A Problem for Another Day

Margaret was a small business owner who worked and saw clients in her home office. She generally kept the space clean and inviting, but she wasn’t happy with how her set up was working and hired me to help fix it. Much of what we did to improve Margaret’s office was simple: rearranging furniture to improve workflow, recycling unneeded paperwork, and adjusting storage areas to solve recurring annoyances.

The real revelation with Margaret came when we moved away from her desk and onto her lesser-used cupboards. I often find that people focus on the mess they interact with regularly, but disregard the clutter that’s been there for years. Margaret opened the first cupboard, pulled out a few binders, and began sorting them into the established piles for recycle, donation, etc. She was moving through things pretty fast, but there was a large box inside the cupboard she wasn’t touching. I asked her about it.

“That is everything that’s left from my old job at the University. I was a teacher there for several years,” she said. “But that’s a whole big project. That’s a project for another day. Not today.” She went back to sorting the binder in her lap.

“So,” I asked, “What’s going to be different on that day?”

She stopped her work with the binder and looked at me blankly, so I tried to explain my question.

“If you think it should be done later I totally understand,” I said. “Maybe something else needs to happen first, maybe you want to use your time with me differently. Those are all good reasons. I’m just curious what will be different on that day.”

“You’re saying we should do this now,” Margaret said, looking at the box. “You’re right, we should do this now.”

I wasn’t trying to trick her. I took Margaret at her word that this wasn’t a project for today, and I wanted to help her create a plan for the future. Oftentimes projects linger in the back of our minds because we haven’t thought about what our first step will be. I was just trying to find Margaret’s first step.

But Margaret, like so many of my clients, knew her own problems better than I did. She took my innocent question and saw the truth reflected back at her. We began to sort through the box.

It had been three years since Margaret left her job at the university. She sorted through the papers and realized instantly that everything she actually wanted to keep was already stored digitally on her computer. Nearly all of the paper went in the recycle, with a few binders moved over to her office supplies to be repurposed. Then we got to the gifts.

“I taught a lot of international students,” she explained. “So they would give me these little presents.” It was a cute collection of dolls, bowls, and fans.

“Do you have good memories of these students?” I asked.

“Honestly I don’t remember most of them,” she said. “It was just a thing they did, to give gifts to teachers.”

It’s hard to get rid of gifts of any kind, but I suggested to Margaret that she consider Marie Kondo’s philosophy: the real gift from the students was them giving her something. It was their expression of gratitude that mattered. Once received, it was up to Margaret to decide if she liked these objects enough to keep them.

“Do you like any of them?” I asked. “Do any of them remind you of your favorite students?”

“Not really, not anymore,” she said. “Maybe…” She poked around the pile and pulled out a few small items. She put the rest in a bowl and handed them to me to put in the donation pile behind me. The cupboard was empty. It took less than ten minutes. Margaret sighed in relief and disbelief.

I explained to Margaret that her problem, ultimately, was that she’d developed a relationship with that box of university stuff. Her relationship was one of denial and deferral. And the longer she put off sorting through the box, the more problems she imagined were inside it. She knew there were gifts, so she imagined them all to be the important kind that meant a lot to her. She knew there were papers, so she endowed them with all her years of teaching. That box became equal to that job in her mind. Her whole career at the school was in there. It’s understandable that she thought it was too big a project for us to tackle on that particular Sunday. It was too big to tackle on any day. That’s why she kept putting it off for another day. Another Day is the longest day of the year, the day when absolutely everything can be accomplished. Unfortunately, the only day you ever have is today. Another Day never comes.

Inbox Zero: Emails You Keep as Reminders

We’ve all had an email that we left in the inbox to serve as a reminder for something. Perhaps we even marked it as unread, thinking that would bring more attention to it. Maybe it’s a task we still need to do, maybe we can’t deal with it until next week, or maybe we’re worried the other person won’t get back to us in time and we’ll have to nudge them again. Regardless of the reason, we leave the email in the inbox as a reminder so we won’t forget.

The problem is, this is the exact opposite of how reminders are supposed to work. The brain is triggered by novelty (things that are new or different), and the brain adapts to repetition (things it sees all the time). The longer an email stays in your inbox, the more often you’ll choose to ignore it, the more it will become part of the scenery.

In contrast, a good reminder shows up when and where it is most useful. If an email can’t be dealt with until next Monday, that’s when you want it to appear in your inbox again. If it’s related to something you have to do at work tomorrow, that’s where you should see it. If you want to get those reminder emails out of your inbox, you’ll need to find a better system to remind of you things. Here are some of my favorite systems:

1. Boomerang for Gmail or Outlook

Boomerang is a free program (as a Chrome Extension for Gmail or in the Microsoft AppStore for Outlook) with two main features: 1) It gives you a Send Later button, allowing you to write emails now that won’t be sent until a specific time in the future, and 2) It has a boomerang function that will remove an email from your inbox but send it back to you under certain circumstances, such as “send this back to me if they don’t respond in two days”.

2. Calendars Reminders

In addition to adding date-specific reminders to your calendar like any other event, most calendar programs have the ability to set reminders for existing events. For example in my early days of employee reviews, I would set my Google calendar to email me 10 days before an employee’s anniversary so I could set up their annual review.

3. Task Management Apps

Any task manager worth using will include reminders as part of the system. My favorite is Asana. I can create a task, set a date for it, and throw it on the very bottom of my “Later” list, hidden from sight. A week before the due date Asana will automatically bring it into my “Upcoming” section, and on the due date it will show up in “Today.” This means I can throw any long-term tasks into Asana and forget about them, confident that I’ll be reminded when it’s time to do them.

4. Waiting Folder/Label

In my previous accounting job I often ended up with small issues that needed to be reconciled but were temporarily on someone else’s plate. For these things, I had a Waiting folder. Items that were currently someone else’s responsibility went in the Waiting folder, and I went through the folder every Friday to see who I needed to nudge. The key to making a Waiting Folder work is scheduling a regular time to look through it, otherwise items may get forgotten permanently.

5. Siri / Okay Google / Cortana

The majority of modern phones and computers have some kind of built-in digital assistant, and this feature can be great for capturing thoughts for later. I use Siri on my iPhone, and I’ll often tell her things like, “Remind me to email Brian when I get home” or “Remind me about tote bags tonight at 7PM”.

You may find yourself needing to use several different systems to account for all the different types of reminders you need in your life. I’m currently using four of the five I listed above. I would recommend starting with the system that feels most intuitive, and exploring the other options as needed.

We leave emails in our inbox to nag us, to keep being a bother until we finally do something about them. But if we can’t take action on it right now, that nagging is just another form of distraction.

Your Mission:

  1. Choose the reminder system(s) that seems most appropriate to your life and your emails
  2. Identify 1-3 emails you’ve left in you inbox as reminders
  3. Ask yourself “When and where will I need to see this next?” and replace each email with a reminder
  4. Check back in a week to see if more reminder emails have appeared, and if your current system(s) can accommodate them

When Life Maintenance Collides with Life Events

I recently worked with a client on her home office. She explained that the space used to work quite well for her – she could pay her bills, invoice clients, do her writing, etc. It was perfect. Then she got caught up in a legal dispute, needed surgery that limited her mobility for months, and had an existing medical condition worsen. On top of all that, her cat died. For about a year it was just one thing after another. Pretty soon her office wasn’t perfect anymore. Things stacked up. Paperwork wasn’t filed. The desk got covered in junk. She found herself avoiding the room completely. By the time I got there, she didn’t even want to go into the office if she didn’t have to.

It happens to everyone at some point. An interruption or major life event happens, and slowly the parts of our lives that used to work stop working. The problem is that once things have gone off the rails, we can’t bring them back using our old habits. Asking your maintenance systems to fix a year of built-up stress is like asking a handyman to build you a new house. The recurring processes and habits of daily life, such as dealing with the mail quickly or getting the desk clean at least once a week, only work so long as they keep moving. Interrupt those systems and habits for long enough and the machine gets clogged: the stack of bills is so tall you just avoid it, the package of paper towels begins to live on the floor. Your old systems can’t run anymore, and the clog only gets worse.

The life events that cause these interruptions don’t have to be huge. I just experienced one myself in these last few months. I had been blogging consistently during the summer, and I’d settled into a good routine of posting every two weeks. I had set up my writing program with ideas for upcoming topics, I’d color-coded it to ensure there was variety, and I had a procedure for doing final edits, posting, and promoting. But November was coming, and with it came National Novel Writing Month. I knew I wouldn’t want to be working on blog posts while also trying to write 1667 words every day for NaNo, so I tried to do a little extra work in October to prep the November posts. But this was an interruption in the system. It didn’t fit with the workflow I’d established, and I was only able to get one November post written and scheduled ahead of time. I decided one post in November would be fine, and went ahead with NaNo as planned.

But once November was over, I was burnt out on writing. That burnout kept me from jumping back into my old blogging habits. The system was interrupted, the old maintenance habits were clogged, and suddenly it was January 1st and I hadn’t posted anything in over a month. I was disappointed and embarrassed.

It was around this time that my client, fed up with her unusable office space, called me. She couldn’t say how or why it had gotten so bad, just that it was a big enough source of stress in her life that she needed help. And it wasn’t until I articulated the cause of the problem to her that I was able to see it so clearly in myself. What she needed was an outside professional to help her clear out the physical spaces that were getting in the way of her routines and habits. What I needed was to be reminded that I am susceptible to the same traps my clients are, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of that anymore than they do.

The skills and habits of maintenance won’t pull you out of the hole, just like they couldn’t pull me or my client out. We both needed something a bit bigger, a bit more drastic to happen in order to reset the system and get the machine working again. If there’s an area in your life that used to work but isn’t anymore, it might be because some big event got in the way. You need to match a big event with a big response. I can’t tell you for certain what that response is, but I can tell you how it starts: Acknowledge that being interrupted is not the same as failing. You can’t control what interrupts you, only what you do to get back on track.

Minimalism as Another Thing to Sell to Us

Earlier this year, writer Grace Lee released a video essay called “Kondo-Culture: The Fall of the House of Stuff.” It’s a fascinating dive into how marketing and societal expectations effect our relationships with our homes and belongings, and how even the lack of something can be sold to you if marketed correctly. I’ve heard similar sentiments a lot lately, warning against the commodification of minimalism. For people like myself who find a lot of peace and satisfaction in simplicity, it’s important to remember that happiness doesn’t come from chasing an aesthetic. It’s okay to enjoy the beauty of minimalism of course, just so long as it doesn’t become yet another design fad engineered to make you feel bad about yourself. There’s no inherent virtue in a house that looks like a Pinterest board or Ikea catalog, and no reason anything in your home needs to look a certain way unless it genuinely makes you happy to see it like that.

You can watch Lee’s full video here:

Why I’m the Last Organizational Product You’ll Buy

I think a lot of people assume one of the main things I do is recommend specific organizational products to my clients. While I certainly can make purchasing suggestions, I rarely need to because most of my clients have plenty of organizational products and furniture pieces in their homes already. They have tried to buy their way out of this problem many times before, and it is only now, as a last resort, that they’ve finally decided to buy an expert.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Container Store as much as the next highly leveraged professional. And there are times when the right product is the perfect and only answer to your organizational problem. Shoes, papers, pot lids, sewing notions – some things just need a good storage solution or they will never feel organized and useful.

But too often people assume a product can save them from a deeper problem. Nothing you can buy at Storables will help you say goodbye to your grandmother’s scarves. There are no specialty racks or drawers that will change how frequently your spouse does laundry. Ikea doesn’t have a drawer unit for hobbies you never seem to get around to.

What’s worse is when these same products prove useless and end up stuffed into a hall closet or piled up in the garage, clients feel guilt and shame. They wasted all that money on something that didn’t work, and now they just have more stuff.

I don’t need to recommend products because everything we need is usually in the house already. The good products can be repurposed and used as the base for the newly cleaned space. The bad products are just another form of clutter to let go of – along with the guilt of buying them in the first place.

Time Adds Value – But Mostly in Our Minds

The longer you have something, the more valuable it feels. It doesn’t matter why you’ve had it, how much you’ve needed it, or if it’s actually increased in value since the beginning. Time itself makes objects feel like they are worth more than they are, despite the fact that time is also the primary reason most items lose their value.

Sunk Cost

Some objects seem to gain value over time because of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. If an object has been in your house a long time, if you’ve been cleaning it, moving it, and maintaining it for years, it feels like it must be important. After all, that would be a lot of effort and resources to expend on something worthless, right? Because you’ve been waiting for so long for the day when the object finally adds value to your life, the value you imagine it to have grows bigger over time. You keep it because you are hoping to get back in value what you’ve already spent in other resources, even if that hope isn’t based in reality.

Associative Sentimentality

The second way time adds value is through what I call Associative Sentimentality. Because you feel nostalgic for certain periods of time in your life, you ascribe value to any objects you acquired or used during those years. Perhaps it’s a generic t-shirt you wore all the time in college, or a silly present you got from a student while you were working as a teacher abroad. The objects themselves aren’t particularly great and you don’t necessarily like them very much, but because you associate them with that time they feel as valuable as the memories themselves. I should clarify that this is not the same as more traditional sentimental objects, such as the t-shirt from your favorite band you got at the best concert you’ve ever been to, or a gift from your spouse on your first anniversary that meant a lot to you. There’s nothing wrong with keeping sentimental objects, the difference is whether or not the object itself it meaningful, or if it just vaguely reminds you of a meaningful time.

Acquired Tradition

The final and most complex way time adds value is that it turns objects into traditions. Typically traditions are useful because they give us a sense of continuity through time, a feeling that things are right in the world, that society is functioning as it ought to be. They connect us to the past, to our families and communities, and they keep us tied to our important values amidst changing times. And sometimes a tradition built around an object can do the same. For example when my family is celebrating someone’s birthday, that person eats off a bright red plate that says “You Are Special Today”. The plate goes on top of the stack of plates for the buffet line, which means the birthday person also goes first in line. It’s a great tradition that means a lot to us, so much so that nearly everyone in the family owns at least one of these red plates, just in case they’re the one hosting the birthday dinner.

But traditions can also keep us stuck in old and outdated patterns, clinging to things that no longer matter and looking for meaning where there is only habit. This is often the case for objects that have turned into tradition. Does the painting above the fireplace feel important because you’ve loved it since your childhood, or merely because you’ve been seeing it since you were a child? Is the clock actually important to your family, or just exceedingly familiar? Even ordinary objects can fall into this category, like the pen cup that’s been on your desk for years or the lamp you keep on your bedside table. These may have only entered your house by chance, but over the years they start to feel inherently important.

Your Mission

Here are three questions to ask to help determine if an object is truly valuable, or if it’s falling into one of the above categories:

1) If this object disappeared tomorrow, would I make an effort to replace it immediately?

2) Do I love this specific object, or just the thing it reminds me of? Are there other, better objects that I own that already remind me of that thing?

3) If I moved into a new home and the object couldn’t go where it normally goes (above the fireplace, on my desk, etc), is it worth putting somewhere else? Where? Would I ever consider moving it there now (in my current home)?

The #WearItAllChallenge – Fall Edition

Earlier this year my friends and I created the #WearItAllChallenge, beginning with #WearItAllJuly. The goal of the challenge is to wear a completely different outfit every day for an entire month. I love this challenge because everyone learns something different from it, and what they learn is often surprising. So we’re doing it again for the month of October!

Here are the basic rules:

Rule #1: Wear a completely different outfit every day for a month.
Rule #2: After you wear a piece of clothing, set it aside. You can’t wear it again the rest of the month.
Rule #3: If you literally don’t own enough of something to accomplish this (for example, you only own 15 pairs of shoes), you can loop back through them after you’ve worn them all once (it’s up to you whether you want to wear through them all again before repeating).
Rule #4: You choose what categories are included/excluded from your challenge, such as hiking gear and ballgowns. You can choose to not care about pajamas, workout clothes, underwear, etc. It’s up to you. The important thing is that once you decide your rules you stick with them.
Rule #5: Your wardrobe is “locked in” at the start of the month. Anything new you buy after that gets put in the used pile and has to wait until next month!
Rule #6: There may be times where wearing something twice is unavoidable, such as with work uniforms or travel clothes. Don’t worry about it. Count the days you want to count.

Here are some of the most common objections I hear and what’d I’d say in response:

“I can’t imagine wearing my snow boots to the grocery store!”

Me neither, that sounds like a terrible idea. That’s why you’re allowed to exclude whatever specialty clothing you want. I personally drew the line at “anything I would have never worn to any job.” It meant I had to include most of my closet, but excluded my fancier dresses, my hiking gear, etc.

“No one would notice if I did this challenge because I’m so boring with my clothes.”

You’re probably right. Our own standards for what’s “weird” aren’t as universal as we think. Most people in my sphere only noticed at the very end of the month, and even then it may have just been because they saw my updates on Instagram. The point is not to get noticed or get attention, the point is to come face-to-face with your own wardrobe.

“I would but I’m traveling/have a work conference/etc.”

Take some cheat days, I know I did. I had a 6-day trip in July where traveling light and re-wearing clothes was a must, so I just didn’t count those days. I still learned a lot during the month and wore through most of my closet.

“I already have to do laundry every week just to have enough clean clothes.”

Do you have to do laundry in order to have enough clean clothes, or just to have enough clean clothes of one category? It’s pretty common to have more shirts than pants, for example, which means you could easily wear through all of your pants all the time, but be skipping over a lot of your shirts. That’s why it’s worth proactively trying!

“I don’t own enough clothes to pull this off!”

I didn’t either. I wore through my entire shoe and bra collections twice. That’s why we made the rule that you can cycle back through any one category once you’ve exhausted it. Remember that people are really bad at self-assessing the volume of stuff they own, so even if you’re positive you don’t own that much, I invite you to go do a physical count. Pull everything out of your drawers and tell me your totals in the comments to prove that you won’t last a week, and I’ll give you a free pass to ignore the whole thing.

“But seriously, I don’t own enough clothes to make it a whole month.”

Could you make it three weeks? Two? I dare you to go as long as possible. I’m not joking when I say you probably have more clothes than you realize, or that I think you can learn something about yourself even if you already have a pretty minimalist wardrobe. A big part of why I did this was because I already felt like I didn’t own much.

“This seems too difficult/complicated.”

You can make the challenge as big or as small as you want, which means it can be as simple or complex as you want. The first time I chose to exclude or be really loose with the rules on pajamas, bras, purses, jackets, and workout clothes. One woman just did the challenge with her lipstick collection and wore a different shade every day. A friend said he wants to do it with just his t-shirts. This challenge is whatever you want it to be.

In summary, whatever your objection is, my response is, “Just give it a try and go for as long as you can.” After all, the worst thing that can happen is you have to end early, and go back to wearing clothes the way you would have worn them anyway.

Happy #WearItAllOctober!

Inbox Zero: Unsubscribe

When I teach classes on helping people get to and maintain Inbox Zero, I will sometimes get a lot of pushback on unsubscribing from things. Here are a few of the most common excuses I hear and why you should ignore them.

1. They’ll just add me back again later

Yes, its true that sometimes you end up being put on the same email lists over and over again. It could happen if you buy another product from the same company, if you sign up for something related, or if your email is on some publicly available list. But just because the problem may return at some point in the future doesn’t mean you have to put up with it in the meantime. You still clean your house even though it will just get dirty again later.

2. It never seems to work – I still get emails from the same company

Rather than having a single, central email list, many companies will have multiple lists based on what info they want to share. One list is for general news, one is for deals and offers, one is for a niche interest, etc. Theoretically these are so people receive the content most relevant to them, but unfortunately most companies start by putting you on every list and waiting for you to self-select out of the ones you don’t like. So maybe you did unsubscribe from the “Offers” mailing list, but you’re still subscribed to the “News” list. It may be annoying when you feel like you’re repeating the same action over and over, but eventually you will make it through each list and stop the onslaught.

3. It’s easier just to delete

In the moment, yes it is easier to just click the trash icon rather than finding the unsubscribe button, getting re-directed to another page where you might have to manually type in your address or uncheck a bunch of boxes, and then going back to delete the original email. But the difference is an extra 15 seconds now in order to never spend 3 seconds hitting the delete button for this company again. Taking the time to unsubscribe pays for itself quickly.

4. If I click unsubscribe they’ll know my address is good and send me more

There was a time when clicking on any link in an unwanted email could cause your address to get used and abused even more. However that’s not really how modern email scams work, and it’s not where the bulk of your unwanted email is coming from. Most of your unwanted email is coming from completely legitimate companies or individuals who are just trying to market themselves and their business. Most are doing so using companies like MailChimp which actively discourage malicious use of people’s email addresses. If you’re still suspicious, just think about the person or company the email came from. Is it really worth it to Target or Macy’s to sell your email to scammers? Or are they just going to auto-remove you from the list exactly as promised, because it’s not worth the negative response if they don’t?

(As an aside, I’ve often heard it repeated that you only have to worry about unsubscribe links that make you type in your own email, not the ones that do it automatically. This actually has more to do with the level of sophistication in their mail campaign program, not anything nefarious.)

5. I’ll just mark it as spam instead

While marking all unwanted emails as spam does generally work, I don’t recommend it because it’s a bit like using a machete instead of a scalpel. You’re relying on your email program to learn what you do and don’t want rather than telling the offending company directly. So your email may not catch everything you want it to, and it may overcorrect and start marking wanted emails as spam by accident. Additionally, if the company sending these unwanted emails changes their send address or mailing program, you may have to re-teach your spam filter that these emails are unwanted. Save the spam button for “Nigerian Princes” and “Cheap Prescription Drugs”.

6. It’s not that big of a problem

It’s easy to dismiss these unwanted marketing emails, or to say you “don’t really see them” and they don’t effect your work. But they do. Anytime your space is filled with something unwanted it effects you and how you live your life. This is especially true if you have any form of notifications set up for your email, such as sounds, buzzing, or badges. Every time you receive an email you get interrupted, and most of the time for no good reason. Even without notifications these unwanted emails are cluttering up your inbox, making it harder to see what’s important. This is especially true if there are some newsletters you actually want to read, because it’s easy to disregard them with everything else.

7. It’s such a big problem there’s no point in trying

Dealing with email, and especially unsubscribing from unwanted email, can sometimes feel futile. But I promise that small changes you make now will compound over time. The more you take the time to hit that unsubscribe button, the more automatic the habit will become. The fewer unwanted emails you get, the more obvious it will be to you when you’re added to new lists, and the more likely you are to keep unsubscribing.

When I working at a real estate brokerage my work email was on many of the same lists that were repeatedly used and sold to marketers and other agents for self-promotion. My flood of unwanted email should have been just as bad as the agents, but it wasn’t. This was because I was ruthless about unsubscribing from every unwanted list starting with the very first offense. This kept my inbox free from unwanted email most of the time, which meant when it appeared it was so obviously out of place that I couldn’t just gloss over it.


Your Mission

  1. Do a search for the word “unsubscribe” in your inbox.
  2. Find one of the worst offenders – either because they send so much or because they consistently send content you find worthless.
  3. Open one of the emails and unsubscribe.
  4. Do a search for that specific offender, most likely by searching for the company name or their email address.
  5. Delete all the existing emails you have from them.
  6. Repeat these steps 4-5 more times.
  7. Bask in a sense of deep satisfaction and revel in your dramatically improved inbox.

Why ‘Spark Joy’ Works, and When It Doesn’t

The popularity of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show “Tidying Up” has exposed more people to her ideas than ever. Because Kondo has such a clear, codified message and a confident way of expressing it, I find that many are happy to take her tactics at face value. Those that don’t tend to ridicule her. Neither side seems to spend much time trying to figure out why she says what she says, or why it works for so many people. Today I’d like to talk about the core tactic of the KonMari method, and why it is so effective.

If you know anything about KonMari, you know that you are only supposed to keep items that ‘Spark Joy’ for you. Kondo asks that you hold each item individually, ask if it sparks joy, and either keep or discard it based on your reaction. Critics of this method don’t like how nebulous and impractical the concept of “sparking joy” is, while supporters appreciate the simplicity of having a single question to always come back to. So why does it work?

Humans can easily jump onto emotional and logical hamster wheels when it comes to our stuff. We get stuck in repeating patterns that lead us to acquire but never remove, and even if we see this as a problem there’s often no clear way out. So when decluttering we use little shortcuts and tricks to help us. I’ve recommended many on this blog, and seen plenty of others work for people. These are things like turning around the hangers in your closet to see what you wear, getting rid of anything you haven’t touched in a year, packing up all your “maybe” items in a box and donating it after three months without opening it. The point of all of these is to get you off the hamster wheel and thinking about your possessions in a new and different way.

Spark Joy is a sledgehammer of a shortcut. It is a high-grade military tank designed to plow right through your excuses and cut to something visceral: does this make me happy or not. It works because it ruthlessly cuts past all of the “I might need it someday” and “this was suchthoughtful gift” and “I’ve been meaning to get back to this” and forces you to think exclusively about the present. Does this item bring you joy right here, right now, in this moment? If not, get rid of it.

Most of the clutter we hold on to is based on clinging to the past, ignoring the present, or being anxious about the future. Kondo’s philosophy breaks up those negative mental pathways and gives you one singular focus above all others. Most people struggle with living in the present and being true to the life they have right now, and the question “Does this spark joy?” pulls them past their struggles and to the issue at hand.

So that’s why it works for most people, most of the time. But the reason I don’t use Kondo’s methods exclusively is that I see occasions when asking if an item sparks joy doesn’t work as intended. The prime example, which Kondo admits to in her book, is that you will invariably go overboard on some items and regret getting rid of them. I know I did when I first read her book and tried her method on my own belongings. She actually predicts you will regret at least three things, and I can personally think of three things I got rid of when using KonMari that I wish I could get back. Kondo’s answer is that her clients find this to be a more than reasonable price to pay, and that having to replace a discarded item only reinforces in them how much they care about it. I didn’t respond in quite that way, as two of my three items weren’t really replaceable. I still accept my three items as a reasonable sacrifice for the huge gains I got in minimizing as a result of her methods. However I don’t feel comfortable asking my clients to make the same sacrifice, which is why I’m more cautious than KonMari normally allows.

A second reason the question of joy may not work for a person is that they struggle to define joy for themselves. Kondo has a very specific order for going through possessions that’s designed to increase your awareness of joy and make it easier to find that feeling. I believe her order is sound and generally works well to train people in the skill of finding joy. But depending on your relationship to certain objects like your clothes or your collectables, you may not respond as well as others. You might also find that outside circumstances make finding joy difficult or interrupt your ability to assess your own emotions accurately. Suffering from depression, dealing with a new job, trying to adjust to an empty nest – these are all things that can distract you away from joy and push you back on to that emotional hamster wheel.

Finally, looking for that spark of joy can be really difficult for certain items. Sometimes the meaning we derive from objects isn’t about joy or happiness. Documents detailing the death of a child. Notes from divorce hearings. Inherited objects from a parent we weren’t on good terms with. The relationships we have with these objects are complicated, and can create concrete walls that even the sledgehammer of Spark Joy can’t get through. Sometimes, the right decision is to get rid of these items and the pain they remind us of. Sometimes it’s not, because beneath the pain is a reminder of the strength we developed as a result. And sometimes it’s just a matter of time and distance. Notes from the divorce hearing may grow more or less important over time depending on the relationship you’ve managed to maintain with your ex. With these items, Spark Joy can’t easily find the heart of the problem, which is why you may struggle to let go even though you can say with certainty that the object doesn’t bring you joy.

Kondo disagrees with the use of smaller shortcuts because they rely on outside judgement about what you should keep, rather than letting the decision come from within. And those other quick fixes have their limitations (sometimes we wear things we don’t actually like, inactivity doesn’t always mean we don’t want something, we love things for irrational reasons, etc). However I employ these shortcuts myself and with clients because I know that they are all still tools, and they can come in handy when implemented in the right way. When you’re working by yourself and aren’t used to thinking critically about your relationships with your belongings, an extremely powerful tool like Spark Joy is really useful. I still recommend it to people all the time. Just remember that no single strategy works perfectly for all people at all times. There’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t make Spark Joy work. You may just need a different set of tools.

Photo via O-Tres Organization

On Journals & Journaling

A few years ago I started to acknowledge that I had a lot of unfinished journals and notebooks. Specifically, I had a number of blank journals, a collection of nearly-full ones, several half-full ones, and too many with only a few pages of ambitious thoughts. I used to carry a journal with me everywhere in high school. I would write down all sorts of things. The journals weren’t for long-form writing as much as collecting. I filled them with quotes and fun combinations of words, ideas for things that ought to exist, and sometimes just the lyrics to a song that was stuck in my head. But I rarely took pen to paper and wrote full sentences like I do on the computer.

The one occasion I specifically remember writing something in full was probably the summer before my senior year. I was in the middle of my first real relationship and I wrote several pages on the general topic of love. I know how dreadful that sounds. I myself have no interest in reading the ramblings of a 17-year-old talking about her ill-conceived notions of love based on her first boyfriend. But I distinctly remember reading over the pages later and thinking it was some of my best work.

Less than two months later, my car was broken into and the journal stolen along with everything else. I was crushed. This was my first real experience as a victim of crime. My first real understanding of the difference between material value and personal value. The thieves couldn’t have gotten much money out of 30 used CDs, but it represented my entire music library. They might have gotten some money from my graphing calculator and maybe even the backpack itself, but they certainly didn’t need the entire Key Club roster that I had spent weeks compiling. And as for my journal, the one that was only a few pages away from being complete and therefore retired to a safe shelf at home, the one with the six-page musing on love that I was exceptionally proud of, that item they most definitely threw in the trash.

I think part of the reason I kept all of those blank and half-filled journals is that I was hoping one day to get that stolen one back. Not literally, of course, I will never get that specific object back. I’ve already grieved for it. But maybe I was waiting for the day when I’d take up journal writing again, and potentially pen a few pages on love. And unlike the lost pages that were most certainly not as good in real life as they become each time I remember them, these pages would be truly fantastic. The whole journal would be fantastic. I would be fantastic.

My unused and half used journals were about potential, and it’s hard to give up on potential. But it was time to acknowledge that I wasn’t that person anymore. I didn’t engage in my creativity that way anymore. At the same time, it felt wasteful to toss perfectly good journals with perfectly good blank pages. So I came up with a different plan.

A few years ago I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which teaches the practice of Morning Pages. Morning Pages are three pages of handwritten journaling you do first thing in the morning. There are no rules, no expectations, and no stopping. You just try to keep the pen going until you’ve filled your pages. I enjoyed the practice and decided it would be a good way to use up my loose journals. I started with the smaller ones since that meant shorter pages, but gradually worked my way up to the full sized spiral notebooks. For the ones that were half-filled I just started where I’d left off. Some only had a dozen or so pages left, and I filled those up too. (As a side note, it was a great way to use up old pens as well.)

When I came to the end of a notebook I set it aside and started on the next. After a few months had passed, I went back to read what I’d written. Enough time had passed that I felt like I could evaluate the writing honestly, but not so much time that I felt nostalgic. If I found something good, I typed it up on my computer in a document dedicated to highlights from my Morning Pages. And then I ripped out those pages and recycled them.

For the pages that I’d filled years before, I read through them looking for anything worth keeping. Much of it was old notes from my college classes and not really worth anything to me anymore. Occasionally I would find something I wanted to keep. I’d rip out the page, scan it, and recycle the original. Very rarely I would find something I wanted to keep in its original paper form, in which case I’d rip it out and add it to my file of paper mementos.

In case you didn’t notice the theme, I ripped apart every single journal once it was full. There’s something ceremonial about destroying a used journal. I often recommend to clients that if they are having trouble with the physical act of tossing a used journal, they should consider burning it or burying it, which are common ways to properly dispose of sacred texts. I kept the full journals from high school and a couple half-full ones from college that have sentimental value. But all the spiral notebooks are gone, as are the cheaper, less attractive journals that I never got around to finishing. What’s left on my shelf now are blank journals that slowly disappear as I fill them up with morning pages and then destroy them a few months later. I’m really looking forward to the day when I have to go out and buy a journal again.

I know that the thought of ripping apart old journals or keeping scans instead of originals is frightening to some people. I get it. Like I said, I kept some of the older ones that were completed in full. But the only thing those half-finished journals did was make me feel guilty for not being the person I was in high school. And that’s silly. Because I’m glad I’m not the person I was in high school. I’m happy that I’ve grown and developed over the years, that I express my creativity differently and use my possessions more wisely. I’m glad that I stopped being the person that feels she needs to start a new journal every few months just because it’s been “too long” since she wrote in the old one. And I’m glad to have that room on my shelf back, free from guilt and ready for new books, new journals, and new ideas.

Your Mission

Take a look at the half-used journals on your shelf. What’s in them? Don’t just assume you know – start thumbing through them. What made you stop writing? What will make you start again? Sorting through journals can take a long time, because you’re likely to want to read through every page and get lost in the memories. If you have a lot of journals to go through, you may be better off setting aside some time every day or every week to thumb through a few. I can’t give you a single, prescriptive answer on what to do next. Each journal is different, as is each writer. All I ask is that you pay more attention to the Future You than the Past You. Take forward into your new life the things that will make you happy. Leave the guilt behind.

Or better yet, burn it.