Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 47

The Heroics of Tidiness

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems.

"You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence... is not an act, but a habit."

This is a snappy paraphrase of Aristotle by Will Durant, who, I have discovered, seems to be the source of most of the memorable Aristotle quotations on the internet

Which is not to diminish it, or to knock Will Durant, I think it's remarkable good paraphrasing, and very true to Aristotle,

But more importantly, I think there's a huge amount of actual truth in it. It's true to reality.

And Everyday systems are built around this concept of the power of habit, the power of little, repeated actions to change your nature, versus heroic one-offs that may have a lot of flash and bang but don't permanently or sustainably solve a problem.

If you look carefully, even things that seem like excellent singular acts often turn out to be (at least in large part) manifestations of long-standing habits.

Case in point, you may have read about this or seen it on TV, about a decade ago, I remember there was a story about a man who had an epileptic seizure in a New York City subway station and fell onto the tracks, just as a train was approaching. A bystander, a father waiting with his two young daughters, jumped down after him, and covered the guy's body with his own as the train rolled over them, and he push him into that kind of ditch between the rails where there's just enough clearance, apparently, for the train to not tear you to pieces if you lay flat to the ground.

And it worked, the "bystander" (airquotes around "bystander" because he did anything but stand by) saved the epileptic man's life, at great risk to his own, in front of his daughters, in a split second decision. He didn't know the guy. They were even different races. His daughters would have presumably been rather traumatized if his rescue attempt didn't pan out and he got killed in a very messy way right in front of their eyes. There was no time to think. He had every excuse to just stand there along with everyone else and let this happen. No one would have blamed him.

But none of that stopped him. He did this incredible thing.

When reporters asked him about it afterwards, he said there hadn't been time to think, to make a decision. He credited the training he'd had in the military and construction work with giving him the habits that made what he did come mostly automatically.

Is this excessive modesty? You know, is this guy heroic and modest at the same time? I don't think so, or at least not completely. Because you ofter hear something similar in these heat of the moment life-or-death situations frequently. There isn't time to make a rational decision, to weigh the pros and cons. Habit, character, the reptilian brain, whatever you want to call it, takes over.

So, the reason why I'm telling this, is that even when on the surface it seems like this textbook case of the power of one-time heroics, habit is playing a big role, maybe even the leading roll, if you look deep.

But is habit always the answer? And this is what I'm going to focus on today. Are there situations in which one-time, decisive actions can make a lasting change? I think there are, and today I'm going to talk about one of them, and in contrast to the story I just told you, it's about as un-heroic as you can get.

It's a book review. I'm going to talk about tidiness and more particularly, about a best-selling book on the subject entitled:

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing", by Marie Kondo.

Chances are you're at least familiar with it, I think it's number one on at least one of the New York Times bestseller lists, so I'm not going to attempt an exhaustive summary, but I'm just going to focus on what I found interesting from an everyday systems perspective, and in this one important way, on this contrast with what has been the everyday systems perspective, on it's emphasis on decisive, one-time actions rather than habits to attack the problem of being overwhelmed by your physical possessions.

Because this book isn't about building a tidiness habit, it's about putting your house in order, this wonderful biblical phrase. Once you do that, the author contends, this order you've created will be largely self-sustaining.

Why? Because

1. You won't have to tidy as much because there will be a lot less stuff (and she talks a lot about how to do this cull, and it's very interesting and different from what you may be familiar with).

2. Tidying will be easier because everything will have an obvious place so there's less head scratching about where stuff should go.

3. You will be inspired you to tidy more: because any deviations from the order you've set will be visually offensive to you.

So once your house is in order, really properly in order, it stays in order, more or less naturally. That is the contention.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's take a step back, let's look first at the rather funny sounding title of the book: "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up."

Now, the word "tidying" is a little quaint and antiquated sounding, I think, to American ears. It sounds like a small-minded, fussy, almost optional activity, that we only do for negative reasons. It's unpleasant and relatively unimportant compared to our grand visions of ourselves, and wouldn't it be nice if we could pay somebody to do it for us.

But here we're told it's life changing. Not unimportant. And not, presumably, unpleasant.

On the surface, this seems absurd. But that's also what drew me to this book. This provocatively absurdity.

And yet, it's very gently put. It's not hitting you over the head. And the whole book reads this way, with a very polite authority, calmly and confidently telling you how to change your life through this seemingly insignificant activity. It felt very different from any American self-improvement book I've ever read (and I guess that's pretty much the only kind -- I wasn't even aware that other cultures had self-improvement books). And I liked that. That tone alone was enough to sustain my interest. I really felt I was getting insight from a very different place. I wasn't finishing her sentences for her. They were genuinely surprising.

So to simplify drastically, what is the Kondo system?

In six bullet points:

1. Marie Kondo recommends that you view tidiness, as I said, not as this personal habit that you practice regularly, but as a single or small number of decisive actions, "putting your house in order." So again, very different from the habit based-mindset of everyday systems. And yet, in this sphere, and probably others, I think she's on to something.

2. Instead of tackling disorder room by room, tackle disorder by kind of stuff. So instead of going through your closet, everything that's in there, go through all your clothes, wherever in your home they may be located. Gather them all into a pile where you can see them (this is a little like how the No S Diet forces you to visually confront the potential excess of your meal on a single plate). The idea is you won't have a proper sense of how much you have of a class of item and what's worth keeping unless you see them all in front of you. As with dietary excess, you will probably be shocked.

3. The compassionate cull. Physically handle each item. If it's no longer useful to you, she goes further, beyond utility, if it no longer "sparks joy" or makes you happy, no matter how useful or inspiring it might have been in the past, take leave of it. Don't just toss it in the trash, but say good bye. Literally thank it for the good service it has done you. There's something almost animistic about this process. The objects are like persons, or spirits. And that might strike some as ridiculous or even offensive. But it is also undeniably satisying and effective. Because whether we admit it or not, we anthropomorphize, or animize, we have these animistic psychological relationships to objects, that make us feel bad if we callously throw them out -- and so, normally we don't, and we hoard. By indulging our inner animism, by sending these objects off with dignity and appreciation, it becomes much easier and less heart-wrending to part with them, and so we can get rid of a lot more stuff. I have to admit, though I find this idea very charming, I haven't done a whole lot of thanking and leave taking just yet in my tidying efforts since my limited conversion to the Kondo method. Maybe I'm just a hard hearted bastard about stuff. Or maybe that is a higher spiritual stage that will come as I continue my Kondo practice.

4. Start with the easier categories of stuff, with the fewest emotional attachments. Photos, for example, are going to be much harder to part with that clothes, so do clothes first. That way you can practice the method and build up your skill at it, and make satisfying, rapid initial progress, without endlessly fussing over every little sentimental item.

5. Once you've done this kind but ruthless animistic purge, you will have vastly less stuff to organize. You've solved most of the problem, and what struck me is that when you get down to this level of possessions, they almost organize themselves. I keep having these Eureka moments post purge where I look at my remaining stuff in whatever category, I look at a key place to put them, and bam, like Michelangelo looking at a slab of marble and suddenly seeing a vision of the statue he will turn it into, it becomes irresistibly clear.

6. That being said, she does have some very useful advice on post-purge organization. My favorite principle that she articulates is that ideally everything should be easily visible. So instead of putting clothes in vertical piles, for example, where every item conceals the item beneath it, try to put them horizontally in rows, so you can see them all when you open the drawer. Again, this is something that resonates with everyday systems, by arranging things this way you can "eyeball" the state of your belongings, and quickly spot what you're looking for, or what you're missing, or whether something doesn't really need to be there. A pair of pants you never wear becomes an eyesore that you can't ignore, and so you're nudged to get rid of it by this visual pressure. When everything in your pantry is visible at a glance, you don't need to rely on some Internet of things technological innovation that everyone is talking about now to tell you that you're running low on canelini beans, the gaping void in the pantry is visually shouting it out to you.

There's a lot more -- but I think I've covered what I need to for everyday systems purposes, and if you're at all interested, read the book. It's good, it's short, it's different. And even if you don't wind up implementing any of it it's thought provoking.

Is it life changing? I don't know. The author cites several examples of people who once they've put their physical houses in order go on to sort out big relationship or career issues. Probably that's not going to happen for most readers. But I have been genuinely surprised at how differently I've been looking at my possessions since reading it. And it does make me happy, every time I open my closet, to see the order there. Or the fridge, when all the tall bottles are on this shelf and all the short bottles on the other. It's really a thing of beauty. And I am thinking what other areas of my life besides physical possessions could benefit from decisive, one-time ordering actions, vs. the habits I've been focusing on with everyday systems.

Now I haven't by any means managed to "kondo-ize" our entire home. And the main reason for that is I think the biggest limitation of the book: it doesn't sufficiently account for the existence of other people in your house, most notably, those other little people who seem to relish disorder and are capable of producing fantastic levels of it almost instantaneously. I'm pretty sure the author doesn't have kids.

But she does give a piece of advice which I think is a helpful start at least for those of us who do not live alone: start with your own stuff, the stuff that doesn't involve buy in or cooperation or reluctant consent from anyone else in your family. Once you've done that, then consider public areas or other people's areas. So far I've made it through my clothes, my closet, my tools and basement "workshop" area, and the kitchen (the least contentious public area in our house because I have a certain culinary authority there). Next up I think is books. I trained as a librarian -- I'm not sure if that's going to make it easier or much harder.

And that, my friends, is the everyday systems take on the Marie Kondo method.

It's interesting. It's useful. And the emphasis on one time decisive orderings is a good corrective or balance to traditional everyday systems, the yin to their yang, the screwdriver to their hammer, and I'm looking forward to assimilating it into core everyday systems to create a wider self improvement toolset.

I hope you got something useful out of this, please let me know either way in the discussion link. And keep the suggestions coming. I haven't nearly run through my current spurt of podcasting inspiration, there are a bunch more episodes in the works, but it can't hurt to have more, or know how to prioritize what's on deck already.

That's all for now. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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