Over the past few months Marie Kondo’s best-selling book “The life-changing magic of tidying up” has caused quite a stir, driving many people to reassess the piles of clutter they have have stashed around their house which have buried old backstreet boys cds, dodgy handmade halloween costumes and out of date perfume bottles (I confess to all of the above). This book has sparked many conversations amongst my female friends, from the art of how to exactly and precisely fold our underwear (accompanied by some fool-proof tutelage on you-tube) to the revolutionary concept of vertical storage rather than stacking (have you ever thought of the heavy emotional burden that a t-shirt at the bottom of a pile has to carry?!) Kondo’s approach on the surface is about discarding physical items that clutter our living environment, and each person I’ve met that has read the book has described the mass of black bags they have hauled down to the charity shop after attacking their cupboards and wardrobes like a modern day Mary Poppins.
On the surface I generally come across as an organised and neat person. Perhaps something to do with barely reaching 5 foot 2” I don’t usually take up much space (I was nicknamed “Susie in my Pocket” during college by one friend) but it’s also no secret that I do love a good tidying session, and definitely have a few traits of Monica from Friends. Being a stationary nerd growing up I was most likely to be to be found happily organising my pencil case, colour coding my flowery ring-binders or re-writing my notes in pretty colours - anything other than actually studying. Behind the display of perfectly positioned pens and carefully arranged notes I had boxes and drawers overflowing with rejected belongings – dealing with the double shame of being unused and unloved.
I started to appreciate minimal living a bit more when I went on a backpacking trip with my now huband for 6 months around Asia. The ordeal of choosing what to pack was the first lesson, and every item that eventually ended up in my backpack (nicknamed Nigel from a previous trip) was agonised over. However that very quickly disappated as Nigel, Oisin and I danced our way across Asia and I experienced a weightless sense of freedom of carrying everything I needed in one (relatively) small backpack (we’ll ignore the random purchases that snuck in along the way).
Our first destination on that trip happened to be Japan, the capital of tiny, tidy things and Marie Kondo’s home country. I became completely absorbed by Japan in every way, and was fascinated by the peculiar little customs that people have for going about their daily life. If you have visited Japan before it’s easy to understand where Kondo’s philosphy comes from. Apart from everyone and everything being so perfectly pocket-sized and orderly, every object however random, has a purpose and is treated with utter respect. Have you ever thanked your shoes at the end of a long day of walking around? Probably not. It’s common for most people in Japan to believe that innaminate objects have souls and to show gratitude when you use them.
Kon-mari for the Mind
This belief illustrates how Kondo’s concept delves much deeper than simply examining our material belongings. She affirms that “human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time”, but most of us cram objects that we neither love or need into our living space, blocking us from living the life that we truly wish to have. In her words “When your room is clean and uncluttered you have no choice but to examine your inner state … you can only see issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them”.
During my classes I often talk about thoughts that may be taking up too much space in the mind and serve us no purpose or benefit. This “mind-clutter” acts in the same way as the physical clutter that Marie Kondo talks about and can be anything from old ideas and toxic relationships to bad habits and self-criticisms. The same way that we stuff old belongings underneath the bed or on top of the wardrobe, ignoring this mind-clutter is not going to make it go away and it will eventually bubble to the surface, often at a time when we least need it. By acknowledging these uncomfortable thoughts as they occur we are less likely to experience a sudden overwhelming and uncontrollable wave of emotions , the same way a cabinet or wardrobe seems to explode and overflow with objects when we go looking for something in a panic.
Once you start “kondo-ing” your jumbled cupboards and muddled mind more space will open up, allowing you to reflect on what you truly want. The Konmari method, (as it is officially known) essentially encourages us to lead a more mindful life: we can see our thoughts lined up like neat little Muji boxes on shelves, making it easier to accept and aknowledge them as they come and go.
The first step to creating an organised mind is to practise some self-acceptance: like with your personal belongings that slowly accumulate, instead of pushing your thoughts under the bed or stuffing them into boxes, you openly welcome them like a guest at the door (however unwelcome they may be) and say "Ah, here you are". You may not like it initially, but you are bravely acknowledging that they exist. Think of it like a tv license inspector persistently ringing the doorbell - he's going to keep coming back again and again until you eventually open the door, and face him with with smile (or maybe that's pushing it a little?!) The basic lesson is this: there's no point in ignoring it, he'll find a way in eventually. Once you have finally acknowledged your thoughts you can then apply a little bit of Kondo magic by asking: "does this thought have any purpose", "is it bringing me any benefit", or my personal favourite "does it spark joy"? You can then decide if it's maybe time to let that thought go. And that doesn't mean it won't pop up again, it's more than likely it will, but next time it happens you will feel a bit more confident in how to manage it. It sounds like a straightforward process (which it isn't - it takes a lot of practise!) but for a lot of us simply using acceptance alone is not enough to calm a cluttered mind. So we use different techniques, good and bad, to help manage the sea of uncomfortable thoughts. Some of these actually push the uneasy thoughts away further (and that's our old friend "denial"). Rather than using tools to distract us from uncomfortable mind clutter (such as watching tv or drinking alcohol) there are more mindful approaches that acknowlege, accept and deal with the topsy-turvy meanderings of the brain. It can take some time to figure out what works best for you, but these are few tried and tested techniques that a lot of people find helpful.
6 Ways to Declutter a Busy Mind
Write it down
Storing endless lists, thoughts and ideas in your head with nowhere for them to go can be exhausting. The more information you store in your head, the more cluttered your thoughts will feel. Find a way of placing them somewhere externally – either on a piece of paper or on a computer and notice how the volume of your internal chatter slowly starts to turn down. Let your thoughts stream and unravel onto the paper or screen, even if you’re not sure what to write. This process helps to untangle the jumble of thoughts you are having, lightening the burden on the mind in the same way you would empty a heavy backpack. It also places a little bit of order on your opinions, and separates them from any overwhelming emotions you might be experiencing at the same time.
Stemming from positive psychology theory, one of the most effective ways of clearing out mental clutter is to say a simple “thank-you” and appreciate what you have. There are always plenty of things you can give gratitude towards (your health, friends, and your shoes!) but often in the cloudiness of negative thoughts it can be really challenging. In Kondo's words try to think about what "sparks joy" in your life. Take time to reflect on even just one or two positive things each day, and write them down.
Control Media intake
We are all guilty of this one. More and more we are overwhelmed with information presented in every way imaginable which starts to seep in and block our own thought processes. Start paying more attention to your media intake and ask yourself how much it really benefits you.
Move. Sweat. Stretch. Everyone knows it’s good for you so find a form that works for you! I'm obviously a little biased here, but I truly believe that yoga is one of the most holistic ways of looking after stress in both the body and mind.
Being creative is a wonderful way of switching on the mindfulness muscles and bringing about more clarity when we might feel a bit overaccelerated. Being creative can be anything at all: cooking a meal from scratch, dancing around your sitting room, playing an instrument or doing a puzzle. The main objective is that it is something that brings you into a bit more focus, relaxes an overworked brain and ultimately that you enjoy doing!
Breathe and Meditate
Even you only have time for a 3 minutes, set a timer, find a comfortable position, close your eyes and shift your focus to your breathing. Any time you notice your mind wandering off, don’t worry. Simply bring your awareness back to your breath moving in and out of the body.
Both images were produced by me.