Stuff — my journey still in progress — and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

life changing magic of tidying upIn the casual conversations that Pam and I have several times weekly, we often circle back to a recurring subject — stuff. We joke about how Pam is a “hoarder” of vintage its, bits and woddities and how in some areas I could be a “vintage hoarder in training.” As much as we giggle about it and share our stories of frustration that we have too much and should really pare down a bit, it seems that we continue to collect, amass and pile up all sorts of goodies we find at estate sales, on ebay and at the ReStore. But does all this amazing stuff really bring us happiness — or is it a source of underlying stress that slowly takes bites out of our of our ability to concentrate, our sanity and our free time? What follows is the account of the personal journey I’ve been on regarding stuff, and my thoughts on how to find your own happy place between minimalism and living in a house that resembles a storage shed. 

bedroom from the 90s
Does this look like a typical 15-year-old’s bedroom? Yes, I had lots of stuff, but it was very well organized.

My natural mode: “Tidy packrat”

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always enjoyed living in a well-organized, relatively neat space, even though I did have a large collection of toys, books and other knickknacks. Mom rarely had to ask me to clean my room and she actually paid me — on multiple occasions — to organize my little brother’s messy room.

At the same time, I come from a long line of thrifty folks (on both sides of the family) with packrat tendencies, that don’t like to waste resources, no matter how trivial they may seem. Waste not, want not is a great mindset to have — and I give my family a lot of credit for showing me how to create and be content with my modest lifestyle. Even so, I recently realized that the stuff was creeping in and my inner packrat was winning — and my home, which once felt spacious — seemed to be constricting. In my adult life I noticed a pattern in my relationship with stuff had developed. My packrat self would save and acquire things, then my ‘tidy’ self would realize I had too much, purge, then drop off a carload at the thrift store — it was a constant struggle.

My turning point

Then something changed. Last July while my immediate family was visiting, we faced the daunting task of trying to clear out and sort through my grandma’s house so it could be put on the market.

50s ranchThe first morning when we arrived at the grandma’s 1950s ranch, I felt a mix of nostalgia, sadness and hope that we could quickly accomplish the task at hand. However, once inside, the true enormity of the effort was quickly evident: we had to decide the fate of a lifetime of possessions.

Grandma reading to me Christmas 1985.

Hats off to Great Depression thrift… but…

My grandmother was a child of the Great Depression, which understandably had a huge influence on how she lived her many years afterwards. Surviving this difficult time made her very conscious about not being wasteful and meticulously maintaining her most precious belongings so they would last. I greatly respect grandma for her thrifty values, and practice many of them myself.

The problem with this kind of behavior is in the compounding. Grandma lived in this house for most of her life — probably at least 60 years — and we found all kinds of things that accumulate during a 60+ year stay in one place. Her particular weakness seemed to be an aversion to wasting useful packaging materials and retaining paperwork. It was completely and totally overwhelming.

After four straight days, we were able to reach every corner of the house. It took at least 15 pickup truck loads to the thrift store, the dumpster, and the recycling center before all the stuff was removed. The experience left me with two lessons that I wanted to apply to my own life:

  1. Hanging on to that much stuff becomes a burden to you and — after you are gone — your loved ones, who must wade through every scrap of your life for days and days and figure out what to do with it all. I do not want to be a burden if I can help it.
  2. When you save things in an attic or a basement for years and years and never use them, they often deteriorate from dampness or dry heat, making them useless to anyone. We had to throw out an alarming amount of furniture, canned goods and other items — which would have appalled grandma — because they were too damaged from their many years in the basement or attic to be salvaged. If they had been let go all those years ago, someone else could have taken care of and enjoyed them.
Mid century modern decor
Image from our story: 1950s interior design and decorating style — 7 major trends.

My journey begins

After the week spent working tirelessly to clean out grandma’s house, I had a realization about my own relationship with stuff. Much of what I kept and accumulated was unnecessary — and it was stressing me out, whether I realized it or not. I decided it was time to make a change.

One of the main reasons I tend to love midcentury style so much is because of the clean lines, thoughtful design and generally clutter free, clean aesthetic portrayed in midcentury modest homes from catalogs and brochures. Back then things cost more… people simply had less… and people took care of their things with pride. I wanted to reclaim that vintage ideal in my own present day home.

Besides the clean aesthetics that owning less would provide, I also wanted the simplicity of having fewer things to clean and maintain — freeing up more time for other pursuits.

Once my family visit was over, I hatched a plan to change my ways. In my 32 years — lived during this time of plenty in American history — I had much more than what my grandmother had accumulated by a similar point in her life. My entire past: boxes of childhood toys, art supplies, drawings, notebooks, textbooks and other things from grade school through college were stored throughout my home. More recently I had accumulated vintage goodies from family hand me downs, estate sales, vintage shops, the ReStore, piles of clothing and shoes, mounds of paper, kitchen utensils, dishes, furniture, tools, gardening supplies, and the list goes on. Continuing to accumulate at this rate would surely result in my possessions being at least double that of my grandmother’s at the time of her passing: a realization that horrified me. It was time to make a change.

I started by going through my house and ruthlessly — or so I thought — purging my belongings. I donated seven car loads of excess stuff to the thrift store and ReStore, and tossed and recycled several large bags of paper and other items, which made me feel much better. Then a few short months after I thought my hard work was done, the stuff had started creeping in again — negating my prior progress.

I realized that If I truly wanted to make a change, I had to come up with a better plan — one that not only made me reconsider what I was keeping — but also reassessed the criteria I used to justify bringing new things home. Failure to get to the root of the problem might result in being forever stuck on a hamster wheel between acquiring new things and taking trips to the thrift store. Did I really want to spend my life living between bouts of shopping and purging? Imagine how much extra time I could devote to other pursuits if I cut down the time I spent cleaning and sorting all that stuff each week. This idea of freedom was all the extra motivation I needed to find a permanent solution.

Many of my favorite childhood memories don't include stuff, it is about spending time with people you love. Above: Helping Bob and Nana shuck corn for dinner during their visit in 1985.
Many of my favorite childhood memories don’t include stuff, they are about spending time with people I love. Above: Helping Bob and Nana shuck corn for dinner during their visit in July of 1985.

Minimalism — a great idea for some, but not my cup of tea

At first, I began researching the extreme opposite of my packrat ways — minimalism. But could I really adhere to such a strict concept? The thought of minimalism instantly brings to mind visions of sparse, white rooms holding nothing other than the bare necessities. While I loved the idea of a ‘clean slate’ I doubted that I could actually jettison the 80-90% of my worldly possessions that living a minimalist existence would surely dictate. Still, I was in research mode, so I drank up all of the information I could find about minimalism and let those ideas float around in my head. Some of the blogs that I read and enjoyed include:

The Minimalists — Two men in their thirties — Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus — share their paths from lives of unhealthy excess to their new content lives as minimalists, plus all the life lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Be More With Less — The story of one woman — Courtney Carver’s — road to minimalism and a happier, healthier life that started after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She also explores creating “capsule wardrobes” — wearing only 33 items for 33 days — and “capsule kitchens” — buying a set number of ingredients to cook all meals for a month — to encourage and challenge herself and others to simplify their lives.

Becoming Minimalist — Joshua Becker had an ‘aha’ moment while spending the weekend trying to clean his garage instead of spending time playing with his son. He shares his road to a simpler, more meaningful life through minimalism.

Zen Habits — Leo Babauta — a father of six — tells his story of how he transformed his life, his body and himself through practicing minimalism. Zen Habits takes a deep look into minimalism in all aspects of life, not just through the amount of possessions you own, with an emphasis on the spiritual aspect.

Once I had thoroughly explored the contents of these four websites, plus several other articles about minimalism, I reached a conclusion: I am a highly visual, artistic, and sentimental person. I can’t get rid of all but the completely necessary items in my life because if I did, I don’t think it would bring me happiness. There is no magic number of sweaters or books or throw pillows that everyone should strive to have.  I like the idea of paring down my possessions, but minimalism goes a bit too far for me. Having said this, I do like some parts of the concept of minimalism. These include:

  • Not living an overly scheduled life — allowing yourself to have free time for thought, relaxation, meditation and the pursuit of crafts and hobbies
  • Not giving in easily to the pangs of consumerism — questioning what you really need and why you want an item before buying it
  • Being environmentally friendly — less consumerism leads to less waste, using less of earth’s limited resources
  • Having fewer things to take care of and clean — spending less time doing mundane chores around the house and more free time to pursue other interests and live your life
  • Simplifying your wardrobe — spending less time trying to decide what to wear each morning
  • You already likely have ‘enough’ — be grateful for what you have instead of chasing the next best thing, be content with your possessions
  • Things are not important — people and their relationships with each other are important.
spring cleaning
My closet after tidying — this is probably the cleanest and emptiest it has ever been.

The final missing piece in the puzzle of my relationship to stuff

While I worked to sort through and pare down my belongings little by little, I discovered a book about tidying up that was getting lots of good press and was on the bestseller list. I read several articles reviewing the book and its ideas — and in each one the author claimed reading it had given them a whole new perspective on tidying. I was curious, but after all of my research on minimalism, organizing and its effect on happiness, could this book really have anything more to offer? Deciding to take a chance anyway, I ordered myself a copy.

spring cleaningUpon receiving The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (affiliate link) by Marie Kondo, I instantly devoured it. Kondo’s book was the missing piece of information that I needed to complete my journey.

Yes, you can buy it from Amazon — or, don’t “consume” it — get it from your library!

Kondo works as an expert in tidying, decluttering and organizing in Japan and has been interested in the subject since she was a small girl. She has done loads of research and personally tried many methods of tidying up. Her conclusion: The method — described in her book — is the only way to tidy with any sort of long lasting effect.

I’m about half way through the Kondo tidying process and already, I am noticing a huge difference in how I feel about my home and my possessions on a daily basis. I think this feeling is compounded by the fact that I live and work at home, so I spend a great deal of my daily life within the four walls of my Retro Ranch. Since I started my journey, these are some of the positive effects the process of tidying up has had on my daily life:

  • I spend far less time cleaning than ever before and have a cleaner house on a daily basis.
  • I make my bed every day.
  • I have very little desire to shop for new things (besides weekly grocery trips), which is saving me money and time.
  • I have read two books that I’ve been wanting to read forever, but never felt I had the time to do.
  • I’ve started making art again.
  • I listen to more music instead of just turning on the TV and plopping down on the couch.
  • I cook more from scratch — including the gumbo I made recently, which took five hours and turned out fantastic — and I make my own sandwich bread once a week on Sundays. I also no longer use pasta sauce from a jar and rely on very few convenience foods, which are expensive and not as good tasting or good for you as home cooking.
  • I spend more quality time with my husband and my dog, which is something that truly makes me happy.
  • I’ve finished some big projects that I’ve been putting off — namely, reupholstering my great grandmother’s sofas.
  • I’ve greatly reduced the amount of clothing and shoes I own to what I wear on a regular basis, plus a few ‘nice’ outfits for special occasions. It is much easier to get dressed in the morning, put clothing away after laundry and see what I own.
  • Getting rid of items I’ve held onto for a long time for no good reason helps me let go of the past and live in the present.
  • I feel lighter, happier, less stressed and less agitated overall.
  • It is easier for me to focus on the task at hand (Pam benefits from this too!)
  • I have realized what my priorities are, what makes me happiest and what I want to accomplish.

spring cleaningThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has helped me to achieve all of this because it explains a clear order in which to tidy your possessions to achieve maximum results with the least amount of effort. Kondo gives her readers only one guideline to use when deciding whether or not to keep something — Does it spark joy? Now, some people might have issues with mundane objects like socks ‘sparking joy’, but if you gathered all of the socks you own into a big pile and picked your favorite ones of the bunch — the ones you reach for first — those would be the ones that spark joy in your heart. If you use this criteria for deciding what to keep, you will be left surrounded with only your favorite things, and that really does spark joy.

Another part of Kondo’s teachings that I found very helpful was how to deal with some of the guilt that makes us keep things that don’t spark joy in our hearts — such as that shirt that you bought and then never wore or those old threadbare pajamas that are ‘still good’. Kondo tells us to touch each item as we make our decision about whether or not to keep it. If it doesn’t spark joy then we need to thank it as we discard it. Tell the shirt that you bought and never wore, “thank you for teaching me that this style and color doesn’t suit me” … and tell the threadbare pajamas, “thank you for your many years of service.”

spring cleaningEven if you are not ready to take stock of your entire worldly possessions, reading Kondo’s book is worth it solely because of her section on folding and organizing clothes. Of the parts of the tidying process that I’ve completed thus far, tidying my clothing, has had the biggest happy effect on my overall day to day life. I can now open a drawer — in my lovely Broyhill Brasilia dresser — and see with one glance all of the sweaters I own at once as I am making my daily wardrobe selection. My dresser drawers are really a thing of beauty now, and my closet — it is clean and clear with space between the hangers making clothing easy to remove and rehang.

spring cleaning
My husband’s dress sock drawer, which used to be overflowing, is now neat and tidy — and has plenty of extra space.

Kondo advises that you only tidy your own things and not force others to follow your ways. She suggests that once they see and feel a difference in the parts of the house that have been tidied, they will want to join in. This has been true for my husband. At first, he was glad to see my enthusiasm and happiness increasing as I completed reading the book and started the process of tidying, but he had no interest in doing any tidying himself. Then as we were trying to pack him for a week long business trip, I asked him if I could tidy his sock drawer, since we had issues finding matched pairs. He agreed and was so pleased with the results that he has since taken the initiative to pare down his massive book collection by 1/3 — a task that would have been out of the question before. I also think he likes benefitting from my newfound happiness — especially if that means he gets homemade bread and gumbo on a regular basis.

bookshelfAbove: see that large bookshelf? We don’t need it anymore.

spring cleaningAbove: The freestanding bookshelf is gone, sold on Craigslist to make room for a small art desk.

After sorting through our books and downsizing our collection quite a bit, we found we no longer needed the freestanding bookshelf in our den. The remaining books easily fit into our built-in bookshelf, my husband’s enclosed nightstand and a small bookcase we have in the bedroom. Getting rid of the bookshelf cleared an entire corner that will soon be the home of a small tilt-top art desk. Having an easy-to-use area for drawing is part of my plan to set up my home for the way I want to live my life now — spending less time cleaning piles of stuff and more time making art. Getting rid of old novels that we didn’t plan to reread or textbooks we hadn’t touched since graduating college 10 years ago, clears out the clutter of the past so we can focus on the present.

The verdict

If you’ve made it this far in this epic post about my journey with stuff — give yourself a pat on the back. If you are thinking that maybe you’d like to start a similar journey, here’s my verdict:

In order to be successful in a huge, life-changing way you need to really be ready and want to reduce the amount of things you own. It is a difficult task, but the rewards are indeed life-changing. The process isn’t just about things, but all of the feelings and emotions attached them and the reasons you haven’t let them go. In dealing with the accumulations of your past, you make room — both in your home and life — so that you can live in the present. If your journey is similar to mine — you’ll feel as if a thousand pounds have been lifted off your shoulders.

Now does all this mean that I’m not buying any more retro goodies? Of course not. I’m still collecting certain things for my future Tiki bar and if I see something that really ‘sparks joy’ then I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it home, but I plan to do so with more intention and restraint than I have in the past. It is fun to go shopping, but I don’t need to bring home everything I find, and that is ok.

This isn’t our first time at the stuff rodeo, check out Pam’s post about stuff:

Have you read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up?
If so, what did you think?
Can you share how you’re handling your relationship to stuff — in this era of material plenty?

  1. verna says:

    I have been a minimalist for over 15 years. It happened quite easily for me; my home was broken into and everything stolen. I had no insurance and no money to replace the things I had.

    And after about a week, I didn’t miss any of the things taken.

  2. Guy H says:

    I love the grandparent photos!! One of the things I like most about vintage styles is that on some level it reminds me of my grandparents.
    Thanks for sharing these!

  3. Gina says:

    This book made my life so much easier. I was caught in a long cycle of purging and then binging, but this book helped me reach a good balance in my house.

    In spite of having worked through the program as described, I find that I’m still able to tweak things here and there. I am more in tune with what brings me joy. When something stops bringing me joy, it is easier to let it go.

    Next? I plan to apply the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying to my work space.

  4. Karen says:

    Excellent. I am moving and having some rummage sales planned so this reminded me that keeping things that spark joy is key. I am not a minimalist either. Thank you for the timely word.

  5. Mary says:

    Oh Kate,

    This was a great post and one that really touches a nerve. As the daughter (and granddaughter) of a lifelong thrifter and collector, plus the DIL of a borderline – very tidy – hoarder; I am constantly the recipient of items. Compounded with my own love of thrifting, collecting, scavenging, and a general love of things this has created a mess of items I don’t necessarily want, need, or use, but can’t part with.

    This post is great and I’m going to bookmark it to re-read again and again. As my father once yelled at my mother when he caught her sneaking another vintage chair into the basement: “There will always be more stuff and always be another yardsale – you don’t need it ALL!”

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