Book review: The Art of Discarding by Nagisa Tatsumi

Reading has been an important part of my life since I understood the superpowers it conferred and proceeded to read through the whole local children’s library in the 1990s. And since I got hooked on minimalism and sustainability in 2014, great part of my readings have been around these topics, both on-line and off.

The Art of Discarding: How to Get Rid of Clutter and Find Joy (Hachette Books 2005 [2017]) by Nagisa Tatsumi has a weird history of being edited in English only after being mentioned in the gospel according to Kondo as a suboptimal tidying method. The synopsis starts with “Practical and inspiring, The Art of Discarding (the book that originally inspired a young Marie Kondo to start cleaning up her closets) offers hands-on advice and easy-to-follow guidelines to help readers learn how to finally let go of stuff that is holding them back as well as sage advice on acquiring less in the first place”. It doesn’t reveal the whole story about Kondo passing out in exhaustion after a throw-away frenzy and then regaining consciousness with an insight how the focus has to be on ‘does it spark joy?’ instead of ‘could I just throw it away?’

Tatsumi is less sophisticated than Kondo in her method. There are no magical questions and promises of everlasting piece if only you would fold your knickers right. This is a method without fluff – as most of the ‘get rid of your shit’ tidying literature is – based on the single premise that, if you would just look around critically, you would realize that most of your stuff can go. The quote I’ve chosen for the title pic is the basic truth that only very rarely something consciously thrown out will be sorely missed and hardly replaceable. The true treasures and items that have ‘this passport is the property of the State of’ printed on them will never be in your maybe pile.

(I do have a heartbreakingly stupid counterfactual to that, though. At my big tidying spree of my last childhood room before giving it back to my parents I donated a hot pink transparent plastic triangle ruler with assorted diameter circles inside it, like a love child between this and this but in my all-time favorite color for plastic. Despite my undying love for all thing hot transparent pink, I decided that such thing should be easy enough to replace if need be. Little did I know! I ended up wanting to work with little circles right after that, obviously, and went to all physical shops in Rīga I could think about… Nope. No circles. Not in any color. And in no shape. Now I have that circle stencil sheet linked above from Spanish Amazon and still think of the other one. It wasn’t a birth certificate, of course, just a proof that our replaceability calculus is very wrong sometimes.)

Most of Tatsumi’s book is straightforward advice like setting limits and not exceeding them (along the lines of ‘if my clothing does not fit in my wardrobe, I should get rid of some’) and establishing a number of something actually needed (tableware, sets of bed linen), pruning out the rest and gradually replacing the old ones with new when you see them wearing out. She doesn’t propose a once-off tidying festival or a minimalist game. Instead her premise is that most people bring in their homes much more items than they discard, so the capacity of getting rid of has to be strengthened. And she is empathic, too. So Kondo’s falling becoming a ‘discarding machine’, according to herself, might tell more about Kondo than about the ‘art of discarding’ Tatsumi proposes:

My favorite few sentences of the book that Tatsumi uses just to sell her more individualistic approach (in comparison with more direct ‘this is the right way’ approach apparently present in Japanese tidying culture) sends me into a spin every time a think about professional organizing. This is the great inherent conflict in professional organizing, the selection bias that were also very clear during the KonMari Consultant seminar. The selection bias are very clear and there is tension between a tidying coach and the client because of one’s ability to do exactly that thing on her own and enjoy it, and other’s realization that some assistance would be very nice… Of course, it is softened by the fact that tidying or minimalist lifestyle is not a clinically proven prescription (although for last few years lifestyle magazines would make you think that it is) but a choice. This, the obvious statement that all tidying has to be a personalized solution (and that the ‘experts’ have to be very aware that they are not very normal to begin with):

Here come a couple of mind tricks I think might be useful, apart from the – critical and conscious – limit setting mentioned before:

1. Your possessions are not somebody’s gifts anymore! Kondo also says the same, don’t know if borrowing or is it some third party wisdom… “Discard once they’ve served their purpose. […] Gifts are all about the act of giving. So as soon as they’ve been given/received, we could say that their function has been fulfilled.”

Gifts fill us with guilt, so at least trying to do this reframing once the object is yours might help to disassociate it from the giver and value it on its own merits. Very hard, I know, we’ve been taught all our lives to do it the opposite way…

2. The doubt takes mental energy. “When we’re troubled by a sense of waste, delay seems to make disposal easier. But if you’re going to get rid of something anyway, you may as well do so straight away. […] If you stop delaying disposal, you’ll also stop diluting your sense of waste. Keeping a keen sense of waste – guilt at throwing things away – can have a very positive effect […]”

Repeat after me: my home is not a storage unit, my home is not a dumpster… It is true, though, that some people benefit from a cooling off period of making deals with yourself, like ‘if I don’t touch this box in three months, it’s going away’, or just a maybe pile to get tired of and toss away. It is thrilling to give oneself the permission to let go!

(I had one of these moments a couple of weeks ago at work. Sounding like a Kondo case, I had a fat pack of papers from a software course I took last summer. I kept telling myself that to truly master the contents I should just take a week off and go through all those materials again. For more than a year I kept moving that pile from desktop to drawers and back. Before leaving the office for vacations I finally tossed it all in the paper bin knowing that I do not want to do that at all and have enough productivity anxiety inducing to-dos already. Felt really good.)

3. Develop a notion of ‘used-enough’. “The belief that things should be used until their potential is exhausted is a powerful one. People seem to think that if they keep something, there’ll be the opportunity at some point for this potential to be used. (The reason some people like passing things on to second-hand shops is the idea that somebody else will take over this potential.) But it’s better not to bother about whether you use things to their full potential. […] Or you could go a bit further and say,”It’s done what I bought it to do, so that’s that. I’ve used it to the full.” […] In other words, by fulfilling your purpose, its potential has, in fact, been exhausted. […] With the “I’ve-used-it-once-so-I-can-get-rid-of-it” mindset a lot of things are easier to discard. Depending on the item, it may be a question of ”once” or “this much”, but either way this attitude will stop you worrying about being wasteful.”

Another type of deal, ‘I’ll wear it once, remember why I hated it, and will be able to let go finally’.

4. Little victories! “Choose a compact area – a table top, a kitchen shelf, or a washstand, say – and decide you will definitely not put anything there. Then keep your resolution. […] It’s easier to feel the impact it you’re dealing with a place you can see. The first thing you’ll notice is how many unnecessary things you have around you, and how they increase in number by day. As this begins to bother you, you’ll want to do something about it. By following this strategy you’ll also develop the habit of disposal – of reducing the number of unnecessary things you have. Instead of picking redundant things up and putting them back, you’ll pick them up and dispose of them. This is why it’s important to start with a compact place. If the job is too onerous, you’ll get fed up before discarding becomes habit.”

A strategy I really like is the empty or half-empty storage spaces. Empty surfaces are aesthetic, of course, and easy to clean, but there is something truly mischievous about and empty cupboard.

5. Mindful second-handing, please. “[Reselling] is a very good solution for people whose sense of waste won’t let them throw things away. If this kind of recycling becomes part of our society’s system, it will mean that things can circulate. This circulation will prevent things from accumulating in people’s homes, so that there will be less stuff in society as a whole. […] At worst, the desire to see things reused can lead to the simplistic thought that someone will use it eventually… This way of thinking allows people to buy things that are unnecessary in the belief that there’s no waste – if they don’t want it, someone else will. This leads to a vicious cycle of purchase and disposal: things accumulate, you pass them on, then more things accumulate. And what you believe to be a waste-free method of disposal often ends up with somebody else simply throwing things away on your behalf.”

I do think that there is a strength in accepting that I create a heap of garbage that is not going anywhere nice, that’s the modern living. Nobody is innocent. Yes, even the zero-wasters, as they happily tell you they ‘refuse’ the airplane food… That refusal is so naive it’s endearing! So, be realistic about your wallapop and freecycle aspirations, as with all sustainability delusions (1, 2).

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Got some tidying inspiration? This type of books really get me wishing to revise the whatever few junk nest there might still be in our flat… Talk about those selection bias! What fun books have you read lately? Anything life-changing I should be aware about?

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Luīze

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