For the last three months, Mike has had to listen to my grumping about how much I am DYING to unpack and sort our things. You see, we are still waiting for them to arrive (which we now think should actually be soon). In the meantime I have had to exert my willpower not to put my sweaty mitts all over everyone else’s stuff and sort it out instead. I’ve restricted myself to 1) reading about decluttering and organisation and 2) watching strangers on YouTube going through their closets, makeup, kitchen utensils…strangely addictive.
So Mike suggested a few days ago that I sort out some of the files on my computer, a happily achievable project. I emptied the downloads folder (boing boing, crunch crunch – those are the sounds a Mac makes when you move and delete files). Then I decided to look at the ominous folder titled Writing.
This folder contains all my non-academic ‘writings’ since I began writing, which was at age 12. In case you don’t know, I am nearly 30, so it represents almost 18 years of disorganised creativity. Oh, I had divided it into folders, but the categorisation wasn’t exact and there were multiple drafts of the same thing floating around under different names – you know what I mean.
In the past, I have periodically organised this folder, but I considered its contents sacrosanct and therefore almost never deleted anything. However, in the last few years I have changed my mind about this aspect of my approach to organisation, and I now feel that the first step of organising anything is discarding some of it.
The method – Marie Kondo’s criterion of joy
I decided, this time, to go through my writing folder using an approach I hadn’t tried with my digital files before. You may have heard of the book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I could say a lot about it, but one of its central (and perhaps most debated) points is that the criterion for keeping anything is whether it brings you joy.
Not whether you have used it in the last 6 or 12 months, nor whether you have plans to use it again, nor how easy it would be to replace, nor even whether it is in good condition – all criteria I’ve often encountered as parameters for deciding what to get rid of. Kondo recommends, instead, choosing what to keep, and doing so based on your own subjective and intuitive response to the thing itself.
So I went through my Writing folder looking for those documents that sparked joy. Kondo recommends taking objects in your hands one by one to evaluate them, but obviously with digital files you can’t do this. I simply scanned the document preview, or if necessary opened the document and skimmed it as much as necessary to identify what it was. I then asked myself (mentally), ‘Do I feel joy at this?’, or if I was able, paid attention to my first instinctive response to a document.
Did it work?
In case you’re interested, my Trash folder now tells me that I discarded 93 files, but I have to say that I didn’t have a numeric goal and I didn’t keep track of my progress as I went. Some people seem to find a numeric goal inspiring, but one of Kondo’s points is that how much you discard or how much you keep don’t ultimately matter. I personally find that setting an arbitrary goal, like eliminating 25% or 50% of something, is often stress-inducing or – on the opposite end of the spectrum – can induce laziness, making me stop partway through a declutter just because I’ve already reached my target.
My actual goal was that I wanted to feel differently about my Writing folder.
That Writing folder has been, for many years now, something I have viewed with a mixture of pleasure and dread. On the one hand, I have always loved poking through it to find little tidbits I’d forgotten about, or to laugh outright at some early specimens. But on the other hand, I was always equally likely to unearth bizarre fragments of my own thinking (apparently my own thinking – usually not things I remember writing) that weren’t amusing at all; at best, boring and pointless, and at worst, embarrassing, such that trawling through them wasn’t enjoyable. If you’ve ever written anything, you probably know – sometimes we write things that are just bad, that we ourselves hate and would rather forget. That’s why you edit. Doing a PhD has changed my view of the value of first drafts or fragmentary notes. Honing a long piece of writing repeatedly through the years reinforced to me that first-draft brilliance, ‘raw, unpolished, ingenious,’ or whatever, is very rare – I’m now much less attached to early drafts and notes because I don’t think they’re particularly magical. Often they are just bad. I kept these things out of, I guess, a kind of honesty, or else simply because I saw the folder as an archive of my work, not to be tampered with.
What I had never done, till now, was go through these documents with respect for my own feelings. This, I think, is the revolutionary demand that Kondo’s method makes of us: to respect how we feel about our things. When I was culling through my documents, some made me laugh, some I even thought were imaginative or cool, or made me go ‘Huh!’ at reading what might be a lot of words centring around a tiny kernel of a really good idea. But some were so long and of so little interest to me now that I didn’t even want to scroll down to see their entire contents; others were so fragmentary that I didn’t even know what I was thinking when I wrote them; and, as always, there were a few I just hated. I might say, ‘I hope no one ever reads this.’ But more to the point, I did not ever want to read it either! I used to think that decluttering was about a lengthy, rational dialogue with myself, going through a bunch of questions to determine something’s right to stay and trying to distance myself emotionally from it. Asking myself, ‘Do I feel joy?’ brought the focus to my singular, intuitive response, which was often surprisingly clear and in fact not overly inclined to ‘keep everything from sentiment’, as I might fear. Rather, I could often tell very clearly and quickly what I liked, or didn’t, when I stopped to ask myself directly.
This decluttering was a success not because of how much I got rid of or kept, but because it changed how I felt about that Writing folder. I want to feel happy about it. I want it to be a place of enjoyment rather than exasperation or disgust, or impatience as I am unable to find what I want in the sea of stupid fragments.
I should note that Kondo’s method is about more than simply ‘finding joy’, and she has a detailed procedure for culling through all your belongings in sequence. Not having done that, I’m not adhering strictly to her method, but as I mentioned before, until all our belongings are in one place I can’t really tackle everything the way she advises. In light of this small project – a single digital file folder – I simply conclude that for me there is something potent in using the criterion of joy to choose what I keep. I plan to use it in the future as well.