The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Book Review

11 Mar

I finally read it—the book that everyone mentions when you tell them you are downsizing or decluttering. The best seller. The one I was avoiding because the very idea that something had to spark joy in me to justify my keeping it seemed so bewilderingly odd. I am, of course, talking about Marie Kondo’s the life changing magic of tidying up (Ten Speed Press. 2014) (Given the “life changing” emphasis, the lack of capital letters in the title puzzles me.) 

First, I must point out that Kondo’s use of the phrase “tidying up” is a bit of a misnomer. Tidying up implies clearing the clutter off the dining room table, the clutter that will keep reappearing. Kondo is talking about a fundamental change in one’s relationship to possesions and the process needed to arrive at and stay in this enlightened state of simplicity and order.

It’s interesting that I should have picked up this little tome, whose author is Japanese, during a time when I have been preparing my novel, Gina in the Floating World, for publication. My novel about a young American who goes to Japan is a true fish-out-of-water story, where her confusion about this unfamiliar (to her) culture, leads to some unpredictable and questionable adventures. (Please excuse the plug, but my work on this novel has been the primary reason I have taken a hiatus from my own slow downsizing. If you are interested in learning more about my novel, check out Thank you!)

I wondered whether Kondo’s methods would seem as alien to me as the customs in the hostess bar where my protagonist worked seemed to her.  What could I apply from Kondo’s approach to my own sometimes stalled thinking regarding my downsizing?

First, I think it’s important to note that Kondo self confesses to being born to “tidying up.” From the time she was a very young child, she made order of the spaces around her. Thus, she claims, she had ample opportunity to try out various methods and come up with the best solutions.

I try to find key takeaways in everything I read on this topic, and Kondo’s book indeed offered me some fresh approaches. But let me start with what rankled me about her approach, share what I found intriguing, and end with the real highlights.


The demanding tone. Throughout, I felt I was being scolded, like a small chiild, who has not put her toys away. This overly parental tone did not sit well and made me resistant.

One size fits all.  On the one hand, there is something reassuring about a sure-fire scheme to any problem. But life and people are more complicated than that. Kondo does not want you to adopt what works for you but rather to adopt her whole recipe, rolled up packets of clothes, and all.

Throw it all out.  The frequent references to filling garbage bags was disturbing to someone who does not like to see things go to waste. Perhaps the garbage bags served as a metaphor for getting rid of possessions, but rarely does Kondo mention donating unwanted clothing or finding other homes for items we no longer need or want or that don’t “spark joy.” Maybe this was a problem in translation, or maybe the Japanese don’t have the same recyclying mentality as we do, but I had trouble getting past that imagery that offered no hint of life beyond the dump.

Do it all at once. I understand the rationale for going whole hog, but it just isn’t realistic for most of us unless we are under the gun to move without much notice. Obviously, it goes against the grain of my slow downsizing approach.

Keep things out of sight. Kondo even stores her bookshelf in a closet. Really? Enough said.

Potential value:

Appreciate your possessions. Whether you are saying good-bye to an item, or just putting it to bed for the night, Kondo urges you to verbally appreciate the role that the item has played for you. This action supposedly makes the parting easier. I confess that there is a certain sweetness to this action.

Treat your possisions with respect.  Kondo suggests storing the items you use in a way that considers the wear and tear they receive in daily life. Socks, for example, should not be balled up, as that stretches the fabric. I will probably continue to abuse my socks, but I’ll keep it in mind for other things.

Attack like items at one time (rather than one room or area at a time). Kondo has a set order for the tidying up process—start with clothes and move on to books, papers, miscelleneous items (including kitchen items, gifts, valuables), sentimental items, and photos. I see her point, but I’m guessing that for many of us putting all our clothes in the middle of the floor would lead to a daunting mess.

Eschew storage solutions. Kondo tells you not to spend time and money on storage options that will just encourage you to put things away and not look at them again. She is big on the simple shoe box. She wants you to pare your life down to the basics. Okay, simple living is not my aim, just simpler living.

Does it spark joy? This question is essential to Kondo’s approach and must be asked of each item. I have mixed feelings about this as I indicated in the beginning. I have many utilitarian items that don’t spark joy, but I would be unhappy without them, including most of my kitchen items and some of my basic clothing items, like my jeans and underwear.Does use qualify as joy? I am, however, willing to ask this question about many other kinds of things, such as knick-knacks, books, and yes, a lot of my clothes.


Consider what to keep not what to discard: My number one takeaway from Kondo is to reverse my thinking. Asking yourself what you want to keep prompts different questions than asking yourself what you no longer want or need. It’s a higher bar. Kondo’s main criteria for keeping something is the “sparking joy” test described above.

Designate a place for each thing. This tenet seems basic to any attempt to bring order into one’s life. I try to do this. I really do. I like order. And as one gets more forgetful, putting things back in the same place each day is essential for sanity. Keeping like items together is also a. good idea.

Important items are not that great in number. I love my books, but do I need all the ones I have? How often do I look at them? What is in my “hall of fame?” I have thousands of photos, many in slide form that would need to be digitized. How many should I keep to remind me of a time and place?  I cherish my mother’s artwork, but most of it is in storage. Which paintings/prints do I want to display to remind me of her and her talent?

Eliminate your posessions until something “clicks.” Don’t rely on rules, such as whether you have used something in the last year. Kondo encourages you instead to rely on your own intuition to reach that point where you know what you have feels right. I am a long way from that point, but I can see that time happening. I know how good it feels when I do discard things, even when there is the odd pinch of regret.

Overall, I am glad I read this book. It is not the be all and end all of decluttering for me, but it has advanced my thinking on the subject. Does this book spark joy? Probably not. But I won’t throw it away. Instead I will donate it so that someone else can decide whether it belongs in their book “hall of fame.”

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