My Life is Better with Less Clutter

May 26, 2023

I was not born with the “neat and tidy” gene. In fact, everything about me wants to be messy. My mom and dad had to deal with it while I was growing up. My dad tried some rather drastic measures to help me address my shortcomings. One time, after asking me for the 234th time to clean up my room, he took everything in my bedroom (and I mean everything) and threw it outside into the back yard. Everything. It was a ten-foot drop from the back of the house to the back yard. Not everything survived unscathed. And while he made his point, he did not fix the problem.

(Note: If you read this blog regularly, you know that my amazing dad is one of my greatest mentors and best friends. That assessment, and our relationship, remains untarnished – and possibly improved – by my memories, and frequent re-tellings, of the sometimes drastic measures he used growing up).

My freshman roommate, Jon Marley, was so kind to put up with me. His side of the room was always spotless and neat, while my side had dirty clothes, mostly-empty Domino’s Pizza boxes, empty beverage cans, and I don’t know what else piled onto every floor space possible. People would stop and come into our room just to marvel at my side of our Odd Couple room. And through it all, Jon never lost it. I remember him hugging me hard one time after I cleaned it up. He got to enjoy a tidy room for a couple of days before it started to lose its shine all over again. You’d think that his reaction would have encouraged me to change my ways. But neither my Dad’s sometimes extreme measures, nor my roommate’s patient and appreciative ways changed me.

Then, in April of 2018, I met Marie.

I was at a conference listening to a group of architects talk about designing classrooms. They discussed their frustration with seeing what happened to classrooms after they were constructed. After designing a room that allowed teachers to help students learn in a variety of ways, with a naturally lit and spacious environment, they would come back to see these spaces being used differently than designed. They were too often disappointed to see their rooms crammed full of stuff, and often that stuff had little to do with student learning. Sometimes it was a shrine to the teacher’s passions in life. That could work when the passion was clearly related to the subject matter, but often it was about a sports team, a musical group, a hobby, travels, or something else that made the teacher happy but had very little to do with student learning. The architects felt that this cluttered approach actually robbed the classroom of so much of its teaching and learning potential.

The architects wished that teachers would follow Marie Kondo’s advice, where every single addition to the classroom was thoughtfully placed to spark learning. I agree. Everything in the classroom should help teachers teach and help students learn. And I have seen many teachers do just that, though as the architects attested, not all do. But I digress. I had never heard of Marie Kondo before that. Upon asking, I learned that the book they were referring to was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I read it cover-to-cover that night.

Here’s the thing – humans collect stuff. I don’t know why. Almost all of us worry about money, and yet we buy more stuff, and we keep it. It’s cluttered, it’s messy, and we end up complaining about all the clutter in our homes. Jerry Seinfeld is with me. In a recent Tonight Show appearance, he joked, “All things on Earth only exist in different stages of becoming garbage. Your home is a garbage processing center where you buy new things, bring them into your house, and slowly crappify them over time.” We can be better. 

I knew I could be better. 

Marie Kondo believes that when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your life in order too. It sounds a little hyperbolic, but more and more, I’m becoming a believer.

I have taken two central lessons from reading and re-reading this book. 

  1. Surround yourself only with the things that “spark joy” in your life. They can be beautiful, artistic, functional, and sometimes sentimental. But every item must “spark joy.” If it does not, GET RID OF IT. And be careful buying new stuff. As Sheryl Crow said, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”
  2. You should not need to look for anything, other than the remote and your glasses. In a drawer, in a cabinet, or on a shelf, everything should have its own space. When I open my t-shirt drawer, I can see every shirt. No piles! Things at the bottom of piles never get seen or used. Marie taught me to fold my clothes so that I maximize space and everything is visible. There is no digging for spatulas in the kitchen. Every pot and pan has its own space.

Very early in the morning on the day after I came back from that conference, I went into the walk-in closet in our bedroom while Jill was still sleeping, closed the door, and went to work. I made a huge pile of clothes I had not worn in years, clothes that no longer fit, and even clothes I kind of liked but did not love. Jill woke up and saw the huge piles. She asked what I was doing. Then, as I was excitedly explaining it, she said, “Actually, I don’t want to know, and I’m not doing whatever it is you’re doing.” 

She was not yet a convert.

A week later on a Saturday morning, Jill woke up to see what seemed like half of our kitchen stuff piled up on the dining room table. She gave me a look and said, “Is there anything left?” I said we don’t need 7 spatulas, 13 stirring spoons, or any of these extra pots and pans. She rolled her eyes and let me do my Kondo-ing, and now we can see everything in our kitchen. I’ve never missed those seven spatulas, and the few that we kept are the ones I love.

Five years later, Jill is mostly in. I’ve taken over the laundry, because everything, including t-shirts and kitchen towels, has to be folded just the right way. In her Tom Sawyer-esque way, she has reluctantly given up that task in her life.

It’s not easy or automatic. There are certain drawers that we have to fight to keep organized. And every two months, we give more stuff away. But now, it’s become part of our lives, and I know for a fact that it has helped me to overcome my natural tendency to be an absolute slob. My Dad and my college roommate are probably both wondering why they had to deal with the “before” version of me. Sorry guys. Neither drastic measures nor unending patience worked. I needed to see the light on my own.

One of my mentors, Neil Schmidt, an amazing superintendent, leader, and friend, had a large desk that had nothing on it other than a phone. Someone gave him a little sign that said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then an empty desk  . . .” Now that I know a little more about meditation and the benefits it can bring, having an uncluttered house and an uncluttered mind sounds incredibly healthy. There’s a book I read a while back (my dad recommended it) titled 10% Happier. It’s written by a sports writer who suffered a panic attack on national television. He gives meditation a lot of credit for his more centered and more at peace life now, saying that it’s not a panacea, but it has made him about 10% happier. In the same way, following Marie Kondo’s rules has made our home a quieter and less hectic place. Though I won’t put a number on it, both Jill and I would say that we are definitely happier because of it. After all, life is complicated enough. If we can simplify and appreciate all that we have, that’s pretty darn good.

By the way, I still have plenty of unfixed issues. For example, when it comes to being a “clean as you go” cook, I would rate myself as a 3 out of 10. The good news is, I’m way better than I used to be. I used to be a negative 1,356. And the better news is, Jill is pretty awesome about putting up with it and even making up for my deficiencies. I try to remedy this problem as I start each day – before I leave the house every morning, the dishwasher is empty, everything is put away in its place, and the kitchen is spotless. 

So, while I have a ways to go, I am getting better. Here’s to progress, and to embracing the fewer-than-we-have-now things that spark joy!

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  1. Mike Urbanek says:

    So timely. Just yesterday, I was sent to photograph a recently renovated elementary school building in one of the wealthiest areas in Santa Barbara. It was a pigsty. The classrooms, an office, and a multi-purpose room – crap everywhere.

    First of all, I blame the kids. Second I blame the teachers, although that is also the kids fault because they have caused the teachers to go mental. The third culprit is the architect. They never provide sufficient storage space in a school. Never. Whatever supplies the teacher or staff requires to operate is in boxes on the floor, piled on top of each other in open sight. Your architect knows this, but an architect never admits he or she is wrong.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Mike. I’m not a kid blamer. In almost all of my interactions with students, I am overwhelmingly impressed by who they are and how they respond to outstanding teaching. And they all have stories. I will say, your storage comment is spot on. When we built our new gym in Manhattan Beach (a spectacular facility!), our Maintenance Director pushed for more storage and every meeting. And he was right. And teachers have stuff, and need the storage for it. Thanks for sharing your keen eye and insights.

  2. Amy says:

    Thanks for the great read, Mike. I always enjoy your transparency and insight. I definitely was not born with the “neat and tidy” gene either. Always wished I had it. Can’t wait to check out the book.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Amy! Let me know what you think of it. By the way, your desk always looked neat and professional.

  3. Brian Lucas says:

    But you still need two sets of measuring cups? 😉

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I haven’t seen you in a while, Brian, but it’s nice to know you’re still a wise-***. Yes I do. Sometimes, you need the same measure, and having two saves time. The bad news is, I used to have four sets. Thanks for being you!

  4. Zara Jamani says:

    Love this post, Dr. Matthews! Thank you! It speaks to me on many levels as I am someone who is constantly searching for stuff because my stuff doesn’t always have a dedicated place….not the best strategy at 6:15am when I’m getting late for work. I just ordered The Life -Changing Magic of Tidying Up…and you have inspired me to kondo-fy my space this weekend…at least to get a start on it. Hopefully, it will rub off on my kids too as we can all benefit from de-cluttering. By the way, the Maintenance Director you speak of is now my boss 🙂

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Zara. You work for a great boss, and he was a true visionary on this one! Good luck on your journey!

  5. Bill Sampson says:

    Thanks for mentioning Neil. When he was superintendent there was no question that Malibu was an important part – to him and therefore the district – of SMMUSD. We saw him out here a lot and admired his vision and energy. We really appreciated him. You were ok too my friend.

    As for a crapified house we tell neighbors that if they see a burglar they should help, but, if and only if, the burglar takes it all.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Bill. Neil Schmidt was an incredible leader. He truly cared not only about Santa Monica AND Malibu, but about each person in the District. Our teachers and classified staff felt known and appreciated by him. I never measured up to his ability to remember names and personalize every interaction, but I always aspired to it. He remains as one of my most influential mentors.

      Also, a very funny comment about “taking it all.” Thanks for that.

  6. I love this blog. Very interesting, but I believe red emoji ❤️’s are something you can’t have too many of. 🤣🤣🤣 Love you brother!!!!!!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      They don’t take up a lot of space, so you just keep as many as you want.

  7. Susan Scheding says:


  8. Merlin Clarke says:

    If you need any pictures straightened around the house, just let me know.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Merlin. I know you are just a little bit bothered by pictures that are slightly askew. That being said, you tend to break things when you fix them. So, I am good for now.

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