The Power of a Tidied Shelf: Buck Marie Kondo, Keep Your Books, and Gain Energy Anyway

I am a person of many books. 

And also a visual thinker who is readily stumbled by the hurdle of clutter. It quickly accumulates, and quickly debilitates. So when I feel mired down or overwhelmed, tidying my things is one way I recover my oomph.



Naturally I need the help of more books to help me sort out my muddle. (This really is the spot for an ironic smiley face.) For visual clutter there is the purposeful letting go of all that does not spark joy, as preached by Marie Kondo, guru of tidying. Or the 'ready for anything' help of productivity expert, David Allen. Or the down-to-earth motherly insistence of Sandra Felton in Messie No More (deliberately mispelled ... I tell my husband, who finds the title annoying). I think I've been reading decluttering books for as long as they've been published. 

However continually looking for the magic clutter cure can leave you feeling like a failure.

Until recently I thought that decluttering was something I was supposed to at some point complete. "Michelle, I thought you already did that last year? Why are you always decluttering?" my friends have been known to say.

Readers have decried Marie Kondo's draconian take on book shedding in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: basically she got rid of all but thirty of her books. And at that hurdle they stop following her advice. Including me, though I was genuinely helped by her other ideas.

But now I find that it is with tidying but keeping my books that the real magic works best.

Where Did All Those Books Come From?

Homeschooling for me means the devouring of books, the supplying of resources, and the facilitating of experiences.

The creation of a rich, deep, wide home library has been the work of several decades and a labor of love. I bought and sold used books online for years and so funded our many thousands of volumes. I never was going to have a mere thirty books.

And then the separating of distinct personal volumes into a private sanctuary, where I also write, letter and draw, has been a life-giving aspect of that home library. Refreshing those shelves is an inevitable ongoing need.

Getting Unstuck with A Burst of energy

It’s crazy. We don’t have time to get our work done, because of all the work we have to do. ... Sometimes the biggest gain in creative energy will come from cleaning the cobwebs—cutting loose debris that’s impeding forward motion.
— David Allen, Ready For Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work & Life

There's no question that reevaluating and choosing can be helpful and that a burst of energy follows.We are easily tempted by the specific how-to of a tidying guru when perhaps we already know our own mind and purpose. Now I realize that the process and the journey of occasional reboot tidying is what works for me. 

Tidying up is for when I’m stalled out or stuck.
— Austin Kleon

Author Austin Kleon captured my imagination with his talk last month, How To Keep Going. (Which, by the way, is the title of his long awaited Next Book). He lists "10 things that have helped me stay creative in such chaotic times" and you can hear all ten in the video below. But Number 8 on the list nailed it for me: When in Doubt, Tidy Up.

He emphasizes, we don't need to tidy up all the time, just when we're stuck. It's a form of productive procrastination that busies the hands while freeing up the mind. He finds that several outcomes result: he gets unstuck; solves a problem; or comes across something in the mess that leads to new work.

Kleon concludes, "Tidying can be a type of exploring. I'm rediscovering spaces as I sift through them and the objects that occupy them."

Cleaning Up Creates New Directions

I don't want to spend so much time perfecting my possessions that I forget to use them. I also don't need to be free from mess to create. But I agree with Austin Kleon that the hands-busy-mind-free act of tidying, of sifting through my treasures, especially books I invested in for a reason, not only produces energy, but direction, through the chance to ponder.


The rearrangement of my favorite books reminds me why I love them, what I hoped to read or study, and creates new connections and collections.

So this week in between all sorts of life chaos, I've been taking everything off one shelf a day, carefully cleaning books and shelf and, ignoring the previous order of things, replacing the same books in a new arrangement of connections. A lifeline of loveliness and a springboard of new ideas. Also an inspiration to carve out time for reading, create afresh, and enjoy again the fruits of all that collecting. 


That is the power of a reorganized shelf, not feeling obliged to get rid of what you once loved but perhaps just a thoughtful reshuffle. A re-look and a rethink. And feeling recharged as a result.

Thanks Austin Kleon for rephrasing what I knew all along.

How to Keep Going: A Talk by Austin Kleon

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