Hello, friends. I am planning to redesign/organize/de-clutter my bedroom this summer. I feel very overwhelmed by this task (which I have been trying to attack for YEARS), and I am unsure of how to go about this. I am hoping (and really feel like it is possible) for this to be a fun project, but I don’t really know how to make it so?! —ED, 15, Washington, D.C.
ED from D.C., this can totally be a fun project, and not just that: It might even make you feel great—IF you are the kind of person who is happier and more at ease living in a room that is on the sparser side. I am that kind of person, but I didn’t always know it. I used to be supremely messy, to the point that my mom was once horrified to find something in my room—buried beneath a mountain of sweaty basketball-practice clothes, magazines, and general detritus—that was a legitimate biohazard. (I won’t say what because this is the internet, and I don’t want that thing and my name to be connected through Google.) I was ordered to clean the place up, a task that I loathed because it wasn’t just a chore. It was a consuming, anxiety-inducing time-suck. The reason was that I had way, way, way way way too much stuff; I mention all of this because I’m guessing that you may also have more stuff than you really want or feel comfortable around, and that its volume is what is overwhelming you. So the first, possibly most painful, leg of this journey will be to get rid of as much as you can stand to get rid of.
Start by clearing your room of the actual garbage items. Put old homework papers and gross empty coffee cups and trash like that in a bag and throw it out. Take dirty dishes to the kitchen, then wash them or put them in the dishwasher, ’cause it’s the right thing to do. Put all your smelly clothes in a pile, and take them to the laundry. This is all going to be boring as HECK, so listen to a podcast or some music (ABBA usually helps me cheerfully charge through mindless tasks). After that’s done, take a break! Watch a movie, or even sleep on it, because what’s next is the hardest part, and that’s deciding what you can and cannot live without.
There’s a well-known Japanese organization expert named Marie Kondo who wrote a book about tidying up. I skimmed it earlier this year to see if her organizational philosophy aligned with mine, and for the most part it does. For maximum results, she recommends culling objects by category. Go through all your clothes first and decide what to keep, and what to donate. When clothes are out of the way, do the same thing with your books; then papers; then miscellany like DVDs, wind-up toys, washi tape, what have you; and finally mementoes like photos, homemade presents, school-play programs, et cetera. Don’t leave the bags or boxes of castoffs in your room—take ’em to the thrift or charity shop that day, or at least that week. Otherwise before you know it, it’s return to disorderly start.
The thing is, how do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of? Marie K.’s advice is practically mythological, in that it contains sound moral lessons for anyone, anywhere, at any time in history. If you pick up an object and it “sparks joy,” you should keep it. If it doesn’t, you should get rid of it. When in doubt, concentrate on what you want to keep, rather than what you want to get rid of. WHAT?! Like a myth, this approach can be an EMOTIONALLY DRAINING MINDBENDER when you’re living it, so be patient with yourself. Take some more breaks if you need them. Walk around the block and buy a seltzer. Have a fresh box of Chips Ahoy! nearby. You can do this.
Once you get rid of everything you don’t need/want/care about, the best/fun part starts. What’s left is you—the material objects that actually speak to who you are, and the parts of who you used to be that are important enough to hold on to, at least for now, maybe forever. Despite my messy, hoarding years, what I eventually figured out about my relationship to stuff was this (I don’t even care if this sounds trite, or like a radically liberal or radically conservative dad is saying it, because it’s still true): I love freedom more than I love things, and the things I have around me make me feel free because they make me feel like myself. When I start from there, nothing really needs to be organized, or Pinterest-boarded into aesthetically pleasing me, because deciding where it goes is a loving and creative act that only I can do for me, and I have the rest of my life to do it. When I wake up in the morning and look around, I feel very much that I am living in my own world. It’ll take some work and maybe some (hopefully low-level) anguish as you clear the space, but you’re living in your own world, too, and I promise that it’s worth the effort. —Lena