Being Deliberate About Your Pants And Power Tools: Material Awareness For The Lifestyle Maximalist

December 2018. After burning one of many countless identical chunks of time sorting through my jam-packed drawer of tangled spare cables that I could have sworn I organized the month before, in a last-ditch effort to find something I thought I had at some point, I buckled and picked up a used copy of Marie Kondo’s book, The life-changing magic of tidying up.

Here were the three takeaways I had often heard secondhand about this book:

  1. It’s for boring, joyless minimalists with no hobbies who want to throw away everything
  2. Throw away everything that doesn’t SPARK JOY “ok but what about useful stuff”
  3. She talks to her socks

The first assertion does the book a great disservice, and I have trouble imagining someone coming away from the book with either of the first two takeaways unless they didn’t actually read the book. Although Kondo herself says she doesn’t have hobbies other than spreading the word of tidying, many of her clients have passionate hobbies. The book is not designed to turn you into a minimalist, but into a deliberate person; you identify and keep things that you are actively benefitting from, and the goal is to free yourself from all the other crud hidden in corners that you are not actually benefitting from.

We’ll come back to the thing about socks later.

As a hoarder with roughly 15–30 pursuits (active at various times, and depending how you count) distributed across engineering, crafts, home improvement, music, drawing, movement, and more, a staggering array of nerd friends and community mailing lists constantly giving away free useful stuff, a lifelong habit of peeking into discount bins everywhere, and a deep and abiding love of thrift stores, I collect a lot of useful things. I use a decent chunk of them.

I actively do and make a lot of things. I find a lot of things interesting and useful. I read, finish, enjoy, and apply books constantly. I’ll try anything twice. In short, my lifestyle is not minimalist, and although I would like to pare it down more so I can better focus on my top 5 activities, I’m quite fulfilled by most of what’s going on. I use and love many of my utilitarian objects on a regular basis, so why are my hoarding tendencies still stressful?

As it turns out, I only regularly used the objects that I was conscious of, and I owned a lot of stuff I was unconscious of. Duh. Most people have a catch-all drawer somewhere in their house: a place where paperclips, receipts, and loose change go to never again see the light of day. I found maybe ten of those scattered in different places around my room, doing nothing but taking up space.

When I started really dumping things out of drawers and sorting through them, I found bags and boxes stuffed with objects that were once useful, but hadn’t seen light in years, objects I’d forgotten ever existed, objects picked up from a free bin five years ago on a whim, objects I had used once, objects I had never used at all, objects still in their packaging.

Categories of things that I use on a daily or weekly basis, such as my drawing supplies, hand tools, and teaware, are in fantastic order and I don’t feel overwhelmed by them because I handle them regularly and am intimately familiar with them. I don’t acquire more of them than I want, because I know exactly what I want. When I want to use them, I know what to reach for. I know the extent to which my results are dependent on skills rather than tool fanciness, so I’m not tempted by the promises of shiny novelty items in these categories.

But outside of my most-frequently-used items, I had hoarded tons of delectable potential tools filled with dangerous, unrealized, non-top-priority pipe dreams. After several years of not using a tool, if I cannot unblock myself from using it, I should really just come to accept that I am not using it.

Far more dangerous still are the tools I’ve used quite effectively once every three or four years, because I feel like I could use them again someday. But I am fortunate to live near makerspaces and crafty friends. At the inconvenience of a bike ride and some scheduling logistics, I can simplify my life by borrowing or renting tools that I’ve historically only wanted to use once every few years, instead of owning them.

Hoarding things is tempting because it saves money, but if space, time, and attention are at a markedly higher premium than money for you (with the caveat that this ratio is completely contextual and your mileage will vary based on all kinds of factors) then, the cost of owning too many things can often outweigh the benefits. Having them around eats into your personal space, and bigger spaces cost more money. Looking through piles of things or trying to remember where things are eats into your time, which you can never reclaim.

My goal is to take the philosophy of my well-used possessions everywhere else in my life. I want to know exactly what I want, so that I am no longer tempted to hoard novelty promises and distractions that I won’t find fulfilling.

Incidentally, as a second-generation Asian American, I grew up trained to save all bags, napkins, boxes, plastic utensils, and hotel toiletries, and store them under the sink. I am a lifelong hoarder of such things. So I personally found the book pretty helpful and actionable for extending my desire to live deliberately throughout my physical space.

The KonMari book can be quoted and summarized very succinctly, but I found it a really valuable read for bringing me into fuller awareness of my unwanted stuff, and the ways in which I interact with my stuff.

What I like about this book is that unlike many tidying solutions, it doesn’t try to push daily habits on you or tell you to live in a regimented, unsustainable way. The agenda it’s actually pushing is to change yourself from the ground-up into your ideal self via self-introspection; to visualize your personal idea of your best life, and then ruthlessly assess what stuff is holding you back from living your best life.

There was a handy exercise suggested early on: before you start tidying, pause and make a concrete, deliberate statement about your ideal lifestyle. (Very relatable to a software culture critique I value: there’s no use moving fast if you don’t know what direction you’re trying to move fast in.)

Ideal lifestyle doesn’t mean the lifestyle you think society or your parents want you to have, or the lifestyle you think will make you seem coolest, or the lifestyle that will make you the most money. It’s the lifestyle that your gut instinctively perks up about.

Don’t imagine what objects you will own, but imagine how you would like to live. When you come home, do you like to relax in a quiet, cozy safe place? Do you like making your home inviting so that friends can always come over and hang out? Do you like to climb outdoors? Do you like to watch a lot of movies at home with friends? Do you love to cook? To dance?

Are these things hard to achieve with your current living situation? Living your best life doesn’t just automagically happen, but the first step is asking yourself what your best life looks like.

Does it spark joy?

As a crotchety and cynical old fart (greatly belying my deceptively innocuous physical appearance and occasional spurts of optimism), I was at first put off by the seeming sentimentality of Kondo’s motto, “does it spark joy”? Because what about items that are just plain useful?

[use your imagination to insert a meme of someone staring in conflicted agony at a roll of toilet paper]

The motto is also a gross oversimplification of the book, but I did find it an incredibly useful self-introspection shortcut in many cases. When I looked at my books on the shelf, I obviously thought I wanted to keep all of them. But when I asked myself which ones “sparked joy”, the five books that were my all-time favorites instantaneously jumped out at me, and the fifteen or so books that were highly pleasing were also obvious.

Clothes too; when I made a “sparks joy” pile and asked myself what they had in common, I realized that most of it wasn’t aesthetically flashy, but everything in it fit my outlier body type comfortably and went with the rest of my wardrobe in a way I liked. Most importantly, every single pair of pants in it had real pockets that could securely hold a wallet or phone (a great rarity among pants for folks with hips).

Blindly following your gut instinct may not always get you the results you want. However, acknowledging and examining your gut instinct is a useful way to uncover who you are, and become more aware why you make the decisions you do. It helps you live deliberately. It helps you find out why you enjoy the things you do, and how to set up your life so that it is more enjoyable.

In my heart, I had already known that I strongly prefer correctly fitted pants with generous pockets. But you know how it goes. Every once in a while, I’d go thrifting and find some super badass looking pants with no pockets, and I’d cave.

When I looked at my “sparks joy” pile, I realized that my best life was one in which every single pair of pants I owned not only fit my body type correctly, but was also well-armed with spacious pockets. This is a double whammy of two truly rare qualities in the women’s department, but achievable if you are unwaveringly firm in your resolve to prioritize them. Armed with this knowledge, I dumped my pocketless pants into the donation pile, joyful in the resolve that I would never again be enticed to buy cool-looking pants without competent pockets.

The logical inverse of “does this spark joy”

“Spark joy” is a snappy and simple heuristic that works well for many categories, and significantly less well for utilitarian objects.

Some of my utilitarian objects truly do spark joy — well-loved, satisfying-to-use tools such as the mechanical dial caliper my high school best friend gave me 15 years ago, which I still use regularly, or the inexpensive, reliable, and easily replaceable ballpoint pens I have used every day since 2009.

But many useful objects are of a more boring flavor. Toothbrushes do not spark an iota of joy for me. And reducing one’s retention metric to “does this seem useful?” is how I found myself buried in this hoard in the first place. So for useful objects, I came up with an inverted question to ask:

Would not having this object be a direct source of stress (during something that happens frequently)?

— on the consideration that a direct stress alleviator is a kind of joy.

This inverted question works for toiletries, medicines, and other household supplies. While toilet paper itself may not spark joy, pooping and then having nothing to wipe your butt with is terrible. Pain medicine itself may not spark joy, but it brings relief from searing cramps or headaches. Rubber gloves do not spark joy, but hands which are not covered in smelly gunk during household chores are extremely joyful compared to hands covered in gunk.

The second clause, “during something that happens frequently”, is key. Otherwise, I would have leeway to collect items for all kinds of delectable, never-to-be-realized potential hobbies.

What about spare supplies? Well, toothbrushes are usually sold in packs, and having a spare handy can be convenient. But what about a bulk pack of 24 that you got on sale?

This does not alleviate stress. If you have ten children, or you run a guesthouse, or you have a mysterious ailment which causes you to drop your toothbrush in the toilet twice a week, then 24 toothbrushes is probably the perfect quantity to keep around. But as someone not in such a situation, I cannot think of a time where I have so desperately needed more than two backup toothbrushes that not having them on hand that week would have even remotely bordered on stressful.

To gauge how many spare supplies to keep around, do a quick Fermi problem on your household supply stashes. How long do you use the same toothbrush? 3 months if you’re fancy, 6 months if you’re me. So a 4-pack lasts one person 1–2 years, which is a great amount of time to keep track of spare toothbrushes. But the 24-pack will last 6–12 years.

In 6–12 years, if you have not already lost your megapack of toothbrushes to the ever-shifting sands of time, the package will be mildewed and caked in a thick layer of greasy dust that will make you shudder to hold its contents near your mouth, generations of ants may have nested within, and you will likely be living in another house or perhaps even another country for all we know.

Other boring-utilitarian items to apply this inverted question to: spare batteries, lighters, scissors, dish soap, cables, light bulbs, home improvement supplies, medicines and supplements, old grocery bags...

Another trap of saving more useful items than you need is that you can always trick yourself into thinking you might as well save more of them.

When I opened my spare cable drawer, I found a tangle of miscellaneous cables I had almost never used, and something on the order of 40 microUSB cables. “How did this happen?” I wondered shamefully.

Well, I’m pretty organized and have a gallon bag labeled “microUSB cables”, which leads me to the trap of believing that just because my stuff is organized, everything is fine.

yes.

Every time I had ever acquired a device, bluetooth dongle, or what-have-you, it came with a flimsy, practically disposable microUSB cable which I tucked safely into the gallon bag. Friends and housemates would give away old cables they didn’t want, and I would hoard them into the bag, because hey, you can always use more microUSB cables. Sometimes I would need an extremely specific microUSB cable length for a circuit project, and buy it, but of course it would come in a 3-pack, and I would tuck the two spares into the bag.

So I sat there on the floor, surrounded by rat nests of 40 microUSB cables and 20 random other cables, and rapidly reassessed my life.

(Having too many cables and batteries might just be an MIT thing, but I’m sure you have a similar category of object in your life if it’s not microUSB cables. Hair ties, free pens, keyrings, paperclips, folders…)

How many would I actually buy if I had none and was starting over? Well, one for each USB charging jack — because more cables than jacks serves no purpose. Two for travel.

That’s it.

As for the other spare cable types, I couldn’t blindly throw them all away, or I would probably just acquire more. First I needed to figure out why I was keeping them. I used them sometimes. Of course I was keeping the spares out of a fear that I might need them one day. But I had too many spares — not 40, but too many.

Realizing I had never used the spares for the unusual cable types, I kept one of each type, bundled them together into a squid of emergency-cables, and tossed the rest.

The comfort of organic chaos

My room isn’t a coffin, but it’s a good 30% smaller than any other room I’ve lived in for more than a month— 8’x12’, with a window that lets in less light than a lightwell. But people always perceive it as significantly larger. It’s because I conceal nearly every inch of my wall space with textural, interesting, well-loved, cozily arranged objects, many of which I’ve made (and therefore have difficulty letting go of). Their softness and chaos hides the boxlike frame of the walls and expands inward into a tiny world in each square foot of nook, shelf, and corner.

I’ve collected lots of scarves (less useful now that I no longer live in Massachusetts) from thrift stores and free piles, and I like to keep them hanging up on a wall because they feel cozy. When I sorted through them near the beginning of my deep cleaning adventure, I took them all down from their wall pegs and was surprised how instantaneously the illusion collapsed in on itself. With the hard bare line of the wall visible, my room looked its true size again and I wondered how I managed not to feel claustrophobic in such a box. And the instant I hung the ones I was keeping back up, the space seemed to expand back into a forest of color and texture.

One big break was when I gave away the plush Martian costume I sewed one Halloween to a friend who had coveted it since the day he saw it. I loved it but but the novelty had simply worn off and I hadn’t worn it for a year, so I wanted to see it move on to a home where it would get more use.

When I walked back into my room, the “random stuff shelf” where it had sat for over a year looked bare and empty, and I had an amorphous feeling that I wasn’t sure was regret. The Martian’s plush texture and wacky goggling eyes had created a comforting textural chaos against that wall that made me feel cozy and enclosed.

When a room becomes cluttered, the cause is more than just physical. […] If you can’t feel relaxed in a clean and tidy room, try confronting your feeling of anxiety. It may shed light on what is really bothering you. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.

Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.

Recalling this advice, I decided to wait until the next day and see if I still had any regrets about giving it away.

I woke up and looked at the empty space where the Martian used to sit. It felt light and freeing. I was no longer weighed down with the guilt and unrealized potential of not using something cool. I was happy that my friend would get to enjoy it as I once had.

The bare wall still felt uncomfortable, but I knew now that the answer was not to fill it with more objects, but to immerse myself more in nature. Ever notice how calming nature is, and how nearly every completely random assortment of trees and moss and sky and dirt just happens to look picture-perfect and right? As humans trapped in concrete grids, we crave foliage, organic lines, the mark of living things. It’s why we hang up wall art or tapestries, or buy plants, or paint murals.

I realized that clutter visually fills this gap for me; it creates foliage-like chaos against the suffocating fluorescent boxes of modern construction. Instead of making or buying more objects I would rarely use and putting them in that bare space, I realized I could instead scratch the itch by going on a hike, going to a public garden, or, if that wasn’t imminently feasible, being near a house plant or hanging art on the wall.

Now understanding one of the deeper roots of my reluctance to let go of the clutter concealing my walls, I felt motivated to (1) paint more (2) continue getting rid of things I no longer wanted (3) spend more time in nature.

Hidden clutter is still clutter

Before cleaning, my room outwardly appeared, if not immaculate, at least well-loved and organized. My well-loved items were prominently on display, and no one else knew about all my hidden caches of secret shame clutter. But every drawer, every labeled storage box, every hidden space, and every back half of a shelf, was chaotic; overpacked to bursting with useless and old junk. So even though the things I used and loved most were highly visible, I was weighed down mentally by having to regularly sort through my secret shame stashes to find useful things.

I kept taking out bags and bags of unwanted papers, free gizmos, free conference swag, and free t-shirts, and yet my room continued to look exactly the same (or rather, messier because I was emptying out all my drawers and boxes and dumping them on the ground).

The stress of clutter does not come from its direct visibility, but from decision-making and uncertainty. Where is the glue? Where are my tax forms? Oh, it’s that book I bought years ago and have been meaning to read but never got around to because I’m lazy. Oh, the crafting supplies my friend gave away that I just never seem to have time for.

When we hoard too much stuff and have difficulty finding what we really need, little things like this add up, wear us down, and occupy time and physical space. When we keep only the things we truly use, we no longer need to waste time rooting through piles to find what we need.

After I purged my closet (by about 30% overall), it wasn’t that much less crowded, and I doubt any friends would notice a visual difference. It looked pretty much the same, just a little less cramped.

But the difference felt huge. When I opened my pants drawer, I felt the sureness and comfort that can only come from the fresh knowledge that, after a lifetime of being lied to by the women’s pants industry, any pair of pants I picked out for the day would have real pockets that would actually securely hold my damned wallet and phone while biking. Decision making was no longer split between looks, comfort, and convenience. Sure, I had way fewer pants than before, but they all felt good. I knew that I hadn’t kept any dresses that made me feel uncomfortable in my skin, and I didn’t have any shirts left that were cool looking but awkward to wear. I felt streamlined.

In essence, I understood my clothes and they understood me.

Which brings us to socks.

Talking to your socks

This was the second most quoted phrase I’d heard about KonMari, and I was unsurprised to find that she is approximately as weird as the phrase makes her sound. (But so am I; aren’t we all?) And yes, she wants you to talk to your socks and thank objects for their role in your life. What I didn’t know is that Kondo was a miko in a Shinto shrine for several years, which suddenly makes a lot more sense from a cultural norm perspective than a random American tidying expert talking to their socks.

Although I conceptually am into animism, I‘m not opinionated on whether inanimate objects have literal souls. But your interaction with an object is a part of your living self. Therefore, regardless of any ensoulment or lack thereof, the object is alive in that you live the experience of using it.

Put another way, if you respect and care for an object, it will obviously seem “happier” — because you are checking on it regularly, noticing when it needs maintenance, keeping it in working condition, et cetera. If you don’t care about an object, it will probably lie forgotten in storage, become crumpled and dusty, smell like mildew, and stop working well. When you finally take it out, of course it will seem unpleasant.

So yeah. Treat your socks (and other belongings) like they’re alive, and you’ll keep them nice and well-maintained.

Having a “conversation” with your objects is especially valuable when assessing whether you should keep them or not. If you feel weird about talking with objects, remember that you are not talking to the object itself, but to the inner piece of you that has an attachment to that object. It’s a really helpful crutch; humans are often shy about our emotions, and not everyone is brash enough to directly unpack their feelings.

For whatever reason, I find it a lot easier and more concrete to face my feelings when I am forced to externalize the conversation by talking with the object attached to a specific set of feelings (“Pants, are we a good fit for each other?” “How’s it going, sentimental gift from my ex?”), rather than staring straight into my raw self and getting distracted by existential questions (“How do I feel about my paunch?” “Do I have closure on that relationship?”)

(If this resonates with you, check out Internal Family Systems therapy or “parts work”.)

When I feel shy, insecure, prickly, or anxious, I don't talk to the amorphous blob of feelings inside my head that may easily fly into a bottomless negative spiral. Instead, I simply project my insecurities onto my plush cactus.Although I have become capable when necessary of directly confronting the swirling mass of feelings within my raw self, it's about 100x easier and simpler to listen to my plush cactus say them, then bop him gently on the head and tell him all the things I needed to hear.
It's basically weaponizing broken-healer syndrome against itself. If you are compelled to heal others with your same problems instead of healing your own problems -- why not simply make one of them an external self-projection?

While cleaning out my clothes, I found an old sweater in the back of a drawer that I bought at least ten years ago and probably hadn’t worn in five. It was definitely not my style any more, and yet my hand refused to put it in the donation pile. So I took the book’s advice and thought about its role in my life.

I realized I was so attached to it because it was one of the first pieces of clothing I had ever bought for myself, during my first year in college (I largely subsisted on a diet of free T-shirts prior), and it felt comfortable and confident and different at the time. I had since developed my own style and no longer needed it, but it had helped me explore my style and develop agency, and was a link to that time of growth. Having processed this part of myself, I was suddenly completely ready to let it go.

Well-loved and well-used daily objects are comforting, and not having to dig through other objects to get to them feels streamlined. Opening my pants drawer and not seeing any pants that I secretly hate is wonderful. Owning fewer objects (still working on it) that make me feel guilty about a thing I said I’d do someday-aka-never feels light and freeing. I unearthed many useful things which I will probably never use, and managed to let go of. But I also unearthed many useful things which I’d forgotten about for years, and have actually started using with enthusiasm, like my violin.

I was kind of lenient on the first pass purging through my hoard, and even left a whole mess of categories unpurged, which is a big tidying no-no. But doing a first pass got me over the initial fear of letting go of stuff, and I’m excited to finish tidying all the way and be more intentional about my life.

You know the drill; go live your best life and all that.

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before