Narrowboat Dreams – Downsizing, Decluttering and the KonMari Method
So far in this series of narrowboating features, we’ve explored UK couple Emma and Saxon’s motivations for living off-grid, learned how they made this solution affordable and seen them get to grips with DIY to transform their sailaway into a home. Now, in our fourth article, we tackle a subject that many of us try to sweep under the carpet, or the bed, or shove in the shed … clutter. But what happens when you downsize, and there’s no longer a bazillion places to squirrel stuff away? This might well sound like a pitfall, but as Emma and Saxon discovered, it proved to be wholly liberating.
Space, Man …
Let’s talk about space. Not the boundless cosmic type of space with its potentially undiscovered dimensions, but restricted living space, where specific dimensions are crucial down to the last inch.
While living on a narrowboat is a dream for many, the reality of paring back your belongings accordingly might seem like a daunting task, unless you’re a hard-core minimalist.
When self-confessed hoarders Emma Davies and Saxon Bullock made the decision to relocate their life to the UK’s canals, they knew that it was necessary to re-evaluate the importance of their possessions. The pair had accumulated enough stuff between them to sink a fleet of ships, so their plans to live in a sailaway with an interior of 48ft by 6ft 10 posed a gargantuan challenge.
Stuff and Things
It wasn’t the first time that Emma had scaled down her living space. In 2010, the demise of a former relationship and a subsequent change in financial circumstances necessitated that she relinquish her four-bedroom house and relocate to a two-bedroom flat. “I was determined to take all my things with me because I could sell them on eBay to keep me afloat,” she says. Moving from a house where she had an entire room dedicated to sewing and crafting, to a flat with Saxon that was so full she kept her clothes in the kitchen, proved a culture shock. “I had three rails of garments – to reach the oven I had to squeeze between them. There were times I was worried I might set them alight!”
As the couple’s plans to escape the crippling rental trap by living on a narrowboat came together, eBay proved invaluable for expunging clutter and saving much-needed funds. “At one point, I had a shortfall of around £200 per month and I was making that up purely by selling my dresses!” Emma admits. “The downside was that the selling process proved so time-consuming.” Photographing, describing, listing, packaging and posting each item was only part of it – “Some buyers really pushed their luck – trying to haggle an extra pound or two off an item that was already a bargain, then complaining about the most ludicrous things upon receipt, such as, ‘this red top is actually orange’ when I hadn’t described it as red in the first place! It was a tough lesson learned – never again would I accumulate so many clothes.”
But excess apparel was merely the tip of their “stuff” mountain – Emma and Saxon’s shared passion for Sci-Fi had brought them together, but this meant double the amount of DVDs, books and comics, a collection worthy of its own library lining their heaving shelves. “For decades I’d had the collector’s bug,” says media production graduate and writer Saxon. “Stuff can be weirdly reassuring – it can have memories or resonances that help, particularly in bad times.” But many of his collections were packed away in boxes, with no room for them to be displayed. “I looked around and asked myself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen if I slice this hoard in half? Do I really need all of it?’ I started realising that letting go wasn’t impossible and I went on an epic quest to rip my entire DVD collection into files that I could store on an external hard-drive. Infuriatingly, I ended up having to back most of it up twice, because I lost the first lot when I dropped my hard-drive and killed it.” Still, traces of his hoarding nature remained – “I started getting myself into board gaming at the worst time possible!” he laughs.
The Times They Are A Changin’
In 2015, when the pair made a life-changing commitment by putting down a deposit with a boat builder, both Emma and Saxon realised that a reinvigorated approach to streamlining their lives was needed. “Our motivation for living on a narrowboat was to create a simpler, freer existence. I’d already parted with a significant portion of my belongings, but there was still a long way to go and I felt really tied down by excess stuff,” Emma says. “That was when I began researching the KonMari method.”
Marie Kondo – also known by her nickname KonMari – is a Japanese decluttering expert and author. She has written four books on decluttering and organising, which have collectively sold millions of copies. In particular, the best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been published in more than 30 countries.
Courtesy of Tazmin Damji, Flickr
Abiding by the principle that when you put your house in order you put your affairs and your past in order too, Kondo’s unique system has helped hoarders across the globe fundamentally change their relationship with materialism. This struck a chord with Emma – “Upon reflection, I acquired the most clothes when I was unhappy, in a misplaced effort to cheer myself up,” she says, referring to the time in her life before she met Saxon. “I started by visualising the life I wanted to embrace, then began adopting Marie Kondo’s techniques in sympathy with this.”
So what’s so special about the KonMari approach? Here are five key principles Kondo outlines in her book:
#1: Piece by piece – does it spark joy?
The most basic premise is to look at each of your belongings individually (yes, potentially a mammoth task) and ask yourself, “Does it tokimeku?” or, in English, “Does it spark joy?” While initially it feels faintly absurd to ask this question about functional items such as mugs or plates, what use is a dozen of each when you only use the same few on a regular basis? “‘Does it spark joy?’ might seem to set the bar awfully high for a T-shirt or a pair of jeans,” observes Penelope Green in her article on the KonMari method for the New York Times, “but it turns out to be a more efficacious sorting mechanism than the old saws: Is it out of style? Have you worn it in the last year?” We should be cherishing the things we love, choosing what we wish to keep, above what we want to throw away.
#2: Tackle categories, not rooms
Rather than clearing out your bathroom one week and your bedroom the next, focus on categories of belongings, otherwise they’ll continue to creep from room to room and you’ll never rein in the clutter. Kondo advises beginning with clothes, since they’re often the least emotionally loaded items. Unless you live in a mansion, you’ll probably lack the space to empty your entire wardrobe at once, so concentrate on one subset of clothing at a time, ie: shirts, then trousers, then sleepwear. Next focus on books, followed by papers, only tackling sentimental items such as photographs once you’re fully comfortable with the KonMari mindset – hone your skills as you go along.
#3: Save space by stacking your clothes
Hanging can’t compete with folding in terms of saving space. Once you’ve purged those superfluous clothes, using the right technique for the remaining ones can mean you’ll fit 40 items into a space which formerly held 10. Just as you can see all the items on your bookshelf, Kondo advocates stacking each individual garment vertically, so that they fit the height of the drawer. Not all items, however, should be folded – jackets, for example, need breathing space. Treat your belongings with the respect they deserve – if they aren’t rested, how can they serve you?
Courtesy of jujusprinkles.com
#4: Look at those books
Books are one of the main things that people find hard to throw away. Take them out of hibernation – expose them to fresh air and make them conscious. Books you intend to read can be harder to part with than those you have already read, but how many of them have lain untouched for years, good intentions falling by the wayside? Chances are, if you really wanted to read them, you would have by now. Freeing up space will make you feel infinitely lighter.
#5: Discard before you place things back
Putting things away can create the illusion that your clutter problem has been solved, but it’s crucial to remember that a peaceful home is one which accommodates you as an individual first and foremost, before your reserves of stuff. Therefore, you must always discard before you place things back. Do you really need those study notes from 1992, no matter how impeccably organised they are in a file?
Through taking the plunge and embracing these lessons, Marie Kondo believes that it’s possible to reset your life. Many people amass to satisfy a craving, but once you have identified what you truly need, you’ll never make misguided purchases again. Ask yourself why you feel you can’t let something go – because of an attachment to the past? A fear of the future? When you learn to sever the link between physical objects at a desire for stability and security, you might well realise that your treasured memories live in your head and your heart, not at the bottom of a dusty box.
Putting the Purge into Practice
So how did Emma and Saxon put the KonMari method into practice in a way that worked for them? Taking delivery of their bare sailaway reinforced how much hard work they needed to undertake to transform their shell into a home and every spare hour was often spent painting, wiring and configuring its internal layout. This served as a reminder of how little space they had on board for their belongings, which provided a catalyst to set time aside and crack on with their KonMari clear-out.
“The idea of having less stuff was so liberating,” Emma says. “I sorted through the kitchen like a very careful, methodical whirlwind – now everything we have actually fits in the cabinets! I shocked and amazed myself with how many clothes I managed to throw away. I’d been keeping lots of things due to guilt – when you buy something and it doesn’t feel quite right, it can be a quandary if it’s new and you’ve spent money on it. But you don’t want to open your wardrobe and feel bad, so just get rid of it and stop feeling guilty!”
Of course, purging doesn’t have to be wasteful and environmentally unfriendly. Through taking those unwanted items to charity shops or selling them at car boot sales or online, you can give them a new lease of life in someone else’s hands. Why not donate unneeded books to a library or a school? If you know anyone who’s setting up home, might they benefit from those curtains you don’t need anymore?
Narrowboat Storage Solutions
Once you’ve decluttered to the max, it’s time to think about storage. Here are five handy tips for saving space on a narrowboat:
#1: Seek out dead space
Where your corner cupboards meet, there’s often enough room to squeeze in a small drawer – this could prove ideal for storing documents or cutlery.
#2: Raise the bed
Have you ever thought how much wasted space lies beneath your bed? If you raised its framework, this could create room for storage boxes, which could be used to house shoes, towels or coats.
#3: Floor to ceiling shelves
Shelves are crucial when it comes to storage – why not find an area where you can install a floor to ceiling shelf?
#4: Vacuum pack storage bags
Vacuum packing will reduce the amount of space needed to put away bulky items such as spare bedding. The bags are made out of clear plastic, so it’s easy to see what’s inside.
#5: Roof boxes
Many people use roof boxes to store items on the top of their boat. However, remember, care needs to be taken with their height so you’ll still be able to fit under tunnels!
Almost a year on from their first KonMari sort-out, Emma and Saxon continue to embrace the Marie Kondo approach to streamlining their stuff. If things go according to plan, they’re cautiously optimistic that they’ll be able to give up their rented Nottingham flat and move onto their narrowboat by the end of 2017, by which time they’ll have whittled down their possessions to the items that they truly love.
“We’re now getting rid of most of our furniture,” Emma says. “Hopefully by the end of this process, we’ll just have a bed, my Lloyd Loom chairs, a table, and a TV unit. And possibly a bean bag!”
“I still buy comics, but it’s very rare that I allow myself to purchase them in print nowadays – I get them digitally instead,” Saxon says. “Although I still love physical books, I’ve moved over to a Kindle. We definitely intend to make room for a bookshelf on board, but now we’re fully aware of our limitations.”
Why not check out parts one, two and three of the couple’s narrowboat quest or explore their journey via their blog and YouTube channel?