tidying magic

I recently read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and like many reviewers I’ve been busy ever since refolding my clothes and finding things to throw out. Well, kind of.

It seems like all the cool kids online are reading this book right now. It’s a worldwide bestseller and searching #mariekondo on social media will yield many images of the book (in various languages) and neatly folded drawers. It seems like the most popular element of the book is how to fold your socks and tshirts! Or maybe that’s just because it’s an easy thing to take a photo of. I’m not seeing many pictures of cleaned out rooms or big bags of trash and donations – perhaps that’s because Kondo’s method is more of a commitment than most people can follow through with alone, or maybe not enough time has passed for people to see real results.

In Japanese the author’s brand name is KonMari and she promotes the KonMari method of tidying which she teaches her clients in her work as a decluttering/tidying consultant. She talks about her life-long obsession with cleaning up at many points in the book. I imagined a middle aged Japanese woman in sensible shoes, but it’s turns out KonMari is quite young, perhaps in her mid 20s. She reminded me of the soft spoken young graduates in their “recruit suits” who emerged from the colleges every spring looking for a job. Not at all the woman I imagined was talking to me from the book.

Her method is rooted in the context of Japanese life – many young women live in a room in their family home with plenty of disposable income and no real expenses to pay. From what I’ve seen and heard, these small rooms end up packed with clothing and brand name purses, collections, books, and hobby-related stuff. There’s a lot of really nice Stuff for sale in Japan – but not a lot of space to store it. When I lived in Japan I was surprised to see that modern consumerist values had taken over from traditional minimalist values and many Japanese people had homes stuffed to the gills.

KonMari advises that we keep only the things that “spark joy” and dispose of everything else. Once we have gone through everything we own, then we can consider how best to organize it. That’s really good advice! (FlyLady always said “you can’t organize cluuter!”It’s a challenge though… especially for people with an addiction to organizing things in clever ways – something Kondo struggled with in her younger years. But until we’ve gone through everything we won’t know what we need to store or how best to store it. KonMari would have us go through everything “quickly” (which she then defines as at least a 6 month job), touching every item we own, and deciding whether it sparks joy or is essential to our lives, choosing to own each piece we keep, and throwing away the rest.

(The book had me cringing, especially when describing throwing out 56 bags of trash, because I know firsthand that the stuff being thrown out is often perfectly good. In Japan it goes in the trash, not to a thrift store or to be recycled. I hope that in the past decade that has changed, but when I was there I furnished our apartments with things headed for landfill or incineration. The waste was obscene.)

KonMari has very specific instructions on what order we should deal with our things – clothes first, then books, papers, komono (little things, miscellany), and lastly mementos. This is both because it’s easier to work on clothes and books than sentimentally valuable things, which gives us a chance to develop our skills, but also because sentimental things tend to be scattered throughout our homes rather than gathered in one place. Kondo would have us gather everything that belongs in one category together on the floor so we can see everything we have in one place, and then we should pick up and hold each item to evaluate it. I think she’s right in saying that if we just look inside a drawer or cabinet that we’re unlikely to discard much because everything looks put together and in its place. Pulling everything out forces us to choose what to keep rather than choosing what to discard. Project 333 follows the same approach. It’s especially necessary if you have an excess of things spread over multiple closets or storage spaces.

My first thought was that most western readers are not going to be able to gather up all of their komono on their floor. A small house contains a lot of little things! When I reached that section of the book I discovered that there was a list of types of miscellany and a recommended order for dealing with them one category at a time, but I still felt it was biased towards a Japanese single woman’s context – gathering all “household equipment” or “household supplies,” even in my little house, would take a huge amount of time and effort. But that doesn’t mean the book isn’t useful for the average American household – just that you have to take what is useful (even if it’s a challenge or a stretch) and discard what just isn’t going to work. I guess the general advice to gather everything in a given category is good advice, so the categories are the part to modify – maybe gathering all small kitchen gadgets together to evaluate, rather than emptying the whole kitchen.

There are some places where KonMari’s method gets into “woo-woo” new age territory. Holding everything is our hands is partly justified by a discussion of healing with a laying on of hands and the energy we emit through our hands. Yeah… But her discussion of carefully folding clothes, putting our hand energy into our things, and thanking our things for serving us each day as we put them away to rest, while sounding pretty silly to some of us, actually has some value. This is the good kind of materialism – actually valuing and caring for material objects. Carefully folding a sweater and being grateful for it keeping us warm is good. If we can’t take a moment every now and then to be grateful for our possessions I think we’re doing life wrong. If you find yourself hating a piece of clothing as you fold it, if you have nothing nice to say about/to it, isn’t that a sign that it is no longer serving you? Those are the things to say goodbye to.

I did imagine this sweet young woman kneeling on the floor, carefully infusing her hand energy into every sweater as she folded it, bowing deeply with a quiet “otsukare-sama” as she slips it into her drawer. Otsukare-sama is the Japanese stock phrase that means “thank you for your effort” or something like that. It’s a very zen image – a life so quiet and simple that most of us can’t imagine it.

There was a lot of good stuff in this book. There was a reminder that we hold onto many things because we are hanging onto the past or fearing the future. Sentimentality can be healthy, but sometimes we hold onto the past too much because we don’t notice or trust that our lives are good now and will be better in the future.

I’ve long held the opinion that things want to fulfill their purpose and be useful to us. Hoarding something and not using it is a waste, and I feel like our material possessions deserve a better life than that. Kondo holds this same belief and expands it into a very important idea that I hadn’t really thought of before – that things serve purposes beyond the obvious. A pretty scarf might be useful for accessorizing, but if we bought it and never used it, the purpose that buying it actually served might have been to cheer us up when we were sad one day, or ease some anxiety about having something new to wear for an event. In that case, the scarf has served its purpose and we needn’t feel bad about letting it go. That’s huge! There are so many things that I can let go of if I view them through this lens.

Books are an issue for many of us. KonMari says that if the information was useful and important to us we absorbed it into our thinking and actions and in that way the book has served its purpose.  We don’t really need to keep the book any more because we’ve taken on what we needed from it. If we can’t remember anything about the book or it didn’t change anything in our thinking, it wasn’t useful to us, and we should pass it along. For instance – this book. In writing this review I’m only looking at my kindle notes for the finer details I don’t want to misrepresent. The overall impression of the book is in my head and has mingled with my own ideas and altered the way I think about decluttering (and my own ideas have influenced what I paid attention to while reading). I probably won’t go back to the book very often in the future. If I’d bought a physical copy I would want to pass it on to someone else who could use it. Later, if I wanted to read it again it would be no problem to get another copy or find the information elsewhere. (That’s part of why books are generally easier to declutter than mementos which are unique and irreplaceable).

On unread books: “You may have wanted to read it when you bought it, but if you haven’t read it by now, the book’s purpose was to teach you that you didn’t need it.” Not always true, I hear you book lovers argue. I am moving Stephen King’s On Writing to the top of my priority list… (or so I thought until I realized that I have 6 books queued up to read and I would much rather read them than start reading that book that I’ve been “meaning to read” for 2 or 3 years… if I change my mind later I can easily locate a copy so I really should let this one go.) Reading the first part of Walden proved to me that I don’t really want to read Walden, but I foolishly bought a beautiful copy that I’ve infused with sentimental feeling… combined with the “I should like this book” feeling that makes it almost impossible to imagine passing on. This is why I like e-books and library books – I’m getting at the content, not the book itself.

On gifts: “The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not “things” but a means for conveying someone’s feelings.” (her emphasis). She goes on to say that it would be ideal if the gift was something you could use joyfully, but the point of the gift is over as soon as you receive the object and the intentions of the giver. We all need to remember that, both as givers and receivers. This Christmas season, what feelings are we gifting our loved ones? Do our gifts convey those feelings effectively? Are they thoughtful? I think it’s better to give nothing than to give someone important a thoughtless gift or something inspired only by obligation. I would rather give gifts when I find something that moves me – even if that means giving a gift months after someone’s birthday.

Kondo also talks about what happens when we declutter something we later decide we need. Maybe we shred an important piece of information, or we give away something useful. Rather than spending a lot of time looking for something amongst our piles, we can go straight to where we store that type of item and see that we don’t have it anymore. Then we can move immediately into taking action. Can we get the information somewhere else? Can we get another copy? Can we replace the thing or borrow one? Or maybe we don’t really need it at all…

Kondo has some interesting advice about where to store things. She isn’t an advocate if storing things where we use them. She thinks it’s more important that we store things where they are easy to put away. Part of her justification for that was that Japanese homes are small and walking to the other end of the apartment to get a pair of scissors is not a great hardship. I would agree to some extent (it only takes me a moment to get to the other end of my house) but I think the part about being easy to put away will trump the idea of storing all of one category of things together. I keep my socks near my shoes at the front door because I need them in a hurry when I’m ready to walk out the door – I don’t want to have to go to the other end of the house to grab a pair as we’re getting ready to leave the house. Sure, it’s an extra place to put things away when I’m doing laundry. It might be nice to be able to empty the laundry basket in one space, but that isn’t really an issue for me.

I tried storing all of my craft supplies together in one drawer (a most excellent craft drawer is was too) but when I started regularly scrapbooking I had to move all of the supplies I used to an ottoman next to my workspace. It was the only practical way to make sure I could access what I needed as I worked and put everything away quickly and easily. I wish all of my supplies would fit in a little tray or pouch that I could easily take to my table… but that’s not the reality of what I’m doing right now. It does sound like a nice goal though, now that I think about it…

So that’s the life-changing magic of tidying up in a nutshell. Or at least, that’s what I took from it. I’m sure I missed some important points. I didn’t even tell you how to fold your clothes! Maybe some other time. I did make a few changes after reading the book.

Decluttering is one of those tasks that is so simple, but is not easy. The only tasks we have are to discard the things which we don’t need or love and then figure out how to store the things we keep. Like many decluttering experts, KonMari advises that it’s not about the stuff – that the most important part is to imagine what we want from our life, our space, and our things and work towards that goal. Decluttering doesn’t have to take over our lives and become a lifelong task (unless we share her crazy and love it!) It’s a means to an end, and everyone’s end goal is different. We have to think about the life we want and create a space that supports that life.

I hope that you read something here that resonated with you and sparked a little something. Maybe there’s some advice here that will become part of the way you approach your space. Maybe you can join me in passing on many things that have already served their purpose.

Thanks for stopping by and reading this really long review!

– Jo:)

PS. I found a KonMari video playlist on youtube, starting with a book trailer with English subtitles, here.

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9 Responses to tidying magic

  1. Ms Ant Hill says:

    Great summary of the book! I agree that the total lack of garbage-guilt was shocking. I also agree that the details of the method don’t translate easily to the American home. There is no mention of garages or tools, but stockings and handbags, are treated as if they are central to human existence. And of course there are no men or children in her world either, which is very strange.
    Thanks again for the wonderful review,

    • Thanks. I really felt like knowing more about Japanese culture and the context of this book was helpful in understanding it. Very few Tokyoites live in a house – most are in apartments or condos. Even fewer have an enclosed garage or any kind of basement space even if they do live in a free standing house. The average single Japanese person lives in a 9 foot by 9 foot room – either in company provided apartments with shared bathroom space (and no kitchen – eating at work or eating out) or in a parent’s home. It’s a VERY different context.
      But the central premise of the book still had value to me – keep what you love (and what you need). Even if we only work on our stockings and handbags, most of us could get rid of some things we don’t need or love! :)

      • Ms Ant Hill says:

        You can probably answer a question I have, how big are those closets that she says people should be able to fit all their possession into? I’m just trying to get a concept of how many possessions her clients are meant to b left with?

      • I can! I lived in a traditional postwar Japanese apartment with a traditional oshire (closet) in each of the 2 rooms – I had a typical apartment intended for 2 adults and 2 children so it had a living room, combined dining and kitchen, bathroom, and a small bedroom. (I’m assuming that KonMari was assuming people would have a traditional oshire in their rooms)
        Oshire are quite big (in relation to the size of the room and house). I believe they are usually one tatami mat length’s wide (6 feet) and probably one tatami mat’s width deep (about 3 feet) and they run to the ceiling with one high area closed off separately (maybe 6′ x 3′ x 3′?).
        The main area is divided by a shelf that runs the full length. The sliding doors effectively divide the closet into 2 sections too because you can only slide open the doors behind each other to reveal one half at a time. Traditionally futons and bedding would be folded up and placed in the bottom section, filling it perfectly (2 adults futons could fit in the bottom section, one on each side). The top area is a big open space with no organization at all. You can see that companies sell furniture for the closets and get a little peek at how they look here http://www.jistec.or.jp/Fellow/AH/Hotline0911_e.html
        If you can get ahold of a book called Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki you can get an idea of how REAL Japanese young people live in their tiny apartments. Actually amazon has a “look inside” so maybe you can get an idea from this link: http://www.amazon.com/Tokyo-Certain-Style-Kyoichi-Tsuzuki/dp/0811824233?ie=UTF8&tag=libraryextension-20&camp=211189&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=0811824233

      • Actually I missspoke – I think the oshire would usually be 1.5 tatami mats long – 9 feet. They usually run along the short end of the room. And they are deeper too – probably 4.5 feet deep? Or more? haha, the more I think about it the less certain I am!

      • Ms Ant Hill says:

        Thank you so much for your informative replies! Those links were incredibly helpful for contextualizing her book. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond!

  2. Ms Ant Hill says:

    Reblogged this on The Organized Anthill and commented:
    Here is a very nice discussion of the book by a blogger with experience living in Japan. She answers some of my burning questions about the cultural context of the book and about the nature of Japanese closets!

  3. Annie says:

    Very nice and informative review. Looking forward to getting a copy and “tidying” my very large country house. I imagine there’s a lot here that a single Japanese woman couldn’t take into account.

    If you have not yet read Stephen King’s book on writing, may I recommend it to you? Probably the best book on writing I have read. Annie Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is great, too.

    • Thanks Annie.
      Good luck tidying your house! I’m sure you’ll be able to adapt the core ideas of KonMari’s method to your situation.

      I own that Stephen King book but no, I haven’t taken the time to read it yet. But I did enjoy “Bird by Bird” when I read it a few years ago. So many books, so little time! I’ll make it a priority to read those unread books on my shelf soon.

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