The Organizational Guru
Marie Kondo elevates decluttering to sacred ritual.
Does the stuff you own make you happy? To Marie Kondo, the tutor of tidying, and her millions of followers around the world, this is not an idle inquiry.
Kondo, a native of Japan, got the decluttering bug as a child. She practiced on her family, getting in trouble for throwing out their stuff without asking, and at her junior school, where she chose to clean bookshelves instead of playing with fellow students in gym class.
She organized her consulting business when she was 19 and has been joyfully and obsessively helping people toss psychological and physical baggage ever since. Practitioners of her so-called KonMari method devote themselves to the organizing principle that we are the sum of our stuff and that to live a joyful life we should surround ourselves only with items that we love.
Kondo, who lives in Tokyo with her husband and young daughter, admits that she has little interest in anything other than tidying and helping others do so. Even when she goes to museums, she focuses on exhibits of everyday items like dishes. She doesn’t wear much makeup and when meeting with clients, she puts on a white blazer to show respect. Her idea of a good meal is one that can be prepared and eaten in a single bowl. She does, however, use her mixer every morning to make a green smoothie and messes up the kitchen enough to bake bread, a new endeavor for her.
Her best-selling books, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2011) and Spark Joy (2016), are as much about cleaning out your closet as they are about reorganizing your life.
“The real tragedy is to live your entire life without anything that brings you joy and never even realize it,” Kondo says in Spark Joy. Unlike other systems that place a priority on getting rid of unwanted possessions, under the KonMari method, the object is to evaluate each item and keep only those that bring happiness, or as she says, spark joy.
Cleansing is done by cleaning out categories instead of rooms. Clothes, which are closest to the heart, are done first. The other categories, in order, are books, papers, komono (miscellany), and sentimental items, which are the hardest to part with. Once the beloved items are selected, they are stored in specific ways and in specific spaces. Clothing is folded in Kondo’s signature style (the books give detailed instructions) and packed upright in drawers.
“Taking good care of your things leads to taking good care of yourself,” Kondo says in Spark Joy. “When you use an object with care and respect, you transform it into something priceless.”
The basement-to-attic process generally takes three to six months. Kondo’s ideas, which on the surface are simple yet profoundly transformational, have been embraced by people of all levels of neatness and messiness around the world. Brooke Booth, a commercial litigation lawyer in Troy, Michigan, was so taken with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that she created a side business as a KonMari tidying consultant.
“It was like somebody lit a fire under me,” says Booth, who shares a house with her husband and children who are 12, 10, 7, and 2. “I had the book on tape and I was jogging. I literally ran home and started pulling clothes out of my closet.”
In 2016, she signed up for Kondo’s one-day seminar in New York City and later became the first certified KonMari consultant in the United States.
“I’m generally a neat person and a minimalist, but the book made me realize that I didn’t have the right tools or techniques to be effective,” she says. “It took me a little over three months to complete the process on my house.”
The changes, she says, went far beyond filling garbage bags with unwanted items.
“Cleaning out the physical things helped me clean my internal clutter,” she says. “When I started, I was working for a different law firm whose values didn’t align with mine. I was able to transition to a much better job.”
She also made significant changes on the home front.
“My husband and I remodeled the main level of our home,” she says. “This was not planned. The KonMari method opened space up for that to be possible. We were able to get rid of stuff and beautify.”
Patty Morrissey of Huntington, New York, was searching for an entrepreneurial career when she decided to become a certified KonMari consultant. Morrissey, who lives in a small suburban house with her husband and five-year-old daughter, not only changed her living space but also her lifestyle.
She and her husband enjoy entertaining, but they had stopped when they relocated to Long Island because they had a small kitchen and no dining room. The idea of keeping only the things they love inspired them to move their couch to the basement and turn their living room into a dining room. They also converted a walk-in closet into a guest room so they could invite friends to stay for long weekends.
“I also lost weight and started visiting friends more,” she says. “I decluttered my finances—it took me a long time to master the paper category—and changed my relationship with my daughter. She and I have different tastes in clothing and we’ve accepted each other for who we are.”
Books were Jenny Albertini’s biggest tidying issue.
“I’m a voracious reader, and I love having books around me,” says Albertini, a former diplomat who changed careers to open Declutter DC in Washington, DC, in 2016. “I had half a wall filled with everything from college and grad school textbooks to every novel I had ever read.”
She weeded out half of the tomes and the remaining 100 that won her approval were about art and design, subjects she had always loved but had never allowed herself enough time to explore.
“It was freeing to let them go,” she says. Saying goodbye to old letters was the most difficult part of Albertini’s tidying. “I wanted to read some out loud, and I wanted someone to be a witness,” she says. “I was OK letting them go afterward.”
But that was only the beginning of Albertini’s journey of joy.
“I lost 30 pounds, and I got out of a relationship that was not serving me,” she says. “I created space to think about my life and what made me happy.”
Albertini, Morrissey, and Booth say their clients have had similar life-changing experiences. A woman Morrissey was helping mentioned that she didn’t want her work clothes to touch her other garments. When Morrissey questioned her, she said that she didn’t want to work because it was taking time away from her being with her family.
“As this incident proved to me, KonMari is a gateway to deeper emotional work,” Morrissey says. “It’s about a behavior you need to change, not a project you have to complete.”
It was a schoolteacher who made a lasting impression on Booth. Single, she lived in a two-bedroom house, but her garage was so filled with items inherited from her mother, grandmother, and grandfather that she couldn’t park her car inside.
“The sentimental items are always saved for last because you have to develop the skill to know what sparks joy,” Booth says. “She got rid of 90 percent of the stuff, and it wasn’t hard for her because she had come to realize while tidying the rest of her house that she wasn’t discarding people or relationships, only objects. When we finished, there was enough space in her garage for her car and for us to create an area where she could do artwork.”
KonMari takes a lot of commitment, but adherents say it is worth it.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Morrissey says. “You’re never going to have to go through the process again because you become more discerning when you’re buying, and it becomes easier to let go.”
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