The Joy of Crewnecks: Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’

February 20, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 4 6 min read


Marie Kondo has a method for cleaning and reorganizing your home that might be crazy and might be brilliant, but works either way. She’s a lifestyle celebrity in Japan, and her finely-tuned method is spelled out in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

Kondo’s philosophy is that you should only own things that you love, that everything else is just wasting both physical and emotional space. Although some of her advice can be eyebrow-raising (you’ll see), I decided to commit, following her advice to the letter one Saturday in January.

You start with your clothes. Kondo has you take every piece of clothing you own out of your closet and dresser and pile them on your bed. Then you pick up each item one by one and gauge your emotional reaction to it. Only items that “spark joy” in your heart when you’re holding them in your hands get to stay.

Kondo does concede that discerning the joy levels of your clothing can be hard at first, but she also says that you develop your gauge as you go, which turned out to be true. I started holding my skirts out in front of me and kind of being like, “This might be joy?” But after a few minutes I got to my navy silk dress with the little teacups printed on it, and sparks flew. After that epiphany, I essentially gauged my reaction to each item in comparison to my reaction to the dress. For instance, at one point I found myself trying to coax some joy out of a grey pencil skirt, because ladies’ media has told me I should own one in black and grey, but then I realized that said skirt had nothing on what I felt for the teacup dress, and it was out of my life.

This is what sets Kondo’s method apart from your average declutter. You’re not merely rooting out the stuff you could get by without, you’re winnowing down to what you truly want to keep. Now I have a closet that basically smacks me in the face with joy every morning.

Once you’ve done your clothes, you go through the rest of your possessions by category — books, then papers, toiletries, electronics, household goods, photos, and your kitchen. The joy meter becomes less relevant to some of these — after all, necessities like my phone charger, prescriptions, and apartment lease don’t light me on fire — but the guiding principle remains the same. You consider everything you own item by item, and decide whether or not you have a compelling reason to keep it.

In this way, the tidying process is a “dialogue with yourself,” as “the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Kondo has helpful insight into each category’s parameters: books — “‘sometime’ means ‘never;’” papers — “discard everything;” gifts — “the person who gave it to you doesn’t want you to use it out of a sense of obligation, or to put it away without using it.” But everybody will have different hang-ups about different categories. Since I knit, sew, do pottery, and am generally crafty, I was hanging on to a lot of stuff just because I had made it. A few years ago I knit myself a sweater that turned out ugly and didn’t fit. I legit hate that sweater, but it was in my dresser for two years because the yarn was expensive and I spent months on it. With Kondo in my head, it made no sense to keep something that sparked hate and remorse rather than joy. Tossing it into a hefty bag, on the other hand, was pure joy.

And let’s be honest about this — this is a joy that comes from privilege. The subtext of Kondo’s advice, which is never stated, is that you have plenty and always will. I don’t remember if she mentions money in the book, but if she does it would only be to say that monetary value is a bad reason to keep something. She does say that one of the reasons her book is necessary is that tidying up isn’t a life skill that parents teach to their children like cooking or finances. In my case, at least, it’s not that my parents didn’t teach me about handling my possessions, it’s just that they were teaching me opposite values. I grew up in a house, as did my parents before me, in which pennies were pinched, both out of necessity and the belief that it was morally superior behavior. The slightest hint of past, present, or future utility would be reason enough to keep something, no matter how unloved it was.

As I was talking to my friends about going through Kondo’s book, most of them had the same perspective. We live in different economic circumstances than our parents did — summed up neatly by the fact that at my age my mom was married with three kids, whereas I spent a solid 40 minutes this morning researching how best to cover up a bald spot in my eyebrows — but we still use their model of consumer behavior. I didn’t want to use Kondo’s book as a way to shuck everything they taught me about the value of money and things, but as a guide to applying those values to my own situation.

And while she never mentions this either, Kondo’s book has the potential to make you a smarter consumer. In the month since I decluttered, I’ve noticed that I’m less tempted to buy new things. Because my apartment is only filled with things I love, I can’t imagine bringing home a new sweater because it’s kind of cute. Imagine how inferior it would feel in my carefully curated closet! New things have to meet a higher standard to seem like a justifiable purchase, and in this way a massive purge can be read as thrifty behavior — unless these are just rationalization gymnastics because I could picture the horrified look on my mom’s face when I got rid of the handmade sweater.

Kondo says that we keep things for one of three reasons: their functional, informational, or emotional value. But most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about that value. Any time I was hesitating over whether to keep something, I would ask myself which of those values I perceived in it, and then call my own bluff.

Why do you want to keep these ugly pink and black plaid note cards?
Because I might use them.

Why do you want to keep this change purse?
It was a gift and I like it.

Why do you have this packet of reading materials from college?
Because someday I might want to brush up on the history of the Russian intelligentsia.

I did, at some point, start yelling KONDO! every time I tossed something onto the throwaway pile. It was a long day. According to the book, I was supposed to be wearing my favorite outfit and listening to soothing music. I was wearing my pajamas and listening to Guns N’ Roses, but I have to think at some level Kondo would just want me to do me.

But I don’t know, Kondo’s a little hard to pin down. She’s simultaneously a hard-line pragmatist and a far-out child of the moon. For every no-nonsense truth she lays down — “storage experts are hoarders” — she comes out with an impassioned plea to stop balling up your socks — “This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they get any rest like that?’”

As she tells it, she’s been passionate about tidying since she was a child, staying in at recess to tidy the classroom instead of playing with other kids, reading lifestyle magazines, and getting in trouble for reorganizing her family’s closets. This lifelong, single-minded devotion to tidying has made her advice the best around, but also might have loosened her relationship to normalcy. I don’t follow her advice to kneel down and thank my apartment for keeping my possessions safe when I get home in the evening, for example, but I’m really glad I got rid of the table lamps I wasn’t using.

The only time I truly wondered if I was taking the advice of a madwoman was when she was describing her evening routine, which starts with arriving home and kneeling, as outlined above, unpacking and putting away every item in her handbag, and then thanking and respectfully storing her clothes so their spirits can be refreshed. But then this: “If you can’t empty your bag sometimes, that’s all right…Just between you and me, while writing this book, there have been times when I came home and fell asleep on the floor without even changing my clothes.” Wait, what?

But, for all that, she’s a good teacher. Her book is not meant to tell you what you should keep or throw away but to be “a guide to acquiring the right mind-set for creating order.” I got rid of seven trash bags and two boxes of stuff, and have continued to hone in on joyless possessions that I missed or let slide the first time. Kondo says that now that I’ve put my house in order I’ll probably find love and my dream job and lose 10 pounds, but while I’m waiting for that to happen my apartment looks great.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.