Six Lessons from Marie Kondo

I’ve been struggling to come up with the least patronizing term to describe Marie Kondo’s process. The sanctimony of “minimalism” makes my skin crawl and, more importantly, misses the point, highlighting the result over the endeavor. Even “tidying up,” a phrase that has become more or less synonymous with the KonMari brand, doesn’t instinctively call to mind the necessity of discarding first. The closest I can think of is “downsizing,” but even that conjures a problematic context: of being unable to afford things, of having to get let go to survive.

I want to talk about applying Marie Kondo’s principles to my life in a way that doesn’t invoke a moral imperative on the part of the reader. The argument for letting go of clutter can be made, sometimes even convincingly, but it’s not my job to make it. The thing about Kondo’s method is that it is so completely relative. It’s not about discarding things based on the criteria of strict, stark utility. An excess of possessions can certainly weigh one down, but deciding what is the “right amount” of things is a deeply personal, individual experience. What works for me might not – probably won’t – work for you.

The core of KonMari could be summarized like this: “Wouldn’t you enjoy your home so much more if you only surrounded yourself with things that make you happy?” It seems so obviously true that it feels insulting. A lot of people, misunderstanding her, have taken a very bizarre sort of offense to her principles, when “[s]he literally just wants to help people declutter so their physical belongings no longer take a mental toll on their well-being.”

I guess I started off as part of the problem, too. Before I read her book, I feared that Marie Kondo and her Shinto-inspired ideas were going to come into my home and throw away anything that didn’t contribute to a sterile, characterless space, only teak and white linens and a single plant for color. But Kondo never specifies what the end product looks like, only offering the occasional suggestion. The process is about finding what makes her clients happy. She is always willing to disregard even her own rules if they bump against someone’s an immovable anxiety. As with most things, it’s about the journey, about the self-understanding that comes from addressing the totality of your belongs and discovering the “right amount,” than it is about the aesthetics (or even functionality) of the result.

So with all that said, for the past few months (yes, months), I’ve been KonMari-ing my home. It was way more work than I was expecting, but all in all it was a positive experience. One, Marie promises, I’ll never have to do again.

Shockingly, this is proving to be true. I took photos for this post when I finished in late March. I am writing this post now at the end of May. I expected my tidiness to have slipped between now and then – things out of place, folding a little less tight, new unnecessary acquisitions. So far, to my surprise, this has not been the case. The lessons that I learned from Marie Kondo seem to have stuck.

I followed Kondo’s plan as prescribed: starting with clothing, piling every article of clothing you own, from every part of the house, into one heap in one place, going through each item, piece by piece, and deciding if it makes you happy or if it’s time to discard it. Do the same with books, papers, miscellaneous items (komono), and sentimental items, in that order. Kondo says this structure allows us to attune ourselves gradually with what truly “sparks joy,” so that by the time we get to our sentimental items, we can make those “keep/discard” choices with confidence.

Was it “life-changing,” as the title of her book suggests? In some ways, yes. It forced me to confront some things about myself that I was not proud of, but going through it made me feel more confident about my decision-making in general. It also brought to light a lot of the positive aspects of who I am that I often take for granted. It has made my daily routine easier and I am much more considerate now of the quantity of things that I acquire.

The biggest change, though, is being able to sit in my apartment and feel so completely at ease, so filled with joy. Sometimes I’ll look up from reading and gaze around adoringly around my space, my little sanctuary. Everything was chosen and placed with love and deliberation; nothing is here “just because.” It is the first place of my own that truly feels like home.

With all that said, here are some general lessons that I learned from the KonMari process, some truths that stuck with me even since the tidying up came to an end.

Confront exactly what you own.

My personal issue, at the start, was that my small apartment always looks very clean, but as soon as you open a closet or cabinet door, things get a little wild. I had a pretty good idea of how I want my place to look in terms of what’s on display and what’s hidden away. I had a problem with things getting stashed away “just for now” or “just because,” without much thought, which often resulted in things getting misplaced.

This, I think, is the advantage of organizing by category, not by space. It is important to see, all in one place, exactly how much of one (type of) thing you own. Having some hygiene items in one cabinet might not seem like an issue, for example, but how many of those same, possibly identical, hygiene items are scattered throughout the house in different cabinets? I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it helps contribute to forgetting the true extent of our ownership.

Even if you don’t buy into Kondo’s process, it is really helpful to begin any tidying journey with putting everything into one place. It was, at times, deeply jarring to me and to my idea of who I am – why, why, why did I need so many different kinds of shampoo? – but it was ultimately for the best.

Your belongings are part of your future.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel joy. Maybe you view clothing, for example, strictly for its utility, so it doesn’t inspire much sentiment. Or maybe you’re in a head-space where it’s hard to feel anything at all.

Marie Kondo offers several different ways of contextualizing “sparking joy” when happiness and gratitude might be a little out of reach:

  • What does this item say about me as I am, or who I want to become?
  • Does this item make my life simpler or easier? Does it support me in a way that I take for granted?
  • Is this worth carrying with me into the future?
  • And, to get a little bleak, is this something I want someone to find when I pass away? This is hard to think about, but Kondo is not afraid to challenge you. (She presented this idea regarding whether or not to keep old journals that might contain embarrassing material.)

The delightful flipside of this was not being so precious about things which I thought were “too nice” to use regularly. These were mostly gifts from other people that I wanted to treat with extra respect, but what that meant in practice was never using them at all, out of fear of “ruining” them. Making the decision to keep those things encouraged me to incorporate them into my day to day life and, what a surprise, it makes me happy to do so. It doesn’t cheapen the value of the gift at all. When I wear my watch, or pull out my wallet, or light a candle, I’m reminded of the people who gifted me those things, and I feel like that person is there with me in that moment.

Sometimes things get worse before they get better.

I see a lot of “before” and “after” photos on social media of people doing the KonMari method. I don’t see quite as many “during” photos, and I think I know why: it’s pretty rough.

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Depending on how much you own, it might feel overwhelming. But, if you do it little by little, in the order Kondo prescribes, eventually you will come out the other side. I think Kondo’s Netflix show does a great job of demonstrating the frustration of this “in-between” time, when all the hard work is being done. It shows how Kondo’s clients deal with confronting the quantity of their belongings, which in turn forces them to confront themselves.

My spare room became a staging area, a veritable altar of excess, for whatever category I was working on that week. Sentimental items, or things that I couldn’t quite make a decision on right away, migrated to the corner of the room, to be dealt with later. When I emptied the bathroom closet and cabinet, the contents took up the entirety of my living room, which is also basically the entirety of my apartment. It was awful to look at, to know that this is my problem to deal with, and that it wasn’t going to go away on its own. For a while, it was tough to live, day to day, in a horribly cluttered space – that time in between “everything out of place” and “everything exactly where it should be.”

Put stuff away right away.

We are all guilty of this, and me most of all. We come home after a long day and we are tired. We dump our things on the kitchen counter or the dining room table. We want to veg out as soon as possible.

Discarding things is only the first part of the KonMari process. What do you do with the stuff you keep? The next step is finding storage. When you hear “storage,” though, what do you think of? Is it see-through stackable plastic containers? Is it cardboard boxes? Is it extra furniture with drawers?

Marie Kondo says to discard first, then once you’ve reduced to the point where you’re comfortable, find a place in your home where each item belongs. A home within your home. For me, this took some trial and error. I moved some things back and forth as I progressed from one category to another. At the end, though, I found a place for everything that I owned, and it was placed there as a thoughtful, conscious choice, not just because. This, I’ve learned, has two huge advantages:

  • Knowing that I want to exert minimal effort after coming home, having a designated place for all of my stuff means that I can tidy up by pure momentum and habit. Wallet and journal come out of the handbag and onto the tray in the entryway. Handbag goes on the counter, next to lunch bag. Lunch containers go into the sink to be washed. Book is returned to nightstand or coffee table. Uniform is hung up neatly. If I do this stuff immediately, as soon as I come in the door, I don’t have to think about it at all, my home remains neat and clean, and everything is found and collected easily the next day.
  • I know exactly where everything in my house is! Well, I say “house,” but it’s really a 700 sq/ft apartment. How could I lose stuff in such a small space? When things are scattered all over, or placed somewhere without much consideration, they escape our notice and blend in with our surroundings, eventually becoming forgotten. I have always had this problem with uniform items. I would have little caches of collar devices, ribbons, boot straps, and patches scattered throughout the house. I can’t tell you how many items I’ve re-purchased accidentally because I couldn’t find the one I already owned. The number of excess uniform items I donated was a horribly rude awakening. But by putting all of my uniform-related things into one box, and putting that box in a designated place, I know now exactly where to go when I’m scrambling last-minute for a crow to put on my collar, which happens about two or three times a year and feels like a crisis each time. No longer!

Your possessions exist to support you. They deserve respect.

One of the most heartwarming and charming aspects of Kondo’s book was how she personified our belongings, asking the reader to consider what life was life from their perspective. What is it like to be a sock that get stomped on all day and then gets rolled up into a ball afterwards? What is it like to be a backpack that gets stuffed full of things and then thrown around all day? How about the seasonal items that get brought out once a year and then are hidden from view the rest of the time? The idea of our things having little spirits of their own is very, very Japanese, but it encourages me to treat them a little better.

Kondo reminds us that the things we buy and own exist only to make our lives easier or better in some way. This seems incredibly simple and obvious, but when I was on the fence about whether to keep or discard something, it helped me to remember that keeping something in my home should be a conscious act, like adding a member to the family, and once that decision is made, that item deserves my love and respect.

She goes even further than that, encouraging readers to imagine our possessions as silently cheering us on all day, rooting for our happiness and success in their own unique ways. Your toothbrush wants you to have clean teeth so that you can smile at the people around you. Your handbag says, “I’m ready to help you carry all the essentials!” Your sunscreen stands firm in its solemn duty to protect your skin from damage from the sun. All of these things are designed with purpose, and imaging our possessions with motivations of their own reminds us to treat them well. As we put our things back where they belong, Kondo encourages us to thank them for helping us that day. This is incredibly sweet and it has made me grateful to a bunch of things which I took for granted.

Joy is a relative experience.

On a recent episode of the Judge John Hodgman podcast, he admonished one of the litigants for hanging a flag on the wall, telling them to grow up and find some real decor. For what it’s worth, I think he’s correct. Flags are supposed to be flown outside, not stapled to a wall indoors. It looks pretty unsophisticated.

With that said, I have a Rhode Island flag hanging on the wall behind my living room couch. I’ve thought often about whether or not it’s time to “grow up” and take it down. After all, part of my tidying-up process has been putting wall art into frames to display them properly. I could easily replace the flag with something else.

But I have strong feelings of attachment to my home state. It is where I grew up and where all of my loved ones still live. Rather than making me feel sad and homesick, seeing the flag reminds me that there’s always a place where I can return to. It reminds me of all of my fond memories of family and friends. Most of all, it displays our state motto – simply, “Hope,” displayed on a ribbon under a golden anchor – which inspires me not just in its content, but also in its boldness, its pithiness. Seeing it might not fill others with joy, but it makes me happy.

There will come a day where this flag outlives its use. Someday I’d like to own a home, an actual house, where I can hang up flags properly. Until then, Marie Kondo encourages people to be confident in their decisions about what makes them happy. No one else can decide for you. How we arrange our homes is an expression of our internal selves because our possessions show what sort of people we are. Any self-revelation involves some vulnerability. Marie Kondo, at the very least, helped me be a little braver about showcasing my personality through my ownership of things.

Image result for marie kondo gif

Well, that’s all good, but where do I start?

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a pretty quick read – only 200 pages or so. It details completely how Kondo arrived at her method. I thought it was very comprehensive and, at times, incredibly cute and fun.

Tidying Up with Marie Kondo debuted on Netflix at the start of this year. Real clever, Netflix, capitalizing on new year’s motivation. It is a very sweet and relaxing show to watch, but it might not be enough to make clear the logic of the KonMari method to those who are unfamiliar.

There are plenty of resources online, too! Search for KonMari on any social media platform and enjoy an abundance of images of idyllic, perfectly tidy homes.

Finally, for what it’s worth, I didn’t follow every piece of advice from Marie Kondo. Not everything made sense for my lifestyle, or it felt awkward when I tried to implement it. Some examples: I keep more than one pair of shoes in my entryway; I don’t store my drying rack, sponge, and soap under the sink when I’m not using them; I don’t remove my hygiene items from the shower when I’m done bathing. But I’ve found that these details don’t matter quite so much as long as I maintain the spirit of the method, which is to be mindful of what I bring into the house and where I put them.

This whole experience was a good reminder of just how much we are creatures of habit, how we want to exert minimal effort for maximum results. Using a system like the KonMari method requires a lot of work at first, but it produces ease and simplicity once it becomes a habit.

So should you KonMari your home?

If it would make you happy to live in a neat, functional space surrounded by things that bring you joy, then yes, for sure! It will feel like a slog when you’re going through it, but you’ll be glad that you did. I am.

If housekeeping and organization aren’t your thing, then you probably didn’t even make it this far in my post. That’s okay, too. It’s not for me to say what your home should and should not look like. Marie Kondo wouldn’t, either. Only you can decide what works for you and what makes you happy!

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