I was super thrilled when Karin Socci of The Serene Home agreed to be interviewed for TFI, mostly for purely selfish reasons. After downsizing from a home of 17 years to a loft (where you can see everything) I have been purging, but still want to let go of more things—from coffee makers (don’t ask how many I have or how many of those I actually use), to clothes, to books. I crave some serious zen, but it’s hard. My mottos of buy less, buy better and one in/one out are relatively easy to follow, but that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the goods that have accumulated over the years. While I was talking to Karin and sitting at my desk, I decided I could get rid of half the objects sitting on it (there aren’t many to begin with) and I wouldn’t miss them. Then, after our interview, I made appointments with The Real Real to get rid of more clothes and some furniture, started creating more piles to donate to Housing Works, and finally caved and bought Marie’s first book which I’m going to read this weekend. This is a lengthy interview but I learned so much from our conversation; Karin has made me take a serious look at the why I lug around the stuff that I do and to question if it represents who I am and want to be going forward into 2020 and beyond. I hope it inspires you too. (If you want to have Karin help you, sign up on her site here to schedule a complimentary 15 minute phone conversation to get an idea of what she can do for you.)
What did you do before you were a KonMari expert, and what led you to want to become one?
I’ve always been a relatively organized person. I come from a stay-at-home mom who vacuumed at two in the morning. It’s kind of a thing in our house that we’re pretty well organized, my grandmothers and my mom stayed at home, and they really had the time and the interest in kind of maintaining this traditional home that was relatively well organized. But that wasn’t my path. I got my first master’s degree in clinical psychotherapy and became a therapist. So for the very first part of my professional life, I was a therapist in hospital settings and in private practice and worked with a wide variety of people. I always had been relatively interested in anxiety type disorders, because there’s a very big spectrum of things that are kind of classified as, everything from obsessive compulsive disorders to just kind of the mild anxiety that everyone experiences every day.
However, as my career had gone on, I had gotten into health care finance and got my MBA and felt very strongly that that was the direction that I wanted the rest of my career to go. Got my MBA, loved getting my MBA, hated the work. And so, my first job as a health care finance person, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. Not only did I not like it, but I wasn’t very good at it. So I was really kind of in this limbo place, where I felt very pigeon holed because of my experience in health care. I was just really not happy with what I was doing and didn’t see a clear path.
I floundered for three years. Then, as a part of a move from a small apartment to a larger apartment, after having lived in the same space for nine years, I read Marie Kondo’s book. I still to this day don’t know what possessed me to grab it, but I read it very quickly, and thought, wow, this makes so much sense. My now-husband and I were moving into together and it was our first apartment. I thought, I just want to see how much of this stuff I can get rid of, because I feel like there’s a lot of things here that don’t really represent who I am anymore.
As I began the process, I was really shocked at how much stuff I had managed to squirrel away in every square inch of this apartment. One of the things about New Yorkers is that we’re very creative when it comes to using our space.
I’m relearning that.
What I’ve learned is that we always manage to fill whatever space we have. The space is a vacuum, and our tendency is, if you have the space for it, then you don’t have to make a decision. So there are things and you think, I know this needs to go somewhere someday. I don’t really need it, but I’m not exactly sure how to get rid of it, or I don’t have the time to get rid of it right now, so I’ll just put it over here. And the same is true, actually how clutter accumulates. Anyway, so doing my condo from beginning to end, as directed, I literally got rid of over half of the things that I owned.
Just all of these things, the “maybe someday projects”, the “maybe this will come in handy some day”, or the “I don’t know what this part belongs to, but it looks important, so I’m just going to keep it”. You know, all of these rationals for keeping things. Or it costs money, and it seems wasteful to just toss it, even though I’m not going to use it.
So bag after bag went to Goodwill. And it was the easiest move I had ever done, because I knew exactly where everything was going to go when I got to the new apartment. As opposed to, in the past, when I had moved, it was basically kind of came down to the last minute panic of just shoving stuff in boxes, or having other people shove everything in the boxes, and then getting it to the new place, and then trying to figure out what to do with all of this stuff. But this way, I really came to this new place unburdened with a lot of this stuff I had carried with me from the past.
I was transfixed by this whole concept of organizing. I was really interested in what Marie Kondo was doing, and so I started doing a lot of research on her. I discovered that she had been teaching consultants in Japan, and I was so intrigued by this idea of learning how to do this, that I even thought “maybe I should just go to Japan and study under her”, which was kind of an interesting idea, since I don’t know a word of Japanese, and I had never been to Japan.
Luckily at this point, she had begun to do book tours in the States, and she and her team decided that they would offer a couple of classes in New York and San Francisco. So I went to the San Francisco class. I started my business right after I got back from San Francisco. This was in August of 2016. Built a website, had practice clients. And within about two months, I was able to quit my job. There was so much interest in what I was doing. What I didn’t realize was how much my previous background as a therapist would come into play.
I can imagine.
Everything kind of came full circle, and all of a sudden all these choices I had made in my life kind of made sense, because it all came together in what I’m doing now. I’m still really interested in the idea of stress and anxiety and disorganization, and how it’s kind of a vicious cycle. It seems to be really kind of a very common thing with people, is just feeling a lot of stress and indecision, and not really knowing where to start, and then feeling overwhelmed. And the feeling of not knowing how to get out of that cycle. So it’s super interesting, and it’s really rewarding.
I think it’s overwhelming! You can get through part of it, but to do the whole thing, it’s a big time commitment, and then you have all this stuff that you have to get rid of in some manner or fashion. What do you find is sort of the hardest part of KonMari? What do people struggle with the most?
Everybody’s different. And it’s always interesting to me to see where people struggle. So for some people, there’s fear. I work with a lot of young families with growing children. Certainly if it’s the first child, there’s always, “Okay, are we going to have another baby? Do we want to keep all this stuff?” Or ” baby never got to wear this, because she outgrew it so quickly,” or whatever it is, there’s just hesitation as far as baby things, sometimes in new families.
All this stuff comes in, all this equipment. And it takes over the entire home.
It sure does.
The living room and the dining room and the kitchen. So for young families, a lot of times it’s just having a lot of stuff that you’re not sure if you’ll need again.
For older people, sometimes it’s things like paper. A lot of fear about throwing something out that they might need. Some people are not very computer savvy and are really concerned about being able to get a document again. Or it’s that credit card statement from three years ago, because what if a question came up from the IRS or something about something that they had spent. I find sometimes that people have collected decades of bank statements in their attic or in their basement.
Before I moved, I had 20 years of tax returns, I had to take them to a shredder and it was inconvenient, so I didn’t. Because I had space to keep them, I just did. How do you convince people that it’s worth the time and effort to do all this?
Well, the good thing is, there’s a lot of good resources, and I will say that doing this work, I’ve learned what to do with some of these things. So for example, Staples and places like that have shredding services by the pound. So instead of sitting there and thinking, “I’m going to have to shred this on my personal shredder”, then those things can be taken. But also, there’s a comfort level with discarding personal information. The reality is, and this is not a hundred percent true, but it is mostly true, that, if someone wants to steal your identity, they’re not going to go look through your trash. They’ll find it online. A lot of people hesitate to even throw out junk mail because it has their address on it. The reality is if you live in the city, everyone knows where you live.
What do you think is the easiest area of a home to tackle when you start?
in KonMari, we think in terms of category as opposed to location. When you start with a category, such as clothing–because it’s something that’s a decision you’re making every day, and most people have a sense of what feels good and looks good, what colors they like, what kinds of clothes they wear, whether they tend to dress up for work or they wear their casual things–it’s a little easier to make decisions.
Not a hundred percent. I’ve had people really struggle with clothing. So, when you pile all those things up, and you take a look, and you discover that you have ten white T-shirts, and eight of them are dingy and kind of threadbare, and you only wear two of them, it makes it a little easier to consider letting go of all of the ones that you’re not wearing. So clothing is kind of the easiest thing to start with for most people.
On the other hand, I’m not a purist, in that I feel like sometimes there’s things that are easy to identify, and I call them the low hanging fruit. If somebody has a pile of empty Amazon boxes, which a lot of people do, then we’re going to try to get rid of those. Because it’s going to be an easy victory. Some people say, “I know that I don’t want this, you know, this rocking chair anymore,” or whatever it might be. There’s just items you know are going out, then I try to help people get rid of those things first, so they can kind of get accustomed to making those decisions.
There are some professional organizers who come in and say, “Okay, go to lunch, and when you come back, your kitchen will be transformed.” That’s great, and it’s definitely a good thing for some people. But for me, I want to teach someone how to make those decisions on their own going forward. Because too many times, people get organized, and then within some amount of time, it’s back the way it was. I think that’s because people still don’t feel confident in their ability to make decisions. But if you’re evaluating ten white T-shirts, and you can say, “I’m looking at these T-shirts. I can see which ones I’ve worn. I can see which ones were scratchy, or which ones didn’t quite fit, or made my arms look funny,” or whatever it is. Then you can begin to think, “Okay, maybe I don’t need this. Maybe I’m happy with these two that I know I really like and that work for me.” So then you feel more confident about your decision making.
When it comes to the hardest, again, it really depends on the person so much, but sentimental things. The reason we do those last is because people have so much emotion tied up to them.
Yes! I was going to ask you about that. Where do sentimental items fit in? Things that you have no use for, but they have meaning, so you don’t want to throw them out.
Sentimental is everything from a concert T-shirt to your kids’ doodles, to your grandmother’s china cabinet, to the rocks that you picked up on a great vacation at the beach.
Yep. I have all of those.
It really just boils down to, the item itself is not the item. In other words, the concert T-shirt is no longer an article of clothing. It’s a memory. The rock is no longer a rock. It’s a memory. Your kid’s finger painting is no longer a kid’s doodle. It’s your child, too. So we really have to try to separate the emotion from the object and think in terms of, okay, if everything’s important, then nothing’s important. So what are you hanging onto? What does this item represent that feels important to you?
You want to look at things in terms of, is this helping me go forward, or is this keeping me stuck?
And then sometimes, when you’re able to take a look at it that way, it makes it a little easier to say, “Okay, so my five-year-old made ten hand print turkeys in class. Let me pick a special one, and maybe we’ll put that in a folder. And then at the end of the year, we’ll take a look at all of this artwork and decide what best represented him and his personality at this age? So that it’s not just, “Gosh, I feel like I can’t let go of this.”
But also the idea is, is that if you have all these mementos and souvenirs and concert tickets and all of these things that represent wonderful times in your life, what are you doing with them? Are you just sticking them in a box? Then are you really honoring that memory, or is it just, you’re having a hard time letting go of it? And if it is something that is significant… I’m a very sentimental person–many, many things in our home have a story. I want to make sure I display them, but it’s not so overwhelming that our home is a museum to our past. So it’s kind of a blend between what represents a really important time in my life or our life together, and what is just something that just feels like, “Oh, I remember when we did this or that.”
Really just trying to distill it down into the things that are the most important, so that you’re not living in a storage shed, and you’re not living in your past. Marie Kondo talks about this idea that we are always moving into the future. You want to look at things in terms of, is this helping me go forward, or is this keeping me stuck?
Ok, I’m going to use myself as an example again. In my old home I had a room that was a library. I love books and I had a lot of books. Before we moved, I gave about a hundred away to a charity. When we moved to the city there are no shelves in my apartment. I got shelves, but I couldn’t get all my books on the shelves. I had about 30 or 40 that didn’t fit. And so, I realized I could get rid of some I had kept from my first clean out. This is a roundabout way of asking, is “Kondo-ing” a continuing process? Because I feel at first you let some things go, the easy things. Then if you take a second look sometimes, you’re like, “you know what? Do I really need that one book? I’m not going to reference it ever again. I’m not going to read it again.”
Great, great point. So I worked recently with a client who had 30 amazing, gorgeous, very expensive handbags. She loved every one of them. But she didn’t feel comfortable allocating that much space in her closet to handbags. So even though she loved all of them, she said, “What I love more is the idea that I want to have them in a space that about ten handbags can live.” So her decision making process was balancing her love of the handbags with her love of not being overwhelmed with the amount of space that they were taking up.
We can always think of things in our past that are no longer a part of us, but they were important at that time. But it doesn’t mean it has anything to do with us moving forward.
So it sounds like you, when confronted with, if space were not an issue, then you might have kept all of those books. It’s fun. But when you got into your new home, you recognized that, in order for you to feel comfortable in your home, you would have to make additional decisions. That is, I think one of the big myths about getting organized, is that somehow you get organized and that’s it. Everything’s perfect forever, because that’s just not true. It’s usually a situation where nothing is static. So the sweater that was perfect last month is all of a sudden not going to be your taste this month. Or a new sweater you love even more is purchased, and you realize that, if you’re going to accommodate that, that maybe there’s some other ones that you want to let go of. So it’s always a process.
Going through it one time from top to bottom is certainly important to get to a baseline and to begin to find out what things are important to you. But your taste will change. Your needs will change. Your homes will change. Work will change. A lot of people hold onto work projects from years and years ago that are not relevant to what they’re doing anymore, but they feel like, “oh, you know, I’ll hang onto this in case I need it.” But things change. Relationships change. It’s definitely a process that will continue on for the rest of your life, if you embrace this idea of making sure that everything that surrounds you is something that’s meaningful, useful, and is helping you become the person that you want to be.
Can you over-Kondo?
Well, I’ll tell you, that’s really interesting. You always hear stories about people who regret letting go of things. But I’ve rarely had a client who has said to me, “I’m really sorry I let go of that.” Sometimes what happens to me even is like, “Oh, yeah, I remember I had that dress. That would have been kind of perfect right now.” But it’s not enough that I would have hung onto it forever. We can always think of things in our past that are no longer a part of us, but they were important at that time. But it doesn’t mean it has anything to do with us moving forward.
Now, I think that there are people who decide that nothing sparks joy. There’s a lot of jokes about, “Wow, if I got rid of everything that sparks joy, there’d be nothing in my home.” I have not seen that in practice. Most people are far more hesitant to let go of things than they are letting go of too many things.
But on the other hand, sometimes I’ll say to people, you know, “Let’s look at this really big pile of clothes and just double check and make sure you are okay letting go of these.” When I sort an item, I have clients make three piles. The yes pile we’re keeping. The no pile, these we’re going to discard. And then the maybe pile. And the maybe pile is just those things that you’re just not sure about or maybe you need to try them on. Or maybe you want to see what else you have before you decide for sure. Almost always everything that’s in the maybe pile that we look at after we’ve gone through everything, they’re ready to discard. Because there was a reason that they were hesitant about it.
KonMari is not a minimalist philosophy. Most people do get rid of a lot of things, but if you saw my apartment, you would say we are certainly not minimalists. But it’s serene, which is why I call my business The Serene Home, because to me, it’s more of a serenity thing than a minimalist thing. And for me, not having a lot of visual clutter makes me feel comfortable and calm.
Some people like to collect things, and maybe having an enormous collection of something that you find beautiful is something that you would find comforting and relaxing. People talk about this a lot in relationships to books. When I do books with clients there are two things I ask. How do you see yourself using this book in the future? Is this a book that you’ve read or you’ve read repeatedly and you just like having it? Or, is this a book that you never really got around to reading or you’re not sure that you love, but you bought it, or whatever reason, it’s not really one of those that you can clearly say, “Yes, this is a cookbook. I use this book all the time.” Or, “This is a book that is a classic, that I know that I always want to have with me.”
If it’s a book that falls into the 20/20 rule, and the 20/20 rule is a good tip that a lot of people find really useful. The 20/20 rule says that if you could get this item again in 20 minutes or less, Amazon, or down the street, for $20 or less, which is going to be most books, then you could let it go, knowing that if you decided on down the road that you just needed to have that item, you would be able to get it again pretty easily.
Let’s dig into some general tips that you would encourage people to follow.
First of all, there’s nothing about KonMari that cannot be done on your own. People come to me because they find that they’re just not able to stay focused or get started, or they just really find a benefit in having someone there guiding them through the process and coaching them. But the book was written to be done on your own. So people should not be concerned that they can’t do it, for one thing.
I would say the most important thing is what we always start with, regardless of what method that you’re using, is you want to have an idea of what you want your home to look like, what you want to have around you. And it needs to be realistic. A lot of times, people think, “Okay, what do I want to wear in the future? I think I want to dress up a lot more.” But if you’re just not a person that has a life that requires you to dress up every day for work, then you want to think in terms of, is that realistic? It needs to be a vision that you have for yourself, your best life going forward.
You want to be realistic about who you are, what your life is like, and not add unrealistic expectations on yourself. I think it’s really important, before you start this process that you think in terms of what is going to work best for you. You are the best judge of who you are and what your life is all about. The changes that you make should be things that are coming about because you see them as something that will work for you, not some Instagram image. Your apartment will not end up like Instagram. So it needs to be realistic. So, the first tip is, take a realistic inventory of who you are and who you want to be. And then, begin to evaluate the things around you on the basis of whether or not those things are bringing you toward the person that you want to be and the life that you want to live in your home.
The next thing is, consider doing it by category. Marie Kondo talks about doing clothing first. If you watched her Netflix series, it looked like these families were piling enormous mountains of clothing on top of their bed. That is not reality. That was done for Netflix, to have it look really dramatic. I suggest you start with something very simple, like your socks. Pull all your socks in a pile, instead of every article of clothing you have. Pull all your T-shirts in a pile. Pull all your workout stuff in a pile, and do those things one at a time. In KonMari, there’s sorting and then organizing. So the sorting process is taking a look at all those socks and getting rid of the ones that are itchy, that fall down all the time and have holes in them, or that you just don’t like. Then, temporarily, you may need to just put them back in the drawer, until you’ve taken stock of everything in your dresser, then you’ll decide how to organize it.
Another other tip is, sub-categorize. Do small categories. An important thing is try to plan for three hours. It’s hard to get much done in less than three hours, but you never want to do more than five hours, because it gets really tiring, and you’ll find yourself getting overwhelmed with the process.
The next tip is that, when you do organize, think in terms of putting things where you are most likely to use them. In other words, if you have a cabinet in your kitchen that is at eye level and close to your sink, things that are there should be things that you’re using all the time. A lot of times I open those cabinets, and somebody’s got their waffle maker in the most convenient place. And they use the waffle maker once a year. You may love the waffle maker, but it shouldn’t be in your prime real estate. So think in terms of making sure that when you organize everything, things that you use all the time are the most accessible. Also to whatever degree possible, make sure that, when you open a drawer, or you open a cabinet, that you can see everything. And sometimes that means using containers. We always tell people to not go to The Container Store before they start, because you don’t know what you’re going to end up with. But containers can be really useful, as far as keeping things contained, so that you know where things are.
One of the benefits of doing this is people become much more mindful about what they buy, and what actually is necessarily for them to feel happy.
But the most important thing is that, when it comes to organization, is that things should be easy to put away. So if you’ve made it so that you have to reach the highest shelf to get something that you’re using all the time, those are the things that are going to end up on top of the counter. It’s just too hard to get to.
Another tip is to think in terms of flat surfaces should be for activities only, not storage. Your dining room table should be for eating, or homework, or whatever. But it’s not a place to stack stuff up. Your kitchen counters should be for preparing food, as opposed to piling stuff up. Now, that’s an ideal. Not everyone gets there. It’s certainly fine to have decorative items on flat surfaces, but if you think in terms of a flat surface as being an okay place to pile stuff up, you will always do that.
What is the most common reaction, once somebody has used your services and they’ve completed their clean-out?
Relief. Whether I work with somebody one time or twenty times, there’s just a sense of, it’s almost like you can see them, their shoulders relax, and there’s also a sense of confidence that they were able to do something that seemed really impossible or overwhelming.
There’s also a lot more awareness. One of the benefits of doing this is people become much more mindful about what they buy, and what actually is necessarily for them to feel happy. So first of all, relief–watching the stuff go out the door, get piled up into bags for donations, and getting it out of the house feels like you’re shedding. You’re shedding this heavy garment that’s been weighing you down. But then there’s just this real sense of, “Wow. I did this.” I’m there to help, but at the end of the day the client is making the decisions. They’re deciding what’s going to stay and what’s going to go.
So there’s a confidence and a real sense of awareness of what’s important to them. I think at the end of the day people find that, although they were concerned about letting go of things, because it felt wasteful, that going forward, they really save money and they don’t just buy things just for the hobby of buying. You know, the retail therapy.
Right. A couple of things that I’m always trying to talk about on TFI are buy less and buy better and trying the practice of one in, one out rule. At some point, I think it also comes with age–I’m old enough where I don’t really need anything, so if I’m going to get something, then something has to go.
I think whatever works for somebody is really the way to deal with it. I think that, for a lot of people, this idea of, “Oh, The Gap T-shirts are on sale. Ten dollars each, so I’ll get one in every color. I’ll get five of them in every color.” And you’ve spent $50, and you’ve got five T-shirts that aren’t that great. But if you spend $50 on one T-shirt that is perfect, that you will wear all the time and love, then that’s a far better purchase.
Do you talk to your clients about moving forward and ideas like that?
It’s really important, because getting organized is no fun. It’s hard work. It’s expensive. It takes time. You don’t want to do this over and over again, so if this experience doesn’t teach you how to manage going forward, then you’re going to end up going back where you were. So it’s always important to think in terms of how will this impact my life going forward.
Another thing I meant to ask you about earlier–I feel like people are reluctant to get rid of things even if they can sell it or resale it, because it’s rarely worth what you paid for it. Do you feel like a lot of people have a hard time with that?
Sometimes there are good ways of letting go of things. I work with consigners, but listing things and trying to sell them yourself is almost never a good use of time. The thing is that if you’re hanging onto something that’s not working for you, regardless of how much it costs, you’re never going to get that money back. It’s a sunk cost. The money is gone. And it’s costing you money because it’s taking up room in your home, and you can do nothing else with that space as long as that object is there.
We say that people wear about 20 percent of what’s in your closet. That means 80 percent of the stuff in your closet you’re moving aside to get to the things that you wear. That’s no fun. You want to think in terms of “what is this costing me by keeping it?” as opposed to “what am I losing by letting it go?”
Food for thought. Last question. What is the ultimate goal of KonMari? What do you want everyone to come away with when they work with you or do it on their own?
My perspective of KonMari and getting organized and what that means has definitely changed over the last three and a half years. For me, it’s really taking a look at the connection between trying to find ways that we can control the stress and feeling of being overwhelmed and the anxiety that permeates a lot of our lives. I think, if someone is perfectly relaxed and calm and serene, they’re not going to ever feel like their home is disorganized. And there are people who are perfectly content to have it that way.
It’s really taking a look at what the emotional consequence is of not feeling in control of your home, and is there some way that that can be changed? Does it always have to be that way? It’s really about taking control of the things that you can control. And one of the things that we can control is the amount of stuff in our apartments and our homes. It’s not just about the stuff. It’s about confidence. It’s about making decisions for yourself and making decisions that bring something into your life beyond the stuff. The stuff is really a symbol. To me, I feel like it really ties into indecision and feeling uncertain about your ability to make decisions about which is good for you and what you want to have going forward.
That’s why we always start with this idea of a vision. It’s really about what do you want for yourself going forward. What is your ideal of your best life? And are the things around you supporting that?