How to Tidy Up and Spark Joy In Your Life


organized boxes and filing cabinetsI don’t like to think about how all the clutter in my home is affecting my psyche, but according to several studies, it most definitely does. For example, researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute conducted a study published in the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that found when your environment is cluttered, multiple stimuli in your visual field compete for your attention, making it difficult for you to focus and limiting your brain’s ability to process information. Another study conducted through UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families showed that clutter affects our mood and mental health.

Of course, the relationship between cleanliness and wellbeing is not new. Even if John Wesley was the first one to use the term “cleanliness is next to godliness” in 1778, the concept of tidiness bringing goodness and health dates back to ancient Babylonian and Hebrew texts.

In her new book Spark Joy, Japanese decluttering guru, Marie Kondo, offers an illustrated guide to her acclaimed KonMari Method, with step-by-step instructions on how to declutter and organize your home in order to experience joy.  “Life truly begins only after you have put your house in order,” she writes. “That’s why I’ve devoted most of my life to the study of tidying. I want to help as many people as possible tidy up once and for all.”

How do you know what to keep and what to throw out?

According to Kondo, there is just one simple rule: keep those things that spark joy; dump everything else.

“Only two skills are necessary to successfully put your house in order,” she explains: the ability to keep what sparks joy and chuck the rest, and the ability to decide where to keep each thing you choose and always put it back in its place.”

But how does the art of tidying and organizing lead to joy and better mental health?

If we learn to take good care of our things, she asserts, we learn to take good care of ourselves.

The KonMari Method

Here are Kondo’s six basic rules of tidying:

1. Commit yourself to tidying up. This is not an easy endeavor. It requires considerable time and effort. In my house, tidying up the KonMari Method would require a complete overhaul of the way we live.

2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle. Kondo suggests we think about what kind of house we want to live in and how we want to live in it—our ideal lifestyle. Sketching what it looks like can be helpful. Whenever I open the Pottery Barn catalog and see the quiet setting of a couch with quaint matching pillows and just one or two novels on the table, I get motivated to declutter. Imagining your ideal lifestyle will carry you through some painful discarding sessions, just as a picture of yourself 30 pounds lighter might push you through the last mile of a hard workout.

3. Finish discarding first. One mistake many people make is trying to store everything without getting rid of anything. I’m guilty of this. I have a dozen plastic bins filled with books in the garage that I keep “in case I need them.” I don’t see them (except for when I take out of the trash once a week), so it’s like I’ve discarded them … but I haven’t. “You can only plan where to store your things and what to store them in once you’ve decided what to keep and what to discard,” explains Kondo, “ because only then will you have an accurate grasp of how much actually needs to be stored.

4. Tidy by category, not by location. Most people declutter by room. However, according to Kondo, this method doesn’t work because people end up shuffling their things from one room to another or scattering items around the house. The KonMari Method advises tidying up by category: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, and sentimental items. There is much logic to this — for example, gathering all your clothes from different locations into one spot—so you can see the mound of clothes you have before your eyes, grasping the volume of items in each category.

5. Follow the right order. Kondo designed her order of categories—first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous objects, and finally sentimental reasons—with the psychology of the human brain in mind. She wants you to start with clothes because they are a good practicing ground for the other categories—helping you to hone your ability to identify what sparks joy. Sentimental objects are the hardest. If you begin there, chances are that won’t complete the process.

6. Ask yourself if it sparks joy. Remember, the only criterion for whether an object is discarded or kept is whether or not it sparks joy. She does make a few exceptions, such as necessary paperwork and home improvement tools like a hammer. What does joy feel like? “You should feel a little thrill, as if the cells in your body are slowly rising,” she explains. “When you hold something that doesn’t bring you joy, however, you will notice that your body feels heavier.”

The result of this exercise is to uncover joy in our lives. “The real tragedy,” writes Kondo, “is to live your entire life without anything that brings you joy and never even realize it.”

Our environments do affect us. There is no denying that. I’m tired of the stress that all of the clutter in our house generates. While this process seems totally overwhelming to me, I do believe that cleanliness and health are intimately related.

I think there’s probably a lot more joy in my home and in my life to be found.

Maybe one day my living room will look like the Pottery Barn catalog.

Join Project Hope & Beyond, a depression community.

PHOTO: Getty Images

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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5 Responses
  1. Lilliana Gold

    I recognize the truth of decluttering having an uplifting/ positive effect on mood when occasionally I am compelled to do a short burst of it. Usually it is hard to find motivation but if I see some program or information about people who are identified as “hoarders”. My heart goes out to anyone in this claustrophobic situation and I am terrified of the possibility I might find myself a hoarder if I don’t
    deal with some of the excess in my surroundings. Thankyou so much for your encouraging and informative posts – Best Wishes To You, Lilliana.

  2. Margaret

    Good one. Since I moved last year, after my husband went to Heaven, I continue to have to choose. What gets donated/given away, what is important for me to see. I learned years ago that if we live amidst chaos, it’s near impossible to have peace of mind. I still have cartons to look through…I’ll be Thankful to the Lord when it is all finished.

  3. Therese

    This was such a good read Therese. The first time I began realizing how a messing home can effect ones psychy, was in reading & hearing one of the books by Sandra Felton from Messies Anonymous. By the time I read, or heard, this I was trusting that she knew from whence she spoke. She was a life saver for me almost 20 yrs ago, when I began to be aware of & address my depression & disorganized mind.

  4. Rachele

    I appreciate approaching the six categories in order as the first step in getting organized. However, I can never get through the sixth one. How do you get rid of any sentimental items when they all cause joy?? I have tried taking photos of large items, and did get rid of some sentimental items, but I was left with regret. There is no joy for me in a photo of the item. I’m come to learn that when I hold a sentimental item and see it, I remember the occasion and incredible joy comes back. So, now I am back to keeping large bins of sentimental items again. It’s a Catch 22 because I still agonize over having too much stuff. At any rate, thanks for this article. I found it very informative.