Cynic’s Self-Help Book Club: Is Marie Kondo’s ‘Magic of Tidying Up’ Really Life Changing?

Updated Jan 29, 2019

If you looked at my bookshelf, you’d think I could give solid advice on disciplining children, being a better leader, gardening and 10 other enviable things. But, the books represent interest rather than ability, since they’re only partially read or never opened at all. Their titles draw me in, but a part of me doesn’t really believe their life-changing promises.

Through social media, I found a group of likeminded individuals — those who might buy a second copy of the same book because they’ve forgotten they already own it, and for whom “reading by osmosis” hasn’t quite worked. We are well-intentioned skeptics reading together in “The Cynic’s Self-Help Book Club.”

First, we decided to tackle our homes. Three million people can’t be wrong — or can they? We chose New York Times bestseller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo. Since its launch, the book has become a worldwide phenomenon with over five million copies sold worldwide, and Kondo now has her own series on Netflix, Tiding Up with Marie Kondo.

I consider myself a neat person (though my husband might disagree) and my heart skips a beat when I drive past The Container Store. But, Ms. Kondo has an entire chapter named “Storage experts are hoarders” (ouch) and she says, “Putting things away only creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved.”

She divides the work of “tidying up” into two stages: First, decide whether to keep something, then decide where to put it. It’s clear that I’ve only been focusing on the latter. But the idea of a purge makes me nervous. Another reader’s fear was, “If I do a major clean-out in a certain timeframe (as suggested by Kondo), I may regret getting rid of certain things.”

Changing a habit and fear of regret are big obstacles to overcome, but we agreed to try Kondo’s tips. Some of her strategies made us cringe, others worked with some tweaks, and believe it or not, a few actually changed our lives.

What Changed Our Lives

“Does this spark joy?”

This is the main criterion by which you should decide what to keep. One reader said that when she considered whether items sparked joy, she discovered that “at least half of my house does not.” Kondo says, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.” Gather every like item and touch and hold each one to see how it makes you feel. It sounds hokey, but it works. We all have that favorite softest shirt ever or that book with a special inscription or a blanket that everyone fights over. Now imagine your whole home is filled with only those things that make you feel good. Granted, unless you live alone, your home will also hold things that bring others in your house joy, but using this edict will dramatically decrease everyone’s belongings — and increase their happiness to be home.

“Follow the correct order of categories”

Tidy by category; tidy easy categories first. One reader reported that purging by category rather than room was the best decluttering advice she’d ever gotten. Kondo says to start with clothing, and then move on to books, papers, miscellany and finally things with sentimental value. By the time you get to the last category, you’ll have become adept at listening to your inner voice, feel bolstered by your neater home and feel confident in your decision-making ability. We discovered that subcategories are key; even a group as seemingly simple as “clothing” can be overwhelming if you follow Kondo’s advice to “place every item of clothing in the house on the floor.” Going through all pants at once, then tops, and so on, is more doable; even so, my husband and I had to spend two nights in the guest room because our bed and floor were littered with clothing.

Say “thank you” and let it go

It’s difficult to give up things that once held meaning. One reader noted, “I have a number of sentimental things that I’ve kept as sort of reminders of where I’ve been and how far I’ve come, but … maybe I don’t need to live in the past like that.” Kondo says that when clearing your life of items that no longer spark joy, you should acknowledge their contribution and let them go with gratitude. For example, she suggests saying to an article of clothing that no longer suits you: “Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you.” Another reader said, “It seems strange, but it has helped me get rid of things I had previously held onto for no reason other than the thought that I may use them, or because they made me happy years ago.” Say a loving goodbye to items that have already fulfilled their purpose for you, and then donate them so they can serve someone else.

Tips That Worked, With Modification

“Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely”

Tidying is not our full-time job. It’s a “nice to do” and it competes with “have to dos” like our jobs, children and spouses. One reader said, “I think we all need to send our kids and husbands to some kind of long weekend retreat so we can ‘Kondo-ize’ our homes during the day and meet for drinks in the evening.” Kondo is obviously onto something — after all her name has become a verb — yet her do-it-all and do-it-now philosophy intimidated some of us out of trying. That is until another reader noted that she read somewhere (not in Kondo’s book, mind you, where she’s vague about the timeframe implied by “all at once”) that it takes six months to go through your whole home. Collective sigh of relief. Okay, we can discard completely, if not intensely, and still lead our lives.

When it comes to books, planning to read it “sometime” means “never”

I have a whole bookcase of books “on deck” waiting to be read. There’s joy in imagining all of the stories and places they’ll take me — and also in imagining a life where I have more time to read. But, to Kondo’s point, there are books that have been sitting for years that I don’t pick up when I’m ready to start a new one. Another avid reader said, “Books in spaces give me comfort, however I’m not sure I need to hang on to all of the ‘comfort’ I’ve amassed.” Sometime doesn’t always mean never but sometimes it does — got it?

Advice That Made Us Cringe

“Empty your bag every day”

The book’s argument for emptying your purse everyday is that “it would be cruel not to give it a break at least at home,” but when we finally arrive home, we are the ones who need the break.

“Never, ever ball up your socks”

Kondo devotes three pages to sock storage, suggesting we fold socks two to six times and roll stockings “like a sushi roll.” We decided that triple-folding socks isn’t the best use of our time. One reader said it best: “I’m all about the sock balls.”

The Cynics’ Consensus

We cynics had rocky moments — like when two different members lost their tidying books in their messy homes (full disclosure: one was me) and when another declared that she spends so much time cleaning that using her free time reading about tidying is just too much. And we all agreed that the book was too long, with one reader suggesting that Kondo “discard” her wordiness.

However, our positive changes far outweighed our little annoyances. For the first time, all of my clothes fit into my closet, saving time wasted on a seasonal closet swap. Others found joy in: buying beautiful new loungewear after purging the old; establishing a little library for friends; and in being asked (unprompted!) by their children to help clean out their closets, too. Many have become more selective about bringing things into their home, giving new scrutiny to purchases. One reader stretched Kondo’s ideas past tidying and said that in adopting a mindset of being surrounded by joyful things, “I’ve given up Starbucks so I can buy fresh flowers each week for my bedroom and office. They bring me so much happiness that I don’t miss that latte.”

For me too, Kondo’s book didn’t only declutter my physical space, but my mental one as well. Considering each item forced me to further define who I am now rather than clinging to all of the selves I’ve been before. The process is about getting to know yourself better. Though it initially felt like a narrowing of options to let things go, ultimately this purge feels like freedom.

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