After 20 years as a retail marketing executive, Michele Vig of Minneapolis switched gears and became a professional organizer. As the first Marie Kondo-certified organizer in Minnesota and owner of her own firm, Neat Little Nest, Vig has been helping clients tame their chaotic closets, overstuffed pantries and paper-strewn home offices.
Through her experiences as a corporate boss and as an organizing pro, Vig has developed a personal perspective on decluttering — that creating and maintaining an orderly home requires a holistic approach. Her new book, “The Holistic Guide to Decluttering: Organize and Transform Your Space, Time and Mind,” offers step-by-step guides to tidying various spaces, along with exercises to home in on your life priorities and how to focus your energy toward achieving them. We chatted with Vig about the gift guilt trip, what clutter does to your brain and the downside of being good at multitasking. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: There are a lot of decluttering books. Why did you decide to write this one?
A: Some clients said they tried to declutter, but can’t get it to stick. I had a moment of clarity. It’s not just clutter. The reason you’re having trouble is because there’s other clutter in your life. The big lesson is that in order to keep the house tidy, you have to do other things, as well.
Q: You identify three types of clutter. Describe them.
A: Physical clutter is in your space that you see. It’s things out of place, like a living room with hair products in it, or volume, too many things. Time clutter is an overbooked calendar, with too many things going on in a day so that you can’t give proper time to them. Mind clutter is a rushing mind, or overly negative thoughts, telling you that you’re not doing it right.
Q: How are the three types of clutter linked?
A: If you declutter your house and everything has a home but you wake up the next morning and you haven’t made any changes to the way you think about your day, it’s difficult to maintain.
Maybe you didn’t give yourself enough time to get ready; at that point, mind clutter is triggered. Your mind starts to race. Things all going on at the same time can feel overwhelming, like chaos. I’ve felt it myself, and I’ve seen it happen to clients. Mind clutter sets in and they can’t get back on track. Things get put down, and you think, “I know I should put that away” but you don’t have time.
It’s especially prevalent with women. Women think, “I can do a bunch of things.” Multitasking is not multitasking. It’s taking attention away from whatever task we’re working on.
Q: Your book includes worksheets about goals, vision and intention. Why are they an important part of decluttering?
A: When you’re overwhelmed it’s easy to lose sight of your big goal. You need to take time out, take a breath and set your intention. Why do you want to declutter? What kind of life do you want? Do you want to live constantly rushed with too much stuff? Maybe you want to enjoy more of your life, rather than spend it looking for things. That can carry you through (physical decluttering).
Q: Why do you call gifts “the kryptonite of decluttering?”
A: When people get gifts they don’t like, it’s very hard to let them go. They feel guilty. I tell them “The giving of the gift was the gift. There’s nothing wrong with not keeping it. It’s OK.”
People need to give without guilt — give people an out at the beginning. Say, “I care about you but if you don’t like this, no hard feelings.” Some people think if their mother-in-law gave them something and they don’t have it out, she won’t like them anymore.
Have conversations. If a relative likes to give presents, you can tell them, “I’m choosing to have less things. I would like experience gifts or gift cards or to have you take me to dinner.”
Q: How can we resist the temptation to buy excess stuff?
A: Number one, resist the urge to stock up on everything. Wait until you’re really out of something (to replace it). People tend to have too many products. If you bought too much of something, use it some other way. If you bought a face cream and you didn’t like using it on your face, use it on your arms or elbows. Be thoughtful about using things.
Q: Does clutter affect men and women differently?
A: Men are more likely to say “I don’t see it” or “it doesn’t bother me.” Women have more stress anxiety in response to clutter. It’s difficult for them to settle down when there’s too much clutter. In clutter, women see unfinished tasks. They feel more pressure. In an environment that’s constantly cluttered, women are in a perpetual state of stress. It turns on the fight-or-flight response in their brains.
Q: You trained and became certified in the Marie Kondo method of decluttering yet it’s rarely mentioned in your book. Are you moving away from KonMari?
A: KonMari is helpful, a good method. I have found, and this is why I wrote the book, that it’s a great way to think about decluttering a home, but it alone is not enough and doesn’t always work.
As one example, Marie Kondo is very clear about “joy” as the deciding factor (about whether to keep something or get rid of it). It’s hard for some people to get their head around that. I started talking about joy in service. In the kitchen, for example, your spatula may not spark joy but how is it serving you? Does it function the way you want it to? Someone might say, “it irritates me” or “it doesn’t cut well” or “I don’t like the color.”
Another example is when someone is downsizing. A lot of stuff brings a lot of joy but you can’t take it all. How will it serve your vision? If you can only manage half of your stuff but you love 85% of it, the math doesn’t work. It’s not quite as simple as joy.
Q: You recommend using a compassionate voice with yourself. Why so?
A: One of the saddest things I see in mind clutter is having a “negative Nelly” (mind-set). People going through their things, for example in a woman’s closet, will say things like “I’m fat. It doesn’t fit. I’m so fat and ugly.” I encourage them not to use self-deprecation but to use love language. “Let’s find some pieces you love and look good in now.” You’d never talk that way to a friend.
Or they say, “I’m so mad at myself for buying this.” Everything you purchase is a lesson. Take the lesson. Maybe a certain style of clothing or hair product doesn’t work for you. People get upset with themselves when they spend a lot of money and end up not liking what they bought. Let’s have a compassionate perspective and take the lesson for next time.
Q: How do you clear your mental clutter?
A: I’m very routine about my morning walks and exercise. I get up early before my family. It’s super-important for me to drink water, go for a walk. When I get home, I take 10 minutes to think about my day and what tasks I need to accomplish. Then I schedule my day. It allows me to have a clear perspective.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted your clients and your work with them?
A: Time, mind and physical clutter are creating a lot more chaos. Many of my clients have children. Their time clutter is ratcheted up. They’re trying to do their own work while taking care of their children doing their schoolwork. You have to leave more wiggle room.
I’ve been getting a lot of calls about people wanting to rethink their home office. They thought it was temporary and now it’s permanent. A lot of people have had to rethink their kids’ learning spaces.
Q: Which chapter was the hardest one for you to write?
A: The one about mind clutter. It could be its own book. I knew it was going to be just a chapter, and it was hard to get to the most important points, the ones that would be most helpful to the most people.