How A Professional Organizer Helped Me Declutter My Home In Japan

Getting Started And Staying Motivated For A More Organized Space

By Louise George Kittaka
November 27, 2019

Most of us would love to have a clutter-free, well-organized home, but that isn’t always so easy. I recently met with professional organizer Nathalie Brantsma to talk about some simple yet effective strategies, as well as some tips for tackling my own clutter.

Decluttering has been in the media spotlight in recent years, and much of the credit goes to Japanese tidying-up guru Marie Kondo (aka “KonMari”). She’s become an international phenomenon, thanks to her best-selling books and recent Netflix TV show (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo). KonMari’s basic approach is to sort out everything by category in one fell swoop and dispose of any item that doesn’t “spark joy”. As a self-professed fan, I’ve read the books, watched the series and successfully used her method to streamline my clothes and books … until I ran out of steam. 

The Culture of Cleaning Up

Shrine keepers sweeping - Decluttering

While there is never a wrong time to start decluttering, with year-end holidays just around the corner, autumn could be a particularly good time to start here in Japan. Many families — mine included — still follow the traditional practice of osoji (大掃除), or deep-cleaning the house at the end of December. The practice has roots in the Shinto religion, where shrines and homes were cleaned or “purified” for the coming of Toshigami, the deity who brought good luck and health.

The custom of osoji still makes sense in modern life, as family members are generally on winter vacation and everyone can pitch in to get the home spick and span for the coming new year. Regardless of whether or not you choose to do the traditional osoji, taking some time now to start decluttering your home will help get you ready for any year-end events you may be hosting and avoid feeling totally stressed when all the family is gathered at home during the holidays.

Nathalie - Decluttering home professional

Nathalie Brantsma is a professional home organizer.

Originally from the Netherlands, Nathalie Brantsma of IQuitClutter is a professional organizer and mother of two teenagers who works with the international community in Tokyo. She has always been an organized person but she didn’t know she could turn her passion into a business until she helped a friend declutter her possessions. “My friend told me she had paid someone previously to do the same job. Only then did I know there was such a thing as a personal organizer! I didn’t realize that people struggled with this until that point.” 

The goal is to make that space convenient and comfortable for all of you. Having as little clutter as possible will make a big impact!

Cultural differences aside, Nathalie says that how we view clutter seems to be universal. “It gives us stress and we do not like living in chaotic spaces, regardless of the size of your house or in which country you are based.”

My Problem Areas

The idea of welcoming a decluttering expert into my home was a little daunting. All things considered, I think it is quite organized, but there is definitely room for improvement. Moreover, I can no longer use my children as an excuse for the messes, as the oldest has started work and lives independently and the younger two are overseas for school. I decided that it was best to let Nathalie see me in my “natural habitat”, but I made an extra effort with my cleaning that morning.

Before photo of table - Decluttering with a professional home organizer

Evaluating the “before” condition of my table workspace.

As soon as she stepped into my dining-living area, it was immediately obvious to Nathalie what the main “hot spots” were: I use the dining table as my defacto workspace and it was awash with papers, files, magazines, and my laptop, with my bag sitting on one of the chairs. Meanwhile, my husband’s personal effects were piled on the coffee table and had even migrated to our L-shaped sofa. 

Filing shelf before photo - Decluttering with a professional home organizer

Nathalie to the rescue!

I could pinpoint when and why these became problem areas: With the kids out of the house for much of the time, last year we decided to renovate our 20-year-old house. It was a good chance to get rid of some of our older furniture, including our dining set and our coffee table. We replaced these worn-out pieces with simpler designs that reflected our current tastes. However, both the old dining table and the old coffee table had built-in storage, while the new ones don’t. We loved the new furniture, but suddenly there was nowhere to “put our stuff”, and before we knew it, things were piling up.

Tips from a Pro

Luckily, Nathalie had an idea. “I’d recommend getting a couple of wagons to store your things in. It is easy to access the stuff when you need it, then roll the wagon away when you are done. Ikea has some nice ones.”

Peeping into the utility room next to the living room, Nathalie spotted something else. “Those bookcases look unstable. Are they anchored to the wall?” she inquired. Shamefacedly, I admitted it had been on my to-do list … for the last year. Not a good situation in a country prone to earthquakes!

Wagons after photo - Decluttering with a professional home organizer

One of the useful wagons for organizing smaller items.

To cut a long story short, I made a trip to Ikea and bought the rolling wagons (in fact, I liked them so much I bought a third one to use for my scrapbooking supplies upstairs.) Using a  wagon has definitely made a difference in helping to keep the table clutter-free. There is enough room for my laptop, planner, some work files, and the bag I use the most. When I’m done, everything goes back in the wagon and I simply wheel it behind the table.

After table photo

Of course, new storage solutions are only half the battle when taming clutter — you have to create new habits, too. It is all too easy to leave a newspaper or the day’s mail on the dining table, telling myself that I’ll “deal with it later”. Before I know it, the clutter starts to build all over again. The key — for me at least — is to ensure the table is clear each night before I go to bed. 

Bookshelves after photo - Decluttering with a professional home organizer

My husband has been generally cooperative about corralling his medications and other odds and ends in his wagon, too. As for the bookshelves, a call to a local benriya (home handyman service) was all it took to have someone come and anchor them safely to the wall. None of this is rocket science, but sometimes we don’t see the woods for the trees, do we?!

Nathalie’s tips for getting started on your own decluttering spree:

1. You need to do a little planning before you start: Write down the small actions to be taken. You know actions are small enough when you say to yourself “Yes, I can do that!” Prepare your tools (sorting boxes, trash bags, sticky notes, etc.) and think of what you will do with donations.

Tips- scheduling2. Next, schedule a date in your calendar: This is an appointment with yourself. Commit to sticking to it. We have to make time because free time will never magically appear. It is better to overestimate the time and find out you worked faster than expected. Get rid of distractions (phone on silent mode, switch off email notifications). Reward yourself for effort, not for progress!

3. Start in the area where you spend the most time: An area could also be one drawer or one closet; it doesn’t have to be a whole room. Once done, you can enjoy the newly-organized space and this will motivate you to declutter other spaces too.

tips - kids are great imitators

4. Kids are great imitators: As a parent, you first have to set the right example because they won’t get organized if they see you are not tidy yourself. To get them motivated, think of something that drives them or something that would motivate them to keep their rooms tidy.

5. Set clear rules for shared spaces: If you share a space with another person, it is important to clarify goals and wishes for that space and set rules/boundaries that you all agree on. If they feel listened too, they are more likely to cooperate in keeping and sticking to the rules that you set. Of course, in the case of young kids, parents have to make the rules and teach/show kids how to apply them. The goal is to make that space convenient and comfortable for all of you. Having as little clutter as possible will make a big impact!

Tips - set rules and boundaries

6. A “big clean-up” is essential for maintaining a comfortable home: It doesn’t really matter when you do it, but preferably once a year. It’s a very good idea to link it to a deadline or to have an incentive, like having a guest stay with you, or getting organized before summer to truly be able to enjoy and have room for all those items you bring back from your overseas trip. Do whatever works for you!

Looking for some professional help in decluttering your own home? Nathalie is offering Savvy Tokyo readers her four-hour kick-start session for the special price of ¥25,000 (regular price ¥30,000) for any new bookings up until February 29, 2020. Find more details here.

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