Marie Kondo—queen of decluttering, bestselling author, empire-builder—hears voices in her head. They spoke to her one fateful day, as she kneeled in supplication on her bedroom floor after yet another failed attempt at tidying up:
“Look more closely at what is there.”
Most people who start hearing strange voices might take it as a sign that maybe their obsession is getting a little bit out of hand. For Kondo, it was a sign from above. This epiphany set her down the pathway to developing her famous ‘KonMari Method™, which she has used to help thousands of clients organise their homes. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has sold more than four million copies, propelled her into superstardom, and attracted admiring hordes of Konverts.
I’ve been meaning to read this classic of the genre ever since I first got interested in the minimalist lifestyle, and conducted a great big dreamy purge of my own possessions. Now that I’ve finally got around to reading it, let me tell you, it was… not what I expected.
To be completely blunt, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is certifiably, lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key, batshit crazy.
I mean, you couldn’t make this stuff up: Kondo empties out every last item from her purse when she gets home each day. She talks to her furniture. She gently strokes books, and touches all her clothing items to nurture them (when you run your hands over an item, “you pour your energy into it”). When she buys a new phone, she sends a text message to the old one to thank it for its faithful service. She encourages the reader to throw out everything that doesn’t “spark joy”. She hates to see inanimate objects stacked on one another, squeezing the life out of the poor souls on the bottom. She recounts a harrowing story of having to confront a client who had committed the atrocity of balling up her socks, instead of folding them:
“Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?”
There’s one point in the book where Kondo notes that her clients look at her strangely sometimes. Other than that, there’s not a shred of introspection, and no attempt made to explain the rationale for her supernatural beliefs.
While Japanese politeness may have kept her bemused clients from grasping her by the lapels and shaking her, critical reviewers of the English language translation of her book have shown no such deference:
If I’d read this book when it first came out, the younger and more self-righteous version of me would have written it off as the ravings of a madwoman, filing it away in the same junk basket as crystal healing and creativity-enhancing jade Yoni eggs.
Now… well, I’m not so sure. In fact, I actually kind of suspect Marie Kondo might be a genius.
It might be because I read her book with perfectly serendipitous timing. I’d just arrived in New Zealand for an extended visit, and unexpectedly felt completely out of sorts at being home again after so long. To add to the general malaise, I’d forgotten the extent to which my childhood home is chaotically crammed full of documents and plants and clothing and ancient relics of the past; an aesthetic which for some reason gives me a palpable feeling of dread.
While I should have been overjoyed to see my friends and family, mostly I was just stressed out. One of the first things I did was to clean and organise the attached flat I’ve been staying in—getting rid of the junk, cleaning and vacuuming, fixing small things, building an exercise station, and generally staking out my own sanctuary amongst the clutter. It’s impossible to overstate how therapeutic this was: As soon as I finished imposing a tiny bit of order on my immediate environment, I started feeling like I was in control again. This seems to be part of a broader trend that I’ve only just become aware of. As I get older, I’m increasingly renouncing the #grublife in favour of tidiness and order—and I love it.
With this experience front of mind, I reckon it’s worth giving Kondo’s book a closer reading. Her advice is bizarre on the surface, but it kind of reminds me of a Zen koan or something, where there’s some deeply meaningful insight wrapped up in the banality… or to put it another way:
“Look more closely at what is there.”
Organizing Your Psyche
Kondo’s book isn’t really about cleaning your room. It’s about how the act of tidying forces you to deal with any issues you’ve been avoiding, stripping away the external distractions until you have no choice but to examine your inner state. Her clients have supposedly lost weight, improved relationships, gained confidence, quit dead-end jobs, divorced spouses—the whole works. Here’s her central claim:
“A dramatic reorganisation of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life-transforming. I mean it.”
I no longer think this is as absurd as it sounds. Our physical environment can absolutely have a major impact on our minds and behaviours. In fact, this happens in such a vast plethora of ways that there’s an entire discipline of psychology devoted to studying it.
Throughout the book, I kept being reminded of the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson in particular, and his favourite mantra:
At the highest level of psychological integration, there’s no difference between ‘you’ and what you experience. Peterson gives the example of a hoarder’s home, full of boxes and junk: Is this entity their house? Is it their ‘being’? Is it their mind? In a sense, there’s no difference. It’s all one and the same.
By exerting some control over your immediate environment—no matter how small the task—Peterson suggests you can begin to put your life in order too:
“Start where you can start. If there’s something in need of repair that you could repair, fix it. You fix 100 things like that, your life will be a lot different. Fix the things you do every day. People think they’re mundane and trivial. No, no, that’s exactly wrong. Those are the most important things you do.”
Does that mean that telling someone to clean their room counts as psychotherapy? It depends how literally you take these sort of ideas about the extended self, a question which is not only above my paygrade but well beyond the scope of this review. If you don’t buy it, never fear—we can always fall back on a more straightforward behavioural explanation anyway.
Make Your Bed Every Morning Without Fail
It’s eerie how many successful people in all sorts of different fields give variations on this same piece of advice (not to mention countless wise mothers since the beginning of time). I’m ashamed to say I only started following it recently, but again, I’m totally sold on the benefits.
Making your bed in the morning is an example of what The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls a “keystone” habit. Something as simple as taking two minutes to smooth out the blanket and plump the pillows gives you a quick little ‘win’ to start the day, and creates a ripple effect for building other good habits. This parallels Peterson’s advice to start out by fixing even the most trivial things, and then build competence as you tackle bigger and bigger challenges.
Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if both of these factors—the behavioural and the environmental—turn out to be true and important.
In short, I think Marie Kondo might just be onto something. I have no idea if she knew all this behavioural stuff and deliberately dressed it all up in mysticism so it would sell better, or stumbled across it by accident. Either way, I’m impressed. Perhaps we should apply the same lens to some of her other apparently eccentric ideas, and see what hidden depths they might contain…
Say ‘Thank You’ to Inanimate Objects
When Kondo gets home, she announces her arrival to the (empty) house. She takes off her shoes, and says ‘thank you very much for your hard work’. She puts her jacket and dress on a hanger, and tells them ‘good job!’ before hanging them up. Then she greets the potted plant by the window, and strokes its leaves a while. Finally, she removes every item from her handbag and puts them in their proper place, and thanks them all before closing the drawer.
Again, this sort of behaviour is nuttier than a port-a-potty at a peanut festival. But if you go a little deeper, it’s also kind of brilliant.
One of the biological drives that constantly hamstrings our happiness is the ‘hedonic treadmill’. We quickly grow bored and unsatisfied with the things we have, and start fantasising about an upgrade—nicer stuff, a better job, more money, a hotter spouse, a change of scenery. As soon as we get what we want, the treadmill ramps up another speed, and we end up right back where we started.
There’s a wealth of evidence that practicing gratitude—keeping a journal, Stoic-style negative visualisation, counting one’s blessings—is one of the best ways to step off the treadmill. Kondo’s eccentricities result in constant reminders to be thankful for what she has every single day. I didn’t think I’d ever come across anything cheesier than writing a gratitude journal, but talking to inanimate objects takes it to a whole different level.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m ready to start thanking my undies for doing such a good job, and fondly patting my French press after every brew, but I like the general principle. I have no idea whether Kondo’s consciously doing it for this reason, but who cares? If it works, it works.
Does it Spark Joy?
The most-mocked feature of the KonMari method is that as you sort and discard items, you must physically touch and hold each one, and ask yourself: Does this spark joy?
OK, you’re probably not going to get chills down your spine as you reverently lay hands upon your tampon dispenser or potato peeler or whatever. But I think this kind of quibbling actually distracts from the main point, which is a genuinely interesting one: If our starting point is ‘what should we get rid of?’, we’re already thinking about everything completely backwards. Instead, we should actively choose the items we do want to have around us. Or to put it another way…
“Look more closely at what is there.”
This mindset reminds me of the William Morris quote about having nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. Sure sounds like a pretty good guiding principle to me.
Process Your Past
When you get rid of something, Kondo tells us it is kind to say ‘thank you’, and take a moment to appreciate the item and how it served you. This has all the same gratitude benefits mentioned above, and forces you to be aware of your own consumption habits. But there’s something else going on too:
“By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realise it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too.”
Again, this strikes me as very sage advice. It’s really important to figure out what you do and don’t like in life, and then not be afraid of being discerning. Not every person you meet will become your best friend. Not every friendship will last forever. Not every lover is ‘the one’. That’s OK! I like the idea of appreciating people and things for whatever role they played, then letting them go at the appropriate time, rather than clinging on beyond the natural expiration date. I’m trying to get better at this, so found it a timely reminder.
That’s my defense wrapped up. Demented or not, I really do love this book. With that being said, there are a couple of very valid criticisms that are worth touching on.
This Book Could Really Use Some Decluttering
In a stroke of delicious irony, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is hopelessly cluttered and repetitive. Kondo repeats the same points almost verbatim in several different places, including a little nugget of wisdom about how important it is not to store things in multiple places at once. I shit you not.
Given that the book really should have been a brochure, it blows my mind that anyone thought it was necessary to publish a sequel (there’s also a manga adaptation).
I guess it makes sense for Kondo to keep beating this particular dead horse until it stops spitting out money. It always feels gross to me when movements and philosophies that are antithetical to consumerism are so ruthlessly strip-mined for cash, but who knows? Maybe I’d do the same thing in her position.
In any case, if you don’t want to buy the book, or the sequel, or the comic, I’m pretty sure I can condense the KonMari Method into five steps:
- Tidy up everything in one big concerted effort. Aim for perfection, so that you only have to do it once.
- Start the sorting process by piling everything in heaps on the floor.
- Take each item in your hand, one at a time, and decide whether or not to keep it. Use the selection criteria: does this spark joy?
- Don’t even think about where things should go until you’re done discarding the unwanted stuff.
- Start with clothes first, then books, papers, miscellany, and finally sentimental items.
The Problem With Giving Sanctimonious Advice
“The more turbulent someone’s inner life is, the more tidiness appeals. It isn’t tidy minds that go for tidy exteriors. It’s chaotic minds.”
—Alain de Botton
Confession time: I think de Botton is probably on the money with this criticism. My mind is more chaotic than I’d care to acknowledge, which is probably why I crave structure, especially when I’m in particularly unstable circumstances. This might also explain the apparent contradiction in Kondo devoting her entire career to order and cleanliness, then somehow writing such a jumbled mess of a book.
I’ve written a money advice column for the Sunday News every week for the last five years. One of the lessons I’ve learned the hard way is that it is very difficult to give guidance that applies to everyone. As soon as you account for different personality traits, there’s no such thing as universally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ advice. In fact, different people sometimes need to hear the exact opposite advice.
For someone like me, this book is good medicine. I want more order and structure in my life. It soothes my soul. But for the severe, brush-teeth-before-kissing, hand-sanitiser-after-every-door knob, Nurse Ratched-type, following these ideas might actually fuel harmful neuroses. That person would probably benefit from introducing a little more chaos and randomness. Maybe they should go read The Doors of Perception or something.
I will never stop writing about the benefits of simple living, because I believe the core principles of frugality, sustainability, and efficiency are as close to universally ‘good’ things as you’ll ever find. It’s certainly possible to take these ideas too far, but the vast majority of the general population are a million miles away from reaching that point. To stop giving any advice at all would make about as much sense as a nutritionist refusing to educate about healthy eating, just because a tiny minority develop eating disorders.
The problem lies in sanctimoniously proclaiming that everyone needs to follow specific edicts—a mistake I have made several times in the past, and will hopefully manage to do less often in future. My afflictions are not necessarily yours, and vice versa. Sure, my parents might be one step away from featuring on the Hoarders TV show, but they’re perfectly secure in themselves, and have highly disciplined and fruitful lives. One of the most talented and accomplished journalists I’ve ever worked with was infamous for having a desk stacked high with treacherous mounds of documents and general debris, and somehow managed to pull out some of the best stories we ever printed.
I think the problem of universal advice may partly explain why so many people are baffled or actively hostile towards self-help gurus like Jordan Peterson or Marie Kondo, who have achieved enormous success on the basis of what might appear to be silly or clichéd ideas. Whenever I find myself in this position, I try to remember: maybe this is not for you.
Peterson’s constant refrain is that we’re walking a delicate tightrope between chaos and order. To move too far towards order leads to tyranny, sterility, and decay. To move too far towards chaos leads to danger, madness, and the abyss. If you want to know which direction to head in, you have to know something about yourself.
Arguably, most people—like me—probably need more order in their lives, in which case these sort of ideas might be worth a shot. How far you take them depends on your personality, and your own sense of aesthetics—I’m all for austere rooms and a freshly-made bed, but there’s no way I’m going to start individually folding my socks. At the very least, it’s not as if there’s much to lose by trying out one small new idea, or reading one quirky little book. When in doubt, you can always just pause, lay your hands upon it, and ask yourself: Does this spark joy?
Further Reading and Resources
Note: The public library will loan you these books for free. If you’d rather buy them, use the links below to send a few pennies to support this site, at no extra cost to you (read more here).
These days most of the discussion about Peterson is hideously bogged down in culture wars stuff, which is something I want no part in. The only thing I’ll say is that his core research on personality is fascinating and heavily-cited, and I have personally found his advice extremely helpful (see my review of his self-authoring suite). I was going to write a full-length review of 12 Rules For Life, but there’s no way I could possibly rival this piece by Scott Alexander, so check that out if you want a proper breakdown.
A layman-friendly explanation of the science behind habit formation in individuals, organisations, and social groups. There’s good actionable advice in here, but it is a bit long-winded with repetitive examples, so you could probably get away with reading the first few chapters.
Unlike the Myers-Briggs, the Big Five is actually based on sound empirical research. The test only takes 10 minutes, and it’s free. The results map onto everything from political affiliation, to professions, to group differences between populations in all sorts of interesting ways, as unpacked by Peterson in his lecture series Personality and its Transformations, which you should watch if you have a spare 20 hours.