It took me about three years, but I found the little peace I’d been looking for. As corny as it sounds, Marie Kondo helped kickstart major changes in my life a few years ago. I decluttered my home, spent one year without shopping for anything non-essential, and then worked on unravelling my mental, inner mess.
It was a lot of hard work. And last December, when I turned 40, I remember feeling truly contented. That all was right in my world. For now, anyway!
But it wasn’t always like that. I left Kuala Lumpur for London in December 2012 to be with my British husband, and it was super wonderful and super tough at the same time.
In a span of 3 years, I moved to a new country, got married, trained for a new profession (teaching), and then gave birth to my first son. Two years later, I had my second child, also a son.
The Upheaval of Motherhood
Mothers out there will know what having a baby does to you. It changes all you knew. It makes you rethink your identity, your goals, your relationships, your everything. The combination of all these big changes in my life left me feeling rootless, fragile and confused. Like Woody Allen movies on steroids.
I was doubting my choices, my friendships, my own self-worth, but at the time, I had no idea what was actually wrong. How could I feel so messed up when I was so privileged and blessed with such good things in my life?
Just what did I want in life? Wasn’t this it?
In 2016 I knew my second baby was on the way, and I knew something had to change. I couldn’t keep feeling like the ground under my feet was so wobbly.
While it was important, Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy wasn’t actually the main trigger that started me on this route. I watched a documentary called The True Cost in 2016 – an eye-opener about the harms of fast fashion and consumerism. I felt so affected that it stayed with me for weeks. And then I read Marie Kondo’s book, and everything just made sense. Everything clicked.
This was it: I would declutter everything, and then hopefully not add back to the clutter.
The KonMari philosophy
To brutally summarise the KonMari method, Kondo says to declutter successfully, you have to tidy up in an order and in specific categories, take everything out in that category (such as clothes), and then only keep things which ‘spark joy’ in your life. I know most people will find the clothes folding method most helpful. Others will note that the ‘spark joy’ philosophy can also be used in other aspects of your life – from relationships to jobs and so on.
But I also really appreciated the following three points from Kondo’s method.
One was that you should be able to see things clearly and easily.
Two is that everything should have a place in your home.
Three, work on your ‘sentimental’ category – personal letters, photographs, mementos – last. It’s the hardest, so you do that right at the end.
These ideas were highly interesting to me. I would ultimately apply these when I was sorting out the mental mess in my head, after the home had been physically decluttered.
To know what was wrong, I need to slowly and brutally reflect and see everything for what everything was. There’s a reason why that initial mountain of all your clothes needs to be right there scaring you – you need to see all that crap for what it is.
To avoid further ‘cluttering’, I needed to know which people and goals I wanted in my life – I needed to be assured of their place in my space.
And then finally, when I was surer of what the actual challenges, goals and priorities were in my life, I worked on the hardest – my relationships.
Knowing the What, Why, Who, Where, When and How
Honestly, decluttering the home may have been tedious, but my husband and I found it rather fun in the end. And that was the easy part. Once your home is all sorted out, then what?
For those who may want to do more than just declutter your home, here were the rough steps I took in 2016, 2017 and 2018:
1. Made time (definitely more than just a day) to write down every hope, goal, fear in my head. Think about what made me truly happy, what were my main triggers for stress and anxiety, what made me boil, what brought me calm. My weaknesses, my strengths, my failures, my successes. Everything. Like that awful mountain of clothes.
2. Write down what I wanted to achieve by the time I turned 40. (One example of the things on my list: ‘Say sorry to everyone I need to say sorry to, and really mean it. Perhaps even be generous and say sorry to those who may not really deserve it.’) Obviously, one can do this for any age milestone.
3. Write down the descriptor of your dreams. An example: A mother who speaks 4 languages, owns a pastry shop and teaches calligraphy in her spare time? What would you write if you could be and do anything? What do you need to do to make all this happen?
4. List down names. The names of all the people you really love, should make extra time and effort for, and who you would like to be in your life forever. This was all-important to me. Modern life is tough on our calendars and brains. Set reminders for occasions, times for touching base, and quality experiences you want shared.
5. Think about the wardrobe you want in the long term. Draw or take photos of the clothes you have, and what else you want or need. Think about this carefully and let this be the guide for the shopping that you do.
6. Draw a mind map or two, trying to link and make sense of it all.
When you have what I would call my master mind map and the relevant notes, then here comes the easy part – taking action. I say it is easy because starting something is easy. Maintaining it and ensuring you are disciplined, however, is the hard part.
My ‘actions’ were basically not to shop for a year, buying only essentials that were not about any sort of pleasure or desire. And so I bought no new clothes, accessories, shoes or makeup for 12 months. Okay, I did falter – in a mad moment of weakness, I bought nail polish, right near the end of my year.
After that year, my purchasing habits changed significantly. I became a more mindful consumer and user of things, still very much governed by what I experienced in 2017. I think long and hard about what I want to buy, sometimes for months before getting something. When I go into a shop, it’s usually because I am going in specifically to buy something I have probably touched (and salivated over) about 3 or 4 times. It is still hard, but I love this continuing reflection and struggle in my life.
The ‘action’ that affected me most, however, was what I did with my relationships. Sometimes the idea of a friendship is more tantalising than what that friendship actually is. I took a long hard look at who really went out of their way for me, who clearly and unmistakably wanted me to be in their lives. If there was reciprocity, ease and warmth, I would go all in. Where there felt like forced effort, one-sidedness, dishonesty or even a slight dissonance, I would fall back.
When you try to adhere strictly to these principles, you will be amazed by how easily some things will prove themselves to you. I found that my close friendships grew deeper. Promising friendships grew easily. There was less anxiety about relationships causing me doubt, stress or heartache. Going all in was more than just a WhatsApp message once every month. I’d consciously make sure close friends knew I wanted to be involved in their lives.
People may think all this focus on relationships is a whole bunch of self-help malarkey. But I found that once I had this area clear and rock solid in my life, things just came together.
Why should it be a surprise really? Relationships and friendships form the pillars of our lives. They are crucial for our mental health.
The result was that I managed to work, play and focus on my children during quite a tough year without falling apart. Dare I say it – I even flourished a teeny little bit, despite the madness.
Principles for Life
Today, my house is not as tidy as when it was first KonMari-ed, that’s for sure. I don’t call my kids little tornadoes for nothing. We have quite a few drawers of ‘miscellaneous’ junk again.
But we know what to do. We still know how to fold. We still love her main principles.
As for me personally, I definitely feel less messed-up as a mum, as a woman, and a person. I feel more confident about my choices. A happier me meant a happier family too. Everything is an ongoing process and may descend into chaos and angst again. Who knows? But I have decluttered for now, and l have learned some great lessons for life.