What if everything you ever wanted isn’t what you actually want?

white oak

I have gone back to a practice I followed a few years ago. I was trying to simplify and unclutter my life. Well, my life might be an overstatement. I thought that by uncluttering my home, I might also be simplifying my life.

I decided that by the end of the week, each week, I needed to get rid of enough stuff to fill a large garbage can. The stuff wasn’t garbage. It was stuff that I had been saving deliberately. Things I thought had value.

I was also giving away books and movies and bikes and sports equipment and things that have value to someone else. “Clean out like we are moving,” said my wife, “because at some point we will be.”

Now, it’s another summer coming in a few weeks, and this past week I read online about Joshua Fields Millburn who similarly asked “What if everything you ever wanted isn’t what you actually want?”

pin oak

Joshua had more of a crisis than I did and it was a time when he started questioning every aspect of his life. Some people would turn to religion or drugs. He turned to minimalism.

He got rid of material possessions (not all throwaways – he sold a lot and was able to pay off some debt) and left his well-paid career.

Millburn and his best friend, Ryan Nicodemus, call themselves “The Minimalists.” They have become evangelists for living with less. They have a book, Everything That Remains: A Memoir, that they self-published written by Millburn with footnotes by Nicodemus. They have a website, www.TheMinimalists.com.

Josh’s idea was to remove just one material possession from his life each day for a month. He ended up getting rid of more than 30 items in that first month.

He says that the uncluttering left him with some difficult questions:

  • When did I give so much meaning to material possessions?
  • What is truly important in life?
  • Why am I discontented?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How will I define my own success?

Again, I don’t feel my life is in crisis, but I do feel it is too busy, complicated, and filled with stuff.  “Stuff” is such a mushy word to use, but it does cover things that almost are not things. I pained and redecorated my home office. We packed 12 boxes of stuff and put them in the basement to work. When we were done redecorating, I looked at those 12 boxes and knew I couldn’t move them all back. I have been sorting, sifting, and trying to get rid of stuff. How many pens and pencils and cups to hold them do I really need?  Do I need these books nearby on a shelf? Do I need them at all?  Notebooks full of ideas for writing and sketches for paintings seem like creative stuff that I shouldn’t throw away, but they are also reminders of how much I plan to do and don’t do.

I like the office being cleaner and simpler and less cluttered. Does it help me understand what is truly important in life and who is the person I want to become? Not so far. But that may be a lot to ask of minimalism.

The Joy and Sadness of Throwing Things Away


I get a happy feeling when I have filled a garbage can full of stuff that I don’t need and no one else needs. This is stuff that I can’t sell, recycle or even give away. It is like losing weight. I feel lighter and happier.

Spring is often associated with cleaning out things (and losing winter weight)

There can also be sadness in getting rid of things.

kondo.jpgWhen I first wrote about the idea of decluttering, it was because I had read some of a book by Marie Kondo.

She is a Japanese organizing consultant and now has four books on organizing, and has sold more than two million copies altogether. That book was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It was popular and generated many online conversations about minimalism. That term “tidying up” must be a translation of something similar in Japanese, but “tidying up” seems more Western.

The book is an eclectic mashup of autobiography, philosophy, and practical strategies from clothes-folding tips to ways to get yourself let go of sentimental things.

She has a second book in translation now called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up. I checked it out at a bookstore/café (the new library of mostly used books) this past week. Kondo should approve since she wants you to get rid of most of those books you have around the house.

The new book has photos and illustrations. It has six unerotic pages about underwear. Stuffed toys get 3 pages. It is a manual on how to declutter and organize throughout the house.

The tough ones for me aren’t things in the kitchen and the basement. It is the personal and hobby collections that make me sad.  I’m good about getting rid of old clothing, except for t-shirts. For some reason, I keep buying t-shirts and I don’t get rid of them.

I have lots of books after years of college and grad school as an English major. For many years, I would say “I’m going to read them again.” But I haven’t. They are good books and I could never recycle them as pulp. So, I donate them to book sales and the library. I have even put some of the more collectible ones for sale on Amazon. I told you last month about setting books free via Bookcrossings.  I like to think my books will have another life with someone else.

There are some line drawings to illustrate Kondo’s book suggestions that will be great for undiagnosed OCD readers who want to learn her patented folding method as it applies to shirts, pants, socks, and jackets. You can sigh lovingly over perfectly organized drawers, closets, and cabinets.

She also has advice on moving. I have long believed that moving would be an unfortunate but effective way to get me to declutter and organize. My wife keeps saying that the time to do it is now, not the month before we really move.

How do you picture Kondo’s own home? Simplicity, uncluttered, lots of whiteness and a few pale colors. It would be fun to see an exposé that shows her with piles of laundry on the floor and a desk that looks like mine.

When I first heard a few decades ago that there were people who get paid and make a career by helping people organize their lives – life coaches – I was more amused than amazed.

But, there are people who organize closets, rooms and entire homes. There are TV shows and books and blogs about these topics.

Kondo’s method of organizing is known as the KonMari method, and part of that consists of gathering together everything you own and then keeping only those things which “spark joy” (tokimeku in Japanese, which literally means “flutter, throb, palpitate” and then finding a place for everything.

She really recommends getting rid of almost all of your books. (Not her books, of course.)

I think it’s significant that she is only 30 years old.  She is going to regret some of those things she has trashed one day.

Part of her philosophy, perhaps partially Japanese and Zen-like, is that most of the stuff we own is pointless, unnecessary and actually burdensome. It holds us back from growing into happy, satisfied people.

Extra stuff is not a sign of prosperity, but a sign of impoverishment. Chew on that for a bit.

I don’t know that there is any real Zen philosophy that formed her approach, but there is definitely ritual involved. I imagine something like a Japanese tea garden where the tea ceremony takes place.

She says that you should place all the items on the floor. Pick up and touch them one by one. The question to ask is not whether or not you need this item, but does it spark joy? I tried it. Even on items that I feel an attachment to, I felt no spark of joy.

I put my essays here in categories. This one is in Read It, Do It, and Think About It. Certainly you can read her books. I recommend my method: go to the library or a Barnes & Noble store. Buying her books just means that at some point you would just have to throw them away. She doesn’t seem to recommend a more tech approach, like having an eBook library. One slim volume on the shelf, even it contains hundreds of books.

Putting cynicism aside, I do agree that your stuff shouldn’t make you long for more stuff. Your stuff should remind you that you have everything you need.

In contrast to that philosophy, it’s not a big surprise that Amazon recommends that I purchase even more stuff when I look at Kondo’s books. How about The Gifts of Imperfection (subtitle: “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are” and some transactional analysis I’m Ok, You’re Ok and other books with titles such as I’m Not OK. You’re Not OK. But It’s OK! and I’m Okay, You’re a Brat!: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You From the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood.

Here are some free reads I found online that you might enjoy and you will never have to decide to throw away.

tidyingup.com is Ms. Kondo’s website