The ART of being tidy
A cult favourite turned global bestseller, this Japanese book claims that anyone can change their life by becoming a tidy person. We meet its author, organisation guru Marie Kondo
'Life-changing' is a bold claim to lead any book title, let alone a book about decluttering and organising, but Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising has been gaining cult status (and more than a few satires) since its release last year. But what might seem to be yet another preachy tome about an uninteresting topic could be just as magical as its author claims.
Marie Kondo is a self-proclaimed "tidying consultant", booked months in advance by clients primarily in Japan and now around the world. "I visit people's homes every day and give lessons on tidying. I help my clients to look at each and every item they own and to decide whether or not they really need it, whether or not it brings them joy. And when they've selected everything they want to keep, I also help them to learn how to organise their things once and for all." Cue the eye-rolls and jokes about how the toilet brush can possibly inspire joy in your home, but 50 pages in, you might start to change your tune. The KonMari Method, as Kondo has termed it in a combination of both her first and last names, might have you locking yourself in your bedroom with a pile of bin bags sooner than you think.
Kondo is, admittedly, fanatical about tidying and housekeeping. The book recounts her personal journey from viewing tidying as a daily task, to realising that creating order in the home could be a permanent status. Part memoir, part self-help book, it includes anecdotes from clients who seem just as normal and messy as you and me. With a matter-of-fact tone, Kondo dishes out tidying wisdom that she claims will, if completed properly and in the correct order, keep your home tidy not just once, but forever.
From an early age, Kondo was obsessively interested in tidying. "I started reading housewives' magazines when I was a child. I was only about five years old but I loved reading about tidying. I was getting my domestic training while still in primary school."
Kondo would stop at the bookshop on the way home from school to browse housekeeping books, and would return home and put her newly-found knowledge to use in her room and then in her siblings' rooms, often to their chagrin. By high school, Kondo was banned from tidying anywhere but her own room, having discarded many of her family's belongings without their knowledge or consent. Tidying turned into a full-fledged career when she graduated from school, and she now visits clients one-on-one to help them declutter and organise their homes.
Throughout The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo manages to inject her slightly literal sense of humour into an otherwise dull topic. Kondo regularly expresses disbelief that her clients have managed to collect upwards of 60 toothbrushes, and remarks that she keeps detailed notes on the collections her clients discard or donate for her own personal contests.
But the real crux of Kondo's book, something that anyone would be tempted by, is that she believes tidying shouldn't be a daily chore, but rather that anyone can transform themselves into a tidy person. "If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly and completely within a short span of time, you'll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after."
A tall order, for sure, but Kondo explains the step-by-step journey you'll need to take to get there. Decluttering should be done once and quickly, setting your house in order over a span of up to six months. According to her method, a person should never have to tackle the project again. "Some people think that tidying never ends, that it must be done daily. It seems to be the theme of their lives. But you should realise that they are mistaken," says Kondo. "If you put your house in order properly, you'll be able to keep your room tidy, even if you are lazy or sloppy by nature."
But the KonMari Method isn't for the faint of heart. Kondo estimates the process will take a person an average of six months to fully declutter to the point that they won't rebound in the future, and veering from Kondo's strict instructions on the order in which categories should be tidy can result in failure.
"People who get stuck halfway usually do so because they start with the things that are hardest to make decisions about. Things that bring back memories, such as photos, are not the place for beginners to start. The best sequence is this: clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellany), and lastly, mementos." Kondo recommends assembling each category in one location, rather than decluttering room by room. She recommends starting with clothes, gathering each and every item of clothing from around the house in order to be able to properly decide what goes and what stays. "The number of things my clients have discarded, from clothes and undergarments to photos, pens, magazine clippings, and make-up samples, easily exceeds a million items. This is no exaggeration. I have assisted individual clients who have thrown out 200 45-litre garbage bags in one go."
And the criteria for deciding what should be discarded and what should be kept? Decide if the item "sparks joy". It sounds a little silly, but Kondo insists this is the critical element. "I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to 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." Kondo insists that holding the item in one's hand, rather than simply looking at it, is critical to assessing that feeling of joy.
This piece of wisdom came to Kondo after spending much of her childhood unsuccessfully attempting to tidy her family's home by organising and removing items. "If I had been a little smarter, I would have realised before I became so neurotic that focusing solely on throwing things away can only bring unhappiness. Why? Because we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of."
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up even deals with the problem of having a messy family, a scenario which seems to have plagued her throughout her childhood. "To quietly work away at disposing of your own excess is actually the best way of dealing with a family that doesn't tidy. As if drawn into your wake, they will begin weeding out unnecessary belongings and tidying without you having to utter a single complaint. It may sound incredible, but when someone starts tidying, it sets off a chain reaction."
Kondo repeatedly warns readers to beware of rebounding back into their old cluttered ways. Her end goal isn't simply to establish tidy homes around the world, but to release her readers from the hold of daily, fruitless tidying thus saving time and mental energy. "Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."
'Life-changing' might be a strong lead in for a book title, but if Marie Kondo gets her way, you'll be tidying your way to a new life in just a few months' time. Perhaps more hard work than magic, but with all that clutter donated or thrown away, you'll have a whole lot more room in your home and in your life for the people and things that really do give you that spark of joy.
Kondo prescribes a method that requires tidying by category. Start first with clothes, then move on to books, papers, miscellaneous items and finally, items with sentimental value. Within each category, Kondo suggests sorting, discarding, then organising the remaining items.
Kondo is rather ruthless with regard to discarding. For papers, her general rule of thumb is to discard each and every one. From warranties to pay stubs, she recommends taking in the information and considering its job to be completed. "My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away. After all, they will never inspire joy, no matter how carefully you keep them."
Mementos should be tackled last, only after you've practised on the lesser items with less sentimental value. "When you think about your future, is it worth keeping mementos of things that you would otherwise forget? We live in the present. No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important." Wise words, but certainly tough love in the KonMari Method!
One of the KonMari Method's tenets relies heavily on her very particular art of folding clothes, which Kondo finds both important for the clothes themselves and crucial to the organising process. "When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes." Cue those sceptically-raised eyebrows again! But according to Kondo, the fold matters. She rails against the typical square folds, instead suggesting we create pillows that can stand on end, which are more resistant to wrinkles and allow for better organisation.
To create the KonMari fold, spread the item face-down on a flat surface. Fold each side lengthways toward the centre, tucking in sleeves so they lay flat. Fold the newly formed rectangle in half, and then in half again, repeating until the item can stand up on its end. When arranging clothing in drawers, use empty shoe or cereal boxes to create smaller dividers, and always set clothes into drawers with the open fold facing down.