The simple physics of tidying up


We were recently watching episode six of “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” and at one point the wife of the couple being helped says something like, “And these items are awaiting your magic.” While Kondo’s book does actually have the word “magic” in the title, I think it refers to how your life will seem to magically change once you tidy up, not that the tidying up process involves any sort of “magic.” Which leads me to one of the things that has bothered me a bit about the show: I feel like Marie Kondo doesn’t really emphasize how important it is to pare down the stuff you own, and, maybe more importantly, stop bringing new, unnecessary stuff into your life. I mean, I know that going through each thing one-by-one and discarding items that don’t “spark joy” is a huge component of the KonMari process. A lot of the show and process is focused on people bagging up items to be donated, recycled, or thrown out. But I think some folks miss the point that there is no magic when it comes to decluttering your life. If you have a room that can hold X amount of items in a clean and organized way, then having 3X items is a losing proposition. Or as my dad would say, “You can’t put 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag.” So as we watch the series on Netflix my wife gets to listen to me constantly scream, “But you have way too much stuff! Oh my god! Get rid of it!” whenever folks are refusing to purge whatever it is they have too much of.

When it comes to physical clutter the number one thing you can do to help yourself “get organized” is reduce the number of things you have. There are physical realities to the spaces we occupy and unless you know something about physics that I don’t, you can’t get around that fact. Buying organizing solutions from Target or The Container Store will have a minimal impact on how organized you are. Sure, there are times when a new tote or binder or shelving unit may help you out, but that’s not where the most value is. I’m tempted to say the real “magic” to decluttering and organizing your life is to have fewer things. But that’s reality, not really magic.

For example, we downsized our living space in 2014 and went from a 2500 square-foot house to a 900 square-foot apartment. We weren’t sure about how much stuff we could comfortably fit in the apartment so we did the best we could to get as lean as possible before the actual move. However, there were some things we wanted to keep, but knew we might not be able to and we’d only know when we moved into the apartment. So on moving day we physically transported all of our things out of the house and into the apartment. Most people have probably had a similar experience on moving day. It’s late, you’ve been humping things back-and-forth all day, and you bring up the final load. Your new place looks like a bomb went off and, in our case, you can barely close the door there’s so much stuff strewn about. I remember Heidi and I both saying that, “The life we want to have fits inside this apartment.” So that meant absolutely no storage units. When it was all said and done the stuff we were hoping would fit didn’t so we had to get rid of it. The physical constraints of our new space ruled the day.

To recap: the best thing you can do to minimize physical clutter is to have fewer belongings. The priority should be reduction not system. In other words, get rid of stuff, don’t go to The Container Store to help you “organize.” However, with digital clutter, I think a case can be made that the opposite applies and the organizational system you employ is more important than the number of things you have.

One of the most time-consuming projects I’ve worked on since quitting work has been to get my digital life in order. If you’re anything like me you probably have e-mails, documents, photos, songs, videos, ebooks, etc. strewn all over your various digital devices. At the risk of stating the obvious, it definitely will help your organization efforts if you have fewer digital assets (aka files). But given the tech advances of the last 10-15 years (e.g., multi-TB drives, cloud storage, etc.) you don’t really have the limitations that you have with physical belongings. Paring down old and unused files will surely help, but that’s not as important since we live in a time of virtually unlimited digital storage space. So the system you employ to stay on top of your digital life should take the center stage. To keep from losing your sanity you need to put some thought into your organizational system and leverage automation as much as possible.

I’ll probably write a follow-up or two describing some of the things I’ve done to organize my photos and files. In the meantime, go through your closet and donate some stuff.