I Tidied My House, and It Really Did Change My Life

The challenge of minimalism is discovering who you are when you're not hiding behind stuff

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Illustration: A living room with items cut out of it.
Illustration. Credit: Roei Regev / Popperfoto / Getty Images IL
Yael Hallak
Yael Hallak

We moved to the United States in mid-2017 from a small, old house in a moshav in the center of Israel. Our three boys shared one room (which was completely taken up by their beds); the baby slept in our room. A desk in the cramped living room was our home office. The crowded kitchen was also the dining room (just five places to sit, but the baby didn’t seem to mind). We loved the house, with its high, light-filled windows and the big lawn outside.

Before moving, we packed the whole house – clothes, books, toys, even kitchen utensils and two mattresses – and shipped it all off in a container to our new home. We boarded a plane and arrived one fine, sunny August morning at our new suburban American domicile, which was bigger and more spacious than we’d imagined.

And then, jetlagged and with four children on summer vacation, we went shopping. We went from floor to floor in infinitely large furniture stores, trying to navigate our way back to the dresser we thought would be appropriate, and discovering that one of the boys had fallen asleep on a sofa in the middle of the display area, and that a blonde woman was looking at him and reporting to her husband, “That must be a comfortable sofa!”

We bought beds and sofas, dining tables and desks, office chairs and dining chairs and chairs for the children’s drawing table. We bought cutlery and new sets of dishes and cups, and all the electric equipment needed in the kitchen (we couldn’t forgo a blender and a mixer). We bought wine glasses and beer glasses and margarita glasses and all kinds of other glasses whose purpose I’m still not sure about, but in our new house we had a small bar and we filled the glass shelves above it.

We weren’t alone in this prolonged shopping spree. The average American home contains about 300,000 items, three times as many as there were 50 years ago, according to the Consumer Federation of America. One out of every 10 people rents space in a storage facility. With 50,000 of those facilities around the country – huge storerooms covering vast areas – this has become one of the fastest growing markets in the real estate industry in recent decades.

A month after we arrived, when it seemed momentarily that the frequency of daily shipments from Amazon Prime was diminishing and that we had managed to overcome the stacks of cartons, three guys knocked on the door and announced merrily, “Ma’am, your container is here!” Somewhat less merry, I sent them with the 60 sealed crates down to the basement.

In the end, the crates were also unpacked, the closets filled up, all the children’s toys filled the basement, and the paperwork (even back in Israel we weren’t sure why we were keeping it) returned to its place in a three-drawer cabinet from Ikea. We felt at home.

But once the house was full, we could not but acknowledge that the mess had also returned in full force. At the end of an afternoon in the playroom, it was impossible to carve a path on the carpet, between scattered boxes of cards, half-built Lego structures, open books and dolls’ accessories. The closets in the children’s room were bursting with clothes; to pull out the right shirt for the child standing next to me, I had to hold the rest of the clothes with my other hand so they wouldn’t fall on me. The kitchen sink kept filling up with dirty dishes. The children threw their coats, hats and gloves on the floor in the foyer, along with shoes, schoolbags and random pieces of paper they felt a need to remove from their binders. With four children, we could barely make our way to the car.

So much mess. Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on unnecessary items – things that by definition really are not needed. According to the Consumer Federation, 99 percent of the things that people in North America buy are thrown out within six months of the purchase. The house-organizing industry has a turnover of about $8 billion, having doubled itself since 2000 and continuing to grow by 10 percent a year. Americans are drowning in their own stuff.

Many, however, have had enough. In the face of ongoing buying binges, a wave of Americans are now opting out of the acquisition game. The “minimalists,” as they style themselves, are men and women, mostly in the 25-54 age bracket, who want to get off the speeding buy-buy-buy train and tighten their grip on their consciousness and their wallet. They don’t want to reorganize everything they’ve already bought; they do want to throw out everything that’s worthless and start over, feeling lighter. They are young mothers who choose to buy relatively few toys and report that instead of kids becoming frustrated when confronting of a mountain of playthings, they are able to concentrate for long periods. Other minimalists are single young men who want to travel around the world with their belongings in a backpack (which in some cases is everything they own).

Marie Kondo, at work. Credit: Ten Speed Press / AP

The phenomenon has made its way from the loopy fringes of America to almost every home thanks to Marie Kondo, Japanese author of the best sellers “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” (2014) and “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up” (2016), which have together sold some 10 million copies in 40 countries. Kondo, who wants us to remove from our life every last thing that doesn’t bring us happiness, was chosen a few years ago as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. With advisers trained by her in 23 countries and a new series of her own on Netflix, Kondo has become an empire of home reorganization.

I became acquainted with minimalism from a book I borrowed from the library, titled “Goodbye, Things” (2017). I had no idea what kind of rabbit hole I would be sucked into from the moment I started to read. The idea of minimalism, writes the author, Fumio Sasaki, is an “attempt to reduce the things that aren’t essential so we can appreciate the things that really are precious.”

Sasaki relates that in the past he had amassed a large number of books, souvenirs from travels throughout the world and even notes from colleagues at work. But then he realized that his house was becoming too cluttered, and that instead of it being a place in which to enjoy life, he was constantly occupied by organizing the mess.

“Instead of relying on organization techniques, you should first focus on decreasing the amount of things you have to put away,” he explains in the book. “Once you do that, your space will naturally become less cluttered; the cycle will be broken. I have so few items in my apartment it simply doesn’t get cluttered. The concept of clutter itself has left me!” Minimalism, he avers, offers a deeply rooted solution: Instead of trying to get rid of the crumbs, he notes, he eliminates the ants’ nest and solves the problem for good.

Sasaki decided to take minimalism to an extreme, at least from a Western perspective. He chooses, for example, to own just one towel, which he uses to wash his hands, to dry kitchen utensils and dry himself off after a shower. He has thus reduced the amount of laundry he does by two-thirds. Under the chapter heading, “A little inconvenience can make us happier,” he writes, “Sure, an oversized bath towel will feel much nicer than a hand towel. But in the same way we get used to conveniences, we also get used to inconveniences…[Nowadays] the rare use of a real towel gives me a lot of pleasure.” We are “able to find happiness almost anywhere,” he writes.

I had no plans to empty out my towel closet, but I identified with what Sasaki wrote about the amount of laundry he once had to do. With four children and winter looming, I knew I couldn’t allow our closets to remain so stuffed.

Statistically, my family actually has few clothes. The average American woman possesses about 30 different complete sets of attire – one for every day of the month; the comparable number in 1930 was nine. The average American family spends $1,700 a year on clothing and at the same time throws out 30 kilograms of clothes.

Fumio Sasaki, who owns just one towel, at home in Tokyo. “A little inconvenience can make us happier.” Credit: David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency

Hard to lighten up

“I think we have become used to our disorganized closets, and because the situation isn’t totally bad, we simply don’t bother doing anything,” says Courtney Carver, author and owner of the website Be More with Less. Her most ambitious and successful initiative is Project 333, which invites participants to reduce their wardrobe such that they wear 33 items (not counting pajamas, wedding ring and workout clothes) for three months. Tens of thousands have opted in since Carver launched her minimalist fashion challenge in 2010. She views it as a first enticing step on the road to minimalism.

Most people who consider taking part in Project 333 go through three stages, Carver tells Haaretz.

“The first stage is: There’s no way, it’s madness. The second stage: It’s pretty interesting, but I’ll never in my life manage to do it. And the third stage: I did it! Dressing with fewer clothes changed my closet and my life.

“I still buy clothes when I need something, but I’ve stopped my weekly shopping sprees and also impulse buying,” says Carver. “I don’t miss it in the least. I used to think that shopping made me feel better after a bad day. But when the credit card statements arrived I felt even worse. I looked on shopping as self-therapy. Now I know that when I’m having a bad day or when I’m bored, frustrated or sad, my body doesn’t say, ‘Let’s go shopping!’ It says, ‘Please take care of me.’”

According to Carver, reducing the clothes in her closet has had extensive implications for her life. She explains that she realized that if she stopped expending so much energy on the simple actions of dressing and accessorizing, she became a far more creative person in other areas of her life. She urges us to stop expanding our wardrobes and making frequent, unimportant decisions about things that don’t matter. That way, “We can focus our attention on things that are more important to us.”

Courtney Carver. Urges us to stop expanding our wardrobes. Credit: Jamie Griffin

It sounds quite simple, the right thing to do, but at an early stage in my journey I discovered a profound difficulty that prevents us from lightening up and shedding the heavy burden of owning property: the emotional difficulty of letting go. I started with the boys’ closet, where I was only too pleased about being able to throw away pants that were passed from child to child until they had a hole in the knee. I filled a big basket with small clothes in good condition and gave it to a girlfriend who has a son the right age.

But then I got to the baby’s closet. All right, she’s not really a baby. She’s a toddler of two and a half, independent and strong as only a daughter after three sons can be. From the moment she was born, she received only new clothes. And since she is growing according to the normal development charts, the clothes we’d bought just a moment ago for the summer no longer fit when winter rolled around.

Those items can’t just be thrown away, that’s for sure. They’re in excellent condition, hardly worn. But for some reason, I just can’t give them away. Yes, I know the clothes are ageing here in the closet. But there’s a part of me that wants to hold on to something and it apparently transcends the dress with bananas on it that my daughter loves.

I do what I can. Cutting down, throwing out, giving away. In a blog by Denaye Barahona, a minimalist mother and clinical social worker in New York, I read about managing laundry: Keep one laundry basket in the house, take it from room to room every evening, then wash, dry, fold and put things in the closet, as a daily routine. I’m adopting the method.

To become inspired rather than depressed by the Sisyphean character of the daily tasks, I’m reading the blog of Colin Wright. He’s a 33-year-old graphic designer who moved to Los Angeles so he could “live the dream.” But then he stopped for a moment and discovered that it actually wasn’t his dream. In 2009, he got rid of all his stuff, became a blogger and crowdsourced suggestions for the next destination where he should live for four months (while continuing to work online).

Since then, Wright has travelled to New Zealand, Thailand, Iceland, India, Romania, the Czech Republic, the Philippines and 60 more countries. He is currently on a lecture tour throughout the United States until the end of 2019, after having visited each of the states twice.

In a telephone conversation we had earlier this year, Wright agreed that his unconventional choices would not suit most people. “Even so,” he said, “I think most people could profit from casting doubt on the decisions they have made and on the life patterns they take for granted.”

In his travels, he told me, he found that most people in most places still buy things uncontrollably, rather than with calculated intention. At the same time, awareness seems to be growing that this is not necessarily the path to happiness and satisfaction.

Colin Wright.

“Different people call it by different names,” he said, “but to many of us, people from different places in the world and at different points in their life, the idea of buying more and more, endlessly, has become less attractive.”

The idea of minimalism, noted Wright, “is not to get rid of things but to hang on to exactly the right things, and no more.” By the same token, the meaning of minimalism is “not to stop doing things, but to devote time and energy to relationships, activities and the ideal job for you.”

Heaps of mess

Going through the rooms in the house, I try to figure out what I need to ditch in each place to eliminate the mess. I get rid of random silverware that we brought with us from Israel by adding it to a set that’s passed along to new expat families who arrive from there. I clean out the kitchen cupboards and reorganize them, discovering that we have an almost infinite number of jars of tomato paste. Once and for all, I clean off the space next to the window, which is always piled with nonsensical stuff, and declare it a protected space. From now on, every time I enter the kitchen, even if its condition is not absolutely perfect, I can smile when I look at that empty surface: a small nature reserve of order.

In “Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff,” by Dana K. White, I read about the confusion between tidiness and cleanliness. Well, the difference is clear, but the thing with disorganized people is that when we go about cleaning a room, we have heaps of mess to overcome. The author explains the steps involved in cleaning up. The first is to empty the room of garbage; the second is to put back everything that has a definite place in that room or elsewhere in the house; the third (and most challenging step) is understanding what needs to be done with everything that doesn’t have a place; and finally, in the fourth step, you actually clean up. Minimalism is meant to allow us to skip the first three stages most of the time.

Gradually I discover how much breathing room opens up when the mess goes out – how much more space there is for creativity, for new beginnings, for imagination. The children’s playroom is where this potential is most apparent. It’s filled to bursting with books, card and board games, Lego and dolls. A British study showed that the average 10-year-old has 238 toys, but plays with only 12 on a daily basis. American children, who constitute 3.1 percent of the global population of children, possess 40 percent of the world’s toys.

I read in a 2010 book titled “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross that most children don’t notice if 50 percent of their games and toys are taken away. I decide to try: not yet throwing out or donating anything, but filling large bags and taking them down to the basement. Amazingly, the children really go on doing their thing, and none of them notices. But no less magically, the room still has the same tendency to fill up and get messy. As I go on emptying the room, I discover that the children are concentrating for longer periods on the games they have and cooperating better with one another – precisely when there are fewer games to share.

I go on reading about “simple parenting” and discover the connection, both natural and logical, between home minimalism – purchasing and owning fewer items and keeping them organized – and keeping to a routine and simple schedule.

“Most families have increased the speed of their lives and the number of their activities gradually – even unconsciously – over time,” the authors write. “And, looking around, there always seems to be another family that does everything you do, and more, managing to squeeze in skiing, or Space Camp, or French horn lessons on top of everything else. How do they do it? They do it by never asking ‘Why?’ Why do our kids need to be busy all of the time?... Why do we feel we must offer everything?... What happens when we stop, when we have free time?”

I have no doubt that the choices parents make for their children spring from good intentions. But the main issue concerning the children’s schedules, the things we buy, and the excesses in our home and in our lives is whether all of that serves us or has enslaved us. Could it be that many of the things we do (because we assume we have no choice) we could forgo, and quite easily? What would be the price of taking that step? And the benefit?

That question becomes even more acute when we consider the central consumers of time and energy in our era: the smartphone and technology in general. Cal Newport, 36, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, urges people to adopt a different form of minimalism – technological minimalism. This, he tells me, is “a philosophy that helps you ask which digital media add the most value to your life.” We can improve our life if we dispose aggressively of low-value digital “noise.”

People who manage their use of technology, instead of letting it manage them, says Newport, are “calm and happy people who are able to conduct entire conversations without glancing in alarm at their phone.” They can derive enjoyment from reading a book, or embarking on some sort of creative project. They can spend time with friends or family “without displaying an obsessive urge to document the moment and upload it to the web.” They are exposed to the news but not overwhelmed by it. They aren’t afraid to miss something, because they already know which activities imbue them with happiness and satisfaction.

And that, in fact, is the great challenge of minimalism: the ability to stop, to dump the junk, whether physical or mental, and be ready to discover what remains afterward. Who we are without our piles of clothing. What remains of the relationships with our children if we stop buying them stuff all the time, making them move around from one activity to another. What we have in our life if we stop running in an effort to fill it.

Yael Hallak is a researcher of behavioral change at Duke University in North Carolina.



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