Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying UpThe true purpose of tidying is, I believe, to live in the most natural state possible.

A wonderfully written and foundational work on the art of organization.

Marie Kondō‘s book on how to tidy up your house is certainly inspirational. Her implementation of her concepts may not be for everyone (and is the cause of most of the negative reviews) but her ideas and thoughts are rock solid and provide most of the insights found in this quick, breezy read.

Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination.
In essence, tidying ought to be the act of restoring balance among people, their possessions, and the house they live in.

If you couldn’t already tell from the quotes I’ve included, Kondō waxes philosophical throughout her treatise on tidying up. But it shows how passionate she truly is about the subject and proves she has put years of thought and contemplation into it. It’s also the start of the cause of many people’s ire with this book. Most people are looking for a quick fix, a step by step guide with hard and fast rules for organizing your house and space (e.g. you must discard 500 items). Kondō provides a plan with guidelines and a few true rules. But she is very much into suiting the philosophy for each person and letting the individual’s intuition lead the way.

Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.

Discarding things and storing things are the key tenets of the KonMari method. It sounds overly simplistic but she just managed to cut to the heart of the issue. Once you embrace these two actions everything else falls naturally into place.

Take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.
“We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of” This “spark of joy” criteria is the heart of the method and the most oft cited portion of it. In fact it was a reference in another book (Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living) that led me to this book. Kondō uniquely turns around the usual discarding criteria. Most advice focuses on getting rid of items you don’t want or use (e.g. the usual rule that if you haven’t used an item in a year you should get rid of it) and that casts a negative light on the proceedings. By twisting the act of discarding to focus on what you love and want to keep it’s a much more positive vibe and makes you examine what you want in life in general. And lest you worry about tossing something, remember “Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking something.”

The discarding section is the largest single section of the book and the concept bleeds into the other sections. Kondō is in turns almost Zen-like “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose” and nigh scientific “People have trouble discarding things that they could still use (functional value), that contain helpful information (informational value), and that have sentimental ties (emotional value). When these things are hard to obtain or replace (rarity), they become even harder to part with.” She can also marry the two extremes with wonderful insights: But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

When she moves onto the topic of storage, she is very cautionary.

A booby trap lies within the term “storage.” Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.

After trying all the fancy storage options available, she returned to the easiest solution: “pursue ultimate simplicity in storage.” This is driven by the thought that “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.” And after all, completing the discarding step leaves you with minimal possessions to store anyway. Again Kondō sums it up with another Zen-like koan: Once you learn to choose your belongings properly, you will be left only with the amount that fits perfectly in the space you currently own.

So the elephant in the room that all the negative reviews harp on about this book, and the KonMari method in general, is her insistence on anthropomorphizing your possessions. You are supposed to treat all your things with care and respect. This includes thanking your socks for all their hard work, checking in on our off season clothes to let them know you appreciate the work they will perform, and performing rites for each item you purge. This is a very spiritual Asian mindset, one clearly influenced by Kondō’s Shinto leanings. But even if the actual physical act of thanking your things sounds amusing or even ridiculous to you, the concept of treating your things well is perfectly sound. Items that are taken care of and appreciated will last longer than items thrown about with abandon. It also helps maintain focus on the “spark of joy” criteria for discarding and keeping items. I find it odd and disheartening that the detractors of KonMari expend all their hatred on this relatively small portion of the method. Get over it and you’ll discover an astounding philosophy.

It’s usually tough reviewing a non-fiction book and particularly an advice book since so you essentially have two ways to handle the review. On the one hand there’s treating the book as a piece of writing and deciding whether it is well written and entertaining to read. On the other hand there is the actual information and/or advice and how well it can be applied. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up succeeds on both fronts.

 

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Travis Hudson
Chief Editorial Officer at Rampant Discourse
Software developer by day. Member of the literati by night. Full time father of one son and one daughter. Music enthusiast. Comic book defender. Cultural deconstructionist. Aspirant philosopher. Zen but not Zen.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. If I get my wife to read this, will it convince her to let me actually get rid of stuff around the house (and slow down the rate at which we are adding to our clutter)? 🙂

    1. I know you partially ask your question in jest, but the real answer is that the better decluttering methods focus on keeping what sparks joy in you, rather than focusing on getting rid of stuff. It’s a subtle difference but makes a world of difference in the decision making process. It’s a more positive attitude to determine what you like best, what you use the most, what provides the most utility. True, you will still wind up chucking a bunch of useless stuff, but the path and mentality are worlds apart.

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