Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

When I tell people what I do, inevitably I get asked about the “KonMari method”. Does it work? Is it the only way to get rid of mess? What’s with all the talking to your socks?

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is the first book by Marie Kondo (aka KonMari), and describes her method in detail. Her follow-up book, Spark Joy, is heavier on pictures and examples, but doesn’t tell you anything that you don’t get, in greater detail, from Tidying Up (see, I’m already discarding the part of the title that fails to spark joy for me).

At the core of the KonMari method is the concept that you choose which objects to keep by holding or touching each one. If it sparks joy, keep it; otherwise, out it goes. What remains after you’ve discarded the items that spark indifference, or revulsion, should be maintained with love and care. Beautiful objects, beautifully folded. There is no room for anything else in her world.

The style of this book is personal, and personable. There is plenty of detail from her own life, and she’s not afraid to admit to her failures, or to tell you about times when her obsessive love of order has made her overstep the boundaries. Her mild style draws you in; she is firm, inflexible even, yet not a dictator. Organisers seem to fall into one of two categories: boot camp sergeants or guidance counsellors. KonMari is definitely one of the latter. She has some hard and fast rules, but I can’t visualise such a gentle soul enforcing them.

There are some very odd ideas in this book. Yes, she does thank her socks for their hard work, and, for example, thinks the sight of coins scattered around a house “stripped of their dignity as money” is “heartrending”. KonMari imagines possessions as being grateful to be of service, and happy to escape when you discard them. But I do wonder if all this anthropomorphising might not push some readers in the other direction. The whole problem with stuff is that we are too attached to it, and that we have substituted possessions for relationships, and experiences, and self-examination. Humanising every last item in the house might work for KonMari, but if you’re already struggling with letting go, it’s a guilt trip you don’t need.

That said, the practice of thanking an item before releasing it does work. Even if you do it ironically. My sisters and I often say “I thank it for its service” when we’re letting an item go; it makes us laugh, but it also makes it OK to discard. I think this is less about the item’s “feelings” than about creating a little ritual, a shorthand for the process that takes you from guilty thoughts of waste and shame to acceptance that not everything has to be kept forever.

I could nit-pick at more of her daft notions, but they really are rather charming, and in the few places where I totally disagree with specific practices, I still agree with the ideas behind them. For example, she recommends tidying in a very strict order: clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous items, and finally sentimental items. Her reasoning is that this order goes from easiest to hardest to discard.

This is clearly a woman who has never hung on to a cherished pair of jeans from four sizes and two decades ago, or stared wistfully at her big pouffy wedding dress that’s taking up half a wardrobe. And I’m astonished that she gets away with decimating her clients’ bookshelves so early in the process. If there’s one category of possessions that people use to measure themselves by, it’s books.

Her miscellaneous category always gives me a laugh, too. What’s in this group? Kitchenware, food, recorded music and videos, electronics, pet paraphernalia, toys and games, artworks, cleaning products, furniture, toiletries, sports gear, stationery…so, everything, really.

Taken literally, I think she’s dead wrong. I don’t agree with the categories she defines, or that they hold the same emotional values for everyone. However, I totally agree that it’s best to start with the least emotionally charged items, and work your way up to the sentimental land mines. The important thing is not the order, it’s building your de-cluttering muscles up. Decide what’s easiest to tackle, and start there. Develop your habits and mindset on the easy stuff, and you can move on to the harder objects as you gain confidence and strength.

As with any instructional book, you will get the most use out of Tidying Up if you take from it the ideas that resonate, and take the rest with a grain of salt. Which is, of course, the basis of KonMari’s own method.

For me, the most important message is her oft-repeated question of “Does this spark joy?”. This simple question shifts the focus to keeping what we love, making the work of discarding less painful. And it’s a useful question to ask whenever you are thinking about buying something, too.

Ironically, this book is almost entirely not about tidying. Tidying is what you do every day, putting things away after you’ve used them; it’s what you do with the few possessions you want to keep after you’ve eliminated the rest. In contrast, the book deals mainly with what she calls “special event tidying” which is, really, just another name for a massive de-cluttering binge.

If anything, the Life-Changing Magic of the title is in the topic she covers the least, and the most obliquely. I don’t think it’s the tidying at all that’s life-changing. What is life-changing is the realisation that all the possessions you thought you needed and wanted, that you thought made you happy, were getting in the way of your happiness. Discarding your unwanted items will not change anything unless you decide you want a calm, tidy home more than you want new clutter. You can follow her tidying method all you like, but if it’s not accompanied by a radical change in your buying and acquiring habits, and in the way you think and feel about possessions, you can and indeed must rebound, no matter what Marie Kondo claims. And while simply experiencing an uncluttered home might be enough to inspire some, I’m not convinced it’s enough for everyone.

Despite its quirks, I always recommend this book to anyone who wants a simpler, less cluttered life. The methods are a little unconventional, and maybe they won’t work for everyone. But it doesn’t matter if you never adopt her rules of folding your t-shirts and filing them vertically, greeting your home every day, or tossing out all your instruction manuals (as a former technical writer, this suggestion is a dagger to my heart). Marie Kondo’s message is simple, and all about simplifying. What do you love? OK, hold on to that, and ditch the rest.