Inspired by Gretchen Rubin and Marie Kondo, my husband and I embarked on a three-day “staycation” and did the KonMari method on our home. Read here about our Planning, Day One, and Day Two.
When Bookworms Marry
I told John we could spend ONE HOUR going through books. John had absorbed Marie Kondo’s admonishment to release books that you’ve enjoyed back into the universe to bless others. We have four large bookshelves in the living room, plus three shelves of cookbooks, plus two shelves of children’s books in Henry’s room. We also found three boxes of books just hanging around in corners while we were cleaning. And there are more older children’s books in the basement, but the basement was not on the plan for this mission.
We each picked a shelf to sift, pulling out books that belonged to us that we were willing to give away. We inevitably found duplicates of some plays, theater textbooks, and novels. Some books were clearly impulse purchases from Half Price Books that were the literary equivalent of six-month-old popcorn. I also pulled some books that I thought John SHOULD give away and set them in separate stacks for his review. This probably added significant time (and irritation) to the task, but we did get rid of more books that way.
The most fun was going through the more than two hundred children’s books, many from John’s childhood. We kept far more of these that we needed. It was also very satisfying to finally separate out all the board books and load up the shelf in Paige’s room.
By Noon (three hours later), we’d sorted out TEN BOXES of books to drive to the local library, plus THREE MORE BOXES of theater books to donate to a local college theater program. In spite of this, every shelf we have is still full. We don’t have boxes of books hiding in corners, or books stacked on top of other books, but still… all the shelves are full. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.
Zen and the Art of Tidying Up
Once we had piled all the books that we were giving away, John asked if he could spend an hour culling items from the kitchen while I worked on packing up books.
Rebecca (Out Loud): Okay, but just an hour, we still have to get all this stuff in the living room tidied up.
Rebecca (Internal Monologue): AARRGH! WHY IS MY HUSBAND AVOIDING THE REAL WORK OF CLEANING UP HIS NEST OF PAPERS??? HOW ARE WE EVER GOING TO FINISH??
Around 11 AM, I broke into slightly hysterical giggles in the solarium as I was emptying a cardboard box of baby clothes into a plastic trash bag so that we could use the box to pack up more books. Surrounded by a mountain of our things, I could feel the minutes left to reach my dream of a clean house slipping away. That was the height of my panic.
However, while I was panicking, John was applying his slow, methodical process to the giant shelf in our kitchen that was overstuffed with various small appliances, bakeware, cookie cutters, holiday serving dishes, etc. As he covered the floor of the kitchen with more and more small items, I kept looking frantically for more boxes and space in the solarium. I know the KonMari method is all about putting everything on the floor so you can see how much you have, but that part of the process just wigged me out. I hate walking around piles of stuff — it makes me feel like we are living in an episode of Hoarders. I had to fight the urge to make comments while John painstakingly figured out what he wanted and what he didn’t.
When he was done though, something amazing happened. He had cleared one entire shelf and made space for all the cookbooks that had been in the Nest in the living room into the kitchen. This freed up space in the Nest shelves for expand-a-files, which, in theory, could keep the Nest cleaner. I’m not sure that an outsider would have seen the difference; the giant shelf is still completely full. But the things on it are all items we actually use, they all can be seen and accessed easily, and look orderly instead of cramped. Two months later, this is still a significant upgrade to life in the kitchen.
I decided to try and adopt some of my husband’s Zen attitude as I worked on clearing toys from the living room. I gathered one large box of baby toys and puzzles no one was playing with anymore. My goal was to shift enough of Henry’s “big kid” toys upstairs that no toys would have to live on the living room floor anymore. Hauling the giant collection of wooden blocks up the stairs took several hot, exhausting trips. But, I got a great deal of satisfaction in figuring out how to stack them in two shelves of the closet, tetris-style.
I also got to whittle down collections of plastic junk, gimcracks and other things that kids accumulate from birthday parties and Happy Meals. Parents, can we all agree to stop giving the kids little pieces of plastic junk in birthday party guest bags? Let’s just hand them each a candy bar and call it a day. Also, I sorted our 43 tubs of Play-Doh by color and selected 20 tubs to give away. How did we get 43 tubs of Play-Doh? I think they’ve been breeding.
Getting one layer of toys, art supplies and other kid stuff out of the living room made an enormous difference. I also got to put up some of Henry’s best art from the summer in his room, which really made it feel like his own special spot.
I got behind the couch and found all the things we’d dropped back their since 2012. I recycled stacks of Real Simple magazines that I was saving for reasons that seem utterly ridiculous in the face of the existence of the internet. I emptied both medicine cabinets. In the downstairs cabinet, I discovered that nearly every OTC medication in it was expired. Great! More room to contain the little things we use everyday that get all over the bathroom counter.
I could feel it working. The house looked better and better. But as we reached five o’clock and quitting time, I knew I was going to have to dig deep and find more hours over the weekend if we were to have house ready on Monday for the cleaning crew of former nurses that I’d hired.
Getting My Second, Third, and Fourth Wind
The weekend brought our delightful children home. Henry loved his new room and spent an hour upstairs during quiet time drawing at his new desk. Paige loved getting her books off the shelf in her room and running the length of the living room with her toy stroller. Seeing how happy the extra space made them helped me keep going.
Saturday night I wandered into the kitchen and started working on the odd pie rack/plant shelf that sticks out into our solarium. The front part of the shelf had become a dumping ground for art from Henry’s school and whatever else was in our hands that we needed to set down when we came in the door. My goal was to get this to be a clean space that held nothing – an empty spot in a crowded room. Getting rid of the trash and odd items took only 20 minutes or so. Then I started paying attention to the vases and glassware that I was displaying on the other parts of the shelf.
Did I really need all those vases? At most, I use a single vase at a time for flowers. I like having some different sizes and shapes for different kinds of arrangements, but some of these looked like duplicates. I started pulling the pieces that didn’t spark joy and putting them aside.
Eleven superfluous vases. What the hell? That didn’t include the eight I’d decided to keep. How did this happen? I recognized some as leftovers from flower arrangements that I’d been sent over the years. Without thinking, I’d added them to my “glass collection” without stopping for a moment to look at them and really asses their worth. It reminded me that as much as I give John grief for being a clutter bug, I am also guilty of hanging on to things mindlessly. Once I boxed them up, I spent another 20 minutes arranging the pieces I really love: the deep green vase from a cousin’s wedding; the bread baking bowl; the teapot from my grandmother’s German set from the 1940s. I felt like a curator creating an exhibition. These objects might not mean anything to anyone else, but for me, they are beautiful and I love being able to really see them now. It was my moment of Zen.
Sunday morning I stayed home from church by myself and cleaned out the shelf under the sink in the downstairs bathroom while listening to the How Did This Get Made? podcast on the Howard the Duck movie. The salty commentary about that weird, dirty movie was completely appropriate for all the junk I found down there. I will spare everyone those details.
John and I worked in the Nest on Sunday evening, racing to be ready for the cleaning crew. Here, I started to run out of patience. John had been so good about letting things go: clothes, books, kitchen gadgets. But we got stuck when we got to paper. It wasn’t just the nostalgia items like programs and cards. Somehow everything kept going into piles “to be filed” or “for the taxes” or “I want to look at that before I get rid of it.” I got really frustrated. This space has been a mess for as long as we’ve lived here. It is a permanent collection of piles in which any number of important items are lurking among all the trash. As I write this in the Nest, I’m still surrounded by piles. Sure, they are tidier and, for a few weeks after the nurses came, they were even off the floor. But now they are drifting and it makes me feel so defeated. In the moment, that weekend, I had to let it go. We were out of time and John had reached his limit for this project. I had to make the effort to celebrate everything we’d accomplished and not let this one thing ruin my mood.
A New Habit
Sunday during naptime I knuckled down and did all the dishes. Our kitchen was always full of dirty dishes, especially leftover pots and pans from John’s cooking. I did my best to load and unload the dishwasher to keep plates and such clean, but I hate scrubbing pots and pans. Secretly, I felt like John should have to do the pots and pans, because he made the mess while cooking. I also felt annoyed that it seemed like I ALWAYS had to do the dishes. The only time John seemed to wash a pot was when he ran out of clean pots while cooking. Once a week, I’d give in and do a bunch of hand dishes while seething about the state of the whole house. If John had the misfortune to interupt me during this time, I would pick a fight with him. It sucked.
But – the dishes had to get done in order for the nurses to clean the kitchen on Monday. So, I did my best to get into Zen mode and just get it done. And as I did, I realized several things:
- I don’t really hate doing the dishes. I don’t like dealing with old, disgusting food. But I like being on my feet, the warm water and suds, the sense of doing something physical.
- It’s not fair of me to expect my husband to do all the cooking (which he does) and also do the dishes.
- The thing that really bothered me about the dishes was when they piled up. We enter our house through the back kitchen door and being greeted by piles of dirty dishes every day always made me feel like a failure the moment I got home. Plus, I had to summon a lot of energy and willpower to tackle the backlog, which I never seemed to have after wrestling Paige to bed for an hour every night.
That’s when I remembered Gretchen Rubin’s brilliant observation about habits: habits allow us to make a decision ONCE and save ourselves the time and energy it takes to decide. It came to me in a flash: I would create a new habit of doing all the dishes every night before I went to bed. It would be my job – just as cooking was John’s job. If I did it every single day, they’d never pile up and the job would never be too arduous to manage within 30 minutes or so. Plus, I could listen to podcasts or music while I did it and enjoy a little time to myself.
I announced this decision at dinner that evening at our weekly Family Meeting. I didn’t tell John beforehand. I think he was a little surprised, but pleased. I also assigned Henry the job of helping to set and clear the table. Paige’s job, eat like a small horse, is one she relishes every night.
Since I started doing the dishes every night, the kitchen is staying cleaner, but also, I don’t do the dishes in a stew of frustration anymore. I don’t have to summon the willpower to decide to do it. It’s my habit — I already made the decision. I just do the dishes and then, because I’ve been up on my feet and thinking, I often go and do something else useful instead of just lying on the couch feeling drained. Bonus, my husband has actually volunteered several times to help just so we can hang out and because he is a nice guy. Two months later, this one small change to my habits has had a ripple effect on my mood and my productivity.
Living Life in the After Photos
Nearly two months have elapsed since the Big Clean. Our After photos still make me very happy. I am happy to report that, for the most part, spaces that we cleared have stayed cleared/ Here are a few things we’ve observed about living in a post-KonMari world:
- The house feels bigger. John kept saying this for several days after we cleaned. We’d forgotten just how much space we really had — it was buried under too much stuff.
- It’s easier to keep the house clean. First, I can see more quickly when something’s out of place and needs to be put away. Second, I know exactly where to put that thing away because I made a space for it. Rubin notes that putting something away in its exact place in your home gives one “the archer’s satisfaction of hitting the mark.”
- We didn’t need more storage; we just needed less stuff. No new storage containers were purchased for this project. At Marie Kondo’s suggestion, I re-purposed a couple of Apple iPhone boxes and some clean plastic hummus containers.
- It’s wonderful not having to feel embarrassed about the state of my house anymore. My mother-in-law is visiting this weekend and I don’t feel anxious about what she’ll think of the house.
- We still need another solution for dealing with incoming paper. I’ll gladly take suggestions here.
Thanks to everyone who cheered us on through Facebook and read these posts. I hope this makes my fellow clutter bugs of the world feel less alone and inspires them to try making a big change. I also want to say thanks to my husband, who did a ton of work on this project and was kind to me in my moodiness during the Big Clean and throughout our marriage. I’ll stop nagging you about those leftover t-shirts someday, I promise.