Everything Must Go: Tidying Up at the Root Simple Compound

We live in a small house (900 sq feet) which was built in 1920. The upshot of this is lots of charm but very little storage space. Folks back in the 20’s simply didn’t have as much stuff as we do now, and this is reflected in the tiny closets and minimal drawer space of older homes.

Erik and I aren’t hoarders (at least I don’t think we are…), but stuff does have a way of piling up over the years, especially when you’re a maker/DIY/homesteady sort of household. As a result, our house was bursting at the seams. Trying to find a place for everything was becoming a Sisyphean task, reminding of nothing so much as playing with those seriously un-fun tile games which children used to get in goodie bags–I dearly hope they’ve become obsolete by now–those little plastic grids of moveable tiles with only one open space which needed to be arranged into some sort of order.

At our house, books which could not fit on shelves stood in towers on the floor.The kitchen table had become some sort of horizontal storage depot for everything from bags of whole grain to random root vegetables to homeless Mason jars and shopping bags. Cabinets and drawers were all filled to capacity. Cleaning around all this stuff was a huge chore. No matter how much we cleaned the house, it would rebound into un-tidyiness overnight.

Then, the other day we had an epiphany, which I call the Junk Drawer Epiphany. We were standing in the kitchen, bickering about the lack of storage space there and solutions for that–we disagreed on what type of new storage systems we’d add on to accommodate all the homeless things. Finally, Erik stalked over to one of our kitchen drawers–we have 3 kitchen drawers in total–the one dubbed the junk drawer, opened it up and said, “What’s in here, anyway?” I realized that other than some tape and glue and a few light bulbs, I neither knew nor cared what was in there. If the whole thing burned or was transported into another dimension I’d never notice the loss.

I fished through it and took out the few things of real use, most of which belonged in the newly organized garage, and few of which belonged in elsewhere. A few more things were good enough to send to the thrift shop, and the rest I gleefully tipped into the trash. Suddenly we’d increased our kitchen drawer space by 1/3.

This made us start to look around the house with new eyes. Our new mantra became Everything Must Go.

At this point we remembered a book one of our readers mentioned, and which has been making the publicity rounds of late, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by the tidying consultant Marie Kondo (aka KonMari–her method is called the KonMari Method). She’s from Japan, where people have the same rabid hearty consumerist impulses as we do here in the U.S., but considerably less space for storage.

When I first read about the book, I understood the gist of it, but wasn’t prepared to engage with those ideas. It seemed unrealistic, frankly, and a little anal-retentive. But after The Epiphany, it all made sense and we were both were ready to hear what she said, so we bought the book.

Her premise is simple enough, and there’s no need to buy the book if you’re resolute enough and don’t need prodding. Basically all she’s saying is that we have too much darn stuff for our own good, and all of the sorting and rules and organizational systems in the world are never going to overcome that basic fact.

If you have too much stuff, you’ll always be caught in the endless hamster wheel of searching for a place for your junk and cleaning around it. It’s a disease caused by the combination of relative affluence and cheap consumer goods. The only way to organize your house and ease your cleaning routine is to take the plunge and just get rid of a ton of stuff. And we’re not talking about sending a bag or two to the thrift store every now and then, mind you. Her private clients typically pare their possessions down by two-thirds or even three-quarters over the course of one intense purge.

KonMari’s philosophy is that you only keep those things that bring you joy and resonate with you, so wherever you look in your newly-purged house, you feel and sense of peace and well-being, as opposed to the guilty, overwhelmed and vaguely harassed feeling we too often experience when we look at our bulging closets.

After such an extreme winnowing, there is a place for everything in your house–an easily accessed, logical, spacious place. She’s dead set against organizational gadgets and schemes. If you pare down your belongings sufficiently, you don’t need them. It’s easy to put your things away at the end of the day because there’s no more shifting, cramming or stuffing to make room for them. You have a handle on your possessions–you know what you have. You’ve reconciled with them, and honored them. The house stays clean.

It is difficult to deal with the guilt over “wasting” things, just throwing away a perfectly good object, but it does help to realize that if you don’t even know where something is, or remember that you have it at all, it is already in effect, wasted. It is existing in a forgotten limbo in a bin under another bin at the back of your closet. The only way to make amends with the world on that front is to reform yourself so you will only bring truly needed, wanted and loved things into your house henceforth (and know how to release things when they are no longer needed). In the meanwhile, there’s no need to punish yourself by keeping stuff around, because you vaguely think it’s worth something, or you might find use for it someday, or because it was a gift, or because you’re embarrassed that you bought it at all and don’t want to face that guilt.

KonMari has a specific methodology and a sequence for purging your household, and we’ve been following that–not because it couldn’t be done another way, but because following her scheme seemed safer and easier than making up our own (our own methods never having worked before, after all). Most importantly, she places the sorting of photos and personal mementos last on the list, because these are the hardest things to sort through, and are the points where we all tend to get stuck.

Personally, I like KonMari’s approach, especially her Shinto-influenced tendency to personify objects. I’m a bit of an animist myself, so it was easy for me to take her advice of trying to see clutter from the object’s point of view. They do not desire to be squashed, neglected, forgotten and/or resented. They want to be of use, or set free. More hard-nosed types might find this way of thinking a bit silly.

Also, I enjoyed imaging soft-voiced KonMari standing over me in a prim little pink suit, keeping me on task like some sort of bizarre cross between a good fairy and a dominatrix.

Certainly there are many tidying books out there, some of which may suit you more. Just today we were reading a very positive review of It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh in the Cool Tools book, which sounds similar in its insistence that a purge is the way to start, and that by clearing your clutter, you clear your mind and your heart, and make room for new growth and possibilities.

We’re deep in the heart of the purging process now. As I write from the island oasis of our sofa I’m looking out at a sea of bags destined for the garbage, the recycling bin or the thrift store. It feels good. We’ll spend a couple more posts talking about how we worked through some of these purging categories, and what we’re learning along the way.

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  1. If you get tired of the how-to books, I suggest reading the mystery series- The Feng Shui Detective – there’s a lot in there about how clutter bogs us down both physically and emotionally. Fun read. Though, somehow, you made the Konmari method seem fun what with a dominatrix fairy. Now that’s an image that I need while tackling the garage!

  2. So weird how the world turns. As I start reading your post, I think “I can’t wait to mention that exact book”, which I invested in just recently. Good luck on your journey to simplify. I look at everything with the question of joy or not now and it is so easy purge.

  3. Hahahaha! The soft-voiced/prim little pink suit/dominatrix reference gave me a good chuckle 🙂

    I do cringe at the thought of people tossing stuff in the trash en masse, but there’s always hope that they will keep it up and not buy new “stuff” to fill the space they’ve just cleared. This is coming from someone who can’t part with ratty old underwear… can’t I just use it as pillow stuffing? I’ve yet to do that, but don’t think I haven’t Googled it. 🙂

  4. I recently came across another great purge method used by one of The Minimalists and detailed on their website and in their recent book, “Everything That Remains”. Ryan held a packing party. Everything that was not mandatory daily use was packed up and put in the garage with the help of friends. They hung out, ate pizza, drank wine(beer?) and packed up ALL of his things. As he needed things he had to retrieve them from the well marked boxes and after 3 weeks everything that was still in boxes was donated!
    I thought that sounded like a great way to do a difficult task, though I haven’t tried it myself, yet. Clearly it does not account for any sentimental items, or 1x year items like Christmas decor.

  5. My family and I moved 6 months ago after living in the same house for 14 years. I came across an article about Marie Kondo’s book. Although I didn’t buy the book the concepts really spoke to me. It’s kind of the same theme to one of the “Toy Story” movies, toys are meant to be loved and played with not packed away in the attic.
    So every time I struggled with letting go of something I would ask myself “What would Woody say?”
    We now have much less stuff, live in a smaller space but don’t regret letting all that stuff go.

    I am also finding that since we live in a small space now I still stop and ask myself, does this bring joy or does it fill a useful need. We are doing more quality verses quantity shopping as well.

  6. I also watched her vids/picked up her book after someone commented about it a few months ago. I’ve read several simplification/ decluttering books over the years, but this one is my favorite on the decluttering aspect. And yes, she is totally a super sweet dominatrix disguised as an insistent pink pixie! LOL I also resonated with the Shinto mentality of it, as it helps with putting some kindness and soul into the whole process, which for many can otherwise devolve into a torturous drudge. Also helps with the *releasing* of things (like tatty old undies 😉 ) as you THANK everything before you release it.
    The biggest point where I diverge from hers is 1) books (there are still some which I keep which I think she would not) much of this is because I really hate reading things on the ‘puter or online. I don’t like firing up a gizmo to look certain things up, so having the hard book copy is more helpful for me *personally*. 2) I found some differences in what I chose to keep as far as paperwork is concerned. Maybe some of this is cultural – ie I wonder what kind of records they have to keep in Japan for tax purposes v. here had something to do with that.
    Once you’ve read the book, do check out the other vids of her, even if you don’t speak Japanese, as you’ll recognize the principles being put into practice, even if you don’t understand the narrative along the way:

    TV episode where you see her helping a family from start to finish:

    And a few brief ones showing her folding technique:



  7. I got the book when you first mentioned it a few months ago and have been going though it category by category. I gave 1/2 of my clothes to my step daughter to sell on eBay. She is under strict guidance to donate anything that doesn’t sell quickly. I fold my clothes now and don’t have any more seasonal storage. There has been zero back sliding in 2 months. I donated half of my books with only about 60 left. I got rid of 3/4 of my papers, including my home office papers, and turned my desk into a stand up desk with a wobble board instead of a chair. Up next: linens / cleaning supplies /tools /outdoor activity gear / pet supplies / kitchen supplies / personal care / garden supplies / craft supplies and finally mementos. I’m very happy with how easy it is to maintain and how much I’m looking forward to the next area to be done. My worldview is bible based (worshiping creator instead of creation) but I had no problem translating the advice in the book and appreciated the admonitions to wise stewardship.

  8. FlyLady is my de-cluttering mentor. I could not live without her. Throwing stuff away in the trash is a very big obstacle for me and my husband. I throw something away and he fishes it out. I have learned to use black trash bags, and immediately dispose of the bag before he sees it. He has never noticed anything gone! Giveaways made me feel guilty because the Salvation Army collection area was always swamped with people’s stuff. Now that they have cleaned up their donation area and installed more boxes, I feel much less guilty leaving my stuff there. We still have a basement-full, but this blog post has inspired me to start de-cluttering again.

    • Plus one for Flylady. She is also very big on resolving the emotional clutter that contributes to the physical clutter, and vice versa. Don’t care for the insistent emails pitching her cleaning and organizing products, but I have in fact purchased some of her recommended items and they are high quality. I do like the gentle but persistent behavior modification emails- I need to be nagged to clean up after myself and continue to declutter. Since stuff continually comes in, it needs to have an ongoing process for exiting.

  9. We have so much stuff (misc. + homesteading/DIY) it’s just plain ridiculous! We moved a few months ago and moved all of it. We will move again when our year lease is up and I refuse to move it all again! Let the purging begin!

  10. I agree with not buying items in which to store things. However, being a seamstress with many machines in operation, I had more sewing items than I could handle. I bought a McCall’s or Butterick metal pattern cabinet when I sewing store went out of business. That was a stroke of genius!

    With 4000 sq ft, I still had tiny closets. I bought a 7foot dresser with mirror and had storage place for things that had to lived stacked in boxes. The dresser served as space for linens or as a sideboard since it was in the dining room.

    The point, if you are going to store things, store in large pieces of furniture, trying for taller pieces. Of course, as I filled my new pieces, I did a really harsh de-cluttering that was not possible when I was always just shuffling through boxes of stored stuff sitting in stacks.

    Several weeks ago, someone drove a long way to help me. Having her to handle the stuff (I cannot) that was just trash with some useful stuff and disorganized helped because 1) I could give good things to her for her girls. 2)She would bag junk and son got it out before I could hobble over and remove something. Since my house has been reduced to probably 700 sq feet. None of the stuff is organized and just dumped into other rooms I have left. I am slowly getting rid of things. Too slowly.

    The first thing I did several years ago was to get rid of 800 books, 10 each day, until I kept 1000 or so, just what would fit in bookcases I owned. The only reason for clutter beyond losing use of most of my house is not being able to sit, walk much or stand without pain. So, long time and slowly will have to work. If I had someone to pick up things and toss them or to pack it, This would be easier.

    I never needed a “method” because I was able to clear my clutter except for books and sewing/crafts/tools. I know people who do nothing beyond work who keep immaculate homes. Seriously, they don’t cook!

    The “clutter” caused by my sewing never stresses me at all.

  11. Hooray! Glad that Konmari came to mind in the right moment. Your efforts to get clean motivated me to try and fail and end up with this book, so thank you for that! The descriptions here of her and her method are apt and hilarious. I think the Shinto thing is very much key as well. That’s the part that resonates and keeps me at it. Especially now that I’ve cleared space around my things I can better enjoy the things I have and truly love. I’ve been struggling alone through the process (boyfriend/housemate has not yet committed himself although he’s been generally supportive and happy for me/us) but the affects of the process have been pretty dramatic so far. It’s taking far longer and I realized I need to give myself that time (and can because I have the privilege of extra space) within the first few days as my allergies were vicious throughout phase 1. Keeping up with the origami is proving unweildy so perhaps I haven’t weeded enough but it is more enjoyable when I have the time and energy to do the mainentance. I’m enjoying a great sense of accomplishment anyway, from a cleaner space and having gifted friends (stunned everyone with overflowing bags at a clothing swap while giving the clothes new life), and it’s motivated me to purge and reorganize the kitchen too. That’s a revolution in itself. Especially being descended from straight-up hoarders. Hope the trend continues in all of our households in 2015 and beyond!

  12. I move house in 5 weeks time and as it’s literally (my 15 year old’s second favourite word) on the other side of the road, friends are helping us move all our stuff over. For me, that’s been a major incentive. If you’re paying somebody to move you, that’s one thing, but to think of a friend saying “what is in all these boxes anyway?” has been the push I needed.

    I can’t bear just binning everything though, which does take longer. Clothes to pass on, clothes for the charity shop, clothes for rag recycling, paper and plastic recycling, charity (thrift) shop things; they all have to be sorted. I got a nice warm fuzzy feeling from donating unwanted Christmas chocolates and old towels to the local animal shelter though. (The chocolates were tombola prizes, not dog treats…)

  13. I’m conflicted about the whole decluttering thing.
    I follow the rule that says have nothing in your house that you don’t find beautiful or useful

    As a do-it-yourselfer, I have loads of supplies. Gardening, soap/lotion making, canning/preserving, sewing/knitting.All of those items are useful.
    I collect dolls, I find them beautiful.

    I’ve never been a shopper so apart from the above items I don’t really have much in the way of clutter. I frequently donate anything else that no longer fits those categories.
    I have a 3 bedroom ranch with a full basement, If I had to live in a 1920’s house with limited closet space….well I couldn’t, where would O keep all my things that allow me to live as I want too.

  14. We’re at the age, 68 & 70, where it is mandatory that we pare down so our children will not have literally tons of stuff to dispose of – we’ve been thru that with my husband’s father and it was extremely unpleasant, messy and expensive.

    My rule for getting rid of stuff is if it hasn’t been used in a year it’s time to get rid of it. For holiday items we are paring down to what will fit on 2 tabletop vignettes and a door wreath. Craft items are limited to what we are currently working on with the provision that what isn’t used will be tossed or donated.

    Right now we are going thru every drawer, cabinet, closet, under beds, and the garage for a yard sale on Feb. 7th. What we’ve found is amazing as much we didn’t remember having including CDs, yarn, canning/food preservation items, board games, dishes, pots & pans, storage bins (because we’re eliminating the need), tools, knickknacks, lots of craft items, excess silverware (for 2 of us do we really need 40 forks, 32 spoons and 24 knives?). There are few clothes as we’ve pared our wardrobes down to about 2 weeks worth plus a couple of dressy outfits. As we don’t work not much is needed in the way of clothes – saves space and money.

    I’m classifying this as preparation for ‘aging in place’ – for safety, ease in caring for our home and peace of mind.

  15. For decades, I cleaned people’s houses for a living. I had three different kinds of customers: super neat-nicks, total pack rats, and a whole bunch of in-betweens. Yes, our current culture encourages people to buy as much stuff as possible – it’s easy to accumulate a house full of stuff. However, my experience tells me that these issues are dictated more by a person’s personality and the plethora of purging books on the market seemed miss this point. Together with my customers I purged many houses. I organized many a home – over and over again. One occasion illustrates this perfect. Every so often, I had friends help clean when they needed work. My friend Dave helped clean a house one week and when we came through the front door the following week, Dave exclaimed “Wow! They totally trashed this house in just a week?” Through the years I started to suspect that the owners of my most cluttered houses may be ADD or ADHD.

    This was confirmed when I found a book: Women with Attention Deficit Disorder by Sari Solden. Solden relates that one woman with ADD said: “They tell me to get a planner. I have 20 of them and can’t any of them”. Solden summed it up thus: Poor organizational skills, combined with the extra ideas that the ADD mind generates, exacerbates the problem into one of constant expansion, rather than pulling things together and controlling them.

    I’d be interested to find out if Peter Walsh (or other organizers) ever return to clients houses a year later. My suspicion is that most of them have reverted to their old habits because they are comfortable with what’s familiar. Of course, you wouldn’t do that :>)

  16. I picked up Konmari’s book after reading your post, and I’m going to tackle my clothes this weekend. What blows my mind is how many clothes people have based on her descriptions. 30 garbage bags? How is that possible?

  17. Oh I am sooo looking forward to the day I can do this to my whole entire house! I wish I had the energy to do it all in one day but for now it will be one room at a time inside, then the garage in more temperate weather and after the Panthers-Seahawks game tonight. Yeah have to work on avoiding distractions too! Carry On!

  18. I read that book after a long trip where I was living out of a suitcase. That experience and the book made it easy to sort through my belongings. I love the folding method!

  19. I’ve placed a library hold for the book and I’m #120! I started clearing some space just based on what was said here and I like it.

    • If you live in LA, or want to send me a SESE, I’ll lend my copy to you for a month. I’m half way through tidying my house and will finish in the next month or two, but can lend the book now.

    • Thanks for the offer but I’m just curious and not in that much of a hurry. And I’m already up to #119 on the hold list!

  20. OK, I get the cluttered concept. But you’re going to have to post some photos of your actual (non-posed, non-edited) home for us to really get the idea of what you’re facing.

    I get the idea of crowding. My wife and I raised 12 reasonably well-adjusted kids in 1700 square feet without having the “excessive stuff” syndrome kick in.

    Now that most of them are out of the house with families of their own, we have moved into a house more than twice that size and I can’t even walk in my two-car garage.

    What’s up with that?

  21. Glad to read about your adventure, I’m on much the same one myself. I was just musing on my site about how containers seem to help organization, but actually they are a cancer themselves. Everything must go!

  22. Pingback: Everything Must Go Part II: Books | Root Simple

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  25. They still have those plastic puzzles! Kids got them in one of those annoying party gift bags on the weekend. (Annoying, because kids get to attend a fun party, with games/ activities & food, they don’t need a gift to take home!! Who invented that concept?!!)

    Anyway, timely and well written post, thank you.

    • Oh horrors! I’d hoped that they’d died out with the ascent of the video game. I don’t know what sadist invented that game, or what dark elves of hell keep producing them and foisting them on children, generation after generation.

  26. I’ve read reviews of the book, but not the book itself. It’s interesting to me that personifying objects can be helpful when purging a space. I’ve tended to do that myself all my life, but I picture a needy object that doesn’t want to be cast out, which of course makes the process harder.

  27. I looove this book. I passed it along to three friends. Two loved it, the other hated it. It does seem to produce quite different reactions in people. I’ve really culled down my clothing, now on to everything else!

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  30. I love what you said about making amends with the world!! The guilt can be such a sticking point for me. Great series of posts for the Dirty Fingernail Crowd–thank you!

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