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The short guide to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Meet the tidiest woman on earth.
Meet the tidiest woman on earth.
Ten Speed Press

Last weekend, I trashed two garbage bags full of cards from my grandmas, mix CDs made by ex-boyfriends, and press badges from long-forgotten events. I filled even more with clothing and books to donate.

That's because I'm one of the legions of Americans who have latched onto The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book by Japanese organizational consultant Marie Kondo. And yes, I tidied up. But the jury's still out on the magic. Likewise the changed life.

But what is certain is that Kondo is an international phenomenon. Her newest book is at its 20th week at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and is also a bestseller in Kondo's native Japan, as well as Germany and the UK.

Kondo's book says it can help you declutter your home, once and for all. And a big part of that is getting rid of a lot of stuff, rather than stowing it away. For the uninitiated, here are the basics of the cleaning philosophy that has some very, very, obsessed.

The basic advice: all your stuff should "spark joy" in your life

Kondo calls her system the KonMari method, and she says she has never had a repeat client: everyone who has gone through the entire method with her has remained clutter-free. Kondo reverses the way many people cull their possessions. Instead of helping you decide what to throw out, she tells you to go through all of your stuff and decide what to keep.

The idea is to sort through your belongings and decide whether each one "sparks joy," in Kondo's words. This requires physically picking up each item one at a time — you have to hold it in your hands and see how your body reacts — and determining whether you feel a rush of joy.

But getting rid of stuff is just half of the book. The rest is about how to put your remaining, joy-sparking possessions away and keep them neat. In that area, Kondo's advice is simple: have a place for everything, and always put things back in their places.

While all of that sounds coldly practical, Kondo's book often reads less like a how-to book and more like a self-help or even spiritual guide. Going through your old mementos, for example, helps you "process your past." She also advocates thanking the items you throw out for their service. She says your clothing wants to be folded a certain way, and that decluttering is a form of "detoxing."

Even if you don't buy into some of her tone, much of her advice ends up serving as a good stand-in for lots of the other cleaning advice you've heard over the years — if you've been keeping a pair of pants until you lose weight and fit into them again, toss them (they aren't sparking joy). If you haven't worn or used something in a year, you really might not need it (once again, no joy).

You can also view Kondo's work from a behavioral economics perspective — in one well-known experiment, economists gave half the subjects coffee mugs, which they were to sell to other subjects. The sellers demanded a minimum price two and a half times higher than the maximum buyers were willing to pay. The researchers determined that this was about not just prices but also sellers' attachment to their new mugs. This tendency to overvalue your possessions is called the "endowment effect."

Kondo's "decide what to keep, not what to throw away" philosophy overcomes that hurdle by making throwing away, not hoarding, the default — in a way, it forces you to think about what stuff you would acquire over again, as opposed to what you could bear to part with.

Can housecleaning really be "life-changing"?

Kondo's steps result in a cleaner, emptier house. But for Kondo, it's much bigger than that. It's not just about the act of cleaning up your stuff; it's about the mindset with which you do it:

"People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking," she writes, later adding, "The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."

The process of figuring out what things make them joyful (or not), she says, has caused profound life changes in some of her clients — her method inspired them to get rid of other parts of their lives that didn't spark joy. Kondo gives examples of clients ditching extra pounds, a job, and even a husband after working with her.

The logic is that deciding which of your possessions you truly love means making a decision about the kind of person you are or want to be. Yes, I will keep that HTML book, because I really am excited about learning web design. No, I'll never reread Moby Dick; I'm just keeping it as a trophy of that one time I finished Moby Dick.

"A warrior princess in the war on clutter"

That's how the London Times has described Kondo, anyway. Marie Kondo is a 30-year-old "organizational consultant" in Japan who goes to people's homes and helps them put their things in order. She describes in her book becoming obsessed with cleaning and tidying regimes when she was five, and then discovering the joys of throwing things away en masse when she was in junior high.

Kondo is a new name to most Americans, but she's a much bigger deal than they may realize — Life-Changing Magic is her first printed in English, but it's her fourth book overall.

Kondo's tidying processes have some ties to traditional Japanese culture. As she told the Associated Press, a clean home is a lot like a Shinto shrine: "The inside of a house or apartment after de-cluttering has much in common with a Shinto shrine ... a place where there are no unnecessary things, and our thoughts become clear. It is the place where we appreciate all the things that support us. ... It is where we review and rethink about ourselves."

Likewise, some Japanese traditions involve thanking objects for their service, says Theodore Bestor, director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University.

"This idea of the object as being imbued with some aspect of inherent identity ... has a place in Japanese tradition. There are various religious rituals that sometimes are held to dispose of objects of intimate personal use that involve an appreciation of the object and a giving of thanks for the objects' service to humans," says Bestor.

You're folding your clothes all wrong

At least in Kondo's estimation. Most people fold clothes flat and stack them one on top of the other, which means you have to dig through a pile to see what's underneath.

She advocates making them into more compact packages and putting them into the drawer sideways:

Kick nostalgia to the curb

So old letters from lovers and relatives and confidantes fill you with the warm glow of nostalgia. Apparently this isn't the same as "sparking joy." Let Kondo douse that warmth in ice water for you:

"The purpose of a letter is fulfilled the moment it is received. By now, the person who wrote it has long forgotten what he or she wrote and the letter's very existence."

... harsh.

She takes a similar line on photos: "In many cases, the prints developed after [you take a photo] have already outlived their purpose."

The idea is that holding on to too much of the past keeps a person from growing. Kondo allows for the possibility that your kids' childhood finger paintings just might make you feel some joy, but she tends to err on the side of ditching things. The idea is that when you throw out old mementos, you let go of the past and move on.

Part of her strict tone on throwing out old keepsakes, however, may be because she recognizes how hard they are to get rid of. One of her dictums is that clients should never start their tidying with sentimental items; if they did, they'd never finish.

Kondo drawer

This is what a drawer looks like once it's been Kondoed. (Ten Speed Press)

Keep your spouse in the dark

Kondo has a two-part solution to the problem of your family members watching you throw out half your worldly possessions. One is not to let them see you — the chance is just too great that they will try to stop you from trashing something that they think you should keep.

The second is to stay away from their stuff. Yes, your kids might be the ones messing up your house, but you have to hope they follow in your footsteps, which Kondo says will happen readily once you've established your own tidiness routine. "As if drawn into your wake, they will begin weeding out unnecessary belongings and tidying without your having to utter a single complaint," she writes. And even if they don't, she adds, you might just find that having your own tidy space allows you to better tolerate others' untidiness.

You might have to figure out the kitchen by yourself

Aside from hoping your family members catch on and start tidying on their own (which, hahahahahaha), maybe the biggest problem is that the "joy-sparking" technique also doesn't seem to work in every area of the house, particularly on utilitarian items. The kitchen is a great example.

The decide-what-to-keep advice can help you thin out items of which you own many, all of which could more or less substitute for one another (that is, a black blouse for a yellow one or a Churchill biography for a Nora Roberts novel). It's less useful on things you only have one of and simply need from time to time. You may not be surprised if you pull out your muffin tin and don't feel a rush of joy.

But then, what does that mean? It may be that you've been fooling yourself all this time and that you never liked baking all that much and it's time to just give it up in favor of a hobby you like better.

Or maybe muffin tins just don't spark strong feelings of joy in anyone.

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