It doesn't take a genius to work out that mess causes stress, by making us anxious, guilty and frustrated. When we're surrounded by clutter, our minds become overloaded with stimuli and we can't think clearly, let alone be creative or productive.
This perhaps explains the success of Japanese tidiness guru Marie Kondo, who has amassed a cult following with her psychological-meets-practical approach to clearing out.
Kondo's book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has sold millions of copies worldwide on the back of its simple "KonMarie method"; an organisational approach that involves dramatically ridding your home of excess belongings in under six months.
Under Kondo's guidance, tidying up is a happy, cathartic process; you only keep the items that "spark joy" for you in the immediate present. Everything else is touched, thanked and lovingly sent on its way to a recycle bin, a charity shop or wherever it can experience a better life.
And you, in your state of permanent de-clutter, are left to live a happier, calmer and more fulfilled existence.
We've rounded up some of her top tips for tidying up and ridding your home and mind of excess baggage, once and for all:
Choose what to keep, not what to get rid of
Why is it that no matter how much time we spend clearing out, our clutter never seems disappear? Kondo argues that it's because we're approaching it the wrong way. Instead of thinking what to throw away, we need to think what's worth keeping.
"The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: 'Does this spark joy?'" she says. "If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.
"The trick is to handle each item. Don’t just open up your closet and decide after a cursory glance that everything in it gives you a thrill. You must take each outfit in your hand. When you touch a piece of clothing, your body reacts. Its response to each item is different. Trust me and try it.
"Are you happy wearing clothes that don’t give you pleasure? Do you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart? Do you think that owning accessories you know you’ll never use will ever bring you happiness? The answer to these questions should be no.
"Now imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?"
Confront each of your possessions, one by one
Instead of piling things up or dumping them unceremoniously as part of a clear-out, we should confront each one directly and ask why it is important to us. Only by doing this can we appreciate why we end up hanging onto things, according to Kondo.
"It is only when we face the things we own one by one and experience the emotions they evoke that we can truly appreciate our relationship with them," she says. "You’ll begin to see a pattern in your ownership of things, a pattern that falls into one of three categories: attachment to the past, desire for stability in the future, or a combination of both.
"All you have to do is eliminate what you don’t need by confronting each of your possessions properly. The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful. It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past.
"If we acknowledge our attachment to the past and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us. This process in turn helps us identify our values and reduces doubt and confusion in making life decisions."
Let things go without regret
"It’s human nature to resist throwing something away," says Kondo. "Thoughts such as 'I might need it later' or 'It’s a waste' make it impossible to let go. That’s precisely why we need to consider each and every possession with care and not be distracted by thoughts of being wasteful.
"Ask yourself why you have that object in the first place. Why did you buy certain clothes if you never wear them? Was it because you realised that they didn’t suit you when you tried them on at home? If so, then they have taught you what doesn’t suit you – so they completed their role in your life. Let them go.
"To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. And if you no longer need them then that is neither wasteful nor shameful. Can you truthfully say that you treasure something buried so deeply in a cupboard or drawer that you have forgotten its existence?
"Books are some of the hardest things for people to throw away – ‘I might read it’, or ‘I might want to read it again’. Take a moment to count the number of times you have reread a book. You read books for the experience of reading. There is no meaning in them just being on your shelves. Instead, take each book in your hand and decide whether it moves you or not – and only keep the ones you really love."
Ditch the paperwork
"My basic policy is to divide papers into two categories – those that need to be saved, and those that need to be dealt with," says Kondo. "I have one special corner for forms that need to be filled in, letters that need answers, newspapers that I intend to read, but I never let that pile spread to other parts of the house. All the rest should be thrown away.
"The only point of a credit-card statement is as a means of checking how much has been spent in a particular month. Once you’ve confirmed that is correct and perhaps logged it in your accounts, do you really need the statement? Can you think of any other time you might need your credit-card statements? If not, bin them.
"All electrical appliances come with a warranty, but most people seem to save not just the warranty but also the operation manual in the same file. Take a look at them. Have you ever used them? In general there are only a few manuals that we actually need to read, such as the one for a computer or digital camera. All the other manuals stored in your files can probably be discarded."
Fold items upright rather than hanging them
(Gif via Wall Street Journal)
Once you've discarded everything you can, make a start on tidying up. Kondo is a big fan of folding clothes rather than hanging them, to save space.
"When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly," she says. "we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes."
Her preferred method of folding is available as a YouTube tutorial. It basically involves folding an item into a tight, neat rectangle and rolling it up in a tube, to store upright in your drawers. This prevents wrinkles that come from stacking clothes one on top of each other. And it also means you can see every item of clothes you own as soon as you open a drawer.
However, Kondo does also advise hanging anything that looks "happier" on a hanger, and arranging in colour and type order, with dark, heavy clothing to the left.
“Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure," she says.
Tidy by category, not by room
"Many people decide to tidy up one room at a time but this is a common mistake," says Kondo. "The root of the problem lies in the fact that we often store the same type of item, for example CDs or books, in more than one place. When we tidy each place separately we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying.
"When we spread storage of a particular item throughout the house and tidy one place at a time we never grasp the overall volume of what we own and what we should get rid of. I recommend tidying by category, not by place.
"For example, instead of deciding that today you’ll tidy a particular room set goals such as “clothes today, books tomorrow."
Go for simple storage solutions
"The secret to maintaining an uncluttered room is to pursue ultimate simplicity in storage so that you can tell at one glance how much you have," says Kondo.
"If my storage were more complex - for example, if I divided my things into three levels according to frequency of use or according to season - I am sure that many more items would be left to rot in the darkness.
"It’s human nature to take the easy route and leap at storage methods that promise quick and convenient ways to remove visible clutter. Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved. But sooner or later all the storage units are full and the room once again overflows with things.
"Effective tidying involves only three essential actions. All you need to do is take the time to examine every item you own, decide whether or not you want to keep it, then choose where to put what you keep. Designate a place for each thing."
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever by Marie Kondo is out now
Words: Anna Brech