How I Finally Won the Fight Against Clutter and Learned to Love Housework: Part 1

Right off the bat I wanted to let you know that I was not paid or perked in any way for writing this post. I bought the book myself and no one asked me to write about this. I just wanted to share my experiences with anyone who will listen because I feel so completely changed by this process. I really hope it helps some of you, too. 

As I sit here writing this, there are exactly two pieces of laundry waiting on me. Yes, I said two. I don’t mean two baskets or two weeks’ worth of laundry; I mean two actual items—the pajamas that each of my two sons wore to bed last night. Every other item of clothing belonging to the members of my household is currently washed, dried, folded and put away.

Whaaa?

I realize this sounds kind of braggy and if you’re sitting there with seven baskets of unwashed/unfolded/yet to be put away clothes in your laundry room, then you’re probably hating me a little bit right now. And I don’t blame you because three weeks ago, I was you. In fact, let me show you a little bit of what my “before” life looked like, in case you don’t believe me. (These photos were taken professionally as part of an ongoing project.)

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was absolutely DONE with housework. It had gotten to the point where I just could not stay on top of the clutter, the laundry, the cleaning, the chores. Every available surface in our home was used as a dumping ground for our clutter: bills, toys, dishes, keys, recycling and dirty clothes; our belongings were stacked and piled absolutely everywhere. In an effort to stay on top of the growing problem, I bought baskets and bins for high traffic areas into which I’d herd things like stray toys and dirty laundry to at least keep them off the floors, tables, chairs and countertops. The bins I bought were full almost immediately. Then piles started forming next to them. I told Adam that I just couldn’t keep it up anymore. I only have an hour or two a day to myself and I was spending all of it cleaning up, only for it to be undone minutes later. It wasn’t worth my time and energy, so I was going to just stop trying. And for a few weeks, I did. I let the dishes pile up higher than usual. I didn’t wash the floors or vacuum the carpets for almost a month. I only washed what items of clothing I needed immediately and left the rest. Our household was like the fish tank in Finding Nemo when the fish try to make it as dirty as possible so the dentist will have to clean it. We were living in our own filth and it was everywhere.

(Does this sound like you? Read on.)

I grew up in an immaculately clean house, so it’s hard for me to let things spin out of control like that for too long. I can ignore it for awhile, but eventually I go on a rampage and tackle everything at once, usually while sighing loudly for all to hear. The problem was that one cleaning session was never going to solve the underlying problem. Our clutter. A friend of mine had told me a month or two before this about a decluttering program she’d done with her family. She talked about how life-changing it had been for them and how much happier they were since they finished. At the time, I was in the middle of finishing my book and not in the right place to embark on such a huge undertaking, so I told her how happy I was for her and then immediately forgot about what she’d said.

A few weeks later, I visited a friend who had recently done the same decluttering program at her house. I had never been to her home before, but when I walked in, I immediately felt calm. Everything was in perfect order; no stray toys or shoes or half-eaten granola bars anywhere. At first, I figured it was because she knew they were having us over and all of the lovely, orderly spaces of their home that were visible were just part of the story. I assumed that, like me, she probably wiped down the countertops, vacuumed the floors and shoved all the random clutter into closets and drawers 10 minutes before we arrived. That’s what everyone does, right?

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Several times during our visit she casually referred to the KonMari Method; just as part of everyday conversation, not as a way to get me on board. When I got home, I started to think about it. Was it actually possible that the way her house looked when we were visiting is the way it looks all the time? If that was truly the case, I needed that book and I needed it fast.

I bought The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on a Wednesday, finished it by Friday and was already implementing the program that night. As I was reading, I got this feeling like I was going to jump out of my skin if I didn’t start right that minute—that’s how much sense the whole thing made to me. Still, I knew I had to finish the entire book before I started anything, so I devoured the rest of it and set to work.

How IFinally Mastered our Family's clutter

If you haven’t heard of the KonMari Method, which is what the book is all about, I’ll give you the basic rundown of it here. The idea is that, unlike other decluttering programs where you focus on what you need to get rid of, with this method you focus on what to keep. Here’s the interesting part: you only keep the things that bring you joy. My friend who first suggested this to me is somewhat of a hippie. She uses cloth diapers and has a yard full of chickens and I think she might even make her own yogurt. So when she told me the crux of this whole, big operation was based on the idea of joy, I was highly skeptical. It seemed a little too crunchy, even for my tastes (and I lived in New Hampshire for years.) But once I read the book and heard about how functional the author’s house and life were as a result, I was willing to put aside my skepticism and go all in. I was in desperate need of a solution and in no position to turn down any potentially worthwhile advice.

That Friday night, I grabbed several trash bags and started in on my clothes, which is the first category of items to declutter. (The author, Marie Kondo states that those who go room by room instead of category by category are doomed to re-clutter. I knew I had to do it right or I’d surely be a repeat offender.) As she suggests, I gathered together every single item of clothing I own from my drawers and closets, bins in the attic, hooks in the entryway, underneath the seats in my car, etc. etc. and brought it all to my bedroom floor. Then, one by one, I held each item in my hands and decided whether it sparked joy within me. I realize you’re probably not sold on this whole joy thing yet and that’s OK. I wasn’t either. But, surprisingly, it took only a few items to find my groove. As I went, I began to realize just how many items of clothing I either don’t wear at all because I hate the way they look or make me feel or only wear because they’re functional (even though I hate the way they look or make me feel.) These things cost me actual money and I hated 90% of them.

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Over the course of a weekend, I tackled clothes, shoes, purses, belts, jewelry, scarves, hats, mittens, coats, lingerie, socks and bathing suits and ended up filling six trash bags with items I no longer even like, nevermind love and look forward to wearing. How insane is that?? All of those clothes were just sitting in my drawers taking up space when I truly loathed most of them. This may sound terrifying to those of you who are on a budget like I am. How do you just get rid of things that you don’t have the money to replace? For one, you can consign your old clothes and try to make some money to buy new items. You can also save up and buy only items that you really love and feel are worth the expense. In the past, I was in the habit of going to relatively inexpensive stores like Old Navy or Kohl’s and stocking up on three or four plain, boring long-sleeved shirts in various colors just because it was quick and easy. I didn’t actually like any of them, but with that money, I could’ve bought one really beautiful shirt that I truly wanted to wear. Now that I only own things I love, I will be much more selective in the future about what I let join my wardrobe. (Come winter I’ll be in trouble though, since I got rid of every single sweater I own. That’s not an exaggeration.)

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Note: Kondo has a very specific style of folding clothes that I will fully admit I haven’t done yet. Not because it doesn’t make sense to me (it totally does) but because some of my drawers literally have four shirts left in them and I can easily see everything that’s available to me. If you still have a lot of clothes leftover, I would highly recommend using her clothes-folding system. If you find yourself unsure how to do it after just reading her description, search on YouTube for videos of people folding using the KonMari Method.

Next up was books. I thought I’d have a hard time with this one because, as a writer, I am also a huge book lover. Kondo cautions that keeping books that you might read or re-read is a trap. She urges readers to think hard about which books from their collections they will truly read in the future or read again and get rid of the rest. I wish I’d counted, but I would estimate that my book count totaled somewhere in the 150+ range. What you see on this shelf is all I kept.

I donated six huge bins of books and then my husband got rid of three bins of his own. I’ve read almost every book I discarded and, at one time, most of them brought me a good amount of joy. But would I re-read them? I knew I wouldn’t. The titles I kept are ones I’ve read several times and know I will revisit again or are books that have proven practical for my writing career. As Kondo says, if someday I realize that I would really love to re-read a book I discarded, I will search for it on Amazon and download it in 13 seconds. It’s that simple.

Now on the third phase, I found things getting markedly easier. My husband, Adam, is the financial person in our household, so he and I went through the papers together. He’s all about saving things just because they might be useful someday, so I urged him to take Kondo’s advice into account when he was deciding what to keep: hang onto only that which will be needed in the short term (in the case of a receipt for an item that must be returned within 90 days) or that which is absolutely crucial to keep long term (in the case of the deed to your house or your car loan paperwork.) He tossed old manuals we could now find online, expired receipts, taxes from our college years, bank statements we could also find online and many, many other papers that we’d never need to reference again. What we kept fits in one small file box and is organized into labeled folders. Now when I need to access Sam’s birth certificate or the contract for our rental property, I can find them quickly and easily instead of wading through a huge stack of unrelated papers to find the one I need.

Since the next category was komono, which is Japanese for miscellaneous, I decided to tackle office items first because we were already in there doing the papers. We have a small home office, but for the first year that we lived in this house, it was simply used as a dumping ground for all manner of things, some related to office work and some not. I also had a giant tote bin filled with office items from our first home’s much larger office that never fit into our current office. In my early 20s, I had gone through an experimental crafting phase and had held onto all manner of card-making supplies, rubber stamps, glue dots, ribbon and a million other things I haven’t used in the last five years. All but two rolls of tape from that bin were trashed. Fighting my urge to organize (Kondo is very clear that organizing must come AFTER decluttering,) I herded all the remaining items into our one small set of drawers and left it to deal with later.

Don't mind my note to myself. I'm practicing putting my intentions into the universe. Or something like that.

Don’t mind my note to myself. I’m practicing putting my intentions into the universe. Or something like that.

I decided to tackle kitchen items next, starting with the pantry. Since we’re constantly replenishing the items kept there, I figured I’d have very few extraneous things to toss.

I was wrong.

I threw out a whole garbage bag’s worth of expired food, teas I don’t drink, rotting onions that were lost behind boxes and bags and huge boxes of disposable utensils that we buy for every single party, forget we have and then buy more of the next time. I didn’t discard many actual kitchen appliances, but did find that there were a lot of duplicate items I’d never need several of at a time. For instance, I discovered that I had exactly six pie plates. I kept two and figured if I ever have a reason to make more than two simultaneously, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Same with bread pans, pizza pans, cheesecake pans and skewers (of which I had 36.) I did the same with my formal dishes and serving pieces in the dining room and realized there were quite a few things I never used in there, despite hosting parties often. With more space in the drawers, cabinets and pantry, I now had room for items I use often but always keep buried behind less used items. Everything is so accessible now and unloading the dishwasher is a breeze because every single item has a place to go.

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After this I moved onto bathroom items. This included cosmetics, medicines, lotions and sunscreens, hair care products, linens and other grooming products. There is nothing emotional about bathroom items, so the discarding was quick and easy. Expired medicine? Gone. Old, dried up nail polish? Gone. Makeup I never wear? Gone. I won’t say that Adam’s contact solution brings me joy, but I’m happy he can see, so we did keep the practical stuff in there. Linens were similarly easy and quick. We had tons of sheet sets we never use, towels from old sets we never liked and more tablecloths than a family could ever need. Since the boys have their own bathroom, I put all of their stuff together and segregated it from our stuff. In both bathrooms, the majority of the drawers and cabinet space underneath the sink are unused since we got rid of so much and only kept what we really need and use.

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Next was cleaning supplies. I’ve always been pretty good at keeping those stored in one place (a small coat closet next to our kitchen) so that was also painless. I threw out bottles of things we don’t use, decluttered the closet of other items that aren’t related to cleaning and freed up space for all of our brooms, dustpans, mops and the central vacuum hose. Now the closet houses all of our cleaning products and everything is totally accessible for easy use.

Planning to get a set of hooks to hang the mops and brooms on.

Planning to get a set of hooks to hang the mops and brooms on.

The last of the komono before tackling the attic, garage and basement was the kids’ stuff. I put this off until the end because I was dreading it. They both have tons of toys they don’t use, clothes that neither of them will wear again and just huge amounts of STUFF everywhere in our house and cars. We have a playroom where the majority of their toys and books are kept, so I decided to start there. As I was going through their toys, I realized just how many they never even play with. I’m talking about the little throwaway toys people give kids for random occasions that they never actually need in the first place.

Chase loves trucks and is given them often by friends and family (we almost never buy the kids anything because they get so much from other people) so I donated/consigned some of the little ones he never plays with and kept several bins full of ones I know he really loves. I removed things like LEGOs that he’s not quite old enough for yet and retired some items to the attic that he’s outgrown but Sam is not yet old enough to use. They still have what I would consider a lot of toys, but everything has a place to go and get this: they’re actually playing with their toys now. Before the decluttering, Chase would go in the playroom, throw a bunch of things on the floor and leave 30 seconds later. For the past several weeks, he’s been actually playing in his playroom for hours each day. I had no idea that this would be a result of the decluttering since Kondo doesn’t touch on tackling kids’ stuff at all, but I’ve been totally thrilled with this fringe benefit.

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I did their clothes next and, I’ll fully admit, that was a bitch. We’re not sure whether we’re going to have a third child someday, so I was saving all these clothes for a potential third member of our family that could realistically be a girl and never wear any of the boy clothes we currently have. I didn’t want to get rid of everything, so I went through each bin and donated or consigned anything I thought was past its prime (we buy almost all our clothes used so some of these items had been worn even before our two boys wore them) or that I just plain didn’t like and knew I’d never dress the kids in. Then whatever was left I organized by size and season so that when Sam or a third child is moving into a particular size, I can check and see if I have it, then donate whatever is in the bin if those clothes aren’t needed.

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Since I was up there getting the boys’ clothes, I started on everything else in the attic next. We moved to our current house about a year and a half ago and got rid of quite a bit of stored items then, so we didn’t have a ton up there. Still, there were a lot of disorganized holiday decorations, outgrown kids’ toys and various sentimental items that needed to be weeded through. Kondo is very specific that anything sentimental (notes, pictures, cards, etc.) need to go last because they take so much time, so I set that stuff aside for another day. The rest was pretty quick but did require me to take everything downstairs, assess what we owned, discard and re-organize. It ended up being a full day project just because of all the steps required to finish.

Last before sentimental items was the garage and basement, which I was dreading. I did most of the other areas of the house by myself while Adam took care of the kids or did other house projects but I knew I needed him to tackle the remaining two areas since most of the items there were his: tools, yard maintenance items, car maintenance items, etc. We live in the house I grew up in after my parents moved away and we moved back several years later, so we also had some of their stuff to contend with. (I threw out a bottle of Armor All from the year I was born. I wish I’d taken a picture of that one.) The garage went surprisingly fast. It was very cluttered and not the least bit functional before, but there wasn’t that much actual stuff in there. We tossed a few bags of things, but mostly just organized what we needed to keep with a new shelving system and some wall hooks.

The basement was also fairly quick since we decluttered that several months ago. Still, I found myself negotiating with Adam about things he’s owned for years that I really don’t know anything about, so I decided to leave him to weed through his own things in peace without me breathing down his neck. He still needs to organize his tools, but in general, the basement is very functional now.

Last came the sentimental stuff. I knew this one would be hard because I am an admitted hoarder of sentimental things. I keep every card, note and photo ever given to me by anyone and I had the bins upon bins of that stuff to prove it. Since I was done with everything else and my parents were watching the kids for the day, I let myself take my time with the sentimental things. I read every note, laughed and cried a few times and bid farewell to a lot of it. Adam and I are high school sweethearts, so we have a ton of memories I wanted to preserve for our kids to look through someday. I kept almost all of that. What I didn’t keep were cards in which people just signed their names and let Hallmark do the rest of the talking, duplicate photos, old Christmas cards and notes from people who are no longer in our lives for whatever reason. What I ended up with is one medium sized box divided into lovey stuff from Adam and I, photos, cards and one stack of Christmas cards from last year when many of my readers sent cards to me through the mail. For those, I took the advice of one of my readers and punched a hole in each one, then put them on a ring so I could keep them all together.

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Now that I’ve weeded through all of those sentimental items and have them in one accessible place, I can easily grab the box when I want to locate a specific picture or just take a trip down memory lane. It actually feels like I’m doing a service to all those photos and notes having only the most special ones stored together in one place where they can be relived often instead of stashed out of sight in the attic. 

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All of that was done over the course of two weeks. My parents came to watch the boys during both weekends, so we had four solid days to dedicate to just decluttering. During those two weeks, I did little else with my free time: I ate, slept and breathed KonMari. I realize for many people, this isn’t possible and it may take (much) longer to accomplish. I’m also only 28 so I don’t have several decades of stuff to wade through. I figured I’d still give you an idea of the time frame on my personal decluttering so you can figure out what’s realistic for your family.

This is only the first part of the book. The second part tackles the actual organization of your house once all the joyless items are gone. Since this post is already super long (if you’ve stuck with me this far, I give you major props!) I’m going to deal with the organizing part tomorrow. Here’s what I’ll cover in that post:

  • Tips for organizing your newly decluttered house
  • How KonMari makes housework a breeze
  • Fringe benefits of KonMari-ing
  • Establishing a manageable cleaning schedule

Hop over and check out the second post here (because that’s really where the good stuff is.)

Crazy love,

Melissa
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Melissa Mowry

Melissa Mowry is a stay at home mom to 3 year old Chase and the slightly younger guy, Sam. She is the main voice behind One Mother to Another, which she started in July 2014 as a way to connect with other moms who felt just as lonely as she did some days. She is married to her high school sweetheart, Adam, and they live in their home state of Rhode Island. Melissa's work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Mamalode, Coffee + Crumbs and Mamapedia, among others. Her book, One Mother to Another: This Is Just Between Us is for sale on Amazon.
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8 Responses to How I Finally Won the Fight Against Clutter and Learned to Love Housework: Part 1

  1. Sarah March 30, 2016 at 8:45 pm #

    Oh, wow! I am inspired. I have seen this book and been interested. I may have to make this my April project because my house is out of control!

  2. Tory March 30, 2016 at 11:39 pm #

    I bought this book quite some time ago and only read the first chapter or two and now it’s gathering dust on my bedside table. Must pick up again as I know initially I felt motivated reading it. Unfortunately I have over 20 years of junk collected along with piles of the teens things from when they decide to declutter and dump in my zones. It’s nice to read about someone who has found success in this book. Now to get reading again.

  3. Caroline March 31, 2016 at 10:37 am #

    Wow, this looks fantastic. I’m always shocked with the amount of stuff we have when we start attempting to sort out. This approach sounds so good and methodical.

  4. Melissa March 31, 2016 at 9:13 pm #

    Wow, what a great thorough review! I picked up this book because I am moving soon and we move every few years for my husband’s job, so having clutter is just weighing me down, literally. We are moving overseas this time so I was really able to get on board with keeping only things that I want to actually pay to ship over and ocean. Talk about motivation! It’s hard though because I JUST had our first kid, so we have literally a giant basket of stuffed animals, tons of toys that she never plays with, etc. I was super disappointed that Marie didn’t talk about how to go about children’s items at all, but I guess she probably doesn’t have kids?

    I did do this whole KonMarie process but was not as judicious with clothes and a lot of items as I should be because we move often. I am from a cold state but moving to an island. So if I visit home again, I need sweaters, but I won’t need them where I am about to move to. It’s hard to want to get rid of the seasonal clothes that I know at some point I’ll have to use again or just spend more money to replace. I also just realized that I totally missed some items like scarves or a random bag full of books that I forgot about. I was doing a lot of this during nap time though so I was trying to hurry and think I just missed some stuff. I’d really love to redo it all once we move again.

    Excited to read part two!

  5. Jean April 3, 2016 at 10:21 pm #

    I was told about this system/theory last year but never knew the author or title of the book. Thank you! 😁 I have always been very tidy and organized in the past buy have recently hit a wall of frustration. I can’t wait to utilize the ideas and get back my piece of mind!

  6. Sarah April 10, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    We are about to love to another state in August, so it seems like the perfect time to take this on. Thanks for sharing!

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