Tidying Up Your Life for the New Year

Quick: what is America's #1 New Year's resolution? That's a no-brainer: it's "lose weight," of course. But what do you think ranks #2 on the list? This one's not so obvious. It's "get organized."

When I first learned that so many people crave organization, I was surprised. But when I thought about it, I realized it makes perfect sense. What people actually seek is control: over their lives, their opportunities, their environment, and the people around them. So many of us--especially those who are going through monumental (perhaps unwanted or unpleasant) changes in our lives like separation and divorce--feel helpless, stuck in situations not of our own choice. This leads to a victimized, "poor me" mindset that prevents us from accepting change and moving forward. And that's not where we want to be in the New Year!

Instead, resolve to start the year off on the right foot, by engaging in what professional organizer and best-selling author Marie Kondo calls the "life-changing magic of tidying up."

I'm not sure where I first heard about Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but I packed it as reading material when I left for a 2-week trip that was part of a month-long trial separation from my husband. Perhaps, like those pledging to become more organized in the New Year, I subconsciously wanted to gain control over a situation that was causing me nearly unbearable anguish. While Ms. Kondo's book is ostensibly about getting rid of the actual physical clutter in your home, she fervently believes that an unwieldy junk heap of clothes, books, coffee mugs, and unsorted papers is really a visual manifestation of a chaotic, unsettled mind. That's why she confidently promises that if we follow her time-tested KonMari organization method, our lives will literally be changed forever and for better.

In the introduction to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Kondo writes: "My clients always sound so happy, and the results show that tidying has changed their way of thinking and their approach to life. In fact, it has changed their future...Basically when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don't, and what you should and shouldn't do."

If you're someone who is trying to triumph over the stress, pain, and uncertainty of divorce, the ability to distinguish between what you need and what you don't, to determine which path to take, and to "put your house in order" in every meaning of the phrase, sounds like a heaven-sent gift, doesn't it? Maybe there's more to this tidying thing than we originally thought. Perhaps it has applications that transcend the obvious.

So, what is Kondo's "magic" secret? It's deceptively simple: surround yourself only by the things you love.

Here are 5 things I learned from Kondo's book that will help you create a more satisfying and optimistic post-divorce life. (Along with the benefits of a clutter-free home).

  1. Own your own mess. Kondo writes: "Let's imagine a cluttered room. It does not get messy all by itself. You, the person who lives in it, make the mess." Similarly, you have had an active role in the creation of your own life. Yes, I know: things have happened that you didn't want to happen. People have done you wrong. Things haven't turned out the way you'd planned. But it's your life. Once you begin taking responsibility for yourself, making decisions based on your personal values and desires--including what to keep and what to discard--you will gain the confidence that comes with being in charge. In Kondo's words: "It is by putting one's own house in order that one's mind-set is changed."

  • Let go of the past; embrace the future. Here's another Kondoism: "When we really delve into the reasons for why we can't let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future." While Kondo is referring to household objects, for those going through a divorce, a psychological attachment to the past and a paralyzing fear of the future are one's everyday companions. We're scarred by the bad things that have happened and we're terrified of having to survive on our own. But here's the deal: like a trapeze artist who has to let go of the first swing in order to grab hold of the next, we have to let go of past hurts and setbacks if we are to take advantage of new opportunities. In decluttering terms, the past is like those paisley pants that seemed like a good idea at the time, but look ridiculous on you now. They're not bringing you joy. So toss 'em.
  • Visualize your destination. What do you want your future to look like? Don't start discarding parts of your life until you figure it out. "To start discarding without thinking ahead at all would be like casting yourself into the negative spiral of clutter," writes Kondo. "Instead, begin by identifying your goal...Before you start getting rid of things, take the time to think this through carefully. This means visualizing the ideal lifestyle you dream of. If you skip this step, not only will it delay the whole process, but it will also put you at higher risk for rebound."
  • So before you quit your job, ditch your friends, or give up your rent-controlled apartment, stop and think about what you really want. Too many choices can be as much of a problem as too few, so declutter your priorities. Make a list of what matters to you, along with a 5-year plan outlining where you want to go personally and professionally. Figure out the action steps that will get you there. If at some point you decide something's not working, revise the plan. It's OK to change your mind.

  • Accentuate the positive. Focus on what you want to keep (things that bring you joy), not what you want to discard. Kondo recommends picking up each item, examining it closely, and asking yourself, "Does this spark joy?" If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. Let's say you bought a very expensive designer dress 5 years ago, but you never wear it because it doesn't really suit you. It's too tight, or too baggy, or the color makes you look washed out. But you hang on to it because it cost you so much money. Get rid of it. That dress is taking up physical space in your closet and psychic space in your mind that could be put to better use. Likewise, there may be people and obligations in your life that, although they made sense in the past, no longer serve you. Even something worthwhile, like volunteering at a school, may be taking you away from new, equally worthwhile endeavors that are a better fit for you now that your circumstances have changed. You'll be left with activities and people that make you feel worthwhile and fulfilled.
  • Trust your heart. Sometimes it's hard to part with something (or someone) that is no longer meaningful or useful because we wish we could return to a time when things were different. Kondo writes: "When it comes to selecting what to discard, it is actually our rational judgment that causes trouble. Although intuitively we know that an object has no attraction for us, our reason raises all kinds of arguments for not discarding it, such as 'I might need it later' or 'It's a waste to get rid of it.'" If you instead use Kondo's criterion of keeping only what sparks joy in your life, it becomes easier to overcome the attachment to things (and people) that are dragging you down.
  • Family photos are a particular challenge, because of the memories they evoke. Kondo urges us to "cherish who you are now," since photographs exist "only to show a specific event or time" (i.e., the past). So, what to do with that yellowing wedding album? Again, trust your heart. If you have children, perhaps pass it along to them as a piece of their history. If it still brings you joy, keep it. If it causes you a lot of pain, get rid of it and don't look back.

    Final Thoughts
    It boils down to this: "There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions: Face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die," writes Kondo. The same can be said of life's challenges. If you truly want to transform your life, now is a good time to start.

    I hope this article spurs you to think about new ways to move forward with your life and to embrace new opportunities as we gratefully greet the New Year. (And good luck with the weight loss).