A lot of us want to declutter but draw the line at the kind of full purge that Marie Kondo advises in her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.”
It’s such a little book, so unassuming; sitting quietly on a cluttered coffee table, it blends right in. But you know it’s there, politely reminding you of something that you probably aren’t doing.
Like a lot of us, I have a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” at home. Kondo, a charmingly no-nonsense Japanese cleaning consultant who’s a celebrity in her homeland, serenely promises in her funbook transformative happiness once we tidy our homes by systematically purging our possessions and keeping only those which “spark joy.”
The book, full of observations like “Your home already knows where things belong” (Does mine? Then why won’t it tell me?), has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. And it makes the whole tidying/decluttering/organizing thing all sound so deliciously simple.
Tips from professionals
One new daily habit
Several organizers whom I spoke to agreed: Decide where your things belong, and put them away when you’re done with them. Carmen Saran, of Organizin’ Mama, said, “My mom taught me at an early age that every object needs a home; a place ‘to live’ when not in use. I recommend this habit to everyone to help with decluttering and organizing. It works!”
Letting go of books
A lot of us, said Lauren Williams of Casual Uncluttering, have trouble getting rid of books we’re attached to. She suggests countering that emotional attachment by making sure the books get a good home: “Take them to a nursing home, or a senior center, or a nonprofit preschool.” Or maybe monetize your collection; talk to a rare-books dealer, or a used-book store, to “incentivize the process.” Ask yourself, she says, if the book is really irreplaceable. “If it’s available online or in a library, you can let it go and if you realize a month later, ‘gee, that was one I really wanted to read,’ you can get it again.” (Quite possibly, though, you won’t.)
’Clutter is delayed decision’
Sue Ives, of Organize to Optimize, provided this definition (from organizing expert Barbara Hemphill) as a good way to think about clutter. “Every item is a decision,” she said; when you’re going through your belongings, make that decision (to keep, to discard, where to store) and keep momentum going.
“Organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go,” says Kondo in her book. “Take each item in one’s hand and ask: Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it.” Treasure and thank your belongings, she says; empty your purse out every day, and appreciate the hard work that it does for you. If you’re holding on to something just because somebody gave it to you as a gift, thank it for the joy it gave you, and then get rid of it.
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So I, like so many caught up in the Kondo spell (who wouldn’t want to live a life surrounded by joy?), tidied and organized one drawer. I ruthlessly discarded nonjoy-sparkers, folded things neatly into Kondo-approved wedges — you mustn’t stack underwear or T-shirts, but fold and arrange them so that everything can be seen at once — and told anyone who would listen about what fun it all was.
All this was very exciting, and so weeks later, I took on another drawer. And then, after a suitable interval, cleared a pile of books out of the spare bedroom; working at a steady pace to get my house organized by, oh, 2030.
And I emptied out my purse, a few times, clearing it of vintage popcorn and crumpled receipts and thanking it for its service. I’d like to think it grunted in acknowledgment, but maybe not.
All of this is, of course, not really the Kondo way; it’s not ruthless, but pleasantly plodding. And I think that’s how most of us might adapt her advice. A lot of us want to declutter — my friends certainly talk about it — but draw the line at the kind of full purge that Kondo advises.
Instead of being swift and decisive, we start finding joy everywhere: in that stack of old magazines (I may get around to reading those interesting articles!), that once-beloved sweater with the missing button (someday I’ll find that button!), in way too many tubes of hand lotion (but they all smell so good!). We start down the path, happily folding and sorting, and then we stop.
Katherine Boury, communications director at Seattle Goodwill, says she’s reading the book herself, and finding it inspiring (though she, like me, hasn’t taken any major decluttering steps yet). “We have had a slight increase in donations in 2015,” she confirmed, noting that the popularity of Kondo’s philosophy could be a factor. (The book, an immediate best-seller, was published in the U.S. in late 2014.) But it hasn’t been a major difference.
Is Kondo-izing for everyone? Clearly I needed a little advice. Professional organizing didn’t start off with Kondo: The National Association for Professional Organizers, in existence since 1984, has thousands of members, including dozens in the Greater Seattle area.
“I think we do better when we’re organized,” said local certified professional organizer Sue Ive of Organize to Optimize, adding that even for creative personalities “It’s beneficial to have a foundation in place.” Noting that Kondo’s book has caused quite a stir in the organization industry, she said that she likes some of Kondo’s principles very much, particularly the way the book inspires people.
But Ive wonders whether the book’s philosophies work for everyone. For some clients, she notes, “everything can spark joy!” (hmm, sounds familiar) so a tougher criteria is needed. “It’s always about getting back to, ‘When you walk into a room, how do you want it to be?’ ‘How do you want to live?’ ” she said.
And she emphasized that Kondo’s do-it-in-one-fell-swoop approach can burn out some people. “To do it all, it’s kind of daunting, even when you know how to do it,” she said, preferring to emphasize slow but steady progress: “one area at a time, and keep moving.”
Lauren Williams, of Casual Uncluttering, is less fond of Kondo’s methods, though she hasn’t read the entire book. “I read a paragraph that made me so livid, I had to close the book then and there,” she said, describing it as stating “that you’re just being lazy if you don’t organize, something along those lines.”
“That is anathema,” she said emphatically, noting that a more typical American professional-organizer approach would be “very sympathetic and empathetic and compassionate … Our core belief is that 99 percent of our clients are not lazy, they are not crazy, they’re not stupid, they are trying their darndest, and something is getting in their way.”
So, what was in my way? My Kondo journey prompted some self-diagnosis: maybe a bit of laziness, combined with a lot of busyness, a fondness for the objects I’ve gathered in my travels through life, a perhaps overly morbid fear of being caught without enough reading material, and a desire for the space around me to look like I belong there.
All of this coexists with an appreciation for a nicely organized drawer, even if the top of the dresser is cluttered. I’ll likely never get my house to Kondo standards, but her mindset is a nice place to visit now and then.
A postscript: The other day at work, I was seized by a fit of Kondo-like efficiency (translate: deadline procrastination) and began to clean off my legendarily cluttered desk.
Following Kondo’s advice, I tidied by category: Remove and sort all the books first, then the papers, then pens/pencils, then miscellaneous items. I got half the desk beautifully sorted, and then I stopped cold; the half-spotless, half-cluttered look — you can draw a line right down the middle — was strangely appealing. I might keep it this way for a while. It is, for now, sparking joy.