Wednesday, October 7, 2015

KonMari for Families

As I read the book "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" perhaps the most common concern I kept having was, how would I do this with a big family? Ms. Kondo seems to have written her book with small Japanese families and singles in mind. In fact, as far as I can remember she only mentions children once, in reference to a single mother of one who wondered whether her child would adapt well to the changes she was implementing. She said second hand that it seemed as though the child had adapted well, but had very little to recommend on how that could be accomplished. I also often found myself thinking, how will I have time to do what she says between all my family duties? In order to "quickly and completely" purge my stuff as she recommends, I would have to put everytng else on hold and just focus on cleaning and organizing. That doesn't happen in a house full of kids. Life moves on at a very quick and busy pace. Also, as the determination about whether something sparks joy is a very personal thing, it would stand to reason that you can't make that choice for your kids. Having large families complicates the process even more. So how do you apply this wonderful process in a family home?

I was certain that while having a large family makes this process more complicated or challenging, it did not make it impossible. In fact, using the KonMari method seems to be even more beneficial the larger the family. It almost becomes a necessity for the sake of sanity! I can barely keep account of my own things, but as a mother of 5, I become by extension the steward of that many times more the amount of stuff. Being aware of what we all own and keeping it manageable is one way to run a tighter ship.

Once you have read the book yourself, there are a few basic principles I'll share that I think can help you get off on the right foot. My first recommendation for sucessful family KonMari is to effectively get everyone onboard. Doing this as a family will be a long and challenging process. You will need cheerleaders and helpers or you may loose steam. It's best to start with your spouse. Nothing will sow seeds of doubt faster in your children's minds than a spouse who is rolling their eyes, acting like this is just one of mommy or daddy's "phases", or defiantly refusing to participate. I have the benefit of having a spouse who is better at picking up after himself than I am. I think he was doing internal somesaults of joy when I was reading the book and getting so excited about cleaning and organizing our house. However, I believe it is still very possible to get even the most reluctant spouse to be excited about KonMari if you just approach it with the right attitude. It is imperative that you maintain a cheerful enthusiasm about it at all times. Take the attitude of leading them along rather than pushing them into it, or worse yet guilting them into it. Never, ever let your prompting turn into nagging! If you can get them to read the book, that's great! If you have to explain the method to them yourself, do it in an excited way. When I read the book the first time, I was so excited I was in tears! I felt an incredible liberation, a lifting of earthly burdens I had been carrying for years! I could finally bid farewell to the pounds of useless stuff I had been packing around for decades. Hopefully you have had or will have a similar experience with the book. That enthusiasm is the fuel to ignite the rest of your family's support of this life-changing transition.

If words are not effective, don't belabor the point but skip straight to the second key which is to lead by example. Ms. Kondo discusses this in her book and calls it one of the best ways to motivate your family. When she was young she became so frustrated with her parents' and siblings' lack of organization that she used to throw out their things without asking and just wait to see how long it took before they noticed. She admitted that was less effective. But she found and continues to find with her clients that when you clean and organize your own things and enjoy the peace and order it brings to your life, others will want to follow. Of course this takes committment and discipline, "constant vigilance" is the mantra I often repeat in my head. If our efforts fizzle or we aren't actually any happier no one is going to be converted. On the other hand, you will find that knowing your things are in order will bring you a sense of contentment that will make it easier to be patient while the rest of the family comes around.

Of course, if your are going to truly KonMari your whole house, eventually you will have to tackle things that belong to someone else. Because this is a very personal method of cleaning, your kids will be involved, either by directly making decisions or by you doing your best to interpret their feelings about their possessions. It will be hard to do everything on your own, so at some point you will probably find yourself working together with your children. My advice is to make it special. Even if they share a room, it's best to work with each child separately as you guide them through the process of turning their space into a joyful place. You will find it is a great way to bond and learn a little more about them, while also inspiring them. If the whole point is to whittle down your possessions until all you have left is infused with joy, then the process should be joyful, too. Enjoy it! Each family member may respond a little differently, but that is the beauty of families. Three of my children are old enough to manage their own clothes. As I spent time sorting clothes with each of them, one was excited, one huffy, and one indifferent, but I did my best to just smile through it and do my best to teach and inspire. I wondered how well their drawers would keep. After some time had passed, I had a very validating moment when I secretly found my daughter redoing her own drawers which had fallen into disarray. My son who was excited at first has let his drawers return to chaoticly crammed piles, while the reluctant one has seen the value of keeping his things neat and regularly rearranges his drawers in unique and creative ways. We are all at stages, but regardless of their enthusaiam or lack thereof, I am glad they all have the idea in their heads, and they have all at least tried it out. It is hard to maintain perfect order and I often have to redo their drawers myself or have them do it. But every time I pull out one of those neatly ordered drawers, I am reminded how great this system is. I love seeing all their clothes at once neatly in rows, and I love that I have enough space that I don't have to switch out seasonal clothes anymore. The only clothes in the attic are hand-me downs in waiting. Those drawers are like a little haven of sanity for me, and as long as I keep them up, I expect the joy with eventually diffuse throughout the rest of the house.

It's great to get the whole family involved in doing KonMari, but it's also important to know when it is time to work alone. There are things that will become complicated when you involve too many people and their accompanying opinions. Clothes are pretty safe to do with your kids that are old enough, though I recommend doing it one on one with each child in an undistracted large block of time, like a lazy Saturday. I find when it comes to things like toys and books, I would rather sort on my own first. This is best done while the kids are away at school. Then when I am all done I bring in the kids to help me finish up. 

Here's what I like to do: while sorting on my own, instead of just having "keep" and "eliminate" categories, I like to have a third box, called my "ask the kids" box. As I go through my kids things it's usually easy to identify the things they love. These are the obvious keepers. I also take this chance to exercise my right as a parent to get rid of those things I deem too messy and of little value or interest (like those nefarious happy-meal toys). These items get put away in the garbage or donation bags before any kids can see them. So far, I have not encountered any problems with kids asking for these things later. They remain thankfully forgotten. I always keep in mind the feelings of my kids, and if there is something I would really like to let go, but I know my kids have an attachment, those things go in the "ask the kids" box. Later, I have the kids come individually and I go through that box with them. I have been surprised how many of these things they tell me I can get rid of. They are stronger and less attached than I thought. Of course anything they want to keep goes back with the stuff to keep category. Then we decide how to store everything, and the kids are made aware of the system so they can put things where they belong.

Perhaps the most challenging thing is that it is really hard to do the KonMari method as quickly and thoroughly as Ms. Kondo recommends. Despite all her arguing about doing it in one fell swoop, I feel that as a family you just have to take your time, but don't give up! There are just too many extra factors in the soup and you can't expect to pull it off the same way a single person could. For one thing, this method just can't be done with young ones about. I find I often pull out everything from the current category I'm doing only to have to stuff it all back into place because I have to go pick up kids, run errands or start cooking dinner. You just can't lave piles of stuff sitting around when there are kids in the vicinity. Putting things back over and over slows me down considerably, but it is better than trying to leave it all out. If you have an awesome friend, sibling, parent or in-law who can take your kids for long stretches of time, go for it! I believe the idea that if you do not do this quickly and thoroughly you will loose steam. I have already seen that happen to me, but there wasn't much I could do. I am not, however, giving up! It has already been longer than the 6 months Ms. Kondo says it should take to get through our house, but my vision of the end result is the motivation that keeps me going. I used to think having an organized home was a physical impossibility for me. I no longer feel that way. That is the thing that has excited me most about KonMari. My goal, which I always longed for despite my pesimistic outlook, is at last achievable and totally within my grasp! I'm not only excited for myself, but I hope my children will also benefit from this shift in habits, and that their lives will be easier in this regard than mine ever was.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Path to KonMari

In our almost 15 years of marriage, my husband and I have had 5 children, moved over a dozen times, and acquired a lot of stuff. In each place we lived, I hoped to get a handle on various collections of "stuff to go through," whether it was papers, toys, clothes, books or keepsakes. Sadly and without fail, time would pass with little change and before I knew it I had to resign myself to just boxing up my mess and transporting it to yet another home. I started to find myself gazing miserably on closet shelves stuffed haphazardly with random things, boxes of papers to sort, or piles of homeless toys, and wishing it would all just burn to the ground so I didn't have to deal with it.

Apparently, I am not alone in this sentiment. For instance, I had a recent conversation with my good friend Cathy, who has also moved her family of 7 many times, often across oceans. When I said I had contemplated arson as a means of solving my clutter problem, she could totally relate. Before each move, she would pare down their belongings, and ship most of what was left by slow boat, taking just enough to live off of for a few months with them to their new place. Every time, she would find herself hoping the slow boat would just sink. When the shipment arrived (as it always has) she would pare down even more because she had discovered in many cases that they had lived just fine without it. It's no wonder Cathy's home is always so neat and attractive.

I think most of us would agree that in general, our society is way too buried in stuff. Stuff is so available to us, in so many varieties. Even "poor" people in this country can have houses full of possessions. Families in 3rd world countries live with so little, and yet we often hear stories of how happy they can be. Stuff doesn't make us happy, but advertising is constantly trying to sell us that lie. Quite to the contrary, owning too much stuff has the effect of binding us down to this world. We are forced to shift our focus to the burdensome responsibility of managing all our stuff instead of actually living our lives.

I have never been good at managing clutter. I try to blame it on my right-brained creativity, but that doesn't make me feel any better. When I am focused on a project I can be sadly oblivious to the mess that I or the kids are making all around me. In all honesty, it probably comes down to plain old laziness, either that or lack of faith that I can ever actually get my house clean. Whatever the cause, I feel like my inability to clean my house is my big fatal flaw (I have many others, but this is the one that has pained me the most). I knew it was particularly frustrating to my husband, who grew up in a home where his mother seemed to keep the place effortlessly clean (though I am sure much effort went into it). On the other hand, I grew up in a home with a high clutter tolerance. Mom tried to teach us to keep things neat, but she admitted that she wasn't very good at it, either. Her excuse, she would say in more candid moments, was that her mother had never made her work. Although her dad would make her and her siblings do the dishes, Grandma's philosophy was "let them enjoy childhood, because adulthood will be hard enough." Sometimes, I've been told, Grandma even did major homework projects for them. Mom tried hard to make up for it, though. She bought Don Aslett's popular books on cleaning and taught us all how to scrub down the bathroom and mop and dust and vacuum. She made chore charts and in the summers we had rigorous inspections before we could go out and play. But still, the clutter accumulated. It seemed like a constant battle. When Grandma would come for a visit, she would take on her mother role again, trying to relieve Mom of her work load. She would clean house from top to bottom and return home so exhausted that Grandpa would threaten to not let her visit again. It would seem that Grandma was a cleaning queen, but when I visited Grandma's house, I noticed that even though she knew how to "clean" house, it never felt tidy. They had boxes stacked in many bedrooms, and by the time I was in college, we couldn't sleep at their house when we visited because the spare rooms were too full of stuff.

Apparently this wasn't so much a cleaning problem as it was a hoarding problem. I think this all came to head for me when my grandparents and my grandpa's brother (who lived similarly) all passed away within a year of each other. Because my Mom also passed away that year, my siblings and I became more directly involved in the task of sorting through the stuff they left behind than we otherwise might have been. The experience has been eye opening. The sheer volume of possessions acquired by three people in their 90's who had lived in the same houses for more than 60 years (for their whole life in my great-uncle's case) was mind boggling. Some of it was pretty cool stuff, treasures even. Lots of it was mysterious. Lots was junk. We're still not done.

As I've watched this process unfold I have looked around at my own stuff and envisioned what it will be like for my kids someday to have to sort through all of it. Would they feel obligated to keep things when they didn't even know what it was, where it was from, only that it must have been important to Mom because she kept it? Would it take them months or years to sort through the mysterious messes I had left behind? I didn't want to do that to them.

I had already been praying regularly for the ability to get my home in order, for the necessary skills to make decisions and put things away. With this new motivation to not burden my children with my mess when I die, I prayed with even more fervor, but still the desired results escaped me. In my mind, the biggest issue was time. I felt like the daily tasks of cooking, doing dishes and laundry, chauffeuring kids, and general cleaning was all I had time for. There were lurking piles and boxes of stuff that I always had on my mind, but they were never a high enough priority to displace the daily grind. Those unfinished projects weighed heavily on me. I desperately wanted my house to be clean, but it seemed impossible. Sorting, organizing and storing my things properly was the project I could never finish, and therefore I could never have the tidy, pleasant home I wanted. It never even occurred to me that the solution to my clutter was not how to organize and store it, but simply to let go of it.

That was the magical revelation that the KonMari method introduced to me. It was at the same time both terrifying and liberating. At first, I felt my hoarding instincts screaming in resistance at the thought of getting rid of this or that thing I had kept for years. But every time, I found myself slowly realizing that I could in fact let it go. Not only that, but the thought of doing so was thrilling. It feels like the contrast between flying on a big, bulky crowded airplane and the rush of hang-gliding. It may be a little scary out in the open like that, but you get to feel the wind and see the view and experience what flying is really all about! 

As I read the book, I felt like my mom and my grandparents were behind this gift, that they wanted me to read it. It seemed like their effort from the other side to break the cycle of hoarding that had plagued 3 generations already. I also felt like the author, this little Japanese girl who grew up reading housekeeping magazines and staying in from recess to organize her school classroom, who went on to develop the KonMari method and write a book about it, was sent to this earth just for me, to liberate me from the shackles of too much stuff. Her philosophy has blessed many, many others as well, of course, but I still can't get over how perfect the timing was, and how precise the solution was for my life.

I think a person has to come to KonMari willingly. It is not something anyone can talk you into doing. It has to spring from a desire to simplify and finally solve the problem of an overly cluttered life. I am still learning how to apply it, and I still need to develop better skills at just putting things away. But for the first time, I feel like I can do this! That feeling is so empowering! Not only can I do this, but I believe it will be finished far sooner than I ever imagined. The thought of all I will be able to do when it is done is incredibly exciting to me. Maybe I'll even take up hang-gliding :)

My other posts on KonMari:

Friday, April 24, 2015

What is this KonMari?

I've been sharing a lot of Facebook posts about "KonMari" lately. Some of my friends have been graciously cheering me on while others may feel a little left out of the party with all this esoteric talk about "sparking joy" and the "magic" of throwing practically everything away. Some of them may even be bored of my bragging, which is really not what I mean to do. I'm just having the time of my life and I can't help talking about it! In an effort to spare my Facebook friends from the gushing, I decided it was time to blog about this huge turning point and share a little of the magic I've discovered.

In simple terms, the KonMari method is a way of paring down your possessions to the minimum of what you need in order to live a happy, joy-filled existence. It was developed by an adorable Japanese woman named Marie Kondo and explained in her international best-selling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." Ms. Kondo has also assumed the title "KonMari" for herself as well as her method. This book fell into my life the week after my 40th birthday, at a time when I was feeling ready and excited for a big change. I had never heard of the book before, but a friend shared it on Facebook and something told me I had to read it. As far as I can recall, I have read only one other self-help book in my life. But I felt compelled to read this one and put myself on the waiting list for a digital copy from our library. Even though I was number 134 on the list, I miraculously got my copy two days later and started reading right away.

Within the first few paragraphs I was both captivated and terrified! "This woman is going to make me throw everything away!" I thought. I felt my breathing get shallow and my head swim with all the reasons she couldn't make me do that. She just didn't understand. I need my things. But somewhere else inside, I knew she was right, and that if I would keep reading, it would make sense. The book had the draw of some kind of thriller novel and with the gripping curiosity that keeps you reading a classic "who-done-it", I plunged ahead. Obviously, we have to keep at least some of our things to survive, and I wanted to find out her criteria before I gave up on the book entirely. Finally I landed on the crux: KonMari teaches that we should not choose what we throw away so much as what we keep. And the way we choose what we keep is by asking ourself for each and every item in our home, "Does this spark joy?" Those things that do are the things we should keep. I was flooded with relief and excitement. That was something I could do! Not only that, but the thought thrilled me! She proceeds to describe the kind of environment you could live in where you are only surrounded by things that bring you joy! That sounds like heaven, truly! What an awesome place that would be, and absolutely yes, I wanted to live like that! From then on, I was totally hooked. I could barely put the book down and devoured it in about 2 days. Within a week I started the thrilling process of turning my life around.

The KonMari method as outlined in the book is not perfect, but the principles behind it resonate deeply with me. Several circumstances, especially events over the past year, led me to a point where I was definitely ready for this. I'll talk more about that in a future post. For now, if this sounds at all exciting to you, I highly recommend finding a copy and reading this book as soon as you can. I will continue to share my thoughts, some of the reasons I love this method, and some of the tweaks I've had to make to fit it to my life and beliefs, particularly how it applies to large families, since that is not something the book addresses very well.

More on KonMari: