Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Photo courtesy of Frances F. Denny

“Imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?” This is the premise of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, an insightful look at how rearranging your home can change your life.

Profiled by The New York Times and Slate, Kondo is known for her straightforward and unapologetic approach to cleaning. Along with advocating keeping only things that encourage happiness, she also urges readers to thank the things they are discarding, thereby recognizing the role these objects have played in their lives.

“Clothes are the easiest because their rarity value is extremely low. Photographs and letters, on the other hand, not only have a high sentimental value, but also are one-of-a-kind; therefore they should be left until last.”

Kondo’s message is relatively simple: aim for perfection in your home and in your life. She encourages her readers to clean up their living spaces methodically and uncompromisingly, promising that an organized home will have a positive effect on every aspect of their existence. She cites as examples clients who embarked on new careers or relationships as a result of tidying their homes. She emphasizes that when done correctly, the process will not need to be repeated. “Unbelievable as it may sound, you only have to experience a state of perfect order once to be able to maintain it.”

But if Kondo promises life-changing results, it’s only because the actual process of tidying is itself transformative. Intended as a way of identifying a person’s true path to happiness, Kondo’s KonMari method aims to declutter the mind as it declutters the home. She advocates a two-pronged approach: keep only the things that bring one joy and organize everything properly. The latter task, though seemingly more complicated, doesn’t require special storage systems like those commonly sold through infomercials. In fact, as Kondo explains, “storage methods do not solve the problem of how to get rid of clutter,” and may in fact exacerbate the issue by making it possible to hold on to more things. Instead, Kondo maintains that our homes (irrespective of their size) provide the perfect amount of space for optimal organization. The key is to group similar items together and to fold clothes according to a specific technique.

With those organizational tenets in place, Kondo goes on to describe the order in which things should be discarded before the home can be put back together in its new form. “Things that bring back memories, such as photos, are not the place for beginners to start.” Instead, the objects that should be discarded first are those that carry the least emotional value—in this case, clothes and books. Kondo explains, “Clothes are the easiest because their rarity value is extremely low. Photographs and letters, on the other hand, not only have a high sentimental value, but also are one-of-a-kind; therefore they should be left until last.” But though clothes and books are more common and therefore more easily discarded, they carry their own burdens. For many of Kondo’s clients, these items once served as emotional crutches. Through her method, Kondo seeks to break these affective ties, allowing her readers the freedom to judge an item’s usefulness based on its ability to bring happiness in the present moment.

The popularity of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is not surprising considering our culture’s turn away from consumerism and excess. In an economic climate still recovering from the sting of the recent financial crisis, there is a strong focus on sustainability and tempered spending. Kondo’s method certainly speaks to this concern. But there is another equally fascinating factor at play here—the emphasis on a controlled environment. In a modern world plagued by terrorism, poverty and war, Kondo promises that we can achieve a sense of peace and order within the spaces we inhabit. Her streamlined approach to home organization, designed to calm the mind and bring one’s life into focus, provides a new way of considering the relationship between the life we live and the possessions we have. As Kondo explains, “It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” is published by Ten Speed Press.