Marie Kondo is an international phenomenon. She is the Dalai Lama of decluttering, the Dr. Ruth of neatness, the Oprah of organizing. In her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and on her new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, this young, petite Japanese woman gives tips on organizing every item in your home and tells you her philosophical basis for doing so.
The KonMari Method, as she calls her process, feels a bit cultish. The rules are rigid. Things must be tackled in this order: clothes, books, papers, komono (a Japanese term variously translated as miscellaneous items or accessories or gadgets but which includes dishes, linens, appliances, CDs, etc.) and sentimental objects. Purge first, then organize. The organizing principle, the rationale, is simply whether or not the object “sparks joy.” All items of the same sort must be stored in the same place.
And like a religion, the promised reward for following the rules is paradisiacal and eternal. “If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly, and completely … you’ll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after (italics mine). Marie Kondo also writes, “As you reduce your belongings … you will come to a point where you suddenly know how much is just right for you. ‘This is just the amount I need to live comfortably. This is all I need to be happy.’ … Interestingly, once you have passed this point, you’ll find that the amount you own never increases.” (Italics mine.)
Okay, okay. Before going any further, I want to come clean. I am not going to tidying heaven, at least not this go-round. I couldn’t stick to one of the very basic tenets.. I couldn’t drink the Kool Aid. I couldn’t do it.
Other than being petite Asian women, Marie Kondo and I couldn’t be more different. Guess which of us said, “My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five.” You’re right. It’s not me. My earliest experience of tidying up was in grade school. On Friday afternoons, our teacher had the kids clean out their desks. The storage space was under the seat. I would fill the space and still had a book left to put in. I’d stack the books with the top going in first. Nope. Then, I’d put them in with the spine facing me. That didn’t work either. I took the extra book home.
I asked an Asian-American friend whether she had read the Kondo book. She gave a dismissive look. “I don’t have to. I already have the genes.” Well, I have the genes too. My parents were very neat people. Mom would slip dad’s newly laundered undershirts in the bottom of the stack in the drawer. She figured Dad would take them from the top, as that was most convenient. That way, each shirt would get worn in rotation. Dad, on his part, took his shirt every day from the bottom of the pile, thinking that it’d be easier for Mom to just put the clean shirts on the top. The pile was so neat that neither noticed for months. So, I can’t blame my genes or my upbringing.
When I decided to read and review The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I had not realized the rules were so cut and dried. Nonetheless, I hoped to follow the rules at least through the first of the five organizing categories in the mandatory sequence: Clothes. This would require me to gather all my clothes — from the coat closet, from my half of the bedroom walk-in closet, from my off-season clothes closet and from my chest of drawers — and my shoes and belts into a big pile. I needed to pick up each one and decide if it “sparks joy.” If not, discard. But, before discarding, thank the shirt or dress or coat for having done its job for me.
Even though she didn’t explicitly say so, I think that one reason Marie Kondo insists on putting everything into a great big stack is to shock you with the volume of your belongings. I was doomed when I realized that I couldn’t have a huge pile of clothes sit in my living room or family room or the bedroom for, I don’t know, a week? I just couldn’t do that to my husband.
So, I went to each place and went through the ritual of touching, assessing the joy level and thanking the tossed items. I first did my closets, then my drawers, then my shoes and belts. And even though I did get rid of a fair amount of stuff, I was already doomed. “Tidying by location is a fatal mistake,” Marie Kondo says.“This approach is fatal,” she repeats in a different part of the book, in case you missed it the first time.
Let me tell you what this mini-purging felt like for me. I had a hard time deciding what “sparking joy” means exactly. I had a pair of shorts that were baggy and wrinkled. BUT, it had roomy pockets, enough for two tennis balls. That’s why I have them. (Usefulness can spark joy but Marie Kondo doesn’t want you to start down the rabbit hole of analysis. Hold an object and wait for the feeling.). I have golf clothes, birding clothes, Symphony clothes, Latin dancing clothes. I have clothes that are older than Marie Kondo. I decided to part with my wedding getaway dress, from my first wedding in 1972. It’s still cute, but I didn’t feel the joy.
Even though I only experienced the tip of the KonMari iceberg, I found it a positive experience and learned a lot. Here are the most useful take-aways:
Be grateful to your belongings and your home. Multiple scientific studies show that gratitude improves physical and psychological health. Marie Kondo’s approach to her house and her belongings is all about gratitude, even if on the anthropomorphizing side. She says, “It is precisely because we have a home to return to that we can go out to work, to shop, or to interact with others. The same is true for our belongings. It is important for them to have that same reassurance that there is a place for them to return to.” I am reminded of one of my favorite arias in La Boheme where the philosopher Colline praises and bids farewell to his coat when he has to sell it.
Store everything vertically. Marie Kondo feels that most clothes will be “happier” folded and placed vertically in a drawer. They are certainly easier to find. As I’ve only watched the first episode of her show, I only know how to fold socks and shirts and underwear. I look forward to learning how to store pants. She recommends vertical storage for paperwork as well. That will be a formidable challenge.
Reduce the effort needed to put things away. Marie Kondo says that it is a mistake to place things for ease of getting to them. Her point is that we are willing to go to great lengths to dig out some object when we want it. What we need to do is to find places that are convenient when it’s time to put things back because that’s when we lose steam. This assumes that every object has its place in the house. It’s our obligation to the thing that serves us.
Practice deciding. It will get easier and easier to know your own mind and heart the more you make the “sparking joy” decisions about your stuff.
Clean clutter to lose weight. Marie Kondo makes the observation that her clients tend to get slimmer when their house is tidy. She admits, “I have no scientific basis for this.” (Well, actually, there are studies. One of them shows that people in a chaotic kitchen tend to eat more snacks, about two-hundred-calories-an-hour’s worth. The theory is that clutter = stress = impulse eating.)
Marie Kondo is a winsome person. She writes with total sincerity. She’s found out through trial and error — she’s been thinking about these issues since age five, remember — what works for her. And she just wants to help you. I absolutely believe her when she says that she takes everything out of her purse at the end of every day and puts her wallet, receipts, train pass and business card holder in their designated places. I also absolutely believe that I am never going to do that.
Nevertheless, I plan to continue the KonMari Method. I will tackle books next, then papers, komono and sentimental objects. I may not always follow the rules exactly, but in tidying as in life, it’s never too late for redemption.
Tell me: What’s your system for organizing your things?