Marie Kondo, best-selling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is an icon of organization and a savior for those desperate to reduce their clutter. Her most important rule of tidying is to keep only those items that “spark joy” and discard all the rest. She promises, as the book’s title suggests, that keeping only those items that speak to your heart will help you reset your life and begin a more fulfilling, clutter-free lifestyle.
Two caveats before I apply that lesson to the college admissions process:
1. While I’m enjoying my recently de-cluttered closet, I don’t know that a piece of clothing has ever “brought me joy” (while I’m at it, I’m also not going to start thanking my belongings at the end of each day, as Kondo suggests).
2. If we made every decision in our lives based on what sparks joy, a lot of us would never pay bills, do laundry, or even go to work. Sometimes, we all do things because we have to.
But there’s something to be said for asking if something is worth keeping, if it makes you happy, and if your life is better with it than it would be without it.
The club whose meetings you attend faithfully every week—is it making your days better, or could something else light you up more?
The friend who always seems to make fun of whoever isn’t in the room, who injects negativity into every interaction—is that friend enriching your life, or would you be happier leaving that influence behind?
The sport that used to feel like you were having fun, nut now keeps you awake at night with the stress to perform—is that pressure something you feed on, or is it draining you?
And Kondo’s not the only one who preaches discarding what keeps you down, and inviting what lights you up.
Stanford professor Jim Collins calls it a “Stop Doing list.”
Author Marcus Buckingham says in his book The One Thing You Need to Know that the key to sustained success and happiness is to “Discover what you don’t like doing and stop doing it.”
Study skills author Cal Newport calls it under-scheduling.
And entrepreneur/author Derek Sivers uses his “HELL YEAH! or no” test to decide what’s worth—and not worth—doing.
Still, your SAT prep, off-season sports workouts, and late nights finishing projects might not necessarily bring you joy. But they still serve a purpose, arguably an important one that will take you where you want to go. So a good way for high school students to apply this “keep what sparks joy” method to your life might be to ask two questions.
1. Is it paying you back in some way?
Are you getting smarter, stronger, faster, more prepared for college, richer (literally or figuratively), more responsible, etc.? If so, you’re receiving something in return.
2. Does it make you happy?
If the answer is yes to both, keep it.
If the answer is no to both, discard it.
And if the answer is yes to one but not the other, you’ll need to make a judgment call. But I’ll bet the answer will be clearer once you’ve done some diligent keeping and discarding of the other items.