Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Month: July 2015

My Decluttering Kid Stuff Experiment

There is one major decluttering category I haven’t touched yet and it’s taking over our lives and causing the kind of stress that you only feel after stepping on another lego in bare feet. Following Marie Kondo and Joshua Becker’s advice, I haven’t touched (most) of the kids’ things (or Nathan’s actually, but he’s de-owned a few spaces on his own). I can’t even get the kids to help me sort through my things. Is there a pack rat gene? Because I’m pretty sure these kids have inherited one. My daughters are 5 and 2. Here’s how a typical conversation about de-owning goes in our house.

Me: “Girls, do you want to help me decide what we should give away in x room or category?”

Kids: “No, I want to keep ALL our/my stuff!”

Me: “But we aren’t using some of this stuff like, x!”

Kids: [Grabs the item and starts using it.] “We love x. Mom, don’t take away our stuff!”

Me: “Wouldn’t you like to give this to your cousin, Holly?”

Kids: “No!”

Me: “But it’s a baby toy.”

Kids: “Well, we’re babies [fake crying].”

Me: “But there are plenty of kids who don’t have as many things as we do. Don’t you want to help them?”

Kids: “No”

Me: [Disappointed look]

Kids: [Tears]

Now, to be fair, they are really good kids and in every other way would jump to the aid of anyone else in need. I just can’t figure out how to get them to give up their excess things! What do they think is going to happen? That I’ll take away all of the toys?

Finally Decluttering Kid Stuff

Maybe my kids are simply too young to understand what I’m trying to do, but I’m at my wits’ end. Their toys exploding in every corner of the house is causing all of us stress and I know it’s unhealthy for them. I decided to finally take matters into my own hands and try a decluttering kid stuff experiment.

The Experiment

This weekend, I grabbed all of the toys in our living room (which included a corner filled with them, a bookshelf, miscellaneous toys just lying places, and a toybox filled to the brim) and I took them all out. The whole room was practically covered in toys. Then, I started to place toys I knew the girls loved into shoeboxes (a KonMari organization trick) and watched carefully while they began to play with toys they hadn’t seen in months.

We did this for hours. I’d organize another set of toys and they’d move swiftly from one item to the next. Then I bagged up the toys they didn’t touch and set them aside.

De-Owning the Forgotten Toys

I plan to hold onto the bag of unused toys for a while to see if anyone misses them. I doubt they will. The toys in there are things I’ve rarely seen them touch, even when they were new. Getting rid of these is likely the right decision. I’ve also got a completely organized toybox and the kids have actually been putting toys away in their designated spots!

Our Organized Toybox

Our Organized Toybox

No Apologies, But Be Slick About It

I’m still learning how to handle de-owning with kids. I know that if they found the bag and found out what I wanted to do with it, they’d be mad. That’s why the bag is well hidden and I’ll be taking it directly to a donation center when I’m satisfied they won’t miss them. Life’s too short for too much stuff and eventually I think my kids will agree.

Do you have a technique that gets your kids excited about giving away their things? How do you do it?

Four Ways Decluttering Gets Easier Over Time

I’m just two months shy of my minimalist project anniversary and there are some tasks I’m starting to do for a second time, albeit on a much smaller scale. This weekend, I sorted through my daughter’s art from her second year of preschool. Unlike last year when sorting took me several hours, this session took me 15 minutes. Decluttering gets easier over time and here’s how!


Last year, I saved every scrap of paper my daughter so much as doodled on and then waited until the next school year started before sorting through it. I took pictures of EVERYTHING (pictures that I haven’t done anything with, by the way), and finally kept only five of the most special pieces of art.

O is for Owl


For round two, I still didn’t sort throughout the year (which is what I should have done). However, this time I quickly sorted my giant art pile into two: memory-worthy pieces and those that went straight into the trash (no pictures). I ended up with 15 pieces, took pictures of each one, and saved the best five.



Four Ways Decluttering Gets Easier

#1 – You’re Not Afraid to Get Rid of Things

After nearly a year, I’ve realized that there’s nothing inanimate that you can get rid of that’s irreplaceable. I also haven’t needed anything I’ve thrown away (I missed a couple of things, but realized I’m much better off without them). I am much more confident in my decisions.

#2 – There’s Less of Everything

It took me two evenings to sort through toiletries last fall and less than 30 minutes to do it two weeks ago. Everything in the same category is located in the same spot in our house and there’s a LOT less of it.

#3 – Nobody Questions Why You’re Doing This

Your whole family gets used to your purging and, if you’re lucky, they might even start to look forward to the cleaner living space.

#4 – You’ve Already Learned The Hard Way

Never, ever save artwork with marshmallows on it. They only get stickier with time. I’ve also personally decided that trying to sell items worth less than $25 is not worth my time. It’s far easier to donate them or throw them away. There are a hundred other lessons you learn through decluttering and they make future sessions much more smooth!

Craft Table Before

Craft Table Before De-owning & Decluttering

Craft Table After De-owning & Decluttering

Craft Table After De-owning & Decluttering

So, get out there and get started! Decluttering gets easier from here.

Discarding Komono: Marie Kondo’s Miscellaneous Category

I’ve found the KonMari Method of organization, invented and popularized by Marie Kondo in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, to be an easily-followed breath of fresh air in the organizing world. For one, she emphasizes that you must first discard the things that don’t “spark joy” (which helps you on the road to rational minimalism). Secondly, she describes a method of organization that doesn’t require you to buy a bunch of fancy storage units from the Container Store. I’ve been having (yes, I’ll admit it) fun going through each category and experiencing the real difference it’s making in our house. I’ve done clothes, books, and papers (part I and part 2) so far. Now it’s time for the “Miscellaneous” category which Kondo calls komono. It’s really a dozen mini-categories wrapped into one.

I am halfway through discarding komono.

Marie Kondo’s Miscellaneous Categories

They’re called “komono”, or random things you keep for no apparent reason. Here’s what Kondo specifically calls out:

  1. CDs, DVDs
  2. Skin care products
  3. Make-up
  4. Accessories
  5. Valuables (passports, credit cards, etc)
  6. Electrical equipment and appliances (digital cameras, electric cords, anything that seems vaguely electric)
  7. Household equipment (stationary and writing materials, sewing kits, etc)
  8. Household supplies (expendables like medicine, detergents, tissues, etc)
  9. Kitchen goods/food supplies (spatulas, pots, blenders, etc)
  10. Others (spare change, figurines, etc)

What Else?

As you can imagine, everyone’s komono categories are different. In addition to Marie Kondo’s official categories you’ve also got to be savvy and figure out what you haven’t discarded yet that’s not sentimental. Do you have a hobby that wasn’t covered? Or a sport? What about your furniture, does it spark joy? At the end of this list, in my opinion, you’ll still need to walk around the house and uncover a bunch of categories that haven’t been touched. Throughout this book, I get the feeling that Americans just have WAY more excess stuff than the Japanese, which is why I suspect that we’ll have WAY more komono categories.

What I’ve Done

Kondo doesn’t go into a lot of details on komono. So far, I’ve gone through numbers 1-6 and here’s what I did.

CDs, DVDs (“Joint De-owning”)

I sat down with my husband right after we did books and went through DVDs together, because DVDs seemed like a logical next step and many of our movies are shared. He looked at them first and if they didn’t spark joy for him, then I got to decide whether it stayed or went. This “joint de-owning” technique actually worked quite well and Nathan ended up continuing to de-own a large set of his own books after that. I was thrilled.

My CDs were a bit different. I’d already gotten rid of all of their packaging. Now, I just looked through them and got rid of the ones that truly didn’t spark joy. I also made a mental note to upgrade my music player so I could completely get rid of my CDs in the future.

Discarding CDs

Skin Care Products & Make-up

I did skin care products and make-up together with medicines because I felt they were basically all one category and I didn’t think I had very many left. Boy, was I wrong.

Products & Medicine

Products & Medicine

I not only kept the things that “sparked joy”, but also kept the items we were actively using and discarded items that had expired. I wrote the year on all of the sunscreen that I know we bought this year and threw away the rest. I have no idea how we accumulated so many half-used sunscreen bottles.


What is this category? Didn’t we already de-own accessories when we worked through the clothing? I have no idea what Kondo meant by accessories in this context and so I just skipped this category.


Passports, credit cards, and other things that are important fall into this category. I basically went through all of these during the paper purge because many of these are kept with my valuable paperwork.

All I had to do was go through my wallet and make sure I didn’t have any old cards. I suppose if you have an excessive amount of credit cards, you should cut some of them up at this point. I only have three: my VISA, my back-up VISA that I keep around mostly because it’s my oldest account, and my Target card. Purge the expired cards and sell the gift cards you know you’ll never use.

Electrical Equipment & Appliances

This category took longer than expected. First throw away broken appliances and appliances that don’t spark joy. Then, throw away any leftover boxes your appliances came in. Finally, go through your cords. If you don’t know what a cord belongs to, throw it out. It’s easier to go buy a cord you really need than to search for it in a heap of useless cords. Label the cords you use.

How Long Does This Take?

All of this took me an afternoon. I’m halfway through the list. My house is in much better shape. Now, if only I could get my kids to embrace KonMari too because the largest pile of uncharted “stuff” left is quickly becoming toys.

The Blue Zone (Lessons for Living Longer): A Book Review

You may be missing out on ten good years.” –Dan Buettner The Blue Zone

I am immediately skeptical of claims like this, unless they come from scientists who are studying how humans have lived and evolved for thousands of years. This is one of those books that wraps up age-old and forgotten knowledge about health and wellness into one fascinating and actionable read.

The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones (Graphic Credit: unknown)

Dan Buettner has a pretty interesting job. He’s spent years visiting remote areas of the world; areas that seem to have a disproportionate number of centenarians, to figure out what makes these people live so long. He’s researched and written a cover article for National Geographic on longevity and elaborates on that article in his book called, The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

What I love about this book is that Buettner’s team employs a wide range of scientists from gerontologists to psychologists to take a focused look at what has helped some extraordinary people live a long, long time. Then, they boil their findings down to nine key areas, with several suggestions for how to turn your life and home into your own, personal “Blue Zone”, the term used to denote small pockets of the world where a large percentage of the population lives a very long time. We’re not talking about people wasting away bedridden in a nursing home, these are people who are mobile, happy, and living at home well into their hundreds.

Spoiler alert: Americans are doing so very many things wrong. (No surprise there!)

Where Are the Blue Zones?

The four Blue Zones that Buettner dives into are Sardinia (the mountainous Barbagia region), Okinawa, Japan, a 7th Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California, and the Nicoya region in Costa Rica. In these four places, centenarians have spent their lives working hard, eating fresh, local, whole foods, resting with friends, and devoting their lives to their families and God. In fact, one key finding of this study is that if you’d like to live a long time, you’ve got to have a purpose (ikigai, plan de vida, or simply reason to get up in the morning).

The people living beyond 100 are, almost as a rule, extraordinarily likeable people who spend their days with their friends and families. They’ve seen everything and seem to let the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They are, in short, one in a million – or are they? In one village in Sardinia 91 in 17,865 people live to 100 compared to 17.3 in 100,000 in the United States. Clearly these people are doing something right and we can too.

Steps to Create Your Own Blue Zone

 I can’t possibly share all of the interesting anecdotes or fascinating cultural stories that I found to be so delightful about this book, but I can share the conclusions. Just why are these people living so long? Buettner and his team boil the answer down to nine reasons.

  1. Move Naturally

Blue Zoners spent their entire lives doing a lot of physical labor, which gave them daily, moderate exercise. The Sardinians walked 5 or 6 miles a day as they tended herds of sheep. Most centenarians in all four zones gardened. All got the equivalent of 30-60 minutes per day of aerobic, balancing, and strength-training exercise. Exercise and movement is key to a long and useful life.

  1. Eat only until you’re 80% full

In Okinawa the elders mutter a phrase before every meal: “Hara hachi bu”, which reminds them to stop eating when they’re 80% full, reducing the amount of calories they intake. Over time could mean the difference between maintaining a healthy weight and gaining weight. Blue Zoners really concentrate on their food. They sit down, they eat it with family, and they eat on smaller dishes (which reduces the amount you eat too).

  1. Avoid meat and processed foods

Science tends to agree with the centenarians, the foods we should be eating are vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruit and nuts. Most of the Blue Zoners eat at least two vegetables with every meal. They eat nuts and fresh produce from their gardens. Hardly anyone that’s lived to 100 eats any processed foods: no McDonald’s, no sodas, nothing. At most, they eat meat once a week, but many are vegetarians.

  1. Drink red wine

Finally, something that seems easy. Drinking 1-2 small servings of alcoholic beverages a day brings in plenty of antioxidants, which is likely a key factor in longevity. Holding a happy hour with 1-2 drinks, nuts, and good company offers many of the benefits essential to a long life.

  1. Have a purpose

Scientists and families have seen it again and again. Once someone loses his or her life purpose (a family member they care for, a job — whatever gets them up in the morning) death quickly follows. For many centenarians, their family is their purpose and they still take an active role in providing for them, even if that means buying and making the same Costa Rican soup every Sunday. That purpose keeps us going.

  1. Downshift

All of the people studied had a way of letting the worries of the world roll off their shoulders. They were rarely stressed out. The book recommends we limit electronic equipment exposure (so many ads and news blurbs only makes us more stressed out), arrive early, and meditate. I can personally vouch for meditation. I’ve starting doing it just two minutes a day (which is really hard at first) and it really does center you and bring you back into the “now”. Leo Babuta from Zen Habits has great instructions to help you get started with meditation.

  1. Spiritual Community

Most of the centenarians have unshakable faith, though they all practice different religions. Faith helps us remove stress in that we know someone is watching over us, keeping us safe. Most religions also give us a ready-made community and weekly time to meditate or just sit still.

This is a tough one for me because, though I was raised a Lutheran, shortly after college I went through a period of 3-4 years in which I did a lot of soul searching and religious research. I no longer believe in a higher power, but people like me can still find solace in other ways. I respect and revere nature (as well as adore spending time outside, particularly hiking). I’ve also found the Unitarian Universalist community to be most welcoming as their doctrine invites you to think hard about what you really believe, then believe it, and they will support you. There are a lot of great atheists that are Unitarian Universalists, reaping some of the benefits of organized religion for a longer life.

  1. Family First

The purpose driving many of our centenarians was providing for their families. Most live with or near their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and spend a lot of time with their families. Even if you live only with your immediate family, there are a lot of things you can do to put the focus back on family. Eat together, live in a smaller home so you physically must spend more time together, establish rituals, create a family “shrine” with photos and memorabilia, and simply spend more time together.

  1. Find others with Blue Zone values

Look through your inner circle. Who embodies these values more than others? Spend more time with the people who you love and who reinforce your good behaviors. Be likeable (none of the centenarians are grumpy people). Spend at least 30 minutes a day with your Blue Zone inner circle.


For each of the steps above, the Blue Zone gives more advice for how to achieve each goal. They suggest trying 1-3 new goals at a time for a period of 5-12 weeks (the time it takes to form a new habit). I’m currently reducing the amount of meat I eat everyday, starting with meat-free work lunches. I’ve found it is incredibly easy to find and take vegetarian options to the office AND I don’t have to inconvenience any of my family members who aren’t ready to become vegetarians yet.

This was a fantastic book, especially if you’re looking for concrete ways to gain more, healthy time on Earth. And who isn’t?

Discard Papers with KonMari: Part 2

Last week, in Part 1, I outlined Marie Kondo’s “discard papers” method, which she describes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Unlike discarding clothes and books, which can be done in a few hours, discarding papers took me two weeks. Why? Because papers are EVERYWHERE!

I dealt with the file cabinet and our dresser and the kitchen island and the kitchen table and the storage boxes and the coupons and the random kid creations and our junk drawer…

Junk Drawer Before & After

Junk Drawer Before & After

Literally every room, drawer, and box had random paper and it just keeps coming in everyday (thank you, US Postal Service)!

Keep or Pitch?

I followed Kondo’s advice as closely as possible, but I found that she didn’t touch on many types of documents, so I had to make up a few things as I went.

Document Type What I Did
Health Insurance Claims Since we thankfully aren’t going through any extended illnesses, I started throwing these out right away. Our insurance company keeps a copy on their portal.
Kids’ Art Throw out all but the best pieces of art. If you can’t decide, take a picture, and then toss them. For more ideas, check out this blog post.
Receipts After verifying the charge online, I now throw out receipts for food, gas, and anything else I probably won’t return. The rest I keep for a year, except for items that have extended warranties.
Bills I’ve gone paperless and have automated payments on almost all of my bills, so I don’t have to deal with paper or checks.
Coupons I stopped using coupons. They are so annoying and I realized they’re not worth my time in sorting and storing them.

Kondo’s Suggestions

Document Type

What She Suggests

Warranties Keep them in a single folder, since you don’t have to access them frequently.
Instruction Manuals Throw them out. They’re all online, and we rarely look at them anyway.
Lecture Materials Put the ideas to use and then get rid of your notes.
Credit Card Statements After you’ve ensured they’re correct, they’ve fulfilled their usefulness. Throw them out.
Old Checkbooks No one uses these again. Throw them out.
Greeting Cards Get rid of them, except for the ones that spark joy.
Pay Slips Use them to figure out how much you earned and then throw them out.
Sentimental Papers Set them aside until you deal with mementos. Eventually you’ll break them into two piles: “keep” and “deal with”.

Things I Kept

  1. Pay-off notices for old mortgages and car loans.
  2. Hospital records from when my kids were born and vaccine records.
  3. Tax Forms up to seven years ago, only because we’re required to, legally.
  4. All official IDs, titles, and insurance policies.
  5. Mementos: Anything that had sentimental value, I set aside to deal with later.
  6. One copy of each bill, so I can reference our account number if I need to.
  7. Warranties now live in their own folder, nicely labeled and about 1/6 of the size they used to be before I got rid of the manuals.
Good-bye Instruction Manuals

Good-bye Instruction Manuals

  1. Employee documents related to our nanny.
  2. Car maintenance records in case we ever resell them.
  3. Current reservations & tickets (like our Busch Gardens summer passes)!
  4. Credit reports: We likely only need the latest one, but I want to be sure we’re covered if anyone’s identity is ever stolen.

Still, even with all of these items still in the house, I’ve gone from four, full file drawers down to half of the top drawer (frequently accessed) and half of the second drawer (infrequently accessed). I need a lot less file cabinet now!

Top File Drawer Before & After

Top File Drawer Before & After


Kondo recommends the following:

  1. A vertical file for papers in use, or that you need to process.  I didn’t have a vertical file yet, but my pile of “in use” papers is now located in ONE location: the corner of our kitchen island. I understand why the vertical file would be better: things at the bottom of my pile are forgotten and lost.
  2. A clear, accordion folder for documents you need to access frequently. I have been using David Allen’s Getting Things Done method for eight years and, without an accordion folder readily available, I decided to continue to organize my files with alphabetized hanging folders. The only difference is that now, my files fill up half of one drawer, instead of four. I’ll likely switch to an accordion folder someday because I like the idea that it would fill up more quickly, prompting me to evaluate what’s in there sooner.
  3. A clear, single folder for documents you don’t need to access frequently. The rest of the files that don’t have sensitive information in them, I put in a pile inside the second file drawer. I didn’t mix them all together because they were already in folders, I just stacked up the folders and put them away.
"Infrequent Access" File Drawer

“Infrequent Access” File Drawer

  1. Everything else (ids, titles, tax papers, etc) goes in a secret, protected location.

The End of Paper

I really, really hated this project. It seemed to take forever and it was really, really boring. However, it is completely worth it. It turns out that random papers were the reason my house always looked so messy. Now, even with our kids’ toys strewn about, the house looks much better and it’s even easier to sort our mail (much more of it goes directly into the recycling). Now, the only problem is getting all this to the shredder.

Shred This

Pretty good, given that I’d already gone through our files once this year!

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