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

Mar 25, 2015

Chances are you've seen this book around. It seems like everyone is reading it. And everyone is raving about it.

Since my life feels like it's in an ever-fluctuating state of chaos, I didn't need all the glowing testimonials to be convinced I wanted to read it. I waited for months through the long library hold list until it was finally my turn.

It's a small and slim volume, which was a pleasant surprise since these types of books so often look like they belong in the textbook section.

But after reading the first chapter, the thing I found even more surprising than that was that this little book has such a wide following. I honestly can't believe it's on the international bestseller list--and not because it's a bad book.

But it is, for lack of a better word, trite. Several years ago, I read Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley (better known as FlyLady). I found her book extremely helpful and motivating, but although she certainly has a following of devoted fans, her book is just not bestseller material. It's quaint, it makes bold promises, it feels a little contrived.

Just like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I felt like both were helpful books. I'm glad I've read both books. But I didn't see anything especially revolutionary about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (unless naming a method after yourself makes something revolutionary and not egotistical). Nothing to warrant its place on everyone's to-read list. Nothing to garner the multitude of praises it's been getting. It's a book about de-cluttering and organizing your life. But suddenly that topic is one of profound interest to everyone. I'm just a little baffled is all.

But let me tell you about it. And then maybe you can tell me what I'm missing.

Marie Kondo is a personal organizer in Japan. Her method (coined the KonMari Method) is based on the idea that "tidying," when done correctly, is a one-time event. You begin by going through all your possessions (clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellany), and sentimental items (in that order)) and only keep the things that bring you joy. That is the key. You physically touch each item, and if it gives you a little thrill, you keep it; if it doesn't, then away to the Goodwill it goes.

Once you have reduced your possessions to only the things that bring you joy, then, and only then, you put them away in your house. You store things by category and make sure that every item has a place where it belongs.

And that's it! Your home will be peaceful, clean, and clutter-free for the rest of your life (because the KonMari method boasts no relapses). Now go fulfill your life's calling.

Okay, so I'm being a little sarcastic, and I apologize for that. I actually agreed with a lot about this book and am going to go through all my possessions while asking myself the simple, but profound, question, Does this bring me joy? My possessions should not be a burden, and I don't want to be a slave to things I don't really care about. Reading this book gave me the freedom to bid a fond farewell to those items I've held onto out of guilt.

But every review I've heard or read of this book has talked about the joy question (as well as how to fold clothes, which I'll get to in a minute), so I'm going to focus on some of the issues I had with this book in the hopes that some of you who loved it (I'm looking at you, Suzanne!) can tell me how to overcome these pitfalls.

First and foremost, I don't think Marie Kondo has children, nor does she spend much time living in her home. I'm not holding this against her, but there is a world of difference between being gone for most of the day and returning to a home exactly as you left it and being at home all day every day with four little boys. I get it that if I reduce our possessions, it will make it easier to keep things tidy, but it will still take a tremendous amount of effort.

Even if we get to the point where my boys get out a game and immediately pick it up after playing it (something we're still working on), there is still a hefty amount of living that goes on in our house. There are snacks and mealtimes (which total at least five a day), play time, accidents, crafts, cooking, running inside and outside, and a baby who lives to make a mess.

Oh, and the laundry! The laundry, people! It is the bane of my existence. I don't think Marie Kondo has any idea the amount of laundry that six people generate on a daily basis. She would be appalled. Even if all four of my kids only wore one outfit a day (a noteworthy event for sure), it would still be an incredible amount of laundry.

Which brings me to the KonMari art of folding clothes, which is this: fold each item into a neat little package that you arrange vertically in your drawer so that when you pull it open, you can see exactly which clothes it contains at a glance. This is an almost heavenly image to me, and, just like heaven, it feels about as attainable. For those of you who have implemented this strategy, I am so curious how you've done it. Do you fold the laundry by your dresser and put each item away as you fold it? Do you fold your kids' clothes in the same way? How do you keep them from rifling through their drawers (because even though they could see everything at once, I guarantee you my kids would still shuffle everything around)? How have you taught your kids to fold this way? Have you been able to sustain this type of folding for a long period of time? These are the pitfalls I see. I still want to try it, but I'm just afraid it won't last.

Now let me talk about the de-cluttering order. First come clothes. I can do that. Then books. I can do that (although Marie Kondo says, "Books are essentially paper--sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It's the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves." She obviously does not have a love affair with books, that's all I'm saying). Then papers. I can do that. And then komono.

Komono is this broad miscellaneous category that includes everything that isn't clothes, books, paper, or sentimental (which comes later). In my opinion, this is where most Americans will falter. Maybe the Japanese are more natural minimalists, and so the komono category isn't overly daunting. But I can see myself going through my clothes, books, and papers and then getting overwhelmed with how to tackle the illusive komono which will include everything from toys, kitchen gadgets, and craft supplies to DVDs, music, and sports equipment. Thankfully, within the komono section, she does break it down into smaller categories, but it still seemed overwhelmingly broad to me.

With all of the praises for this book, I've heard very little said about the fact that Marie Kondo addresses possessions as if they have souls. And that surprises me because those were the places where, in my mind, it went from being practical advice to bordering on the ridiculous. I am a firm believer in taking care of your possessions, but the idea that you shouldn't fold your socks a certain way or that you should empty your bag every day because those items worked hard for you with nary a word of criticism or complaint is just absurd. These were the parts of the book that I read aloud to Mike because they were almost comical to me, and these were the moments where I found it so hard to believe that this book is as popular as it is. Maybe I was reading too much into it. Maybe the translation from Japanese to English tampered with the original tone. Maybe she was trying to convey the importance of gratitude and respect in regard to our possessions, but it doesn't necessarily read that way.

Let me show you what I mean. Here's a brief excerpt:
"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. Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies."
And finally, even if I loved everything about the book, I still don't think I could implement it entirely because I believe a home is meant to be lived in, and it should look like someone lives in it. I think things should be neat and tidy, but I'm going to keep my soap by the kitchen sink and my clean dishes in the drainer, and my rolling pin on the counter, and I'm going to be okay with it. I'm okay with people knowing that I cook and clean and eat in my kitchen. I'm referring specifically to her suggestion to keep your soap under the sink and your clean dishes drying on the veranda so that your counters can be completely free of clutter. But this seemed a bit extreme to me.

There were other things I didn't like (taking every photo out of the photo albums to determine if it brings you joy; not keeping a supply of any essential items) and other things I did like (remembering that storage should "reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out"; asking yourself, "Am I having trouble getting rid of this because of an attachment to the past or becuase of a fear for the future?"), but I've touched on my main impressions of the book.

I know all of this probably seems overly critical, but it's just that all the reviews I've read have been heavy on the praise and light on the problems, so I decided to do the reverse. I hope those of you who loved it will comment because I'll bet we actually agree on a lot of things. And I hope those of you who weren't as thrilled with it will also comment so I know I'm not alone (although maybe that's a false hope, and I really am alone--the one person in the entire world who didn't think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was all that life-changing.)

18 comments:

  1. I hate to be the first to comment and to disagree with you but here I go. I loved this book in spite of it's quirks. Sure she has that Shinto idea that things have souls, which comes across as a bit weird. But if you understand Asian culture, it's pretty normal and I found it charming, even endearing. Disregarding that, I still found that her way of thinking freed me from a lifetime of slavery to things.
    I grew up in a disorganized but happy home. My family changed dramatically to an organized but unhappy home. I raised my 7 kids disorganizedly. Unfortunately, losing things in the din created a stress that drove me crazy. I hated always cleaning up in a whirlwind when I knew someone would be coming over. I kept trying to teach that WE were good enough to clean up for. There was never enough storage for all of our stuff. I tried to be organized but it was a losing battle.
    Enter Konmari. Order is really what I wanted all along. I love the idea of surrounding myself with the things that make ME happy and discarding the clutter. After years of putting the kids and hubby's needs first, I have a voice. In essence, I found Kondo's book empowering.
    I have decluttered my closet, the bathroom cabinets, linen closet and the whole kitchen to date. I have never felt better!!! I LOVE the freedom this has brought me. Now order does bring me the joy she describes, instead of the negative memories of my past. I still have 3 kids at home, a far cry from the 7 that once lived here. The kids know exactly where things go, so the house is just cleaner as a rule now. And no one is complaining about any extra work because the order actually makes things easier. Less stuff to shuffle around does make it easier to keep things nice.
    To punctuate it a bit further, I actually gave away all of my dishes and bought a set that made me 'sing' and brought me joy. I donated all of my clunky glasses and bought lovely water goblets. I hired a plumber to remove all of my old toilets and replace them with awesome well-functioning ones. No more fighting the sub-par things anymore. I'm having a contractor put in windows in my home that open easily to replace the sub par ones we have now. I am tired of fighting with my surroundings and bending to conform to it's limits. Kondo gave me permission to do this. My voice matters.

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  2. Part 2: Even more, I realized that taking time to nourish my soul was so important, I dedicated time each morning to a devotional complete with Mo Tab music and the scriptures to start my day. No more just reading scriptures for just a few minutes before rushing off to do my chores. My happiness is important enough that I am willing to sacrifice what I thought was pretty important for what really fills me with joy-- time with the Lord. I read scriptures, conference talks, and ponder -- all with more intent now than ever before in my life. I'm sure I should have had this mindset all along, but I didn't. Kondo helped me 'get it.'
    She spoke to me about order in a way that no other organization book could. She reached my heart and changed my life. I will NEVER go back to the chaos. I love my closet now. It's full of my favorite clothes and I can't decide which lovely outfit to wear. That's a fun problem to face daily. I am never embarrassed to answer the door because there is no mess behind me. My home is now always fit for guests. And there's no nagging or browbeating to keep it clean anymore. My kids are falling in line without any issues. They seem to like knowing where things go because they intuitively put things away as well. We seem to be living in it just fine, in fact better now that it's organized.
    Granted, I still have a lot to declutter, I find myself intuitively doing it when I have odd bits of time. Decluttering isn't a chore anymore because it's so easy now that Kondo has given me the guidelines I understand, that make sense to me. So I don't have to force myself to do it by scheduling it anymore. I just do it.
    Kondo changed my life for the better. I'm a believer. I will never go back!

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    1. Melanie - thank you SO much for sharing your opinion and experience with this book. I am so inspired by the changes you've made to your life (seriously, YOU should write a book!). I love it that you gave away all of the dishes you'd been keeping out of obligation and bought a set that you truly loved. I know I keep a lot of things I don't really love just because they're functional and I still use them, so I feel like I can't justify getting rid of them.

      I'd love to hear your thoughts about her folding technique. Do you use it, and what's the best way to implement it and maintain it? I'm just curious to know how this method works in different families.

      And I loved hearing about how now that you have a more peaceful and orderly home, you have the time and desire to carve out time for yourself each morning to spiritually nourish yourself. Thanks again for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment!

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  3. I haven't read the book. But I do think there is a difference between living by yourself and living with husband and children. I also think there is a difference between living with little children and older ones. I think little children just aren't made to declutter. My 7 year old has a hard time throwing anything away and a 2 year old can't think through what they want at beyond that moment and my five year old changes what is his favorite every day. So the idea of decluttering involves sectioning off areas or items that are under your control and what is under their control. I can already see my almost 10 year old being able to think through what brings him joy. And he is better able to understand boundaries and where things go and if he were my youngest instead of my oldest I think I could make things work better. I also see the idea of things having souls working to an extent. I think that my house has too little respect for our possessions and my kids don't treat anything very well. That is on me and the attitudes I instill in them. However, I also don't want the things in my house to be more important than the people. I find it a difficult balance between the organized unhappy and disorganized unhappy to find where we can be happy. I suppose any system that helps you find the balance for you is worth while. I just think it looks different in different stages of life and it is hard to translate those rules sometimes.

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    1. Love your thoughts! It is so true that every stage is different . . . and also every child. In the book, Marie Kondo talks about herself as a child, and she definitely had the organizing/decluttering gene from the beginning!

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  4. Marie Kondo is married and has kept her personal life private. She may have kids. I'm not sure. So she does live with someone else, and she has lived with family. Her methods are based on living with others.

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  5. What I did appreciate about the book was that it's not about being a minimalist. She writes about how you reduce your possessions until you know you have the right number, which might be 100 pairs of shoes. She also says you'll know where items should be placed so that you can return items to their homes. I have to say I did skim over the part where she talks to the possessions. This is a book from a Japanese author who has lived her life in a culture where speaking to belongings is normal. :) I have read her book and am modifying her rules to fit my life. I think that her book has just arrived at a time when people want joy in their lives and the idea of keeping only items around us that we use and bring us joy has appeal to so many people.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your opinions! I apologize if I came across sounding overly judgmental or offensive. I honestly thought she'd said in the book that she wasn't married, but I'll modify that in my review. I still think that her method is more difficult to implement in a family of young children and that she doesn't specifically address those types of challenges. I'm not saying that's her fault, only that it's a bit difficult for me to know how to apply to my own life.

      I do agree with you that she wasn't saying that everyone has to be a minimalist. She freely acknowledges that everyone has their own happy balance that they have to find for themselves. However, I really believe that she herself truly is a minimalist and so her own preferences naturally came through rather strongly.

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  6. Don't worry Amy, you're not alone. If you check Goodreads, you'll find tons of reviews on this book from people who share your opinion. :)

    There are too many points here to address in one comment, but if I sum up my response I'd say that if I really think about it, it's not really the book I loved so much as the awesome experience of decluttering. Application was the part that was life-changing. So yes, Kondo is a bit over the top and some of her suggestions are ridiculous (I think it's more of a lost in cultural translation thing), but that didn't negate for me the power of the underlying concepts and philosophies. Right now I've only focused on how to declutter my own stuff, I haven't really tackled the living with kids part, but I'm excited to experiment with that (summer project, I'll get back to you on how that goes).

    Also, yes, I've changed the way I fold my clothes, and it's awesome! I'm a total convert, it just makes me so happy every time I open my drawers now. Maybe I'll post about that sometime.

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    1. Yes, Suzanne, I totally agree with you! I think application is key, and any book that inspires and motivates you to make real, physical changes IS life-changing, no matter what it is actually about. I'm excited to do my own purging, and maybe after that, I'll write a glowing review! :-)

      Please do a post about folding clothes . . . complete with pictures!

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  7. Great review! I agree and disagree. ;) I totally agree with the weirdness of your things having souls--other culture or not. It's just weird.

    I really liked this book and felt like afterwards, I was more motivated than after reading other organizing/simplifying books. I think it's because she was so cut and dried about it all. Does it give you joy? No? Than get rid of it!

    Which sounds way oversimplified (because it is!) but for *me* that helped so much. Why am I keeping this card from 6 years ago? Did it bring me the joy it was supposed to? Then I can let it go! (It should be noted that I do keep a LOT of cards, but they get filed away neatly.) ;)

    At the same time, like you, I have little ones (6, 4 and 1) and life is messy. Period.

    We homeschool on top of that, which brings a whole new dimension to the word "unorganized." That said, since reading this book, I have found it much easier to let go of things and get rid of those things that don't bring me joy.

    Other than pens. They don't bring me joy, but I need them.

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    1. Catie - I was hoping you'd comment! I remember reading your review, and so I definitely had a heads up about the whole "socks and souls" bit.

      I can only imagine how homeschooling adds to the clutter (and the chaos)! I was homeschooled, and I know my mom had tons of books and materials that didn't necessarily bring her joy but that she definitely needed!

      I'm still going to go through and purge all of my things, so I may yet find this book "life-changing"!

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  8. "Life-changing" is *so* dramatic, isn't it? :D

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  9. If you are ready for the message and journey or at least have an open mind for it, it can be life changing. I've read several blogs and reviews about the book that got some things wrong. Does the book say socks have souls? No. Does it say our energy can transfer into things? Yes. Big difference if you ask me. Everyone has their own reactions to the ideas in the book. I'm new to this open forum stuff but my observation is that it is easier to find things to criticize in the book than it is to do the hard work it challenges us to do. Since the author speaks from years of experience and hands-on results with hundreds of clients, I say give her the benefit of the doubt and try it. I think the success people are having with trying her methods are the reason for the hype. Not the perfect way the book is written.

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    1. I think you are definitely right! If you're willing to do the work, it can be life-changing. Did you happen to see my follow-up post where I reported back after going through all my clothes and folding them as she suggests? http://www.sunlitpages.com/2015/04/the-life-changing-magic-of-folding.html

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    2. I checked it out and posted a comment there also re: necessities that don't "spark joy". You've been braver than I so far actually jumping in and beginning the process. Good for you! My fear is I'll get started and end up not finding enough time to finish and be stuck with a big pile of stuff in the way. So lame!

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  10. I guarantee you my kids would still shuffle everything around)? How have you taught your kids to fold this way. Japanese Magic Method

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