I’m definitely a fan of a clean and organized house (notice that I said “fan of” not “inhabitant of”), but I’m no neat freak. Like just about everyone else I know, though, I can’t help but be curious about Marie Kondo and her cult of cleaning. But the organization consultant’s internationally best-selling book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up,” has a different reputation here in Japan than it does back home in the U.S.
Recently, I sat down with some Japanese friends – like me, both young women in their twenties – to ask what they thought about the Kondo decluttering craze. I laughed until coffee came out of my nose as I listened to one of them recount how she and her mother had watched, horrified, one of Marie Kondo’s videos. The audience was clapping! My friend and her mom were appalled. “Is this what people think Japanese people do?” they asked.
The discussion turned to how to clean and organize in the real world. It turns out that my Japanese friends and I share a lot of the same ideas, but they also had lots of tips that had never before occurred to me. One thing we all agreed on: Keeping your physical crap together does help save you from losing your mental marbles – but there’s no need to make it your life’s work. Here are 30 helpful takeaways from our brainstorm.
1. Keep stuff where you’ll use it
In my old station wagon, I had a picnic basket in the back that held antifreeze, oil, spare belts, a bike pump and a bathing suit. It was a useful emergency kit, but it also meant that all of these things weren’t randomly piled in storage. They were where I needed them, when I needed them.
2. Be a basket case, but not a sucker
Marie Kondo advises against buying a whole ton of organizational containers (she says to use what you’ve already got), and on this point, I’m on her side. Most of us need some storage solutions, but where Kondo advises using shoe boxes, I prefer vessels I can stand to look at them. Baskets can be found cheap and are a little less of an eyesore than plastic tubs or cardboard boxes.
3. Go vertical
While we’re on the subject of containing things, if you’re having trouble finding floor or closet space for your stuff, look to the walls. Imagine your troublesome space with hooks, nails, or shelves; going vertical can solve a difficult-space problem if you plan it out beforehand.
4. Organize seasonally
Sorting through clothes in the off-season can help you look at pieces objectively, but there’s no sense in looking at garden tools in January and determining what to keep before you’ve decided what to do with your garden. Plan decluttering projects as they come up then take a look at what you’ve got, assess what you need, and get rid of what you don’t.
5. Make jars your jam
Yeah, I know you know this one. The benefits of glass over plastic have been touted on personal blogs and hipster bibles alike. I’m down with this program. One warning, though: Use jars, but be discerning, and make sure that some end up in the recycling bin. You won’t need every pasta jar that passes through your kitchen; this will only lead to more clutter.
6. Gather like specimens
Keep fasteners with fasteners, crafts with crafts, and gear with gear to help you figure out exactly what you’ve got – and if you’ve got too much of it.
7. Make packing lists
My dear, adventurous friend Maggie keeps packing lists for day trips, overnights, and backpacking voyages hanging on the wall where she keeps her outdoor gear so that she and her kids never forgot anything when they’re prepping for a day hike or a weekend of camping. It’s a smart move – you won’t forget anything, like that tube of sunscreen you keeping re-buying every time you go out.
8. Tweak your routine
Wake up earlier or set aside 15 minutes when you get home from work for some quick tidying up. It can have a big effect on how your house cleans up and how you keep it that way. I like cleaning my apartment Saturday mornings, but that used to mean that by Friday night, in any given room you couldn’t see the floor. Taking 15 minutes every morning after coffee but before I put on my shoes helps combat that mess (and stress).
9. Sweat the small stuff
You can completely ignore Kondo’s advice on this one – don’t throw out the buttons. The buttons never did anything to you. If you’re “tidying” by throwing out things you need, you’ll just have to buy again later. Instead, collect whatever’s lying around in drawers and catch-alls, discard the truly useless, sort the rest (see no. 6 above), and stash it in a designated place.
10. Just hang it
The only time a photo ever ends up on my wall is when someone gives it to me framed and ready to go… then comes over with a hammer and nail, too. The amount of stuff I’ve had for years that I plan to hang but don’t is – well, let’s just say I have plenty of wall space. Don’t let art or keepsakes pile up in a corner. Take half a weekend and get it done already or put it away.
11. Make a reasonable to-do list
Make a list of what to do and when then hold yourself accountable. Creating a list of 50 things to do on Saturday will not work, but making a list of five could. I stared at the same handful of clothes in my sewing pile for FIVE YEARS, but the day I decided to just sit down and do it, it took me less than 10 minutes to hem and patch holes. It felt like I’d discovered a wormhole that gave me my time and my clothes back, but really a lot of those small chores I tend to put off are not terribly time-consuming to begin with – just easy to put off.
12. Designate a space for hobbies
I learned how to sew (more than buttons and hems) last year, and having tiny bits of thread and cloth all over my kitchen floor became a normal part of my life for a while. Realistically, I didn’t have the time to work on my projects every day, and keeping them on prominent display in a room I used all the time made me feel guilty. Moving everything into a separate room helped me enjoy the projects more, rather than feeling like they were chores hanging over my head.
13. Measure twice, buy once
This should go without saying, but from the girl who has showed up at Ikea twice thinking that I’ll be able to find the matching half of that bookcase because I took a “mental snapshot” of it beforehand, I’ll say it anyway. Whether it’s shelving, furniture, or frames, jot down the specs on a card and stick it in your wallet (or in your phone) so that it’s there when you need it. This goes double if you’re keeping an eye out for something that might be found at an antique or thrift store.
14. Trade stuff
Hold a swap with friends, then donate everything that you collectively don’t want to charity. This one is a little sneaky. I’ve found that when I’m sharing with friends, I’ll put higher quality items into my donate pile. If think a certain dress I love but never wear might suit a friend, it’s much easier to part with it. It would be hard to donate that same dress to a faceless organization.
15. Label it
Keep things properly labeled, especially small parts or things that are kept separate from the machine they fit. This will save you from throwing out something important or letting it get lost in the back of a drawer.
16. Tie it up
Need a creative solution for keeping things together that just always seem to scatter and drift all over the place? Tie them together with ribbon or twine. This works for papers, shoes, scarves, or whatever just won’t stay put. Then take the bundle and hang, file, or box it up. It’s guaranteed to stay put.
17. Store, don’t stall
Marie Kondo warns her followers that putting belongings in and out of seasonal storage is a sign that they have too much stuff. Baloney. We all need some storage turnover. Who wants to stare at a snow shovel in July or a bathing suit in December? That said, don’t use storage as a failure to make a decision. Take a good look at things before they go into storage. Would you be better off without them?
18. Bargain with yourself
You want new clothes? Cool. Me too! Like, practically every time I look at a billboard or leave my house. But. What I want more is to go running so look good in them. So I make a bargain with myself that if I spend some money this month on new running shoes and stick to a reasonable running schedule, then I can buy myself something new next month. Make a deal with yourself, shake hands, and get it done.
19. Make time when you don’t have it
My sister gets the credit for this one; she’s a master of scheduling. Once I was stressed out about how to get a ton of non-work related paperwork done in a particularly busy month. Before I let the worry take over, she suggested that I take a day off from work and just do it. I did – in one afternoon from my couch while slowly drinking an entire carton of lemonade. And you know what? Then it was done, which meant I could stop stressing about putting it off. In other words, if you don’t have time to do something, make sure it’s the first thing you do. It’s like that Zen saying: You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.
20. Be critical of nostalgia
I’m guilty of a nostalgia addiction. I save my grandmother’s and mother’s cast-off clothing. While some things truly are sacred, others are really just crap. Kondo calls for her clients and converts to hold items and ask if the “spark joy,” and this I actually find useful where it comes to sentimental stuff. Recently going back through some things I considered sacred (old clothes, letters), I found that I was able to discard about half of that stuff that didn’t, in retrospect, have as much meaning to me as I’d thought.
21. You can always throw it away later, but you can’t always get it back
Sometimes I get rid of books, clothes, or emails and later regret it, because I’d so much rather have the accuracy of the real thing than the inaccuracy of the memory about it. If you’re cleaning and you have doubts, it’s ok to keep it. You can look at it later on and see how you feel then, which is a privilege you won’t have if you throw something out.
22. Whatever you do, don’t rip out the pages of books
Kondo suggests that be truly tidy, one must rigorously minimalize. This includes tearing out pages from certain books (left up to the cleaner’s discretion), rather than keeping an entire volume. This is insane. Everyone sees how insane this is, right? You’re taking something that means a lot to you – a certain book – and instead of passing it on to someone who might enjoy it, you’re ruining it forever and turning it into trash. Donate used books to a school or charity if you must, or just keep it on the damn bookshelf.
23. Get groupthinking
I once had a boss who kept a fantastically clean tool shed, called “the Cage,” with drawings on the walls and labels that told you how many pickaxes should be in the line. It was insanely helpful, and was the first time someone explained to me how a complex organizational system worked as well as the importance of keeping it that way for the good of a group. Growing up, we’re generally left to our own devices, room cleaning-wise. In my family the message was “keep it clean but we don’t care how.” In a family or shared space, putting some effort into a system that works because everyone adheres to it DOES have some incredible benefits.
24. Make a list and keep it
Making a list can help keep you accountable; looking at several months later can be enlightening. Did you want to organize your sewing kit but instead never looked at it? It may be time to reevaluate whether that’s something you have the time for in your life.
25. Be responsible
Is it easier to just toss out toys without taking the batteries out? Yeah, but it’s irresponsible and bad for the planet. Separate the paper in a notebook from its plastic cover; don’t treat charities that accept donations like dumps. With a few minutes of research, it’s easy to learn about the best ways to dispose of various materials. Look it up.
26. If you save it, reuse it already
Every Christmas I sit in torture while I wait for my sister to unwrap her presents without tearing the wrapping paper then fold it and put it off to the side before acknowledging the gift contained therein. I finally emailed her to see what she does with it. “I lay it out on my bed and roll around in it,” she wrote. “The left over little bits of tape stick to me and eventually I’m all mummified in beautiful Christmas-emblazoned wrapping paper glory. Just kidding, it’s all in a box somewhere.” I’m not sure what the takeaway for this one is, other than if you go to the trouble to save something with the intention of reusing it, reuse it. Otherwise, stop torturing the rest of us. Stuff’s not useful if no one’s using it.
27. Don’t be a romantic
I remember buying an old typeset case and telling my uncle that I was going to fill it with small pieces of places I’d been. He laughed in my face. Ten years later, I know why – that typeset case is still in his garage, empty and untouched. Touché. Admit when a project isn’t going to come together, and let it go.
28. Learn from Pinterest fails
Want to learn how to do something like professional cake decorating? Take a class, or make the commitment to devote years of your life to learning a craft, like the people making those cakes on Pinterest have clearly done. Don’t buy a bunch of tools for a passing phase.
29. Try the old-boyfriend flannel switcheroo
My friend Caroline and I once discovered that we each had kept the flannel shirt of an old boyfriend because it was in good shape, but neither of us wore them because of the weird associated memories. So we swapped. I got a few years of great wear out of her old boyfriend’s old shirt, and then laid it to rest like a sane person.
30. Trim your consumption
I can’t stress the importance of this one enough. There are loads of examples of folks who have cut down considerably on the waste they produce by switching to reusables. My 62-year-old aunt, for example, transitioned away from plastic Tupperware, Ziplok bags, and plastic wrap and found reusable substitutes for nearly everything. In general, cutting back on the amount of stuff you buy now means less stuff to sort through, declutter from, and give away later. Not only will you have less junk in your house, you’ll produce less garbage and, chances are, be a healthier human being.
Illustrations by Pia Charlotta Peterson.