Image credit: background from Flickr user notoriousjen


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The Life-Changing Magic of Folding Socks: Three Lessons from Marie Kondo

“Life-changing magic” is a big claim.

Life-changing magic may come from a powerful love, the birth of a child, a spiritual experience, or, according to one woman… throwing away socks.

Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a blockbuster bestseller with a near-cult following. Earnest reviews rise above debates over how to sort your books (by colour, obviously) into the philosophical. Kondo uses her KonMari tidying method to help people understand themselves, and their lives, through their possessions; it’s therapy, using the home as a teacher.

Her insights mirror Home Liberation’s manifesto: your home shapes your life and identity, and this role deserves far more attention.

Lesson 1: Understanding WHY we hold onto things matters

Most decluttering advice suggests sorting into three piles: definitely toss, definitely keep, and don’t know. While useful, this focus on method ignores why we might keep or toss something.

This why is Kondo’s core thesis: Only keep an item if it brings you joy.

This brutal simplicity cuts across hours of indecision, standing over a pile of stuff and dithering over an elegant sweater you’ve never worn or a lobster-shaped lamp handed down from Aunt Sara – but it fails to capture the complexity of our relationships with objects. Kondo was born and raised in Japan, and her approach is based in Japanese values of extreme simplicity, animism and Zen aesthetics, reinforced by the fact that most people in Japan live in very small houses with limited storage.

This doesn’t always translate to a Western context, so at Home Liberation we favour a slightly more nuanced approach. We have complex relationships with our possessions, which tend to play one of six roles:

  • Tool
  • Memory keeper
  • Mind extension
  • Guilt
  • Longing
  • Just in case

It may not be as brutally simple as “Does it bring you joy?” in terms of clearing our closets, but combining that question with “What’s my relationship with it?” helps us develop a more complex understanding of ourselves in the process.

Lesson 2: Homes are designed by developers, not residents, and it shows

Our homes are often designed from the perspective of producers (developers, builders and architects) rather than residents.

For example: why is garbage kept under the sink, causing a clash between doing the dishes and clearing up after dinner? Well, there’s an irregular space under the sink that would otherwise go to waste – that’s the producers’ perspective. For residents, it’s far better if sink and garbage don’t interfere in that way.

Kondo’s recommendations touch on this disconnect in eye-opening ways, absolving us with the revelation that messiness is often a design flaw – not a personal flaw.

For example, home storage makes things easy to find – but should instead make things easy to put away. If there are socks on the floor, you can bet it’s not because it was hard to find the drawer.

Why does this happen? Our thesis is that outside of the home – libraries, shops, factories – things must be easy to find or people will give up. This doesn’t apply in our own homes, where we know where things go, but we organize this way out of habit.

Some designers have picked up on this, and created storage that makes it easy to find things and put them away. One example is the shadow board:


Lesson 3: Zen and the art of tidying up

Japanese culture underpins Kondo’s philosophy towards clutter, and it has a lot to teach us.

In the 1920s, a German professor named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan to teach philosophy. He was told the best way to understand Japanese culture was to learn a traditional craft; his wife chose flower arranging, and he chose archery.

When learning a traditional Japanese craft, many teachers spend very little time on the actual flower arranging or arrow shooting; the focus is on learning the movements and process. Once this is mastered, the actual act happens quickly and without thought.

Herrigel’s teacher made him practice letting go of the bowstring for an entire year without touching an arrow. A frustrated Herrigel snapped at his teacher, who told him to meet him that night in the practice hall. In complete darkness, save for a single candle in the centre of the hall, the teacher let fly two arrows into the shadow. When they turned on the lights, the first arrow had hit the centre of the bullseye; the second had split the first down the middle.

Kondo’s KonMari method – careful folding of clothing and sorting of items to throw away, with detailed instructions including thanking each item for its service – reminds me of this Japanese approach to craft. For Kondo, this practice is not just a practical one, but a spiritual one as well.

I think most readers will be disappointed in themselves if they try to emulate her completely: that’s beyond most of us (I tend to throw my socks and T-shirts in a drawer). But we can learn much from other cultures, and from Kondo’s core idea: when tidying and arranging your home,

  • Focus on the process, not the goal
  • Treat tidying as meditation and therapy, not a chore

This fascinating book turns the tidying manual into a self-help book, by looking at why we keep things, how the home is designed, and our cultural assumptions. What’s your favourite tip from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Share it on Facebook, or learn more in our Slideshare and lecture about the psychology of the home (under Course Materials).

Image credits: House Beautiful, Pinterest

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Experiment of the Month: Go Stress Hunting

Between work and all the day-to-day tasks that pile up, it can be hard to find the time for the things we want to do. We are stressed, bamboozled and bombarded with advice to try mindfulness or improve our time management, but is that the answer?

Work has the power to warp us with stress and dominate our time. As addressed recently in The Conversation (“No, it’s not you: why ‘wellness’ isn’t the answer to overwork“), individual attempts at self-help can’t fix a systemic problem:

“We’re working longer hours than ever before, and as our employment conditions continue to worsen, they’re simply repackaged into a new version of normal in an effort to make the truly pathological state of many of our workplaces appear acceptable”

In the face of this powerful problem, what can we do?

Until we can identify specifically how stress is impacting our home lives, it’s hard to take action. Becoming aware of what exactly these impacts are is the first step towards making a healthy decision.

Experiment of the Month

This evening, when you get home, spend a moment in each room with these two simple but powerful questions. If you live with a partner, it can be enlightening to do this together.

1. What is the purpose of this room?

For example, the most basic purpose of your kitchen may be to create meals, but for you, it could also be about bringing family and friends together, expressing your love for others by feeding them, or exploring a fulfilling hobby. Or, it could simply be to create food as quickly as possible and nothing more.

2. How does your work life, schedule and stress impact the goal of this room?

This conversation can easily sprawl into discussions (or arguments!) about your home, work and relationships – but at its core, this first step is about learning to spot the tangible impacts of overwork and stress, big and small. Only once the impacts are clear can you hope to address them.

Now What?

The diagnosis might not give you hope: stress is skewing your home life and overwork is a systemic problem that you can’t just fix in a weekend. So… now what?

While you might not be able to change global business trends, or even your office culture, you may be able to do something. Short of storming head office with your disgruntled colleagues, people around the world are choosing to scale back their workloads and live more simply and sustainably (a subject of the 1970s classic Small is Beautiful).

If that’s not an option, knowledge of stress’s impacts can be its own benefit by throwing light on issues in your relationships, health, productivity or progress towards personal goals. There are ways to pad or adjust your home to mitigate some of the specific impacts of overwork you found today- we’ll address that later.

Share your results or reactions on the Home Liberation Facebook page – did this lead to an argument, a revelation, a change?

Image credits: Flickr user giuseppesavo

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“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Theaster Gates: Reimagining Home

The home is not just the four walls where we sleep – the idea of “home” is a cultural and mental construct.

Who better to re-imagine the home than the creative, dissenting voices; the dangerous minds that traverse the traditional paradigms. Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates has not only challenged the construct of the home, he has re-conceptualised the foundations of community and the urban landscape.

In the TED talk below, Theaster, a trained potter, reflects on the simple ceramic processes; such as making something out of nothing and the capacity to shape things. It is what he learnt from those simple artistic processes that led to the larger projects combining urban planning and artistic vision, and essentially the re-imagination of his home and community.

“In ART we trust”

Living on the South Side of Chicago, Theaster had a vision for a derelict historic bank building that had been abandoned for decades (shown above). After speaking to the local Mayor, the city agreed to sell the crumbling building for $1 – the only catch was that Gates had to come up with $3.7 million to fund its renovation.

Once in, he mined the original marble of the building and created individual ‘bond certificates’ which read ‘In ART we trust’. These tablets, which sold from between $5000-$50,000, made up a portion of the money needed for the renovations. He then went on to transform the building into a space for performance, exhibitions, archives and artists initiatives.

Rebuilding homes and communities

Since acquiring the bank, Gates has purchased and creatively restored more than a half-dozen other properties in the neighbourhood, now known collectively as the Dorchester projects.

Public housing is a large and critical component of the Dorchester Projects; units house mixed-income residents and emerging artists, including Gates himself.

Local derelict buildings are also transformed into community assets. One was converted into a library of 14,000 books on art and architecture, rescued from a closed bookshop, another houses vinyl from a record store that went out of business. There’s even a Black Cinema House showcasing films relevant to the community.

Theaster Gates

This is just a small snapshot of projects run by Gates’ Rebuild Foundation. This creative re-imagining of the home and the community has grown into an entrepreneurial social sculpture that reinvests in local skills and talents to bring about community change. It’s a potent reminder that our “homes” can extend beyond our four walls, and that our communities are our homes as well.

Image credits, top to bottom: Theaster Gates’ Rebuild FoundationJames W. Toftness via Contemporary&

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“One never reaches home,’ she said. ‘But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.”

Hermann Hesse, Demian: Die Geschichte von Emil Sinclairs Jugend

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Refugee Week: Flat-packed Homes

This week is Refugee Week. It’s a poignant time to consider the meaning of home, knowing that there are millions of refugees around the world who have fled their homes due to war, persecution, poverty or disaster. They leave behind their families, friends and the familiar to find safety and a new home in uncertain territory. In Australia we largely take our security and stability for granted.

Home in a box?

Ikea is the ultimate symbol of, and destination for, mass consumption. However, they have branched into a new area where they can use this power for good – the $1000-per-unit temporary flat-pack house.

Temporary housing is a popular subject for student architects, and there are thousands of innovative, transformative designs for refugee housing – however, this one has a chance to make a significant impact, given the high profile and manufacturing capabilities of its backers.

Ikea flatpack emergency housing

…and yes, it comes with instructions and tools (surely including an allen key). It aims to improve the quality of life for refugees living in temporary housing, a situation which often lasts for years. It may not be even close to ideal, but any improvements to temporary housing are a step up from the often unsafe and unsanitary cobbled-together housing found in refugee camps.

This Refugee Week, it’s worth reflecting on what home means when you live in-between, day-t0-day – if you’re interested, this fascinating pair of articles from the New York Times examines one of the world’s “best” refugee camps, compared to a camp that allows residents unusual freedom to shape it themselves.

Image credits, top to bottom: Flickr user elisafinocchiar, Ikea via Weburbanist 

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Experiment of the Month: Nudge your Fridge

As a person with bad habits – and aren’t we all – I’m always looking for ways to improve. Articles on the subject tell me two things:

  • Willpower is overrated: it’s very difficult to change by pure force of will
  • Your environment is powerful and underestimated: your environment can nudge you towards one form of behaviour or another

Which brings me to the fridge, a key bit of home technology.

A recent article entitled “If You’re Not ‘Rotating’ Your Groceries In Your Fridge, You’re Doing It Wrong” tackles what appears to be a very sensible objective: wasting less food by maximizing its shelf life in the fridge.

Good idea? Yes, in theory, but there are some glaring problems. First, it ties up your life-time and your limited attention space rotating the stock in your fridge, which is not how I want to spend my life. But more importantly, this is not what I want my fridge to do; I want my fridge to help me be healthier.

Most fridges are not designed to help you be healthier. They are designed for food storage.

An example of this is the “crisper” at the bottom of each fridge. This is designed for the best scientifically-determined environment for the storage of fruits and vegetables. It puts them in opaque enclosed bins at the bottom of the fridge – out of sight, out of mind.

As any supermarket can tell you that this is the worst way to encourage someone to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Design influences decision-making

The book Nudge opens with a story about school cafeterias. We know from research that people will order more of products displayed at eye-level. If you were managing a school cafeteria, what would you put at eye-level? Products with the highest profit margin like muffins and candy, or those which are healthiest? We can ask the same of our fridge: what’s on that top shelf, and why?

supermarket fruit and produce aisle

I know I should eat five servings of fruit or vegetable every day; in Australia, the average citizen eats TWO.

I’m not going to expect support from the prevailing food system. I’ve tried willpower, but not only is it hard, but I like to reserve it for bigger goals. So as an experiment in our house, we put the fruit on display in an easy-to-grab location, and unhealthy snacks are buried in a bottom drawer.

But the fridge is still a problem: vegies are hidden in a closed drawer at the bottom. To nudge us towards health, the fridge should display them at eye level.

Experiment of the month: Rearrange your fridge

This week, I’m running an experiment: I’m going to treat the top shelf of my fridge like a supermarket display, backed by the best industrial psychology. I’m going to stock it with what I want to sell myself (fruit and vegetables) in a well-lit, tempting display.

I’ll post a photo once it’s done.

Image credits, top to bottom: Flickr users greencolander and deanhochman

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Home Liberation: Change Starts at Home

Welcome to Home Liberation! It’s like therapy, for your home.

This is a project of David Week, soon to be a book… and maybe a movement.

What to expect

We’ll be sharing tools, tips and inspiration for liberating your own home, and a bit of the theory behind why – and how – the home has such a pervasive impact on our lives and societies.

After all, how can we expect to create a peaceful, equal, sustainable world until we’ve achieved peace, equality and sustainability in our own homes?

You’ll also get exclusive excerpts from the book and first notifications of events.

You are invited to share, debate and encourage in the comments, and on the Home Liberation Facebook page. By learning from each other, and sharing our discoveries, you can liberate your home from its old hangups and live a life you want.

It’s like therapy, for your home.

Our homes and private lives are under attack every day from sophisticated forces. Because the unpaid work done in the home is not recognised in the formal economy, it’s easy for businesses to push things off their balance sheet – and onto ours.

In order for society to function normally, the home should nurture the three Rs: relationships, restoration and reproduction. These might look different to different people, whether they want their home to be a site of love or hermitage, creative excitement or zen calm.

However, these are under attack from the three Ss: stuff, stress and outSourcing (when companies make us do their work, like Ikea).

Learning to spot these imbalances, and correct them, is the heart of Home Liberation.

Welcome home!

Image credit: Flickr user florianplag

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