The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

One year ago, a woman I had just met was insistently whispering into my ear as an unrelated lecture got underway, “I swear, it’s changed my life.” This was the first I’d heard about Marie Kondo’s tidying up book, and it wasn’t the last. Sweeping over the NYTimes bestseller list like wildfire, it appears that a majority of the women in America are Kondo-Krazy. Just last week I eavesdropped the faint glimmer of telltale advice from the book, “I’d already done my books, but the clothes were the hard part. I’m not even a hoarder!”

I didn’t want to read this book, feeling myself fairly well-versed in the art of decluttering and keeping things orderly in my space. Just ask my realtor, who a few years ago was astounded when I went from 3 BR, 2 BA house to a single-room studio by dispassionately jettisoning the majority of my possessions over a three week period. And yet, as I read this book for a work assignment, I got caught up in the swirl of advice, throwing out seven useless and expired spices from my spice rack in between chapters. I’m willing to give her advice a real attempt, although I doubt I’ll come near the dozens of trash bags her clients filled with discarded stuff.

My first beef with the book is that the translator is hidden away, only tagged on one page that you must dig out. If it weren’t for the efforts of Cathy Hirano to translate from the original Japanese into English, we wouldn’t be losing our shit over this book in the U.S. My second beef (which is a lot for a multi-decade vegetarian) is the bald-face bragging Kondo does at the beginning about how much she’s changed her clients lives and how in demand she is, “There is currently a three-month waiting list [to become clients]… Tickets for one of my public talks sold out overnight.” Third, she names her method a dumbass version of her own name, the KonMari Method–very Trump Tower with a twist.

But on to the good stuff. What’s her secret? “To summarize, the secret of success is to tidy in one shot, as quickly and completely as possible, and to start by discarding.” The best sequence for discarding is: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, then mementos.
It’s actually a sign of an incredibly sick society that we need books like this. We accumulate and accumulate and stuff our bounty into our plentiful closets and drawers and attics and garages. Sometimes we’re so stressed about decluttering that we go out shopping (according to Kondo… this is nothing I’ve ever experienced). So when Kondo enters the scene, there’s a lot to be discarded. Embarrassingly large numbers of garbage bags filled with items to be thrown away. (Not to get all hippy, but there is no “away” to throw away to.) Never fear, Kondo is on the case and offers words of wisdom for those people living with their families: “Don’t let your family see what’s here.” Basically, sneak the twenty garbage bags of clutter to the curb and hope they don’t notice. Kondo claims that if the parents see how much their child is discarding, they’ll try to rescue items out of guilt, which puts more of a burden on the parents.

Kondo admits to being a tidying up Nazi with her family, sneaking things into the garbage and waiting to see if they notice. She finally decides that this is too much, she’s being too arrogant. “If I could, I’d go back and give myself a good smack and make sure that I didn’t even consider such a ridiculous campaign. Getting rid of other people’s things without permission demonstrates a sad lack of common sense.” She later spirals into a weird confession that she got into tidying because of a complex she had about her mother, because she was the middle child. Hello, editor?

Revolutionary tip #1: fold and store stuff vertically, don’t stack it. Open your drawer and be able to see the edge of every item in it, because they’re all stacked vertically like a drawer filled with books spine up.

Revolutionary tip #2: arrange your closet so your clothes rise to the right. In other words, long and heavy clothing to the left, tending upward to the light and short stuff. Oh, but first, you’ve emptied out your dresser and closet onto the floor and touched every piece of clothing to make sure that it still brings you joy, right? That is critical step 1.

Kondo also recommends speaking to your clothes, telling them thank you for keeping me warm, or see ya later alligator when the season changes. “This kind of ‘communication’ helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I have no relationship with my clothes except are you in ok shape/condition to wear right now or not.
Probably my least favorite tip is on getting rid of books, mostly because I’ve already gone from 3 bookshelves down to 1, so I already know the joy of only being surrounded by books I love. To further winnow this down (she only keeps 30 on hand at one time) would be painful to me at this point. If I move to a nomadic state of living in a van, I’ll probably pare down to 30, but for now I love my tall, heavy bookshelf purchased at a going-out-of-business sale from Borders Books (RIP) in downtown SF.

Further evidence of Kondo-kraziness is her schizophrenic Mr. Rogers routine upon coming home at night: “First I unlock the door and announce to the house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the entranceway, I say, ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the entranceway. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hanger, say, ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the closet doorknob… I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case and say, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.'”

Some two-bit philosophy from Kondo, “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”