The Life-Changing Magic of Doing What Works for Me

In college, I was a clutter queen.

I didn’t have a lot of extra money to decorate my dull new room, so I started buying odds and ends from college seniors moving out. Searching Facebook for the best deals on decor became a favorite pastime, and soon, my room was filled with elephant novelties and unread paperbacks I thought made me, “me.”

Then, a girl we’ll call Julia moved in to the shared apartment.

“Where are all of the cups?” I groaned out loud from the kitchen to no one in particular.

“I think they’re all in Julia’s room,” said one of my roommates, popping her head out from her room.

Perturbed, I went to investigate the suspected cup-napper’s room. I turned the golden doorknob and opened the door just wide enough to peer in. I gasped. Julia had more dirty kitchenware than our dishwasher.

Surrounding the dirty dishes stacked like pancakes on her dresser, desk, chair, and bed, were heaps of clothing bubbling from black trash bags, teetering towers of books, makeup samples half-baked into the floor, and a shiny, never-used pasta maker.

I confronted Julia about her cup-hoarding habits, and she promised to bring her cups back to the kitchen when she was done with them. But even after the cups were back, I felt panicky.

Could my own room ever look like hers? How much longer until I stockpiled my own unused pasta makers? Would I need any of this junk post-graduation? I had plans to move to South Korea to teach English. Surely a rose quartz collection would be of no use to an expat.

I sat in the middle of my own room, letting the anxiety of not knowing where to begin paralyze me. That weekend, I was browsing Urban Outfitters when I realized my ex-boyfriend was now working there. I clumsily ducked behind the book section.

That’s when I found, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

In the book, author Marie Kondo advises readers to pick up an item and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If it doesn’t, Kondo urges you to discard it.

RELATED: The Case for a Minimalist Wardrobe

Boy, did I take that to heart. Over the next few days, I purged 90 percent of my things: trinkets, clothes, paperbacks, and even furniture.

“Does this spark joy?” I asked again and again.

If my answer was anything less than a cheerleader’s, “Yes,” I put it in the “trash” or “give away” pile. When I was finished, I was left with few things to take with me to South Korea: professional clothing, two pairs of shoes, a backpack, my makeup bag, my camera, and my laptop.

The effects really were life-changing. I had less to clean, less to keep track of. This, my friends, is what we’ll call stage one.

Stage two — regret  — didn’t show up until months later when I was in South Korea. In my hurry to be a minimalist, I purged many things I liked but hadn’t sparked immediate joy in the moment.

I got rid of a lot of clothing and accessories, including a pair of knee-high Dr. Marten boots I’d found at a thrift shop for $15 that retailed for nearly $200. In the moment I asked Kondo’s question, I thought, “I haven’t worn these in months, so obviously they aren’t bringing me joy.” What I didn’t take into account was that they’d been hiding at the back of my closet, and they were too warm for the Florida summer.

When it dropped to 20 degrees fahrenheit in Seoul, all I could think about were those boots.

Worse than getting rid of expensive boots, I purged a lot of mementos, like notes from high school passed between best friends or pictures of ex-boyfriends. Many of those keepsakes would’ve been good reminders about the person I once was and how far I’ve come.

And looking back even further into the past, there are a lot of things I didn’t want to keep at the time but I’m glad I have now. I mean, if you ask me, “Does this spark joy?” When referring to my boyfriend after we’ve been in an argument, I might answer, “Not right now,” but 10 minutes later I’ll be seriously glad I didn’t kick him to the curb. Perhaps this is a silly example, but the point is that Kondo’s advice doesn’t acknowledge that feelings toward both people and items can be temporal.

How often do you clean out your closet?

Within the next few months, I’ll be packing my suitcase again to make the reverse move from South Korea back to the U.S. But this time, I’m going to politely ignore most of Kondo’s advice and find my own happy medium between clutter queen and minimalist.

I won’t be throwing away all my clothes that don’t “spark joy,” rather I’ll choose what to give away and what to keep based on functionality. And I won’t be purging mementos, especially lightweight ones like photos, notes, postcards, and tickets I can easily pack away in a shoebox.

I would never advise holding onto everything, or even most things. But religiously following any author’s or trend’s purge rules can be equally unhealthy. Find your own middle-ground, make your own rules, and occasionally break them.

If something has zero functionality and zero emotional attachment, purge it. You don’t need a Starbucks receipt from 2012. But if you’re on the fence about how much an item means to you, use what I call, “The One Week Rule.” Put the item aside for one week, and then come back to it. If you’re still on the fence, and it’s a memento you can fit in a shoebox with your other keepsakes, keep it. If not, let it go.

Another rule that really works for me is the “One Collection Rule.” I allow myself to have one meaningful collection, as long as it means I keep my other purchases to a minimum. I collect cloth tote bags from my travels and experiences, which I use for daily purse needs and groceries. They’re reusable, cheap, and more practical than keychains or snow globes, so I don’t feel guilty buying them.

Militant minimalism isn’t my thing, but I do have a new mantra: Have less clutter. I call it, “The Life-Changing Magic of Doing What Works for Me.”

Originally published April 12, 2018.

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