I recently wandered across a review of the New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Within moments, I bought the Kindle version and within hours, I had read it cover to cover, decided I needed a minimalist wardrobe and set to it. Aly found me that evening surrounded by a storm of strewn garments and trash bags, muttering to myself.
(This happens often. When I find an idea I like, I take to it immediately and wholly with little regard to what consequences such a decision would have to my day-to-day reality.)
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is built on a simple idea: that decluttering your home happens only once and definitively, by discarding all possessions you do not need. To determine which items to keep or discard, one must hold or touch each item and answer honestly, “Does this item bring me joy?” If the answer is yes, keep it and assign it a space within your home – any other answer means you must discard it, either by trashing, donating, or selling the item. This process is called the KonMari method.
The KonMari Method is built on the premise that you should only keep those items in your possession that bring you pure unadulterated joy, and discard the rest. The possessions you keep must then be assigned a ‘home’ within your home – a place or space where it will reside when not in use. Thus if you ever remove the object from its home, it must be brought back. And if you come into possession of new objects, the same two steps must be followed – ask yourself does this object bring me joy? and then if it does, designate a new home for it. This way you only have to truly tidy up once, ever.
You may be thinking, what about bills? Heirlooms and gifts? Extra towels for guests? Marie Kondo has an answer for everything. She reasons with you like a stern nanny, telling you what you need to hear, often times ignoring what you want to.
Needless to say, in regards to my wardrobe alone (not counting the rest of my home), I produced four 13-gallon trash bags full of clothing to donate and sell, and another such bag for shoes alone. To say my closet was considerably lighter would be an understatement. I had left myself with about 40 pieces of clothing, including shoes and accessories, with about two of each kind of garment – two long sleeved shirts, two short sleeved shirts, two sleeveless shirts, two dresses, two workout pants etc, etc.
The next couple of weeks flew by. I attended a birthday party, a two-day engagement party, a BBQ, a graduation and spent nearly every evening at my local jamat khana (church). I had long hours at work, three days volunteering at a local elementary school, a couple of work happy hours, and I worked out 5 days each week. Through all of that, I never once had trouble getting ready or picking out what to wear. I never once missed my discarded clothing or regretted my decision.
In fact, in the past month, I was astonished to find:
No one noticed. Not a single person in the last month has noticed my repeated outfits. No one knew I’d worn the same handful of tops all month with the same two cardigans and the same two pairs of pants (one of them jeans) in various combinations. This is a matter I’m very self-conscious about. I was admittedly fearful of the idea of someone noticing I was wearing the same things and passing a comment. The fact that no one did, and frankly, no one could care less, was refreshing.
I felt better about myself, physically and emotionally. I was only wearing a handful of my clothes prior to clearing out my closet. After wasting a significant amount of time looking through all my options, I’d select the same tried and true articles again and again. I constantly struggled with my self-image – putting on the rarely worn garments and lamenting on how I didn’t fit in them, or they made me look lumpy, before changing back into my usual picks. The strewn clothes on the floor after such difficult decision-making drove me nuts, and I hated having to pick them all up and put them back on hangers. I’ve had occasions where I’ve chucked a shirt or dress across the room in frustration. I had no idea how much time and energy was going into this daily process, or how much negativity about myself (ugh how can I look so disgusting in this?), my possessions (who the hell makes such restrictive pants?! I hate these!), and my home (I need a bigger closet, this isn’t enough!) I was generating. It was only when I downsized my wardrobe and experienced a complete lack of these instances that I realized how much lighter I felt. I got dressed in two minutes rather than twenty. As soon as I took off my work clothes I hung them where they belonged and got into my home clothes. No pants on the floor. No clutter. It dawned on me that all the clothing I was left with, no matter how few, were items that did bring me joy – I loved how they looked and felt and fit. This obvious fact was news to me. I only possess clothes I love to wear. What a novel idea!
Decluttering my closet decluttered my mind. The thoughts once occupied with “What do I wear?” and “How do I look?” and their subsequent lamentations that followed, now had time and space to turn to other inquiries: “Can I get in a yoga sess before work?” “How about we meet earlier and catch up before the dinner party?” “Perhaps I could write a blog post on mindful eating?” “Will Tyrion meet the Queen of Dragons?!” In addition, I feel this has reduced my “decision fatigue”. Every morning, we have a set amount of decision-making abilities that is utilized throughout our day. This is why we often make the worst decisions by the end of the day when we’re exhausted and fatigued from deciding what was needed earlier in the day. Thus, minimizing decisions needed for other parts of our life saves our decision-making skills for more important things (i.e deciding what to wear vs. decision whether to work out or what to write). This is why Steve Jobs always wore the same thing day after day – he simply didn’t want to waste time thinking about it!
In the larger scope of things, this idea of limiting my wardrobe evoked an epiphany.
Limiting my wardrobe had, in many ways, liberated me.
Could this idea of “liberation in limitation” be applied to other aspects of my life?
Could I use it to truly enrich my life?
The answer, I was surprised to find, was: it already had.
Now before you go rolling your eyes about me bringing up my vegan diet again, hear me out. Let’s be real. Going vegan – going whole-food vegan – is no easy task. You do feel limited, if only initially. This new lifestyle is a vast departure from everything you’ve ever known or done. It creates a rift, a divide between you and your past self, your loved ones, your traditions, your social navigations. This is a difficult and oftentimes painful process. Like downsizing your wardrobe, downsizing your diet can be daunting. You no longer have the safety net of familiarity you once did. BUT, it is also a vastly enriching experience.
Since going whole foods, plant-based vegan, I have: far less bloating, more restful sleep, less general fatigue and more energy, a bearable and normalized menstrual cycle, no constipation and frequent motions, clear skin, shiny hair and strong nails. My mental focus has improved tremendously. I am no longer pre-diabetic, I rarely get sick and if I do I heal fast, and I recover faster from heavy workouts. Within the confines of this diet, I’ve learned to detect nuanced ingredients and subtle flavors, to recognize quality foods and use them to heal myself. I no longer emotionally eat or feel guilty for having an extra dessert or too many carbs, and I finally understand and take the time to really savor the process of eating and nourishing my body.
Knowing my thoughts and actions are aligned in my belief that no animal should be harmed for my benefit is the icing on the cake. There is a genuine peace in that, and I value it far more that I value the taste of a cheeseburger or the comfort of consuming the same foods my family does. I would have been unable to have these results and realizations by eating the way I used to: whatever I pleased.
Similarly, I would have never realized how much self-hate I was generating with an excessive wardrobe that did me no favors, or recognized what styles I loved, or noticed how much time, energy, and money I was wasting when I hadn’t limited my wardrobe. I wouldn’t have gained the same kind of self-assurance or confidence I have now that my personality speaks louder than my clothes.
You may think this excessive, too drastic a change, but consider the why and how of it:
Why and how are limitations beneficial?
Limitations foster focus and understanding. I can tell you 20 different uses for coconut oil. I now know what nutritional yeast, rhubarb, and psyillium husk are. I can tell you when polyester would be more useful than cotton, and how to pack the lightest, tightest suitcase you’ve ever seen. Having a limited scope forces you to focus on the options that are available to you, and learn more about them.
Limitations foster discipline and self-control. I’ve always had trouble making decisions. I sway when the wind blows. I’ve been told various times that I lacked a certain conviction. Placing limitations on myself allows me a sense of direction, and provides a stance to which I can adhere. It also lessens my decision fatigue, as mentioned earlier, in that I know I have limited options to choose from. Standing firm in my diet and my wardrobe (among other things) prevents me from reaching for that appealing, processed ice cream or for that far too expensive pair of shoes I know will give me blisters. This self-affirmation overflows into other aspects of my life where I am more apt at developing and sticking to my beliefs. This is so very important to me.
Limitations foster adaptability and flexibility. I know how to dissect a menu when I go to a steakhouse with friends.When you can no longer eat meat or have dairy, you find creative substitutes. Tofu and seitan provide the chewy texture you miss. Coconut yogurt pairs with your morning granola. Cashews find their way into every creamy concoction. When you have only one black dress shirt and one white dress shirt, you find new ways to spice them up with various accessories, make up, and jewelry. I know how to wear the same things five different ways. These skills have developed from limited options and availability. I travel often, and when I do, I’m not surrounded by my usual comforts. Even so, I am confident in my ability to adapt to new cultures and gastronomies, and be flexible when what I wish to eat or wear or do is unavailable.
Limitations foster creativity and innovation. From the ability to adapt stems the ability to innovate, to come up with creative solutions to problems that arise from limitations. For example, Aly’s mom loves making samosas – usually made of beef. Everyone in our family enjoys them and I did too at one point. She always wishes I would eat them now, and of course I refuse. Recently, I stumbled across an Asian-inspired crumbled tofu recipe that functioned as a variation of scrambled eggs. I thought, why not use that as a filling for samosas? So mom and I experimented, pressed and crumbled tofu, and marinated it in all the usual samosa spices, green onions, chilies, cilantro, etc, then wrapped the stuffing in the samosa pastry. When they come out piping hot from the fryer the result is incredible. Golden crispy on the outside and perfectly spiced and chewy on the inside, just like ground beef. Mom and I high-fived we were so thrilled with our experiment! This idea of making new associations within set boundaries has been true in all aspects of my life, including making art. When I have too many options I fail to be creative, to make any thought-provoking move. Within limitations, however, I find that I draw new connections, coming up with more creative and compelling ideas.
Limitations can evolve into lifestyles. When we practice our limitations everyday, they become a habit, and soon they are no longer limitations but simply our way of life. The beautiful thing about self-limitations is that they are self-imposed and are subject to change. My journey into veganism began with a 30-Day challenge and mild curiosity, just to see if I could do it. It was a simple short-term self-imposed limitation that opened a whole new world for me. Likewise, I’ve adopted various other challenges: to drink more water, to meditate, to practice yoga simply to attempt to create a habit out of these things I wish to have in my life. To turn down coffee, or soda, or alcohol in favor of water may seem limiting at first – but what have a I gained from it? A daily habit of ensuring I’m hydrating enough, even if I do indulge in other drinks.
Tidying up my closet is a small part of the puzzle. I wanted a clean room, and I wanted to save time, effort and money. By down-sizing my wardrobe, limiting myself to a smaller selection and preventing myself from obtaining new additions, I’ve achieved some semblance of those goals.
I believe self-limitation is the key to unlocking the life you truly want for yourself. It’s about forcing yourself into a box so that you can focus and discipline yourself into creating a better version of yourself – one that can adapt to new situations, innovate on the spot, and do so with the grace of understanding.
“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”
…and you have the tools to create it.