Francine Jay's detailed guide to decluttering is refreshingly practical, accessible, and free from idealistic philosophy.
Over the past year, I’ve read at least six books on minimalism. It seems that anyone with a minimalism blog is churning out a book version, and it’s not surprising. Minimalism is a hot topic right now, as people react to the hyper-consumerist culture that’s been passively accepted for the past several decades, but has left us with suffocating levels of stuff, debt, and stress.
I start these books with enthusiasm, determined to cull the contents of my home even further, but then they get boring. They all seem the same, repeating the same mantras about needing to change one’s mentality, embrace the philosophy, and free up resources for “the things that really matter.” It’s valuable stuff, but it gets tedious and often fails to get at the real grit of decluttering.
Then I found “The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide,” by Francine Jay. This book, published in 2010, is relatively old compared to all the new ones on the market. It is, without a doubt, the best minimalism book I’ve read so far because its focus is on the how-to of decluttering and maintaining minimalism. While Jay does touch on the philosophy of simple living, it’s explored mostly in the last chapter, and more as an afterthought to the actual physical act of removing belongings from one’s home.
The acronym for Jay's method is STREAMLINE:
S – Start Over
T – Trash, Treasure, or Transfer
R – Reason for each item
E – Everything in its place
A – All surfaces clear
M – Modules
L – Limits
I – If one comes in, one goes out
N – Narrow it down
E – Everyday maintenance
She applies this method to every room in the house. Like Marie Kondo, she emphasizes the importance of removing everything from a space when selecting what to keep and what to purge:
“We become so accustomed to seeing certain things in certain places, it’s like they’ve earned the right to be there (whether they belong there or not). It’s tempting to say, ‘Oh, I know that’ll stay, so I’ll just leave it there for now and work around it.’
“The broken chair that’s been in the corner of your living room for as long as you can remember seems to have staked its claim to the space; it’s like a member of the family, and it feels disloyal to move it. But once it’s out in the backyard, with the light of day shining on it, it’s suddenly nothing more than an old, forlorn broken chair.”
Items must be divided into trash, treasure or transfer (to give away), always placed in black garbage bags where you cannot see and second-guess your decision. Everything should be handled, questioned, and justified. Everything that remains is divided into three further categories: Inner Circle, Outer Circle, and Deep Storage, based on frequency of use.
I particularly like Jay’s suggestion to think of flat surfaces as slippery, in order to discourage the accumulation of stuff: “If [surfaces] were slick as ice, or tilted just a few degrees, nothing would be able to stay on them for very long. We’d be able to do our business, but then anything left over would slide right off.”
While Jay acknowledges that the holy grail of minimalism is to live with just enough to meet one’s basic needs, and nothing more, it’s not the focus of her book. She’s not out to convince us that all we need is a bowl, blanket, and futon on the floor, but rather that each person’s perception of ‘enough’ varies according to their lifestyle. The goal is to achieve one’s personal optimum:
“There’s no master list of what’s in a minimalist home. No decree outlines the items we should have in our kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms, or bedrooms. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there’s not even a magic number. It doesn’t matter if you own fifty, five hundred, or five thousand things – what matters is whether it’s just enough (and not too much) for you. You must determine your own list of must-haves, then narrow your stuff down to match it.”
This approach is accessible and manageable for wannabe minimalists like myself, who still have to contend with four-season clothing and energetic children with many accoutrements. The tone is non-judgmental, the advice is practical, and the book has given me the tools to tackle my house competently and thoroughly. I highly recommend it to anyone who craves simplicity at home, but feels frustrated by the idealism often exhibited in minimalist books.