, so much uncertainty – what if I buy this top but in another shop there’s one that would have been so much better??

As I wander, overwhelmed by choice, through the brightly lit shops, I’ve often thought how much easier it must be for men – men’s sections are smaller, more contained, less chance of choice paralysis. Instead of three giddying floors of clothing and accessories all clamouring for attention, men get to slope on down to the basement and do a quick once round.

My overriding feeling towards shopping, clothes and fashion is one of vague disappointment; it’s something I feel I should be better at. I know you’re supposed to have a few “go to” shops that reflect your style…but I’ve never been quite sure what my style actually is. And what even is my body shape? Which of those trouble-shooting shopping guides that I used to read about in magazines should I be implementing…ruffles to disguise a small bust? Horizontal stripes to add curves? And why does the cut of some dresses leave me looking like an awkward teenager at a school disco?? I’m always left with the feeling that I’m failing slightly and that just round the corner, in the next shop, could be something that suits me perfectly and would represent a chic, fashionable, debonair me. But that urbane me to which I aspire remains resolutely out of reach, slipping through my fingers at every turn as I umm and ahh over various garments, just not knowing if they suit me and whether I should buy them.

This haphazard and uncertain approach to shopping and fashion has left me with an eclectic range of clothes lacking unity and cohesion. Added to this is the fact that my clothes don’t tend to wear out to the point where they need to be thrown out and I have that nagging predilection to hold onto any and all items “just in case”. This has resulted in wardrobes, drawers and boxes packed full to bursting with clothes. For someone who wasn’t into clothes, boy, did I have a lot.

But come that Sunday, it was time to tackle them. Kondo’s first instruction before beginning this task is to visualise your destination, to imagine what your ideal lifestyle would be like. Then you question exactly why you want to to live like that. You keep questioning why, like a precocious child, until you have distilled the pure essence of why you desire what you do. Whatever your idealised destination, your particular vision for your newly decluttered existence, it will ultimately boil down to wanting to be happy. I conjured visions of calm serenity, a space where I can quietly relax and not feel rushed or pressured – a pretty obvious antithesis to a busy day at school.

Kondo’s next instruction is to gather every single item of clothing from all around the house and collect it together in one place. This is in order to give an accurate picture of how much you actually own. So I emptied the contents of my wardrobes and drawers onto my bed. Then I rounded up niche use clothing such as ski and travel wear from their specific boxed dwellings in the cupboard in the hallway, I foraged under the stairs to unearth the clothes that were living dormant in suitcases, and unhooked coats and scarves from their hanging hibernation behind doors. And finally I was left with every single item of clothing I owned piled onto my bed with overspill onto the floor.

As recommended, I had tried to subdivide my clothing, for maximum efficiency, into the following categories:

  • Tops (shirts, jumpers etc)
  • Bottoms (trousers, skirts etc)
  • Clothes that should be hung (jackets, coats, suits etc)
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Handbags
  • Extra items (scarves, belts, hats, etc)
  • Clothes for specific events (swimsuits, ski wear etc)

However, as I had pulled more and more items from various places, the subcategories arranged on my bed had become more and more muddled. But so be it. It was time to begin.

All the clothes: Ready to begin the process.

All the clothes: Ready to begin the process.

The instructions are specific: One at a time, you pick up and handle each and every item of clothing you own and ask yourself “Does this spark joy?” Keep only the things that speak to your heart, Kondo enounces, and then be brave and get rid of everything else. This decision making process is to be done in a quiet space – no music and certainly no TV on in the background. This is to allow you the peaceful reflection you need in which to commune with and evaluate each item and its role in your life. This instruction gave me a twinge of disappointment as I had been planning to have 6Music on to accompany me with the task. But as I’m not a natural rule breaker (rules are there for a reason, y’all!) I would adhere to this instruction. If I was going to do this minimalism thing, I was going to do it properly. In the silence of my room I picked up the first item of clothing, held it and asked “Does this spark joy?” Was it to be given amnesty or was it to be culled?

In the week before I began this task, I had explained the principles to various friends and a common response had come up: “But what if everything I own sparks joy?!” The obvious answer to that is, “Well you can keep it then! And lucky you for being surrounded by so many things that bring you joy!” This, however, was not an issue that afflicted me. In fact, I was quite worried that I would be left with nothing as I was hard pressed to think of even a handful of clothes that actually brought me joy. Kondo assures readers that if you apply her method, you’ll be left with the right amount of clothes. But the fact that I had so many things and could think of practically nothing that fit this joyful criteria was clearly something I would have to address when buying clothes in the future.

Thus I began quite ruthlessly, somewhat disgruntled at the joylessness of my clothing. Knowing this day was coming, some items had already been mentally earmarked for disposal as I’d eyed them up in my wardrobe, thinking to myself “You bring me no joy, none whatsoever! Why do I even still have you?!”

As you discard things, Kondo recommends thanking each item for the role it has played in your life. Maybe you thought it was super cool when you bought it, maybe it looked great for that one party, maybe you loved it and wore it to death a few years ago, maybe it had been a good work staple but had now fallen out of favour, maybe its only purpose was to teach you that that particular shade of yellow made you look rather peaky. Whatever its purpose, you should thank it for its time with you and let it go. She recommends saying things like, “Thank you for bringing me joy when I bought you”, “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me”, and “Have a good journey!” For a sentimental fool such as myself, I found this idea of thanking items and letting them be free very helpful as I worked my way through the mountainous pile of clothes. For the items I gladly discarded, considering each one and thanking it gave a me a pause to remember more positive associations. For the clothes that are harder to part with, Kondo urges you to think about their true purpose in your life – a surprising amount of all you possess will have already fulfilled its role. Be strong and say a last grateful goodbye.

I sifted and trawled through my sartorial past, deciding on what could stay and what needed to go. I definitely slowed this process down with my insistence on trying most of the items on. Although she doesn’t explicitly say so, I suspect this is not in keeping with the purity of the KonMari method; the joy, or lack of, elicited by the clothes should be evident just from handling them, while trying things on can invoke all sorts of thoughts, feelings and memories that can muddy the waters of decision. A few times I almost kept items because they fitted so nicely but then had to firmly remind myself that they might fit nicely but that hadn’t been enough to save them from languishing unworn in my wardrobe for the last five years. Fitting well and bringing joy definitely do not go hand in hand. Despite these occasional exceptions, I found that trying things on did often help with the discarding process. With so many items that didn’t fit, just simply didn’t look that good, or represented a me that I no longer was, putting them on again strengthened my determination to get rid of them. And wearing them once more afforded them their swan song and gave me a chance to articulate their eulogy of thanks and gratitude.

The most common thought I had as I steadily worked my way through the pile was, “This is insane.” It was insane how many clothes I had. It was insane how many things I’d kept that I didn’t actually like. It was insane how long I’d had some things. And it was insane how hard it was to let go of some things even though I knew I should. The process was like my life laid bare in clothes.

There were two of the men’s extra large size t-shirts I’d worn as a teenager. I tried them on, tucking them into my jeans and then carefully pulling free a few inches all the way round so they folded evenly over the waistband. How funny to replicate this motion that I’d performed all those years ago as a teenager, a motion that I used to have to repeat many times over if I pulled one bit too far and it no longer hung evenly, necessitating re-tucking and more carful teasing of the fabric. I was struck by how incredibly large men’s extra large t-shirts are. They swamped my frame. How had I ever thought these were a sensible clothing choice in my teenage years? Had they ever actually been fashionable? I doubted it. It was no wonder I didn’t have a boyfriend until I went to university.

I’d been carrying those t-shirts around with me since the 1990s. For god knows how long, they’d been relegated to living in a suitcase under the stairs and they smelt vaguely of mildew. Kondo insists that clothes like these should be set free otherwise they cannot fulfil their purpose to be worn and enjoyed. If they had feelings, she says, they would surely not be happy living like that, exiled to that dark, dank purgatory under the stairs. Better to let them free where they have the potential to live a better life. Just like at the end of Toy Story 3, I mused, as I thanked them for their time with me and put them, the last remnants of my teenage years, in the discard pile. I hoped that maybe there was a larger gentleman somewhere who could resurrect them and find retro 1990s joy in them.

Now here were all my tomboy clothes! A clothing phase that had lasted until I was 30, having no idea, as I did, how to actually dress like a girl. I tried on the many fitted collared t-shirts and staring back at me from the mirror was a previous incarnation of myself. These t-shirts were good examples of tops that I’d kept, clogging up the back of my drawers, because there was technically nothing wrong with them and I’d got a tonne of wear out of them in the past. But that me that looked back from the mirror was definitely not the me that I was now. I thanked them for their time and hard work and said goodbye to that version of myself – a me who was like an old friend but one you haven’t seen for awhile and who you aren’t really sure you have anything in common with anymore.

Then there was my inappropriately short skirt phase! A mercifully short-lived phase. Oh, here’s a couple that I actually wore to work. Cringe. Hey, in my defence it was before the staff dress code at my current school was introduced. But cringe nonetheless. They should all go. Thank you for being fun at the time. And thank you for showing me that I don’t really have any occasion now to wear short skirts. Note to self: this is probably because you’re too old for them. What happened to those nights where we’d wear short skirts and go to bars that we hoped were cool but probably weren’t? Somewhere in between working too hard and other people having babies they fizzled out like a sparkler in an overly sweet holiday cocktail.

Thank you and goodbye to my old work clothes that had seen me through the first few years of teaching practice. Thank you and goodbye to jeans that’d looked freaking awesome and fitted like a dream but now had too many holes in. Thank you and goodbye to hand me downs from friends (accepted because, yeah, I might totally wear this one day! Nope, didn’t happen). Thank you and goodbye to things given to me as gifts (I acknowledge the positive intentions you were given with even if you never did quite settle in and assimilate yourselves into the ecosystem of my wardrobe). Thank you and goodbye to all those shirt-dresses and long jumpers that’d looked good over jeans and that I’d worn to school before dress code but, after its introduction, didn’t quite manage to make the transition to non-work casual wear. Thank you and goodbye to the 70s style Puma zip up top that I’d just loved telling people I’d bought from a vintage shop in Barcelona but that hadn’t been worn in years and did that shade of green really do me any favours? Thank you and goodbye to all the items of clothing that were combinations of the colours green, pink, and grey (wow, I genuinely didn’t realise I had so many clothes in those colours.) Thank you and goodbye to all the things that had horizontal stripes (wow, I really did believe that advice about stripes creating the illusion of curves, didn’t I). Thank you and goodbye to things that just didn’t fit quite right and to all the things that no longer fitted me at all and I could barely do up (Dude, did I get fat?! Relax, you didn’t, but you’re obviously a wee bit heavier than in your early 20s. We can accept that.)

And thank you and goodbye to things from my backpacking trips. Now these were hard ones to get rid of, intrinsically bound up as they were with seminal, exciting, life-defining times…Oh but the Mambo t-shirt that I thought was so cool when I bought it in Sydney but that’s now really too small and I haven’t worn in years. Oh but the woollen jumper I bought in Bolivia that stopped me from getting hypothermia when I was fruit picking on a farm in Australia but was always kind of itchy and leaked a terrifying amount of colour when washed. Oh but the Red Bull t-shirt bought on the Khao San Road in Bangkok but isn’t really wide enough across my shoulders and really, who wears Thai Red Bull t-shirts these days? Oh but the first ever pair of dropped crotch harem trousers I bought in India after I swore I would never buy such a ridiculous looking item but then discovered them to be gloriously light and airy, perfect for the hot climate whilst also not showing an immodest amount of leg but now their disintegrated elastic has rendered them sad and droopy. For these items, items that had a strong emotional attachment, I found that taking photos of them helped prise open the tenacious grip of my fingers as I tried to let them go. With the photos, the items might be gone but the memories and emotions they invoked would not be forgotten. This helped assuage the nauseating punch to the stomach of putting these symbolic and once treasured items in the discard pile.

Here was a hard category: my clubbing clothes from the early 2000s. A couple of pairs of trousers I was able to convince myself I needed to discard as I struggled to do them up. Yep, had definitely been slimmer in the clubbing years! But two pairs of trousers and a top from Cyberdog still fitted. I pranced around in front of the mirror in them, holding imaginary glowsticks. Yeah, lookin’ fly! I took lots of photos. All sorts of dialogue ran through my head….what if there’s ever some sort of reunion clubbing event or a fancy dress party where these would be perfect?! I could say, “Oh this old thing? Why it’s authentic vintage Cyberdog!” Two sides of my brain battled it out, the “Get rid of them, you don’t need them, you’re 37!” side and the “Oh but why not just keep them!” side. As I peeled them off and folded them up it was like officially saying goodbye to that part of my life, a part that had ended many years ago but this process made it a fresh reality. When you stop going clubbing it sort of peters out and you convince yourself that it’s definitely not over, you just haven’t been for awhile, but you’re definitely still into it. But then the years pass and you realise, no, you just don’t do that anymore. Trying to get rid of the clothes was like ripping the plaster off. It’s over, it’s finished, that exciting time in your life will never ever be repeated, you got old. I placed the clubbing clothes on the discard pile. But the jury was still out. Sure I didn’t need them but they would be nice to look back on mainly just to marvel “did I actually used to wear this?!” All those reflective bits, the strange plastic dangly bits, the flashing lights nattily positioned on one’s hips, the glow in the dark zips for the flies… ah, good times…

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how nauseous the whole process of discarding made me feel. And I mean genuinely nauseous. A few times I had to stop and have a little sit down because I felt really quite sick. I spent much of the afternoon gingerly rubbing my stomach trying to placate the strange feeling within it. Stirring up and awakening your past can have strange effects. And there were some tears too. Tears about what I don’t know. A lament to the passing of time, I think. Here were the ephemeral seasons of my life intricately woven into the fabric of these clothes; memories and anecdotes running through them like invisible golden threads.

It is these threads that need unpicking, according to the tenets of minimalism. You are not your possessions. Our memories are within us, not within our things. The cloak of sentimentality, which seems innocuous and even enjoyable as we bask in the warm glory of our possessions, is actually weighing us down, according to minimalists. If you can’t get rid of something for sentimental reasons then it has subtly imprisoned you; the weight of the memories and associations you have imbued it with become the mind-forged manacles of attachment. And so it endures, taking up space in your life, gathering venerated significance as surely as it gathers dust. Maybe it is time to set yourself free, to see how light you feel without the weight of all your unnecessary things.

According to Kondo, If you are finding it hard to let go of something there are only two real reasons: an attachment to the past or fear for the future. My problem was a clear cut case of an attachment to the past. She acknowledges that the process of confronting our possessions can be painful, forcing us, as it does, to stare our imperfections, hopes and fears, and foolish choices in the face. But what are we to do? Face them now, sometime in the future or avoid them until we die, leaving a relative to pick through our possessions and do our dirty work of sorting and discarding. Better to do it now, she says, and do it properly. Don’t discard willy nilly without due consideration because then you are just glossing over and ignoring the choices you have made and the reasons for them. Face the emotions that your possessions evoke and free both yourself and your things from the codependent relationship you have created.

Finally, after many hours tilling my clothing landscape, I had a pile of clothes to keep. Did all the items in this pile bring me joy? No, definitely not. Some brought me joy but many didn’t. However I needed to be left with some things to wear. Work clothes, casual clothes – I didn’t have the time nor money to suddenly invest in all new things. But the process of deciding had clearly opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to start giving some serious consideration to what I bought. I was incredulous that I had had so many things that I just didn’t particularly like. If, when push came to shove, I turned round and declared barely any of my clothes bring me joy, then I needed to put some actual time and effort into working out what I do like and what would suit me. The days of my random, mismatched, overly stuffed wardrobe were at an end. I vowed to look into new ways to approach this perviously unconquered frontier of “fashion”.

And then there was the discard pile, looking at me reproachfully from the other side of the room. I felt a little panicky when I thought of actually getting rid of some of the things in it. There were things in there that had meant so much to me at the time and things that I’d thought looked so cool or fitted so well. But all those things had had their time and had not been worn in years. Some were so far out of fashion that if I’d worn them again I would have looked like a long-lost member of the female pop combo All Saints. Then there was the sheer volume of waste. Everything was going to the charity shop or for recycling but I recoiled at how much there was to dispose of. How had I had this much stuff? It was disconcerting to realise I’d lived for so long with so much that I didn’t need. But the biggest wrench, the hardest to even think of lying in that pile, were those items that perfectly encapsulated a certain zeitgeist. I hadn’t expected the process to be so very emotional. But then I always did have the capability to imbue inanimate objects with intense meaning and significance. As well as actually focusing on only buying things I genuinely like, I resolved to stop using clothes as a way to hold on to aspects of my past. I sat on the end of my bed, between the two piles. All my previous incarnations of self had been processed, thanked and I’d said a formal goodbye to them. Their emotional ghosts had finally been laid to rest.