Review of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”

My rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.  This is my review of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo.

Cover of the book by Marie Kondo

Cover of the book by Marie Kondo

Hardcover: 224 pages

Publisher: Ten Speed Press (October 14, 2014)

Hardback Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 7.3 inches

I recently ran into someone I know who cleans houses, with the little book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” tucked under her arm.  I had seen this book at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for some time, and had wondered about it.  I asked my house-cleaning acquaintance what she thought of the book, and she stopped, got very quiet, and said, “I thought it might give me some tips on house-cleaning, but it’s so much more than that.  I can see it changing my whole life.  My personal life, the way I live, my business, it’s…well…there’s so much in this tiny little book.  Just go buy a copy…you’ll see what I mean.”

That was enough for me.  I bought “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” without having read any reviews in advance, since I didn’t want other reviewers’ opinions to affect or color my opinion.

Marie Kondo.  As soon as I began to read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I realized that its pixie-like author Marie Kondo, a native of Japan, is extremely unique, not only in the United States, but I am guessing in Japan as well. The Boston Globe refers to Kondo as “Japan’s angel of neatness.”

One of Time's 100 Most Influential People

One of Time’s 100 Most Influential People

I had no idea until after I read this book just how popular Kondo is.  She has been written up by The New York Times and was named in 2015 as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Kondo is petite and almost childlike-looking, but her words read so much older and wiser than her 30 years.  This makes sense when Kondo explains that she was pretty much obsessed with ways to declutter and organize since before she could read at age 5; she says that she seriously began studying the science of tidying and organizing in junior high school.  She tells more than once how, when her fellow students at school went out for recess, she usually stayed behind by herself, straightening and organizing the classroom coat closet, for instance.  It seems that Marie Kondo has been a loner for the better part of her life: “From the time I was a first grader…I did not like being dependent on others, found it hard to trust them, and was very inept at expressing my feelings. From the fact that I spent recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child.  I really enjoyed wandering round the school by myself, and I still prefer to do things alone, including taveliing  and shopping. This is very natural for me.”

Marie Kondo with her husband...they just had a baby girl...

Marie Kondo with her husband…they just had a baby girl…

Kondo, now married, just announced the birth of a baby girl a few days ago…it makes you wonder how living with a husband and now a baby will go for her. I digress, I know…and yes, this is a review of Kondo’s book, but I think it helps to appreciate this fascinating book more if you understand a little about its author Marie Kondo. Her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” managed to turn my previous thoughts and ideas about decluttering, organizing, and tidying upside down.  Only someone like Kondo, who herself is so incredibly unique, could come up with the maverick approach set out in her book.

Drastic Overhaul: A “Special Event”.  Kondo’s method for changing the your life is two-step: one is discarding and the second is organizing your space.  This method is to be done completely and in one go. “The purpose of this book is to inspire you to tackle the ‘special event’ of putting your house in order as soon as possible,” Kondo writes, going on to say that this is a “once-in-a-lifetime task.” Reader be warned: Kondo means business, and in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” she gently but persistently tells her untidy readers that they must buy into her method whole-heartedly, or they will certainly relapse and continue to be in their hells of tidying forever, without ever really changing their lives.

Spark of Joy.  Kondo really could have named this book “Spark of Joy.”  Kondo’s method is first to discard, and she spends about three quarters of the book addressing how and what to discard. The trick, Kondo says, is to pick up and physically touch every single thing you own and ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?”  Here is the book in a nutshell to me, with this quote: “Keep only those things that speak to your heart.  Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.  By doing this, you can reset your life, and embark on a new lifestyle.”

Kondo emphasizes that we should be choosing what we want to keep and not what we want to discard.  Kondo’s rule is very simple: “Take each item in one’s hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’  If it does, keep it.  If not, dispose of it.  This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”

Wow!  Isn’t that idea so simple, so enlightening, and so thrilling?  How wonderful to think that we could live in our homes that contain only those things that spark joy in us!  Kondo, with her simple rules, shows how to do just that.

Steps for Discarding.  Kondo has the reader discard by category, starting first with clothing, then books, then miscellaneous “stuff”, including papers, and then finally the most difficult things to ask oneself if they spark joy: the sentimental items and the photos.  All of these items are approached with the understanding that if they don’t spark joy, then they should be discarded.

Kondo lets the reader know that she understands that this discarding process is not easy, that doing this forces you to process the past and address how you wish your future life to be.  But she is persistent and reassuring the entire way, constantly reminding you to keep an object only if it brings you pure joy.  As Kondo writes late in the book, “The fact that you possess a surplus of things that you can’t bring yourself to discard doesn’t mean you are taking good care of them.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings.  Just because you dispose of something does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity.  Through the process of selecting only those things that inspire joy, you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.”

Acting on Intuition and By Yourself.  Kondo emphasizes that you should do this discarding process alone and without your family or others around.  She encourages you to do this with no television or music in the background, so that you can really listen to your intuition as to whether the object you have in hand sparks joy.  And as a side note, because this is such a personal method, she warns the reader not to discard other family members’ things–each person must discard and organize his or her own things on his or her own terms.

As Kondo says in her introduction, “I can never put someone else’s house in order in the true sense of the term.  Why? Because…order is dependent on the extremely personal values of what a person wants to live with.”

Storing and Organizing.  Kondo spends less than a quarter of her book addressing storage.  Obviously, once you discard all of those bags and boxes of joyless crap, storing what’s left is not nearly as big of a deal.

Kondo’s rules for storing are basically (1) designate a spot for every single thing (2) store all items of the same type in the same place and (3) arrange storage so you can tell at a glance where everything is.

Kondo says to forget about “flow planning”, and fancy or expensive storage solutions.  Instead, she says the key is to set up storage so as to reduce the effort needed to put things away, and not the effort to get them out.  And when you think about it, she’s right!  If we use something, we have a clear purpose for getting it out, and unless it’s incredibly difficult, we don’t mind the effort to get it out.

The folding and storing of clothing gets a lot of attention in this book.  Look online, and you’ll find dozens of examples of the “KonMari” method befores and afters.

The "Before" Drawer

The “Before” Drawer

I couldn’t resist, and tackled one of my own full and neglected drawers, applying the “KonMari Method” as set out in Kondo’s book.

The "After" Drawer

The “After” Drawer

Here are photos of my “before” drawer and then my “after” drawer, which now contains only those clothes that spark joy.

The Keep Pile on the left and the Discard Pile on the right

The Keep Pile on the left and the Discard Pile on the right, all done per the KonMari method

I ended up discarding over half of the items in the drawer.  I can’t help but gloat over the “after” drawer…I love how I can view everything so easily now.  My drawer was a “KonMari” makeover from about three weeks ago, and you know what?  It still looks like that. And I’ve been wearing those clothes in that drawer, because, yes, they spark joy in me.  Not only that, but I appreciate these clothes more when I go through the process of folding them from the laundry and putting them neatly away in their now-organized drawer. I’ve used Kondo’s method on two other drawers since then, and I’m hooked.  My sister is coming to visit next week, but I’ve already decided that after she leaves, I’m going to tackle the walk-in closet.  A follow-up post on that later, hopefully….

Anthropomorphizing Objects.  Okay, I’ll admit that Kondo sometimes goes a little far with assigning humanistic feelings to inanimate objects.  Does Kondo really believe that a piece of clothing can feel trapped at the bottom of your drawer, or is this a technique to help the very human reader who is dealing with the very human emotional strain of getting rid of their stuff?  My guess is that it’s a little of both. Here’s a representative tidbit from Kondo’s book: “If things had feelings, they would certainly not be happy.  Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them.  Help them leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them.  Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying.”

In the same vein, she reminds you the reader to thank your discarded clothing for serving you and doing a good job, or to greet your home aloud each evening when you return.

Some of Kondo’s approach, I am guessing, is rooted in Eastern thought and religion.  For instance, Kondo says that there is a reason, through destiny, that led us to each one of our possessions.  She goes on to say, though, that she has never encountered a possession that reproached its owner.  “These thoughts stem from the owner’s sense of guilt, not from the person’s belongings.  Then what do the things in our homes that don’t spark joy actually feel? I think they simply want to leave.  Lying forgotten in your closet, they know better than anyone else that they are not bringing joy to you now.”

I understand that some of this anthropomorphizing may be a bit strange and weird for some readers, but please don’t let it be too off-putting.  To me, it’s kind of sweet, quirky, and interesting, and I’m sure Kondo’s approach really does help to assuage certain readers’ guilt when giving away their joyless and burdensome things.

Check out this video that shows Kondo helping one book lover go through her books, and thanking those discarded books for their job well done.

Translation from Japanese.  This book actually reads fine, although its rather formal diction (for instance, often referring to the impersonal “one”) and its rather short sentences occasionally made me take notice.  A little research revealed that this book was translated by someone other than Kondo.  Overall, the tone is quiet, even calming; considering the subject matter, I think that’s appropriate, since Kondo continually wants to reassure her readers that they should “take the plunge” and accept her unusual methods.

This book was originally written for the Japanese, but will it work for Americans? On average, the Japanese home is less than half the size of the American home.  See the interesting statistics here.  Because the Japanese people have much smaller homes than Americans, I would think that the Japanese would be a lot more motivated to get rid of stuff that is taking up their more precious real estate.  Will Americans be as motivated to buy into the KonMari method?  I wonder…

Be Yourself and Live Your Life.  Perhaps that’s what is so enticing about “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”: Kondo wants us to hold on to those things that are truly endearing and joyful to us.  “If you can say without a doubt, ‘I really like this!’ no matter what anyone else says, and if you like yourself for having it, then ignore what other people think,” she advises. Kondo urges, also, to “tidy up quickly,” because tidying is not the purpose of life.  Kondo urges the reader to “get it over with,” so you can get on with the your life, so that you can “pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.”

Will Kondo’s Method Work?  I suppose that’s the big question here, and yes, I think that Kondo’s method probably really does work.  But here’s the rub:  I also think that most people simply won’t make theirs a “special event” tidying project. Instead, they’ll try to tackle their home piecemeal, bit by bit, in the very manner that Kondo says will doom the person attempting to tidy to failure.  Just look at this video, in which Wendy Goodman with the New York Magazine admits she will not have what it takes to tackle her books, clothing, etc. in one fell swoop, per Kondo’s rules.  You’ve seen that I too am already guilty of this…just look at the piecemeal way I tackled just a few of my clothes in that one drawer above.

Still, there really is something magical and beautiful about Kondo’s book and approach…even Kondo herself seems more like a decluttering princess fairy than an actual human.  Perhaps my efforts to declutter are doomed, and it will all end in tragedy. And yet I can’t help but feel I already have gained a little magical wisdom that will improve my life, thanks to Marie’s Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”

I recommend that you read this book…it just might bring some magic to your life too.

My rating: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.


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