Reading Marie Kondo and so much more … “The life-changing magic of tidying up”

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Being the aspiring minimalist that I am, I only got the ebook version of Marie’s masterpiece.

My oh my – the world is my oyster and I am allergic to seafood … I have to change. Or: I have to change something.

Over the last few years and months I’ve read tons of books about ADHD, anxiety disorders and mindfulness. One thing I’ve learned is that I can focus and work better in a clean and organized environment. Moreover, I’ve learned that I should streamline as much as possible – what to cook and eat, what to wear, what music to listen to when working/writing/feeling blue, what to read … – and eliminate unnecessary choices so as to save time and energy.  I’m also practicing my own version of mindfulness, using the App Insight timer for meditation and following advices from authors like Ruby Wax and Mark Williams, Matt Haig and Aaron Gillies (to name just a few).

Streamlining mundane tasks and eliminating choices goes hand in hand with decluttering, at least in my little corner of this world. I’ve already started decluttering and discarding months (years?) ago, and though I read Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less early on, in the beginning I didn’t have a system regarding how and what to discard. I just knew I had too much and I wanted to change that. For further inspiration I read Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things as well as a German book by Lina Jachmann, Einfach leben. Finally, somewhere along the way to ADHD-reducing minimalism I encountered Marie Kondo and let me tell you: I was not impressed.

Marie and me: no love at first sight

To be more precise: the first time I read The life-changing magic of tidying up I was rather disappointed and a bit irritated. Because when Marie Kondo explained that

The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I felt terribly sorry for my socks which was NOT helpful for someone like me who tends to a) feel guilty for pretty much everything (thanks gran!) and b) anthropomorphize A LOT of things which makes discarding stuff even more difficult. But apart from that all these sparks of joy she was talking about did not resonate with me. Therefore I decided that Kondo was not for me and put it aside. Several months later I discovered the wonderful and hilarious podcast By the book in which the hosts Kristen and Jolenta did an episode on Marie Kondo and her bestseller. Listening to it I realized that I may have missed some important points and decided to give her another chance. I even watched an episode of Mario Kondo’s show on Netflix –and finally I saw the light … once I saw this tiny lady jumping through pure chaos while staying happy-go-lucky I finally understood why she was taking her socks on a lovely little holiday every time she puts them in a drawer. She lives in her very own little world, all tidy and organized and full of joy, which seemes strange but wonderful. I decided to give her book another go.

Oh the (sparks of) joy!

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The ebook from a different angle – taking photos of a ‘real’ book is a bit more inspiring …

The second time around it worked MUCH better! I ignored the cheesy bits and adapted Marie’s plan to my needs. After all, I live in a medium-sized European apartment and not a Japanese single flat; it was also not the first time I started a decluttering tour de force, so I focused on my weak spots and paid less attention to those areas that are already well organized.

Following Marie’s plan I started with my clothing. I imagined I would be left with a few T-shirts, some pants and two skirts but it was actually not THAT bad (or good). Since I’ve applied the ‘one in, one out’ rule long before Kondo-ing the shit out of my stuff, looking for the sparks of joy in my drawers and closet was not as fulfilling as I had imagined it to be. I had already discarded a lot of clothes, shoes, and bags before so this time around it was mainly about the spark of joy and nothing more. Still even the second time around it took me more than one round to eliminate all the items that didn’t spark enough joy. I guess I overlooked some less sparkier items and mistook them for great bearers of joy, love, peace, and happiness.
I still have a hard time figuring out what the spark says about my bags and backpacks – I’m not that much into fashion and shoes but I do love me a good handbag (or backpack for that matter). So I decided to disagree with Marie in that life-changing can be seen as a relative term and also describes a “life-long” process of figuring out which bag to keep and which to let go of. After all everything in life is a process, so why hurry?

A few weeks after the big closet decluttering bash I kondo-ed my books. This was a bit easier as I discovered quite quickly whether there was a spark or not. ‘Professional’ books (mainly academic books) did not offer the option of joyous sparks – Foucault very probably wouldn’t give a shit about his potential on the spark-of-joy-o-meter and that’s fine with me – so they were out of bounds. Regarding most of my other books I realized that I have very ‘sparkly’ bookshelves and still prefer books over pretty much everything else – even bags.

Books were the last category I’ve Kondo-ed thus far. I got a list somewhere which tells me exactly what I should declutter next (bathroom items, maybe?) but my main concern was clothes and books. Since I got these done I feel no urgency to tackle any other category soon. I’m not a fan of relying solely on digitalized photos and documents, so while I like to have a digital backup ’somewhere’ (beware of the ADHD brain’s ‘somewhere’), I don’t intend to throw away all my photos or important documents just because Marie or any other minimalist say so.
Furthermore, for me decluttering and discarding has a calming and cathartic effect so I’m in no hurry to empty our apartment in record speed. To me a certain form of decluttering, discarding, and rearranging is a life-long process that changes the way I myself and my life (our life) changes. So while I appreciate Marie’s efficiency, I see no reason to emulate her. I still stick to my ‘one in, one out’-rule, not with books but with everything else, and I apply Marie’s spark joy approach whenever I’m not sure if I should keep or toss a certain item. Both methods are very useful and give me good results.

However, decluttering is not my main issue anymore. I progressed to a more urgent problem I’ve developed over the last couple of months: digital thrifting.
I invest hours in searching for the right piece only to wait several more days or weeks until the price drops so I can finally make my bid. I get a sort of adrenalin rush when days and weeks of observing an offer finally pay off. On a bad day checking my apps and wishlists is the perfect diversion and also leads me to believe that I’m achieving something even though all I actually do is planning to accumulate stuff I don’t need. What was a nice little pasttime became a nasty habit. While in the past I would have had a few beers to drown a shitty day or smoked more ciggies than I should to calm my nerves, I now found a different crutch to help me calm down when I feel a bit blue – cheaper than drinking or smoking, but only slightly healthier. Also totally irritating for someone who is actually all about REDUCING the stuff she owns …. 

But that’s a different story.

Reading: “Goodbye Things: On minimalist living” by Fumio Sasaki

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I started reading about the concept (or rather concepts) of minimalism quite a while ago because in the end, I hate clutter. I’m not much of an interior design aficionado, I’m not interested in decorations and I’m all about efficiency when it comes to using the space I have. Though we live in a beautiful and rather spacious apartment, I love nothing more than ‘negative space’ – or, to describe it in non-minimalist jargon: empty space. Being the postwar grandchild that I am (meaning I spent a lot of my childhood and youth with my grandparents, who grew up during WW II), I’m used to ‘save’ stuff for bad days, to not throw away things one could, at least theoretically, still use, and to always make sure that my cellar is well used (aka crammed). That’s what I learned growing up at my grandparents and even though I understand were they came from, I hate that I internalized their urge to not waste a thing while at the same time buying new stuff at a normal scale, so that one day you reach the point when either you move to a bigger apartment or you decide to act against your urges and start throwing stuff away. I cannot tell you how  much I enjoyed my first big clear out adventure a few years ago, pretty much cutting my wardrobe in half. It felt like a huge weight dropping off my shoulders …
Over time I found out that you can do this more extensive, decluttering a lot of various things throughout your house and your life, freeing yourself from a lot of stuff in your life – this new insight of mine is called “minimalism” and produces books, podcasts, and documentaries. It was like I entered a new world, and I’m still loving my time there …

Now, Fumio Sasaki’s book isn’t the first I read about minimalism, but it is the first Japanese book on the topic I read. Though I also read THE Marie Kondo’s “Magic of ..”, I wouldn’t call Kondo a minimalist, but rather a cleaner and organizer. But this is just my impression from her book and may therefore be totally wrong. Anyways, after reading a German book about the topic (which I absolutely love, you may take a look at it here, if you like to read in German) and some other books that are mainly about decluttering, I came across Mr. Sasaki’s book. Being totally minimalistic (and also frugal), I got the e-book and went ahead seeing what I could learn about minimalism from the Japanese point of view.

First: at times I really disliked Sasaki’s voice, he came across as quite patronizing, at least in my point of view. After all, while he provides a good overview over the various aspects of the topic and points out links between certain issues that contribute to a massive overconsumption – be it of material goods or media – and its psychological (and physical) consequences, it’s not that you haven’t heard about this before if you are interested in the topic of minimalism and read some other books. So there’s no need to sound like holier-than-thou. BUT that were just a few passages, otherwise the book is just as good (or bad) as any other …
Second: Apple Inc. surely has one huge fan in Mr. Fumio Sasaki – which is totally fine, and I can understand that especially aesthetes and minimalists prefer iOS devices and apps over Android (or Linux, for that matter), but this is no reason to declare Steve Jobs and Apple as patron saints of Japanese minimalists:

“The American company Apple has an intriguing connection to the minimalist culture of Japan. Many minimalists are fond of Apple products and of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs. The products that Jobs created always avoided excess. The iPhone only has one button, and you don’t have to worry about being stuck with a lot of extra wires and ports when you buy a Mac. […] And today, the ownership rate of the iPhone is particularly high in Japan, which means that through Steve Jobs, our minimalist culture has been imported right back to our country.”

While Jobs may be the main figure in Apple’s history in the public eye, he was not its sole founder, a fact that one should keep in mind even if you are hugely infatuated with Jobs. Furthermore, I’m not sure if anyone needs his/her culture imported right back by an American (or any huge, exploitative, human rights abusing and tax evading) company, especially not the Japanese, but this is just a side note. Working with Linux, Android and iOS, I can understand that people fall for the shiny, clean and minimalist world of the iPad and iPhone – I did so too. But this was less a question of minimalist design and rather of practicability. But let’s not waste too much time, energy, and focus on the first trillion-dollar company…

I said before that Sasaki covers some important basic issues. Let’s take a look at this:

“But by getting rid of my things, I’ve finally started to break out of that situation. If you’re anything like I was—dissatisfied with your life, insecure, unhappy—try reducing your belongings. You’ll start to change.
Unhappiness isn’t just the result if genetics or past trauma or career trouble. I think that some of our unhappiness is simply due to the burden of all our things.”

“First, there’s information and material overload. For better or worse, globalization has become a key part of our society. All we have to do is take a look at our smartphones to get the news from all corners of the globe. We can buy anything we want online, anywhere in the world. We can watch TV shows from any foreign country, not to mention listen to overseas radio shows.”

These are just two points Sasaki dwells on extensively, and for good reason, since those are main and important aspects of why so many people feel the need to explore the concept of minimalism at all. Interestingly, while pointing out the fact that we live in a world of constant digital information and data overload, Sasaki at the same time loves the new opportunities this permanent accessibility gives us – like working when and wherever we want – which somehow feels like a contradiction, especially since he only focuses on the positive result smartphones and digital connections bring, but not on the possible negative side effects. More than regular cell phones tanks to our smartphones we are constantly available (if choose so) and if we refuse to, we will face the consequences (and yes, I know what I’m talking about, since I’m an avid fan of flight mode or turn my phone off entirely when I work or don’t want to be disturbed – there are times when all hell breaks loose if one is not available just for a few hours …)

Apart from a sort of introductory personal and theoretical background, Sasaki adds 50 tips on how to start and accomplish one’s individual minimalist dreams, which are very interesting and also inspiring, and can be so even for people who already know one thing or two about minimalism and its various forms and interpretations.
So how did I feel reading this book? I felt like I heard a lot of the stuff before, but I still liked the way Sasaki connects the dots and also tells his own story, which makes some of his arguments and statements a lot more understandable. Also, I thought this book gave a great insight into one Japanese interpretation of minimalism, which is not that popular and well-known in Europe (apart from Marie Kondo). The 50 tips Sasaki includes in his book make it a rather manifold compendium of inspirations on how to accomplish your minimalist goals, and I really like that.

If you are new to the topic and want to dip into it, you may want to start with Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less or her blog missminimalist.com  – after all, she is in a way friendlier and more easy-going than Fumio Sasaki. If you already know a few things about the topic but want to gain new insights and perspectives and are looking for ideas on how to handle the deluttering process, than come to Fumio Sasaki. Depending on how you like his style, he will be a great and inspiring teacher 🙂