I get déjà vu each January. I make a to-do list with the best of intentions to follow through on each item. I jot down, "organize finances."
Then I don't.
And then a year passes. And then I write it again.
I'd like to do better this time around. I'd like to finally adopt a system that works. That's why I turned to Marie Kondo for help. Kondo, the author of the best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and whose new book, Spark Joy, just came out, advocates ditching anything that doesn't make you feel happy and most of all, eliminating the clutter in our lives. She writes specifically about messes in our kitchens and closets, but it can apply to every part of our lives—even money.
"When our homes are free from clutter and we are surrounded by things which give us joy, it helps us to realize that it's possible that we can use these same skills in other areas of our life—not only in our office space, but also in our jobs, in our friendships and also even in our romantic lives," Kondo tells me in an e-mail interview (arranged to solve our time zone and language differences.) "Understanding what sparks joy in our lives has an almost limitless magic in improving our lives."
Sounds promising—certainly worth a try. If there's one thing I've learned by covering the emerging field of behavioral economics for the last decade or so, it's the critical importance of fighting inertia—the progress-sapping tendency we all have to keep doing what we're doing, even if we consciously know it is doing us harm. It has a tendency to snowball on us, leaving us paralyzed and wary of making changes we know we need to make, from clearing up the junk mail on the coffee table to selling the dogs in our stock portfolio.
And yet, here I am again, putting off my annual confrontation with bulging file folders filled with financial documents, the tangle of IRA and 401(k) accounts remaining from past jobs. This financial clutter doesn't reflect where I am today, it's just a pile of artifacts from the past and choices I made years ago—the first credit card I applied for in college, a puny 401(k) from a decade ago, the bank I could walk to from my apartment in New York City. Not to mention the reams of quarterly statements. These financial piles certainly don't spark joy for me. And I definitely don't feel any magic when I look at my file cabinet.
So what do I do? Where do I start?
It's simple, says Kondo. "My rule for papers is to 'discard everything,'" she says. "You should get yourself into a frame of mind where you expect to throw away all your papers. Of course there are some papers that you will decide to keep, but if you begin with the idea that no papers are necessary, you will be more effective in your tidying. You should keep only papers which fall into one of three categories: currently in use, needed for a limited period of time, or must be kept indefinitely."
Has Kondo seen my file cabinet or the box of quarterly statements in my, ahem closet? She warns against keeping just some paperwork.
"All great messes begin as small patches of untidiness," she warns me.
Her tip: Keep a "pending box" large enough to hold papers aligned properly, upright or stored in plastic folders or a magazine holder. In addition, open envelopes and mail immediately, discarding whatever you can get rid of quickly such as advertisements or donation requests you don't intend to take immediate action on, should be disposed of immediately, she says. (Need to keep something for the long-haul, like tax records? Digitize it and dump the paper copy.)
"You should definitely pick a day and a time during that day when you will deal with the papers in your pending box—do it all at once," Kondo says. "Think of how happy and free you will feel when you're done with that tidying project—and so once you are done, you will have much more confidence in your tidying skills and you are then ready to work on the stuff in your home which is more difficult than papers."
Oh, right, there's the rest of my house—and my life—too. We'll get to that next.