The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By Marie Kondo

30-MINUTE AUDIO / 5,200 WORDS (21 PAGES)

 

SYNOPSIS

You get home from a long day, but somehow home does not make you feel relaxed. Just looking at the messy living room or crammed closets makes you feel even more tired, and the need to tidy up feels like an exhausting and endless chore. Or, perhaps it’s your office that makes you anxious, piles of papers and clutter that make it hard to focus or to find what you need to get things done.

A tidy and organized home will make you more productive and energized at work. Marie Kondo’s approach, the KonMari Method, shows you how to literally put your life in order. Forget doing a little every day or one room at a time; forget buying the latest fancy storage system or pushing everything into boxes that just keep piling up. This summary will show you how to tackle everything in one go, systematically working through your possessions and deciding for each item whether to throw it away or keep it, based on whether it brings you joy. Once you have purged yourself of the excess, then decide where to put the things you keep.

At the end of this process you will have discovered how to free yourself of being overly-attached to the past and how to face the future without fear.

 

SUMMARY

Tidying up should not be a daily chore. By systematically sorting through all of your possessions at once and choosing to keep only that which brings you joy, you can declutter your home or office, lighten the burden of your possessions, and bring clarity to your living space and your whole life. The key is to tackle your possessions one category at a time and to first decide what to throw away. Start with your clothes, then move on to books and papers, followed by household items; tackle sentimental items and keepsakes last of all. Once you have reduced your possessions to only those things that you speak to your heart, you can then find a place for everything. The result: you will have put your house in order and with it your own self and your career.

 

Learning how to tidy

We all spend time tidying our homes, even though no-one has ever taught us how. And, we all find that, a short time after tidying up, our space has become messy and disorganized again. You may assume it’s because you are an inherently lazy or messy person – but the truth is, we are none of us really aware of how we deal with our possessions or of the right way to tidy effectively.

Getting in the right frame of mind about tidying won’t just give you a neat and clean home; as you go through the process, you will put your own affairs and your past in order, too. The KonMari Method is about developing the right mindset to create order in your life.

 

A little a day doesn’t work

Most people’s approach to tidying their home is to do a little a day – tidy up a particular corner, a table, a closet. But, in a very short time, the clutter has rebounded. It seems that tidying is a never-ending process; you’re always exhausted from the effort, but you never have a truly tidy home.

A room gets cluttered because you, the person living or working in it, have allowed it to get that way. And, maybe you’ve allowed the clutter to build up because it’s a distraction from whatever is really bothering you in life. A clean and uncluttered room leaves you with no choice but to examine your inner state of mind. Once you start tidying – really tidying – you can reset your life.

There is plenty of advice that says to start off slowly, tidy just a little at a time, throw away one item a day, don’t aim for perfection. But, for many of us who like to do assignments on the last day, right before the deadline, this just does not work. You’ll end up acquiring new things faster than you can discard and organize the old things. If you only clean up half-heartedly it will never get done.

In fact, you should aim for perfection right away – which is not as daunting as it sounds. There are really only two steps involved: decide whether or not to throw something away, and then decide where to put it. These are really quite simple steps, and if you implement them you will get to perfection. Put your house in order quickly and methodically, so you can get on with establishing the lifestyle you really want.

 

The storage myth

Magazines are full of articles and advertisements touting the latest and best storage solution. But, no storage method is going to really solve the problem of how to get rid of the clutter. They are only a superficial answer. You end up spending enormous amounts of time and energy putting things away, but very quickly the shelves and bins and boxes are full to overflowing. So, you go out and get the next must-have storage solution and start all over again, moving the piles of stuff from one set of boxes to another.

In fact, the storage ‘solution’ is a myth. No amount of storage will help if you don’t start the process by first throwing things away.

 

Tidy by category

Most people tidy up by location – first the bedroom, then the living room, and so on. This is a fatal mistake! You’ll start cleaning out a shelf in the living room and find yourself tackling the same kind of items as you saw two days ago in the drawer in the bedroom. The fact is, we often store the same type of item in more than one place.

The only effective way to tidy is to do it by category – clothes today, books tomorrow, and so on. This is the only way you can truly grasp just how much stuff you have. Once you have everything in the category gathered together at once, then you can actually start to discard what you no longer need.

 

One simple approach

Discard first, then put away. That’s the whole secret to the KonMari Method, and it’s an approach that works for everyone. There is a whole section of the de-cluttering industry that says people should tidy according to their personality type, using different approaches depending on whether you are a lazy person, a very picky person, a very busy person, and so on. Are you a ‘can’t throw it away’ person or a ‘can’t put it back’ person?

Really however, we are all a combination of personality types and whatever the reason for the clutter in your home, the way to tackle it is the same for everyone. Throw away, then decide where to put away.

 

Tidying as a special event

Make tidying a special event, not something you do every day. Using something and putting it back in its place will always be a part of your everyday life; here, we’re talking about a special event, the once-in-a-lifetime task of putting your home, and so your life, in order. You only have to decide where to put things once. After that, it will be easy to always put things back where they belong, on a daily basis.

 

Throw it away!

Start by visualizing your destination, what you want to achieve by tidying – not general ideas like ‘I want to be able to put things away,’ but a really concrete visualization of the lifestyle you are aiming for. Make notes, if it helps. Once you have a clear sense of this ideal lifestyle, identify why you want to live this way. For example, if your lifestyle aim includes ‘being able to do yoga before bedtime’ ask yourself why – is it to relax? To lose weight? Keep asking yourself ‘why’ as you build up your image of where it is you want to be. Soon, you will realize that what you are aiming for is to be happy.

Once you have answered all these questions and have this visualization clear in your mind, then it is time to start.

 

Does it spark joy?

The first step in tidying up is to throw things away. But, how do you decide what to discard and what to keep? You could start with throwing away anything broken; or, anything that is out of date; or, anything you haven’t used for one year. The problem with these approaches is that you end up focusing on how to choose what to throw away, not on the objects themselves. What you should really focus on is choosing what to keep.

The best way to choose what to keep and what to discard is to take each item in your hand and ask, ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, throw it out. Try it: when you hold something that sparks joy, your whole body reacts in a positive way. You don’t want to wear clothes you don’t like, or to surround yourself at home with objects that don’t bring you happiness.

Using what sparks joy as your yardstick for choosing, you can now tackle your belongings by category.

 

Categories

As we’ve already noted, tidying up by location does not work; you have to go by category. Start with the easiest category to make decisions about, which is clothes. Gradually work through categories such as books, papers, household items, and so on. Leave the toughest categories – sentimental items and keepsakes – until last.

Gather every single item in the category into one place. Take the time to really scour every room, closet, and corner in your home and lay everything out in one spot. If needs be, work through subcategories – if you have too many clothes for one big heap, start with tops, then bottoms, then accessories, and so on.

Don’t forget the dormant things, the items that have been pushed away into the back of a drawer or stored out of sight in boxes. Only by exposing them all to the light of day will you be able to feel if they spark joy and should be kept.

 

Tackle your own stuff

If you live with other people, don’t throw their things away! This is just common sense and courtesy. But, it is also important to realize that your family members will never be able to get their own lives in order if you try to do it for them. Everyone needs to deal with their own stuff. Even if you are frustrated by living with messy people, ignore their stuff and focus on your own. As you work through the process of gathering, choosing, and discarding, you will likely influence the people you live with to start doing the same.

Do not let your family see what you are deciding to throw away – they don’t need to be burdened with your clutter, they have their own to deal with! This is not to say that you shouldn’t pass along anything that someone else can genuinely use, just don’t burden your family with things you feel uncomfortable throwing away.

 

Tidying as meditation

You are tackling an important once-in-a-lifetime task. It is essential to create a quiet space in which to evaluate the things in your life. Turn off the TV. If you need background noise to relax, pick some ambient music with no lyrics or strong melodies, so you can really listen to your inner dialogue about these possessions. And, start early in the day, when your mind is clear.

Sometimes, you will come across items that you can’t bring yourself to discard, even when they don’t inspire joy. Your rational mind gets in the way and you start to worry about being wasteful. This is why it is important to consider each item with care. Think about this object’s true purpose in your life. Has it already fulfilled its role? Throwing away something that has outlived its purpose is not wasteful.

The process of assessing how you feel about all the things in your life, expressing gratitude to the ones that have fulfilled their purpose and bidding them farewell, is really about examining your own inner life. It is a rite of passage to a new life.

 

Tidy by category

To make this rite of passage as fun and effective as possible, arm yourself with lots of trash bags and work through everything in order, starting with the easiest category, clothes.

 

Clothes first

Gather absolutely every item of your clothing from every corner and cupboard of your home. You probably have far more clothes that you realize! So, to tackle this first category in the most efficient way, work through these subcategories, in order:

  • Tops (shirts, sweaters, etc.)
  • Bottoms (trousers, skirts, etc.)
  • Clothes that should be hung (jackets, coats, suits)
  • Socks
  • Underwear
  • Handbags
  • Accessories (scarves, belts, hats, etc.)
  • Specific event clothes (swimsuits, uniforms, etc.)
  • Shoes

Remember to decide what to keep based on whether it sparks joy; pick them as if you were identifying items you love from a display in your favorite store. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “Well, I can keep it to just wear around the house.” If it does not make you happy, it gets thrown out.

You will probably find you have reduced your clothing pile by at least half. Now, you get to decide where and how to put it all away. The temptation is to hang as many things as possible, assuming that is easier than folding things and putting them in a drawer. Not so! Hanging clothes takes up more space than folding. More to the point, when you fold clothes you have to handle each piece. This process of handling is a mini-meditation all of its own, transferring positive energy from your hands to each item. It’s an act of caring that also allows you to smooth out wrinkles.

 

How to fold

Start by visualizing what the drawer will look like when you are done. The key is to store things standing up, not lying flat, folding each item into a compact rectangle, so you can see every item at a glance. This may sound like it will make the clothes more wrinkled but in fact, stacking clothes one atop another in a pile is what causes the wrinkles.

Fold each lengthwise side of the garment towards the center and tuck the sleeves in, to make a rectangular shape. Next, fold one end of the rectangle toward the other. Then fold again, in halves or thirds depending on the size of the garment. You may have to make multiple folds to get something that will stand upright. You are aiming for something that, when standing on edge, fits the height of the drawer. Thin, soft material can be folded tightly into something very small; fluffy material takes less folding.

 

Organizing hangers

Some clothes should not be folded, of course, but hung up: coats, suits, jackets, skirts, and dresses. You can also hang anything highly tailored or made from flimsy fabrics that protest at being folded.

Hang clothes in the same category side-by-side – suits with suits, jackets with jackets, and so on.

Arrange your hanging clothes so that they ‘rise to the right,’ meaning dark, long, and/or heavy items to the left, rising to shorter, thinner, lighter colored items to the right. By category this would mean the darkest coats on the far left, then dresses, jackets, trousers, skirts, and the lightest blouses on the far right.

 

About tights and socks

To fold your tights or pantyhose, lay the toes on top of each other and fold the tights in half lengthwise; then fold into thirds, making sure the toes are tucked inside; finally, roll up toward the waistband. You’ll end up with something like a sushi roll than can be stored on end, with the swirl visible.

Socks follow the same principle: one on top of the other, with the number of folds dependent on the length of the socks, until you have a simple rectangle that can be stored on edge.

 

No seasonal storage!

In Japan, in June, people traditionally pack away all their winter clothes into storage and pull out all their summer clothes; reversing the process every October when the summer clothes are packed away. The process is called koromagae; but, with the advent of air conditioning and indoor heat, it’s a waste of time to do this every year. Tidy and arrange everything, all at once, so you can always see where everything is, and don’t suddenly find yourself wanting a t-shirt on an unusually warm day in early November!

 

Books

The next category to tackle is books, and as with clothes it’s important to start by gathering them all in one place. Yes, all of them! You can’t decide what you really want to keep if you’re looking at the spines of books on bookcases. They each need to be picked up, handled, and decided upon. If you really have too many books to put them all in one big heap then, as with clothes, divide them into four broad categories:

  • General (the ones you read for pleasure)
  • Practical (cookbooks, references, etc.)
  • Visual (photograph collections, etc.)
  • Magazines

 

Unread books

We often hold onto books saying, “I’ll read it eventually,” or, “I might want to read it again.” But, how many books have you actually read more than once? As with clothes, stop and think about each book and what purpose it serves in your life. If there’s a book you’ve been meaning to read for a long time, chances are you never will – let it go.

 

Hall of fame books

There will be some books that you absolutely feel the need to keep, your own personal hall of fame. You will know these books as soon as you pick them up; you will likely never get rid of them. There are others that may not quite be in your all-time hall of fame, but right now, they come close. Hang onto them, too, at least for now.

The hardest category is the books that gave you moderate pleasure and that think you might want to read again – but ask yourself if you really will. The moment to read a book is when you first encounter it. After that, it’s time to move on.

 

Papers

Next up is papers. Not the sentimental kind like old letters, but the annoying kind that tends to gather all over the house or office in drifts and piles, folders and drawers. The general rule of thumb is to throw out all of them, except for three categories:

  • Currently in use
  • Needed for a limited period of time
  • Must be kept indefinitely

Divide your papers into those to be saved and those to be dealt with. The ones to be dealt with must all go into one spot – never let them spread all over the house or office – and aim to keep that spot empty. If there are papers building up in your to-be-dealt-with box, that means there are things left undone in your life that need attention.

At home, put all of the papers that must be saved indefinitely but are rarely actually used, like insurance policies, guarantees, and leases, into one clear plastic folder. In your office, you may need a drawer for such things, but be sure to keep them all in one location.

Put all of the papers that must be looked at more frequently at home into the book-like pages of another clear, plastic folder. Don’t bother with any more sub-categorizing than this; the trick is to store them in a way that is easy to access and read. The same is true in the office; keep frequently-used papers in clear folders in an easily-accessible spot, so you don’t waste time trying to find things.

 

Problem papers

What about the difficult papers that are hard to categorize? Odds are, whether at home or at work, you don’t need them.

Study guides and course materials: The temptation is to keep them, but if you got what you needed from the course, you no longer need the materials. Discard!

Credit card statements, used check books, and pay slips: Once you’ve checked them and used them for any accounting purposes, throw them away. Their purpose is done.

Warranties and manuals: Throw out the manuals – if you ever really need to know something about your appliance, you’ll be able to find the solution on line. As for the warranties, store them all together in one clear folder, and if you ever need to flip through to find one you can use that as an opportunity to toss all the ones that have expired since the last time you looked in there.

Greeting cards: Keep only the ones that spark joy. Otherwise, their purpose is done; throw them away.

 

Komono

The Japanese term for ‘miscellaneous items’ is komono. Every home is full of them – odds and ends, large and small, that you hang onto ‘just because.’ Discarding and tidying komono can be daunting because there is just so much of it; the best way to tackle it all is in order of subcategories, as follows:

  • CDs and DVDs
  • Skincare products
  • Make-up
  • Accessories
  • Valuables (like passports and credit cards)
  • Electrical equipment (including cords)
  • Household items (stationary, writing materials, sewing kits, etc.)
  • Household supplies that are expendable (medicine, detergent, tissues, etc.)
  • Kitchen goods and food supplies
  • Other

This order works best, as you start with more personal items and clearly defined content. Work your way up to ‘other.’

Small change: Don’t put it into a piggy bank or bag; put it straight into your wallet or purse so it actually gets spent.

Gifts: Don’t feel obliged to keep anything that does not bring you joy. The purpose of a present is to be received; its purpose is done, you can discard.

Unidentified cords: Only keep the ones you can identify and know you will use. It’s easier and quicker to buy a new one if needed that to spend time digging through a tangle of unidentified cords.

Appliance boxes: You may think you’ll use them again; you won’t. If you need boxes for moving, you can find them elsewhere when the time comes. Discard these empty boxes that are taking up space; including all the packaging your mobile phone came in.

Broken appliances: If you haven’t fixed it yet, you’re not going to. Throw it away.

Spare bedding: Unless you have regular guests, keeping all that bedding ‘just in case’ is a waste of space.

 

Keepsakes and photos

These are the hardest things to discard; but precious memories won’t vanish if you discard the objects associated with them. It’s important to live in the present, to feel the joy and excitement of living in the here-and-now. And, don’t send boxes ‘home’ to your parents; they’ll never be opened again and now your parents are burdened with your clutter.

As you handle each sentimental item and decide what to keep, you’re really processing your past. If you leave everything stuffed away in a box, your past becomes a burden taking up space and weighing you down.

The very last item you should tackle is photographs. After working through all the other categories, this one will be easier, but it will take some time. Take all of your photos out of their albums and their boxes and look at them one by one. It’s the only way to tell which ones touch your heart. Unexciting pictures of scenery or multiple pictures of the same event can be thrown away. It’s more meaningful to keep a small number of photos that you will actually look at from time to time, than many photos that will just get shut away in a box or album and forgotten.

Children’s mementoes are also hard to discard. If there are things that truly bring you joy – a picture, a note, something they made – then by all means keep them. But, your grown children’s feelings won’t be hurt if you discard all the things that no longer bring you joy. Don’t treasure the objects; treasure the memories that have made you the person you have become.

 

Reduce until it clicks

When it comes to discarding, how much is enough? The point is different for everyone, but eventually you will reach a place where you suddenly know this is what is right for you, an aha! moment where it feels like everything just clicked into place. Once you get to this spot, you will find that the amount you own will not start to increase again.

Forget numerical goals (‘I will keep only ten blouses’) or precise targets (‘throw way anything you haven’t used in two years’) and follow your intuition. Only you can know what brings you joy – which is why it is so important to identify how you feel about every item you own.

 

A place for everything

The final step in this process is to designate a specific spot for everything you own. Without it, things will start to multiply, and your space will become cluttered again. This may seem difficult, but it’s actually much easier than deciding what to keep and what to discard. By now, you’ve reduced your belongings to maybe a third of what you had to begin with; finding a place for what is left will be easy if you keep things simple.

 

Keep it together

The KonMari Method has two simple storage rules: store all items of the same type in the same place, and don’t scatter storage space. If you live with other people, make sure everyone has their own separate storage space, so that items don’t end up scattered all over the house.

Start by storing your own things before you move onto communal items for the household. Don’t focus on where it’s easiest to retrieve items from, but rather on where it is easiest to put them away. If it’s too much effort to put things away, clutter will quickly build up again. It is also best to keep all storage in one spot – that makes it easier for lazy people (which is most of us) to put things away.

It is more important to know what you have than to worry about things like flow or frequency of use. It should be easy to tell at a glance what is in every cupboard, box, or drawer. Store everything similar in the same place or in proximity. This is applicable in your office space, too.

 

Think vertical and keep it simple

Don’t pile things one atop another: you’ll end up constantly adding stuff to the top of the pile; it becomes more and more difficult to get at things on the bottom of the pile; and eventually you’ll forget what is down there. Always try standing things vertically – clothes, papers, books, even the items in the fridge.

The most useful storage items are just drawers and boxes – clear plastic ones (so you know what’s inside) or simple cardboard ones – and some baskets. Instead of buying fancy drawer and shelf dividers, use empty shoe boxes (the lids make useful trays, too) or, for smaller items, the boxes that many Apple products come in.

 

Storing bags

Handbags, totes, and other bags take up a lot of space when they’re empty, so store them inside each other. Put the same type of bags together in a set, make sure the straps dangle outside so you know which bag is where, then line them up in a cupboard or closet where you can see them.

It’s a good idea to unpack your handbag or briefcase every day, and make sure there is a specific place for the things you take out. This way, you don’t lose track of important items and clutter doesn’t build up inside.

 

Use the cupboards

Wherever possible, store things in cupboards, not on the floor. Put the rarely-used and seasonal items in the hardest-to-reach spot. Keep clothes in drawers rather than boxes, so that you can find them easily.

Keep the bath and the kitchen sink clear. Putting the shampoo away after a quick wipe dry with the towel makes it easier to clean the tub and helps prevent slime build-up. Keep the kitchen counter clear for food preparation; put the salt and pepper away in a cupboard.

 

Unpack immediately

When you buy something new, especially clothes, take it out of the packaging immediately and throw the excess away. And, avoid the temptation to ‘stock up’ on certain items; buy only what you need.

A cupboard full of items still in the packaging is not only full of excess stuff it also assaults you with excess information from all the words printed on the boxes and bags, every time you open the door. Keep your storage spaces clear and comfortable, too.

By giving your possessions a place where they belong, you are appreciating them properly, creating an atmosphere of calm and purpose in your home.

 

Transformations

The things we truly care about tend not to change over time. By putting your home in order, you are really taking stock and discovering what is most important to you, something that will translate into all aspects of your life. If you surround yourself only with the possessions that you love, they will give you the confidence that you will be alright. Ultimately, you will discover that letting go is far more important than adding.

There are two reasons for not being able to let something go: attachment to the past or fear of the future. If you come across something that doesn’t bring you joy, but you just can’t bear the thought of throwing it away, stop and ask yourself why. Soon you will realize that you are either overly attached to the past, afraid of the future, or some combination of the two.

You can keep putting off facing your fears, perhaps forever, or you can face them now. Take an honest look at your possessions, identify what is important to you, let go of what burdens you, and you can move forward with confidence and enthusiasm. The sooner you put your house in order, the better, for your peace of mind and for your career.

When you learn how to identify and discard what you don’t need, you stop abdicating responsibility for decision making to other people. Your mindset has changed; you can decide for yourself what is the best way forward.

 

Honor your home

When you return home at the end of the day, greet your house! Be aware of the space you inhabit, not just the possessions that are in it. Tidying is really about restoring balance among people, their possessions, and the place where they live.

The process of tidying has a detoxifying effect on the house, which carries over to the people who live in that space. The air in a tidied house feels fresher; there is less dust accumulating; it is easier to keep the place clean.

When your living environment is organized in a way that feels comfortable and welcoming, you will feel more energized and happy. There is no greater happiness than to be surrounded by things than bring you joy; it is the simplest way to contentment.

Once you have undertaken this one-off process of tidying, all you will need to do going forward is to choose what to keep and what to discard and to care for the things you do keep.

Humans can only truly cherish a limited number of things at once. Pour your own energy into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life.