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Finding Purpose By Sorting Through Your Stuff

It’s hard to let go of the belongings we love. But purging and organizing the right way can give you clarity on what you care about

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by Janice Holly Booth

Relationships
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In my quest to downsize from way-too-much-stuff to just-enough, I’ve been experimenting with different methods of purging and organizing. I’m making progress, but the process seems endless. So when I heard about a system that’s one-and-done, I was intrigued.

It’s called the KonMari method—the brainchild of Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo—and it’s not for the faint of heart. She eschews the time-honored tradition of cleaning up one room or closet at a time, instead insisting on an all-out, head-on tidying marathon. Here’s how it works. You select a category (clothes, for example) and begin by gathering every garment you own and placing it on the floor. You then pick up each item, hold it in your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If it doesn’t, discard it. Typically, she says, you are left with just a fraction of what you started with, making the second step—organizing what remains—far easier and faster. (Important note: leave the discarding and organizing of your mementos until the end, lest you get bogged down or paralyzed by emotion.)

See also: Defeat Procrastination for Good

Bestowing living qualities on inanimate objects, a practice common in Japan, is key to the KonMari method. As you are sorting through your things, she advises speaking to each item, especially the ones you are sending on their way. “Thank you for helping me realize red is the wrong color for me,” “Thank you for making me beautiful,” “Thank you for helping me look professional.” Now, I must admit I had a hard time with this part. But as I worked through a pile of coats, I realized something. I did have feelings for my clothes. One jacket had accompanied me on some of my most memorable adventures; a down coat had kept me warm during the coldest days in Buffalo, New York. Not understanding my relationship to these items was perhaps one of the reasons I had kept them around, even though the former was in tatters. Hmm, I thought, maybe Kondo’s on to something. I wasn’t holding on to the big down coat because I needed it; it was still in my closet because it represented happy memories (and a reminder that at one time I was three sizes smaller). But did it “spark joy”? No. Off it went to the homeless shelter, where it’ll keep someone toasty when the temperatures drop in November. And I can’t explain it. Once I’d held the coat in my hands and really thought about—and honored—the part it had played in my life, it was easy to let the coat go.

Kondo’s idea of having a relationship with your belongings extends past the sorting/discarding process. She suggests talking to them on a regular basis, thanking them for working hard in service of you. “We often hear about athletes who take loving care of their sports gear, treating it almost as if it were sacred,” Kondo says. “I think the athletes instinctively sense the power of these objects. If we treated all things we use in our daily life—whether it is our computer, our handbag, or our pens and pencils—with the same care that athletes give to their equipment, we could greatly increase the number of dependable ‘supporters’ in our lives.” She’s referring to her belief that our possessions work hard for us. While thanking our stuff may seem silly, expressing daily gratitude has long been recognized as a way to sustain a positive outlook on life.

See also: Take the Clutter Cure By Transforming Your Relationship with Stuff

Kondo maintains that this process of discarding/tidying can help you discover your real purpose in life. By understanding your relationship to each item—why you chose it, why you keep it, what themes keep reappearing (particularly when sorting through books)—you gain insight into what really matters to you and what piques your interest. “At their core, the things we really like do not change over time,” says Kondo. “Putting your house in order is a great way to discover what they are.”

Haphazard dumping can be as problematical as haphazard accumulation. “The things we own are real. They exist as a result of choices made in the past by no one other than ourselves. It is dangerous to ignore them or to discard them indiscriminately as if denying the choices we made. This is why I am against both letting things pile up and dumping things indiscriminately. It is only when we face the things we own one by one and experience the emotions they evoke that we can truly appreciate our relationship with them.”

See also: How to Make Space for Reflection

Kondo’s promise to her clients is that they need only tidy once. Having tasted a bit of her recipe, I can see how it could sustain a lifestyle change. If you’re willing to give up the time and emotional energy (there is no doubt that going through all my closets in one fell swoop would require a weekend. At least). But the payoff, says Kondo, is that once freed from the tyranny of too many belongings, you can “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”

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