Book Review: The Live-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

magic tidying up graphic

Some good advice and tips (five stars); OCD method (one star); worth the read overall (four stars).

The first book I read and will review is the most popular one: the best seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. As the book’s title makes clear, its main idea is that tidying up your home will change your life. As author Marie Kondo puts it:

…when you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too. As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do…once you have experienced what it’s like to have a truly ordered house, you’ll feel your whole world brighten. Never again will you revert to clutter. This is what I call the magic of tidying.

If this “magic” sounds to you more like a self-help approach (tidy up your house, tidy up your life), then join the club. Indeed, the author describes her book as “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order and becoming a tidy person.” She further asserts that the only way to acquire the right mind-set is to acquire the “right technique” — in this case, her method, which she calls the KonMari method.

So, here’s some quick advice for getting value from the book: ignore the method (unless you’re really into that sort of thing); instead, cull the book for specific tips and advice that resonate with you. I found that the book has a number of good tips and advice for me, for example:

  • It’s especially useful to recognize that we can needlessly hold on to things which have outlived their purpose, and it’s not hard to imagine how getting rid of them will help someone move on in some way.
  • I liked the notion of identifying objects that have completed their role in your life, and saying thank you and letting them go with gratitude. The letting go part matches my experience of finding gratitude from my first 1000 things project, and I like the notion of acknowledging a thing’s contribution and have started doing that in my current (2nd) 1000 things project. I’ve found it works for me particularly well with getting rid of books which have completed their role in my life.
  • Focusing on choosing what we want to keep rather than what we want to get rid of is another useful insight.
  • Mementos and other items of sentimental value require a lot of emotional effort, so it is best to start a decluttering project with some other type of item.
  • Although the notion of collecting everything in each category at one time is a stupid strategy in my experience, I could see the value of using this as an occasional strategy for certain types of items.
  • Paying a little more mindful attention to how we treat our things and our relationship with them is also good advice, although Tidying Up goes a little overboard at times by attributing almost mystical qualities to things, for example asserting that they “share the desire to be of use to you” [Kindle location 2076]

These and other specific tips and advice made Tidying Up worth the read.  The KonMari method itself is a different matter. Kondo’s prescriptive, insistent approach made me suspicious and skeptical right off the bat, and it quickly got worse. Unsubstantiated assertions like “most people would prefer to live in a clean and tidy space” and “anyone who experiences this process, no matter who they are, will vow never to revert to clutter again” were grating rather than encouraging or inspiring.  Kondo has an annoying habit of posing a rhetorical question when she wants to elicit agreement, for instance: “Don’t you think it is unnatural for us to possess things that don’t bring us joy or things that we don’t really need?” (Um, no — actually, it’s all too natural…)

The particulars of the KonMari method were even more unappealing: “sort by category, not by location;” “Tidy up in one shot, rather than little by little.” Following the correct order of categories is even more important: clothes, then books, papers, komono (“miscellany”), then things of sentimental value. She also recommends dividing clothing into specific subcategories (tops, bottoms, “clothes that should be hung,” socks, etc.) “to increase efficiency.”

Are you thinking what I’m thinking yet? That’s right — OCD.  At first I felt a little uncharitable and judgmental for thinking that, but then Tidying Up gets even worse — prescriptions for how to arrange your clothes by color, how to store them in shoeboxes (vertical storage = good; horizontal storage = bad), and for goodness sakes don’t roll your socks into a ball!

Besides the OCD overtones of the KonMari method itself, the book contains several shortcomings and inconsistencies which diminish its value. The most annoying one pertains to how Tidying Up treats things themselves. At times, Kondo takes a mystical, almost ceremonial approach to getting rid of things, for instance when she exhorts us to “make your parting a ceremony to launch them on a new journey.” This viewpoint is inconsistent with how things are treated at other places in the book: as garbage to be gotten rid of if it fails to bring joy to you. She advises against “dumping things indiscriminately” [1989] but also asserts that “the moment you start focusing on how to choose what to throw away, you have actually veered significantly off course” [495]. Sorry, but if you simply throw something away, it becomes trash, not some mystical energy form. Thus the KonMari method precludes the notion of being thoughtful about the decision process; instead, it encourages thoughtlessness about the discarding process and is thus irresponsible.

Using “joy” as the nearly singular criterion for keeping something also seems very naive. I will never find joy from my carbon monoxide detector, but I certainly find purpose in it. While the method appears to allow for keeping things based on need, it’s not at all clear how this happens; it’s as if she believes her method itself will enable its users to magically realize what they need and discard everything else.

In part, this is because Tidying Up also focuses almost exclusively on the discard or outflow side of things. Kondo asserts that the KonMari method will eventually lead to what she calls the “just-right click point,” after which satisfaction “envelops your whole being,” “you’ll find that the amount you own never increases,” and your clutter problems will be solved forever.  Conversely, Tidying Up seems to assume that we are incapable of curbing our desires; for instance, if we only clean up one area or a little at a time, it will have no effect: “Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever,” and “within a few days you notice that your room is becoming cluttered again.”

Very little of this matches my own experience with my 1000 things projects. Maybe some people need this level of direction, but all in all, Tidying Up is far too prescriptive and overbearing for me, which is fine since I’m apparently not the target audience, which appears to be single women living in small apartments. Kondo admits that her book isn’t for everyone — unless, of course, you happen to read it:

…there are many people in the world who really don’t care if they can’t put their house in order. Such people, however, would never pick up this book. You, on the other hand, have been led by fate to read it, and that means you probably have a strong desire to change your current situation, to reset your life, to improve your lifestyle, to gain happiness, to shine.

Such lofty ambitions make more sense toward the end of the book when Kondo discloses the origins of her tidy tendencies: as a painfully shy girl who discovered her true calling (though she didn’t realize it until later in adulthood) when her elementary school teacher asked the class who wanted to be responsible for organizing and tidying the classroom, and she was the only one who raised her hand. Even as Kondo discovered that tidying was her professional destiny, she seems to remain oblivious that other people will have their own paths, even those who decide to read her book.

Read Tidying Up as a culling exercise, and you too will likely find many good and helpful tips. Maybe the KonMari method will also connect you with your inner light; as for me, it is far too obsessive, compulsive, and ultimately disordered…


Book Reviews: Books on Decluttering

This summer, I read several books about decluttering. None of the books I read had the more common focuses of such books, that is, decluttering to become more organized, or to become a minimalist, or to improve your life simply by having less stuff. As you can see by the titles below, each of the books I read go well beyond that by focusing on how decluttering will change and transform your life. Each of them has a slightly different emphasis: open your heart, find joy and magic, pursue your spiritual side, et al.

Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of each of these books:

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life

Letting Go: The Tao of Decluttering

Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home

The Zero Waste Home