The style icon Coco Chanel famously advised, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off." While removing a scarf or a bracelet won't leave you underdressed, it does make room for other accessories to shine.
This sounds a little like the Japanese aesthetic of "Ma." Ma is a concept that celebrates emptiness or negative space. It's found in Japanese architecture, interior décor, and garden design as well as music, flower arranging, and poetry.
In a home where there are too many things, there is no place for the eye to rest, and nothing is highlighted. Think of a 19th century Victorian interior suffocating in heavy furniture, tasseled drapes, marble busts, travel souvenirs, dark paintings, macabre hair art, doilies, ferns in every corner, and patterned everything.
I get a headache just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, some of us live with a decorating "style" that is rather Victorian, even if it involves brighter colors, plenty of ready-to-assemble furniture, and a lot more plastic. Some studies say that the average American home contains 300,000 items, from sofas to salad forks. Consumers in the US, a country with just over 3% of the world's children, buy 40% of the world's toys. And storage facilities are the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry.
Can we embrace the idea of Ma? Can we apply Chanel's advice to our homes and our schedules?
- Remove (and donate or sell) one piece of furniture that you don't really use and that just fills an empty corner, like a chair, a desk, or a table.
- Remove one collection so that another one can shine.
- Remove duplicates – kitchen utensils, an extra set of dishes, extraneous sheets and towels – whatever reiterates the items you actually need and use.
- Remove "just in case" items such as the computer or phone you replaced, the tool you bought and used once, or your seventh flashlight.
- Remove one time commitment – the committee that's become more of a chore than an exciting challenge, or that recurring social activity you don't really look forward to any more.
- Remove one time waster, such as a game, an app, or a social media platform.
"Ma is the emptiness full of possibilities," according to the Japanese lifestyle site Wawaza. When your home or your schedule is chaotic, you have no extra space or vitality for something new, or for the unexpected. Creating Ma can make you feel energized yet calm, the way taking a quiet tea break in a busy day can leave you feeling recharged and ready for what comes next.
In the US and other affluent countries, we pride ourselves on being "crazy busy," with no Ma in between tasks. We cram our homes, our closets, even our dinner plates with more and more, until everything loses value. Think of how the first bite of a rich delicious food is so wonderful, but if you keep eating and eating you eventually feel sick and full of regret.
With simple actions, like owning fewer things or leaving space between each activity and appointment, there's room to focus on and appreciate what's left. We increase the Ma, leave room for possibilities, and make everything more precious.
What can you remove today? Try it – Coco says you should.
Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash