Can I Learn to Love Tidying? My Review of Marie Kondo’s ‘Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ and ‘Spark Joy’

Can Marie Kondo change my life and make my wardrobe spark joy?

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This morning I’m having the wardrobe crisis. You know, the one where you start out with a clear plan, only to end up 20 minutes later still in your underwear, with a discarded pile of clothes on the bed and a solemn vow to lose 5kg. Today I hate everything in my wardrobe – what was totally fine last week is most definitely not working for me on this Monday morning. In desperation, I reach for a shirt that hasn’t seen the light of day for the past eight months. It takes less than twenty seconds to work out why it hasn’t seen the light of day for eight months – it’s awful! It should never have seen the light, ever!

Why is getting dressed so difficult? I’m a grown woman with enough dresses to clothe a small island nation, yet here I am with not a suitable stich to wear. Again. Then it dawns on me, this has nothing to do with the dresses, skirts and tops languishing innocently in front of me. This is a reflection of the mood I’m in – it’s been a hard week, a long week, one of those weeks where the balance isn’t so much out, as non-existent and where nothing seems to have flowed. Once I acknowledge this to myself, I manage to get dressed with minimal difficulty in a couple of minutes and I feel much better about myself. It’s amazing what effect clothes can have on a woman’s psyche. As famous New York street style photographer Bill Cunningham said, “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.”

Now I have never been a person to judge people’s clothes harshly. I am spectacularly put off when I hear someone comment on someone’s lack of fashion sense. I always just think how shallow it sounds. The fact the person is so bothered by what’s ‘cool’ that they’d pass comment on someone’s lack thereof, makes they themselves just seem instantly uncool. I don’t have a problem saying someone dresses well or looks fantastic, though, and I don’t doubt there is ginormous power in feeling good in what you’re wearing. With that in mind I decide to make more of an effort with my own style. I concede this would be easier with a better organised wardrobe. No sooner has that thought entered my mind, than I have ordered a couple of books that proclaim they will help me organise that wardrobe to within an inch of its life…

A few days later, my manuals arrive. The first step, in fact, the only step, they tell me, is tidying…

Of course, I’ve tidied before (granted, my family would undoubtedly say that I’ve not tidied very many times before, but the fact is, it’s not an entirely new concept. Even if it is, for me, rather a novelty) but the High Priestess of Decluttering, worldwide sensation, Marie Kondo, promises that this time won’t be like all the others. It won’t just be different – it will be life altering. Her supremely successful debut book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has absolutely changed lives, not least Kondo’s. It was an absolute blockbuster; a New York Times Number 1 bestselling phenomenon, selling a staggering 3 million copies and turning its charming, charismatic, idiosyncratic writer into one of Time’s Top 100 Most Influential People of 2015 AND a verb – as in, “I need to Kondo my wardrobe”. She boasted a client rebound rate of zero before her book was published, as well as a three month waiting list. Now her waiting lists have waiting lists for personal appearances and book signings and you can’t book a slot for her one-to-one lessons before the decade is out.

I have waited for the hype to dissipate a little before purchasing her fantastically received, brutally prescriptive debut and its successor, Spark Joy, and as I pore over both, I start to get quite excited. “Life truly begins,” she explains, “only after you have put your house in order.” There has rarely been so much as a square of my bedroom in order in my life. I gaze around at my paltry quarter of a life – littered with clothes, debris, stacks of books and notepads – and decide I need a KonMari boot camp, and fast.

Now, truthfully, before I begin I am already a tad sceptical as to whether Marie Kondo can even come close to the Queens of Tidying who I grew up with. I have a mum so intent on tidying, that a full glass of juice, will have a shelf life of around five minutes, before she “tidies” it away to the dishwasher. She cleans to the point of comedy and was once found in the middle of a raucous party in my house, hiding in the utility room polishing a kettle. I can assure you there weren’t many tea drinkers that night, but someone must have touched the kettle, deeming it filthy. Just last week whilst on the phone, she told me that she was going to spend the day “tidying the house”, when I surmised that it couldn’t be very untidy, given that she’d spent the previous day alone in the house, with none of the usual messy suspects present, she was aghast… “…but it needs to be bleached!!!”.

So, I have heard a lot of tidying chat. Between my tidying-obsessive siblings, and my mum (thankfully I wasn’t entirely alone in my messiness – my dad could do with some Kondo-ing too) I’m not sure there’s much Mazzy can teach me. Yup, I’m calling her Mazzy. I don’t feel friendly if I don’t dish out a nickname.

So, here goes… First thing’s first. What is her magical, revolutionary idea? In a nutshell – keep only the items that “spark joy” and dispose of the rest. Pull out every item you own, fondle it, then decide what to keep, rather than what to toss. This makes sense (not the fondling part, that’s quite confusing) because I can see there’s a significant emotional difference between those two ways of looking at the tidying process. Both books are based on her KonMari method and she is insistent that if you follow her instructions to the letter, tidying up all in one episode, you will never have to declutter again; in fact, you “will experience, every day, a feeling of contentment” – and the most aesthetically pleasing drawers full of pants in delightful little origami packages. Mazzy, you had me at “Life Changing Magic…”. I’m sold.

Tidying up is a special event, the book exclaims, “don’t do it every day!”. So far so good. I really don’t want to do it every day. Most people who know me will have noticed. “Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever” also strikes a chord with me. My family seem to have been tidying ‘a lot’ a day and have indeed been tidying forever. (Which they’d probably say was because they had to live with me!). She tells us we have to make a gigantic transformation to change our life, and that means doing it all at once, so you don’t lose momentum. Thankfully all at once, does not mean all in one day and she advises a period of approximately 6 months should suffice for the transformation of a whole house – and person.

Another revelation that makes perfect sense is that storage is not the answer. Mazzy say’s storage experts are just hoarders and that you need to get rid of the excess. I am the sort of person who often feels the need to purchase more storage to hoard the clutter within. I vow to change from this moment on.

Filled with enthusiasm at the thought of getting rid of bags of things I don’t need and producing that wonderful clear space clear mind connection, I set aside a weekend to face-off with my clutter. I must confess right now that I am actually cheating a bit. A big bit. I am living in New Zealand, so I only really have my cases that I arrived with and the things I’ve accumulated in the months I’ve been here. I am going home, so I haven’t been able to accumulate too much. I’m at an advantage, I figure. If people do this with whole houses full of stuff, I can manage with a suitcase worth! It will mean I might actually be able to close my suitcase too, and that alone would be a big win!

I take notes on the ground rules. Tidy by category, not location. People usually tidy room to room which she describes as a “fatal error” (yes…fatal?) as it means they end up shuffling things around the house. Gathering in one spot every item of clothing, or toiletries, for example, from the entire house, gives you an accurate grasp of what you actually own. This does actually make sense when I think that I have clothes in three rooms in this house, toiletries in two, and so on. If I clear out the toiletries in my room, I could later find duplicates in the toiletry bag I store in the bathroom.

The next important rule is to follow the right order. It’s crucial to do; clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous and then sentimental items. This helps hone your ability to distinguish what sparks joy before you get to the most challenging items.

I start with dutifully dumping every last item of clothing onto my bedroom floor. Just the sight of that mangled mess paralyses me for 45 minutes and I sit, eating noodles, just looking at the pile. But then I remember more details of Kondo’s all important sorting order and start with the tops. It’s supposedly easier to detect joy with them because they’re worn close to your heart (yes, really… a gem of a Kondo-ism. If you like this one, read on… you are in for a real treat!) – and maybe she’s right, because I manage to chuck about 20 of them on the bin pile.

The method is simple. To check if you are in possession of holy grail joy-givers, Kondo wants us to “commune” with each possession. You must touch, squeeze, perhaps even kiss your trousers to test the joy-o-meter – just don’t, under any circumstance whatsoever, salvage an item to “wear in the house”. (Disclaimer, I set aside a pile just for that, misshapen, faded, t-shirts and even a cosy jumper with a hole in it. Bless me, Mazzy, for I have sinned.)

I do however, address the fact that I only use about 20 per cent of what I have in front of me. The rest is for the ‘What ifs’: what if I lose a stone? What if I am invited to a ball? What if I am invited to a Hallowe’en party? This is a super helpful in aiding my inaugural Kondo cull. Sadly, it turns out less than five per cent of my wardrobe thrills me, but I can’t be wearing a Luella (remember Luella?! Can I call it vintage?) cocktail dress to the local newsagents, so I have to adopt a fairly liberal definition of “joy”. The recommendation that we ask if an item sparks joy is a good one. I will adopt it on future shopping expeditions for sure, but I cannot realistically remove every item that doesn’t spark joy because I can’t afford to replace all these things that don’t spark joy but that I will certainly need in the future.

Despite my misgivings, her beautiful subtext captivates me, and I can’t help but reflect on the fact that most of the stuff we all own is unnecessary and hypnotising us to the point that we don’t realise that this stuff is preventing our evolution into contented, happy people who know that our stuff should fit a purpose, not entice us into wanting or buying more stuff. With this in mind, I toss more into the reject pile.

Before you bag up the rejected clothes, though, Kondo demands that you sincerely thank each item out loud and bid it a fond farewell. It’s supposed to ease the guilt, but I feel like stark raving mad vocalising my gratitude to a pair of lace shorts. This isn’t the first time she’s mentioned thanking garments. We have been berated previously for not giving our coats the thanks they deserve for keeping us warm and we have been instructed to speak to our out of season pieces kindly; “Let them know you care and look forward to wearing them when they are next in season. This kind of ‘communication’ helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer.” Some of my other favourites are the instructions to “Hang anything up that looks like it would be happier hung up, which protest at being folded” and perhaps one of her biggest joy-sparking quotes for me, “Clothes like people can relax more easily in the company of others of a similar type, organising them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure.”

By the third hour, my joy-o-meter has worked so hard that it becomes less reliable and I allow myself a “maybe” pile. That’s when I hit a wall, otherwise known as nostalgia wear. I can’t bring myself to toss the black maxi dress I wore to my dream lavender fields even though I don’t actually like it too much, or the Asos jacket I wore the night I met my boyfriend, even though it’s passed its best-by date. I don’t know whether it’s just nostalgia or my joy-o-meter is broken. I know it’s 2am, though, so it could also be extreme tiredness. I throw the remaining clothes on the floor and tiptoe through the detritus to bed.

Day two dawns and I want to set Kondo’s book alight; she says you have to tolerate the mess – you can’t put things away until the discarding is done – but I feel quite deflated. This mess is making my mind feel cluttered. It’s about ten steps of mess too far, even for me. Now I know how my family felt when they entered my bedroom for all those years. They actually call it “The Cave” rather than my room, to give you an idea of how neanderthal they found my existence there.

Rapidly losing the will to continue, I am delighted that I get to bypass huge chunks of the wardrobe order list, owing to the fact I am on an extended holiday so don’t have it all with me. Happy Saturday! Well slightly happier Saturday… It would appear, and not for the first time, that I enjoy reading about self-improvement more than I enjoy completing the actual work of improving myself.

To be honest though, this lady is off-the-charts hard-core – we are talking about a woman who used to skip lunch to tidy the class bookshelf for fun and run home every day with excitement for the tidying that lay ahead. Even my mum would scoff at that. The inimitable Marie Kondo, calls this a “tidying festival”, but I’ve had more fun in hospital with an acute kidney injury. And just when the onerous task of chucking is over, the origami pant creations loom…

Mazzy is a big proponent of folding – a very particular method, that seems to require a lot of commitment. Clothes have to be folded into tight rectangular packages and then propped upright, colour-coded from light to dark. At this point her anthropomorphising is absolutely riveting, in my opinion. We are told to treat our pieces of clothing like faithful, supportive friends. Bras, she tells us, “have exceptional pride and emit a distinct aura” – so we really must treat them, “like royalty“. My favourite part of the whole book goes is when she couldn’t suppress a gasp when shown a sock drawer with socks balled into one another in a little package. (You know the one? I certainly do. I find these little balls satisfying to put together – sorry Marie…) and demands that we “Never ever ball up your socks! Look at them carefully, this should be a time for them to rest, do you think they can get any rest like that? They take a brutal daily beating trapped between your foot and shoe for hours enduring pressure and friction, the time in the drawer is their only change to rest. They experience friction and trauma when the bump into another when you open the drawer. You’ll notice your socks breathe a sigh of relief when you untie them.” I tried untying them, but unfortunately the gasps of relief were inaudible and since they aren’t magnetic, they began bumping into all the socks, not just their partner. I took her previous advice and reconnected them. After all, “clothes, like people, are happier with others who are the same as them.”

I have to say though, with clothing, folding the Konmari way is life changing. You literally fit at least twice as much in any space doing it her way rather than traditional folding. It creases less and is ten times easier to navigate. It also looks spectacular (maybe the book as done something to me) and I find myself opening the drawers just to sneak a little peek at the rainbow gorgeousness of my handiwork! Of course, keeping only stuff you love and storing it neatly makes a lot of sense. Even if I am not fully on board with everything she prescribes, there is a lot of sense in a lot of what she says. I totally agree that inner order equates to inner calm, and getting rid of bags of useless stuff is incredibly cathartic.

A few days in though, I start wearing clothes – terrible clothes, with holes! – from the bin pile as pyjamas, as I’m avoiding laundry in an attempt to delay the laborious, life-changing, KonMari folding. So I’ve not really come very far in terms of rebooting my wardrobe, all things considered. By the end of the KonMari boot camp week, I’m a broken woman. Who on earth do you know who has the stamina for 10 whole hours of decision-making and fabric-folding? (Actually, I know a couple of people – the aforementioned family members, but who else in the world enjoys this?!) And this is just the clothing category. The easiest category, apparently! A whole cluttered household awaits for most people. I am lucky; It’s just toiletries, papers, and books for me in my temporary abode.

Speaking of books, these are the next category to tackle, which means soon I will have to hold Kondo’s little books solemnly in my hands and ask them if they spark joy. Sorry, Mazzy, I think you’re a magnificent and unique specimen, who’s created a thought-provoking set of books, but I highly doubt either of these hardbacks will make the cut… although I promise I have adopted some of your methods for life – and that makes you magic after all.

*** To view the beautiful dainty doll, Marie Kondo, demonstrating her folding technique, check out these short videos below***