Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has certainly struck a chord with readers.  Hitting #1 on the New York Times best seller list, she has inspired significant discussion around organization.  The success of the book speaks to the global desire for greater organization within an increasingly busy and cluttered daily life.

This book describes the KonMari Method, an organizational process focused on discarding and organizing an entire home in one single effort, that Kondo believes makes transformative changes.  The fundamental tenant of the method is to remove anything that does not provide joy.  Although her approach is extreme, and she has a unique belief that objects should be personified and thanked for their service, she provides interesting insight into the fundamentals of organization.   

She understands you “can’t tidy if you have never learned how.” And goes on to say, “When it comes to tidying, we are all self-taught.”  Since we aren’t educated in these skills, we glean information from pop culture that has tried to prevent families from becoming overwhelmed by suggesting to organize projects a little bit at a time.  A common complaint is that families “clean when [they] realize how untidy their place is, but once done, it’s not long before it’s a mess again.”   However, Kondo feels strongly decluttering must be done all at once.  “A tidying marathon doesn’t cause rebound.”  She feels “Rebound occurs because people mistakenly believe they have tidied thoroughly, when in fact they have only sorted and stored things halfway.”  She goes on to say, “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.” And, “If you tidy up in one shot, rather than little by little, you can dramatically change your mind-set.”

She breaks organization into two acts.  “Deciding whether or not to dispose of something and deciding where to put it.”  She recommends you sort items by category and not location.  This allows you to see all the items you have in any category and to best determine a home for each.   She provides a specific order by which to sort – clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous and then mementos.  This list is developed in ascending level of difficulty to discard.  The idea is that you will get better at determining those items to remove vs. keep as you practice.  Kondo is definitely more prone to elimination and is very strict with her singular question, “Does the item really spark joy in your heart?”  If the answer is anything but a resounding yes, the item is to be sold, donated or otherwise expelled from the home.

Once you have removed all items that don’t bring joy, the act of determining a home for each item begins.  “Designate a place for each thing.”  This is a very important point and a fundamental principle of effective organization.  Although she thanks each item as she returns it to its place, she is right that it is much more likely to be put away if it has an assigned place. 

She also suggests you not fall into a “fatal trap” of trying to organize by house flow or where things are used.  “Clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong.  Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out.  When we use something we have a clear purpose for getting it out.  Unless for some reason it is incredibly hard work, we usually don’t mind the effort involved.  Clutter has only two possible causes:  too much effort is required to put things away or it is unclear where things belong.”

Kondo does not feel sentimental about keepsakes.  When she looks at her mementos, she states,   “I realized that I had lived those moments to the fullest and I was able to thank my keepsakes for the joy they gave me at the time.  When I threw them away, I felt like I was confronting my past for the first time in my life.  By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past.”  She feels you should get rid of all things from your past because they served their purpose; that keepsakes are reflections of a memory and you don’t need the item because you had the life experience.  I completely disagree.  What about keepsakes that trigger memories you would not otherwise access?   If cherished items such as old love letters, school report cards or a baby’s first outfit bring happiness when pondered, it is a shame to lose those memories when they can be properly stored.

Her method is extreme and she deals in absolutes.  “Tidying dramatically changes one’s life.  This is true for everyone, 100 percent.”    Many of her suggestions are not realistic for busy families.  For example,   she feels you should empty your handbag every day and keep all soaps and shampoos outside the shower and wipe them down after each use.

She aligns tidying with improving everything from your career path to losing weight.  She claims the people who have taken her course “are more streamlined, their skin is more radiant, and their eyes shine brighter.”  She states, “Put your house in order and discover what you really want to do.” 

While she believes her method works for everyone and she has a three month waiting list for her classes, I don’t feel it is the right process for all families.  There are many organizational solutions that can dramatically transform lifestyles for the better.  As a professional organizer, I know the most important aspect of my job is to customize a system that works for individuals.  This means I need to take the most effective elements out of any prescribed solution and adapt for each client.  Not every client wants or needs to live a minimalist lifestyle to be efficient, stress free and organized (not to mention, slim, healthy and in their ideal career).