The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying

Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ is definitely worth a read, especially for those with a general interest in the topic of introducing some order into a pile of chaotic objects, and also for those who have even a vague feeling that they would like to live in a tidier home. Her experience and passion for the subject jumps out from just about every page with an almost religious fervour. However, I’m happy to say that, towards the end of the book, she says quite unequivocally “tidying is not actually necessary”,  “You won’t die if your house isn’t tidy”, and “tidying is not the purpose of life”; hence, for those with a desire to give it a go, she espouses doing a complete assessment of every item you posses as quickly as possible to get it over with. Having done so, she believes you will have a changed mindset, and that you will naturally continue to keep things in order.

While there are many points in the book that are of great relevance to the investigations in this blog, there are two major differences; the book makes hardly any reference to digitising things, whilst harnessing the power of digitisation is a key thrust of these investigations; and the book is focused on tidying ALL of a person’s possessions in their home (or their place of work), whilst this blog is looking at particular subsets of a person’s possessions. Having said that, the approach, rationale, and impacts that are described can all contribute to the understanding that I am trying to explore in these pages.

Kondo’s approach is pretty straightforward. Take a category of your belongings; assemble EVERY item in that category from EVERY part of your house, into a big pile; take each item, hold it in your hand, and decide if it gives you a spark of joy – If it does, keep it, and if it doesn’t, discard it; assign a specific space to store everything you keep; when you store  things, make them as visible as possible, and avoid piling things one on top of the other. This process is intended to be a one-off, all inclusive, exercise to be done on every possession you have.  In Kondo’s experience it usually takes about half a year.

The two key questions, of course, are what constitutes a spark of joy, and is having a spark of joy for an individual item the only criteria one should have. Take books. I love books and enjoy having them around me. Some of the individual books I have are less meaningful to me than others; but I’d keep them for the sake of having books on bookshelves around the house. Kondo doesn’t seem to recognise this. In the several examples she quotes about books, the outcome always seems to be the disposal of tens if not hundreds of books. To be fair, she does make it clear that the decision about what to keep has to be made by the individual concerned. I guess she would just advise that, in the absence of a spark of joy, you should be clear about why you are keeping something.

I don’t think I came across an explicit answer in Kondo’s book to the question ‘why bother to keep your house tidy?’. However, it contains a number of assertions which collectively suggest it’s a good thing to do. The simplest assertion is that one of the reasons why clutter eats away at us is because we have to search for something just to find out if it’s even there; so if we have a tidy house we can find things easily and quickly and feel more content. Another is that we keep things because either we become too attached to the past or that we have a fear of the unknown  future. Kondo believes both things hold people back in their lives – being too attached to the past means that we can’t move on; and having a fear for the unknown future signals our reluctance to try out new things. However, Kondo’s overall rationale is even more complex than that. She believes that we fail to get to grips with clutter as an instinctive reflex to avoid thinking about the other issues in our lives. By discarding the things that are not truly precious to us, we are better able to see what is important to us; we are able to address the issues that are troubling us; and we can become more content with our lives.

Are any of these valid points? And if so, are they good and sufficient reasons for being tidy? To take each one in turn: a lot of clutter undoubtedly makes it more difficult to find things in most cases. However,  there is anecdotal evidence that some untidy people can still find the things they need by having a clear memory of where they place things.  In general, though, it seems reasonable to assume that being tidier can help many people find the things they need more quickly.

The notion that being untidy may be constraining people from moving on or from being able to try out new things, I feel is a more tenuous point: I think I have known many untidy people for whom these assertions are totally untrue. The best that can be said is that it may be constraining some people. As to whether a thorough tidy can help those people – well, according to Kondo’s experience with what sounds like an extensive client list, it seems that this is probably true.

Kondo’s final, rather bold, assertion that a thorough tidy can help us address issues that are troubling us and change our lives, is one that I have no way of assessing. Again, we have to rely on Kondo’s own experience with her clients – apparently, she has observed this occur many times, so we can only assume that, for some people who try out her approach, this is a possible outcome. Even if it’s only a possibility, for those who are seeking to address such issues, it may be a good reason to try out Kondo’s approach.

Now, turning to the impact that Kondo’s approach has on people, the most tangible and immediate impact seems to be the disposal of numerous bags of possessions. The numbers quoted are rather large:

  • ‘I threw out 30 bags of rubbish in one month’
  • ‘After three months of this strategy I had managed to dispose of 10 bags of rubbish’;
  • ‘The minimum amount of paper waste that my clients dispose of is two 45 litre bin bags – the maximum so far is 15 bags‘
  • ‘[one client] had no qualms about discarding and at our first lesson she got rid of 200 books and 32 bags of items.’
  • ‘The record number of bin bags filled to date was by a couple who threw out 200 bags worth of rubbish plus more than 10 items that were too large to put into bags.’
  • ‘The average amount thrown out by a single person is easily 20-30 45 litre bin bags and for a family of three its closer to 70 bags.’

These are big numbers and I found myself wondering a) if they are all shopaholics in Japan (where Kondo is based), and b) if they weren’t filling the bags to their capacity. But, anyway, it’s clear that disposing of such large amounts of stuff would probably make a very tangible difference in an average house.

Other impacts that Kondo cites are largely to do the mindset of the individual. She claims that ‘Tidying dramatically changes one’s life. This is true for everyone, 100 per cent.’ Particular changes she describes include the following:

  • One of the magical effects of tidying is confidence in your decision-making capacity. Tidying means taking each item in your hand, asking yourself if it sparks joy, and deciding on this basis whether or not to keep it.  By repeating this process hundreds and thousands of times, we naturally hone our decision-making skills.
  • Because [my clients] have continued to identify and discard things that they don’t need, they no longer abdicate responsibility for decision-making to other people. When a problem arises, they don’t look for some external cause or person to blame.
  • Putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart. Life truly begins after you have put your house in order. “When I put my house in order I discovered what I really wanted to do.” These are words I hear frequently from my clients.
  • Through tidying, people come to know contentment. After tidying, my clients tell me that their worldly desires have decreased.

These are dramatic changes – but then the process that Kondo guides her clients through is also quite dramatic so perhaps it’s not unreasonable to expect some significant impacts on people’s lives.

So far I’ve really only spoken about the book’s general approach and impacts. However, it also provides a wealth of detailed and very useful guidance on how to deal with specific types of objects and on setting up different types of storage.  There is too much material to discuss here, but I’ll finish this summary with just a couple of quotes which I particularly liked:

  • A common mistake people make is to decide where to store things on the basis of where it’s easiest to take them out. This approach is a fatal trap. Clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong. Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out.
  • Mysterious [electrical] cords will always remain just that – mysterious.

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