The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

I got a book in the post yesterday. Heck, I get a book in the post most days. The postie hands the package over with a grunt and usually something along the lines of “Here’s another one for the collection.” Or otherwise, there’ll be one of those missed-you-while-you-were-out cards and a scribble on the back asking my either to pick up the parcel from the sorting office, or else, and more usually, a reminder to check the secret stashing place where the book will have been hidden.

Another day, another book, then. Yesterday’s was a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, by Marie Kondo. I’d ordered it in a fit of doubtless New Year-related good intentions, plus I actually have a whole-house sort-out job that needs doing. As someone who’s genetically predisposed towards untidiness, and who tends to pass this off as a vaguely zen externalisation of ridding myself of potential internal chaos (clean mind, scruffy exterior – that kind of thing), I could use the help anyway. 

So I ripped the zippy deal on the cardboard and slid the book out. I did what I usually do and checked the first couple of paragraphs. There’s no shame in admitting I got hooked and finished the book in one go more or less straightaway.

Kondo’s is a brief book; don’t let the novel-sized outer dimensions fool you. Large print and generous spacing bulk matters out, but this is a couple of hours’ worth of reading, tops. And that’s plenty. The book’s efficient in getting across its simple-enough message; that less will set you free.

I found myself taking notes as I was going. And though this isn’t a book review blog, I suppose this is kinda a book review post, as well as my summary of Kondo’s ideas. I can see some relationships in what she says that go back to writing as well, which is always useful.

In her native Japan, Marie Kondo is a professional consultant on tidying up. She’ll come round to your home and tell you how to sort yourself out. She calls her method KonMari; it’s simple, it draws on some Shinto principles as well as the vaguest whiff of Feng Shui. It sounds like it’s worth a go.

KonMari makes some assumptions; the book’s a translation from the Japanese and not all of the ideas contained inside make the jump from that culture. There’s a focus on city living in shared living spaces and on adults living with parents or other extended family. That said, the basic principles are universal; we’re got too much stuff, we hang onto it for all the wrong reasons, we should declutter, and in doing so we’ll value the things we have all the more. This, in turn, will have positive life-benefits.          

KonMari is a two-stage process. First, you discard everything that doesn’t bring you joy, then you decide where to keep what’s left. You do this not in a piecemeal way, tidying up every day, but in one concerted “special event” over a six-month period. In this time, everything you own gets scrutinised, assessed, and either stored or discarded. It’s best not to bother to tidy up anything until you’ve completed the discarding process. Also, have a specific goal in mind; decide what kind of home you want to have, for example, and work towards that.

Kondo says to start with the easy stuff; with categories of belongings with which you’re less likely to have strong emotional attachments. Her sequence is clothes / books (I’d include CDs, DVD and BluRays, and video games here too) / papers / komono (miscellaneous items) / sentimental items and keepsakes.  

Here’s what you do; gather together everything in that category into one placed, and sort through. Keep only that which brings you joy. Stuff you’ve never worn? Discard. Clothes you put aside for wearing around the house? Discard. Clothes you’ve not worn for, oh, ages? Discard.

Kondo advocates a tactile method. Touch everything; you’ll be able to tell better if the item’s to be kept or not that way. Also, she reckons it’s only right to talk to objects. Thank them for their use. That sort of thing. This may not appeal, but there’s something to be said about individual consideration of all the stuff you’ve got. Consider the object’s true purpose to you. If it’s done its work, then it’s time to move the object on to the bin, the recycling, or the charity shop.

This should be a private thing. Don’t let the family see (they’ll affect your judgment, start cherry-picking your discards, chunter when you lose that scarf they gave you for Christmas three years ago but which you’ve affected to ignore ever since). However, they’ll notice the change in you, Kondo reckons, and they’ll start to fall in line with your new tidy ways.     

Different people will have different amounts to discard, but don’t be surprised if you lose up to three-quarters of the unused items that you’ve been hanging onto. If you’re living in a shared house, then Kondo reckons that “We need to show consideration for others by helping them to avoid the burden of owning more than they can need or enjoy.”

With clothes, store them properly. Only hang what should be hung. Don’t ball socks; fold them instead. Where possible, store items vertically. They take up less space, they’re easier to get to, and they keep better.

Only buy books you’re going to read right now. If you’re not going to read the book again, move it on. If you’ve owned a book for six months but haven’t read it yet, discard it. If you’re keeping a book (or a movie, record, game etc.) for any reason other than it brings you joy, then you should discard it. Be ruthless, and don’t delude yourself.

As for documents: “My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away.”

The Japanese word for miscellaneous items is komono; the junk drawer most of us have in the kitchen? – that’s the komono drawer, that is.

Every item, for Kondo, must have a designated place. The existence of an item without a home multiplies the chances your space will become cluttered again – homes become untidy because we don’t put things away. So make the putting away place for everything suitable and easy. Decide where your things belong and when you’ve finished using them, put them there.

Kondo has a few rules for storage: store all items of the same type in the same place / don’t scatter storage space around your home / reduce the effort that’s needed to put items away / never pile stuff on top of other things – including clothes – vertical storage is the key / use your cupboard space / don’t waste time and money on complicated storage systems / always de-tag and unwrap new clothes immediately.

Elsewhere, these principles are extended to your bag, which should be emptied every day.

Do what you can to reduce visual noise. This can mean keeping books in cupboards rather than on display, and removing labels from jars or bottles on show. Again, the refrain is to reduce the environment to only that which is joyful.

We hoard stuff, Kondo reckons, because we’re either attached to the past or fearful about the future. However, for her, we should focus on the present; the past is what’s brought us to now – and so we should look on or old things as artefacts that have brought us here. It may be that their purpose for you is completed; if that’s so, then it's right and proper to discard these items.       

Some of Kondo’s approaches won’t be for everyone (we should greet our homes on return from being out, for example, and it’s only right to thank items for the use they’ve given us), but there’s nevertheless some useful advice here as well as a sneaking regard for someone who’s not only dedicated their life to the arcana of decluttering, but who can write a book about it that’s eminently readable.

As I’ve taken on board some of the KonMari ideas, I’ve naturally done the appropriate thing. I’ve only had the book a day, but it’s fulfilled its purpose for me. It’s now on the charity shop pile and will be on its way soon, along with many, many others.

I hope Marie Kondo would approve...