The magic of tidying up – a review of Marie Kondo’s life-changing book

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If you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you might not have heard about Marie Kondo’s book about cleaning, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. Translated from its original Japanese into English, it swept to the top of the bestseller list and sold over three million copies. Being obsessed with all things cleaning, I eagerly read this book to find tips and tricks I could share and quickly learned the art of KonMari, as she’s named her organizing system.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to gain much personally from reading the book, since I keep my home clean and tidy on a regular basis. However, as I read her words and the refrain of “discard, then put away” began to reverberate in my head, it started to sink in, and I believe I can benefit from her suggestions. In fact, I managed to declutter my spice cabinet in a break between chapters last night!

The goal of Kondo’s book is to share her belief system of how best to organize and manage the things we surround ourselves with. And we simply have too much stuff. Kondo tackles this modern day dilemma head-on, with her prescription to start by discarding items, “intensely and completely.” Some of us out there might have closets that are packed so full that it’s impossible to wrangle them open. Others have stacked things willy nilly all over the floor so that you can’t see the floorboards or carpet. She offers her first secret: “Tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible, and start by discarding.”

I thought that I had mastered the art of discarding, evidenced by my shedding most of my worldly possessions over a three week period when I decided to sell my three bedroom house and move into a studio apartment. These were actually a very happy three weeks, as I purged books from three bookcases down to one, keeping only my favorite books, and ruthlessly winnowing the rest of my belongings into a massive pile to donate to charity. But after reading Kondo’s book, I believe there’s still some freedom to be gained by discarding further. And it truly is freeing to not have the psychic weight of all those things hanging around your neck.

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Over the years of acting as a clutter consultant, Kondo has mastered the proper order of discarding. She suggests you start with your clothes, since they are easily replaceable and lack the deep sentimental ties you might have with other items you own. You’re supposed to dump every stitch of clothing onto the floor in one room, and touch each piece to decide whether to keep or discard. She suggests that certain items bring you a “spark of joy,” and those are the things you should keep. “What things will bring you joy if you keep them as part of your life?” Kondo asks over and over, making you prioritize the items you surround yourself with.

She spends quite a few pages on how to discard and organize clothing, much more than I think is absolutely necessary. Perhaps she’s trying to instill the power of decision-making on us and so keeps hammering home the details over and over. One of the tips I got from this section was the idea of folding your clothes in drawers so that they stand up rather than lay flat–so when you open your sock drawer, you see the edges of each of the pairs of socks and they’re not balled up with one end folded over the other. Her technique is basically feng shui for clothing.

Another tip on clothing management is to hang your clothes so that they rise to the right, so heavy and long things are on the very left, and then each item to the right gets progressively lighter and shorter. Kondo is also very big on not stacking things, but rather putting things in drawers to be easily accessed.

Once you’ve tackled your clothing, Kondo wants you to move on to books. This is the section I have the biggest disagreement over, being a huge book nerd/lover. I’ve already winnowed down my collection to a single bookcase, down 66% from what I previously owned. Kondo says that she keeps only thirty books around at any time, and these she keeps hidden away in a closet. To each their own, I say, since books are the fabric of my life and act as a kind of security blanket for me. Maybe I’m missing Kondo’s point on this, but nobody’s perfect (except Kondo, of course!). If you’re up for the book purge, you have to do the same thing that you did with clothes–everything dumped out on the floor so you have to physically touch each book that you keep or discard.

Next comes paper management! Here, Kondo regains some love from me, as she asserts, “My basic policy is to discard all papers.” She does acknowledge that there are some to hang onto, and goes through a few categories giving advice on what to toss and what to file away. Now that your life is cleared of paper, Kondo wants you to tackle the miscellaneous items, which are called komono. She only spends a few pages on this huge category, making me wish the book had less about clothing management and more about everything else. Again, her basic premise here is to only keep things that “spark joy.” Don’t keep things that were given to you as gifts that you don’t like, get rid of stuff that you keep “just because,” and nobody needs a box of spare buttons.

Now that you’ve flexed your decision-making muscles, you’re ready to move on to the hard stuff–the mementos or sentimental things you own. Here again I felt that Kondo spent too little time, just repeating her “spark joy” mantra and not giving much advice about how to discern what to keep and what to toss of the items that we have a deeper connection to. I will take her advice about photos, though, and mercilessly toss any physical photos that I have of unidentifiable scenery.  

The final section of her book is about organization and storage of what remains after your purge-fest. Everything should have a place and be returned to that place after you use it. She reiterates her vertical storage preference here, noting that if things are stacked, it’s unlikely you’ll ever use the things at the bottom of the stack.

She leaves us with an interesting thought, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” I’m up for the KonMari challenge and am excited to see how much more streamlined I can make my life by getting rid of things that don’t bring me joy.

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