The Magic Art of Tidying Up…For Students

The following is my take on how students can use the valuable ideas from Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up, to keep their rooms neat and tidy.  If you’re interested in learning more about these ideas, I would highly recommend reading her original book.
KonMari Closet
Many students think that “organizing” means putting things away.  But often, the problem is actually that they have too many things, and nowhere to put them.  The more you have, the more difficult it is to keep it all organized.  Once you get rid of everything you don’t need, organizing what remains is infinitely easier!
In her book, Marie distinguishes between putting things back where they belong on a day-to-day basis, and the process she calls “Tidying” — which consists of sorting through all your belongings, letting go of everything you don’t need, and finding a home for everything that’s left.  
“Tidying” needs to come first, because if you don’t have good organization systems in place, picking everything up on a daily basis is going to be infinitely more challenging. 
Once you have your space in order, it’s also helpful to create habits & routines to help you keep it in order every day…but that’s a topic for another article!

BEFORE you start…

Make sure you know WHY you’re tidying in the first place, before you begin.  Why is being clean & organized important to you?  What effects will it have on the rest of your life?  If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you can make some progress but you’re going to have a hard time creating long-term changes.

Step #1: Let go of the things you don’t need

Tidy by category
Rather than eliminating things from one location in your room at a time, focus on sorting through one category of items at a time, by gathering together everything in that category, and then choosing which items to keep and which to let go of. 
Marie recommends clothes as a good category to start with, because they take up much more space than papers, books, or photos. Cleaning out your closets & drawers of all the clothes you no longer love and aren’t wearing on a day-to-day basis can make a big difference in the appearance of your room, and give you a lot more storage space to work with.  
After you’ve finished with clothes, you can move on to books, papers, and “miscellaneous” items from your desk, shelves, and bathroom. Leave keepsakes, gifts, and photos until last, as these take the most time to go through and are the hardest to let go of. 
Make “Discard” your default

Instead of looking through your closet and taking out the clothes you want to get rid of, Marie recommends taking everything off the hangers and putting it on the floor…and then choosing the items from the pile that you really want to keep.  She takes the same approach to books — take them all off the shelves & put them on the floor together before choosing the ones from the stack that you want to keep.

While this might seem like an odd approach, it also has a sound psychological basis.  Unless we really care about something, it’s human nature to go with the default option rather than making a decision to change things.  
Most people clean out their closets by taking out the things they DON’T want to wear anymore, and putting them in a ‘discard’ pile.  The problem with this approach is that it’s easier to leave things in the closet than it is to get rid of them.  So, with most things, you’ll end up going with the ‘default’ choice and keeping them. 
If, instead, you make “discard” your default choice — by putting everything on the floor and then actively choosing the things you really want to put back in your closet or on your shelf — you will get rid of a LOT more clutter!
Keep the things that bring you JOY
When choosing what to keep, Marie recommends evaluating each item, and asking: “Does this spark joy?”  I love this question, because it encourages me to let go of anything I feel like I “should” keep, and only retain the things that make me truly happy.  
In addition to asking if something currently inspires joy, I would also recommend asking: “Will having this make me happier in the future?” For example, you might have a test that you did poorly on, which definitely does NOT spark joy!   However,  if you keep that test, then you can use it to learn from your mistakes, and get a better grade on your next exam…which will make you happy in the future.  So, that is something you would want to keep.
Create a 6-month box
In her book, Marie argues strongly that tidying should be done all at once, so I know she would disagree with me on this point. However, for students who are having a hard time letting go of things they don’t need, I’ve found it can be very helpful to create a “6-month box”.  
If you have things you don’t love, but that you feel bad getting rid of (for example: a Christmas gift from your great-aunt, a book from elementary school), try putting them into a box, sealing it with tape, and writing a date 6 months or a year from now on the label, for example: “This box expires on January 2, 2016!”  Make an agreement with yourself to put the box in a basement or garage for 6 months.  If you haven’t opened it by then, that means it’s safe to throw it out or donate it.  You can even agree in advance to let a parent or sibling get rid of your box once it’s “expired”…and then you’ll never even notice it’s gone.

Step #2: Organize What’s Left

Store similar items together
Rather than distributing books around your room, putting a few on each shelf, it will be much easier to stay organized if you choose ONE spot in the room for all of your books, another spot for your school supplies….and so on.  This rule of thumb is easy to remember, You like to hang out with friends who are like you.  So do your things.  So, put them all together, where they can keep each other company! 
Interior of child's room in pastel colorsGive everything a home
Everything you own needs to have its own place to live…a “home” it can return to when you’ve finished using it.  After you’ve let go of everything you don’t need, you’ll probably have enough space to give everything that’s left a home.  If not, consider buying a new bookcase or shelving unit, or finding another place in the house to store some of your stuff.  Once you know exactly where everything belongs, it’s much easier to keep things organized.
Let it be easy!

Marie argues that you should fold your clothes, and avoid hanging them whenever possible.  My problem with this approach is that it also takes a lot of time.  

If you’re like Marie and enjoy the time you spend organizing, then go for it!  However, for most teenage boys I know, carefully folding their T-shirts so they stand up vertically in their drawers would feel more like cruel & unusual punishment than a source of enjoyment.

I believe the “right” organization system for you is the one you find the easiest & most enjoyable.  If it takes a lot of time & effort, you’re much less likely to keep up with it.  And even if you did, the time you spent maintaining it could have been better spent on something else that’s more important. 

It is best to tidy up quickly and get it over with…Because tidying is not the purpose of life.' - Marie Kondo

The Benefits…

This isn’t just about cleaning up your room to get rid of physical clutter.  It’s also about cleaning up mental clutter.  Most students find that it’s easier to focus and think clearly in a room that is free of clutter.  If all the things you’ve kept are the things that bring you joy, your room also becomes a happier and more enjoyable place to spend time. 
Another benefit of cleaning is the boost of confidence it creates.  When you see the dramatic before-and-after results of your cleaning efforts, it’s hard not to feel a rush of accomplishment and pride.  A sense of, “if I can do this, who knows what else I’m capable of?”
Finally, this process can also improve your decision-making skills. When you practice asking yourself “does this spark joy?” about all the physical objects in your life, it feels more natural to start asking the same question in other contexts as well…when choosing which clubs to join, which friends to hang out with, which college to attend, which classes to take, or even which career to pursue.  
Does this bring joy?  Is a wonderful question to apply to all aspects of your life. 
And tidying your room is a wonderful place to start.

Next Steps:

Which of these ideas seem like they would be most useful for you?

If you were going to pick one thing to tidy up this week, what would it be?

Leave a comment below and let us know how it goes!  Before & after pictures are welcome, too, so feel free to share your progress 🙂

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By |July 2nd, 2015|Categories: Organization|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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