Book Notes: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying

Marie Kondo is a polarizing figure. Like many, I binge-watched her series on Netflix and soon found myself folding shirts so that they could stand by themselves and wondered if the ripped pair of shorts I couldn’t bear to throw were still ‘sparking joy’ by collecting dust in my wardrobe. (Later on, I realised the real reason. I was hoping I would one day fit into them again).

Her sweet Japanese demeanour, unusual way of ‘greeting houses’ by kneeling down to show gratitude and ‘waking up books’ by knocking them gently has left some skeptical about her ‘KonMarie’ method. It’s quite funny to see her American clients flash quizzical looks when she first asks them to thank their houses before they start tidying. My husband rolled his eyes a little too.

I skipped some of these ‘unnecessary’ steps. But after watching her interview with Stephen Colbert, her response to why people love her philosophy convinced me to read her book!

Stephen: “Why do Americans love your philosophy and your cleaning up so much?”

Marie: “Of course we all have problems tidying up our homes, but it’s not just that. We all have clutter in our hearts and that’s what needs tidying.”

Stephen: “Oh (realising what she means).. that got me right here (points to his heart).

The show gleans over her philosophy, but her book really goes in depth to talk about how our environment affects us internally. And it’s no wonder when you look into her background.

Before writing her bestseller, Marie Kondo worked in a Shinto shrine as a Miko (priestess or maiden) for 5 years. Her tidying philosophy integrates some Shinto practices, such as kami (believing that there is scared essence is every object),  treating your home like a sacred space that should be respected, and treating the act of tidying as mental cultivation and spiritual training.”

My favourite quotes from her book:

Aim for perfection once.

“You will never get your house in order if you only clean up half-heartedly. If, like me, you are not diligent, persevering type, then I recommend aiming for perfection just once.”

On why people have the urge to tidy before an exam.

Their brain is actually clamouring to study, but when it notices the cluttered space, the focus switches to ‘I need to clean my room’. Why? The problem faced, ‘the need to study’ has been been ‘tidied away’.

Tidying your room won’t calm your troubled mind, but it will help you be aware of it.

While you may feel refreshed temporarily, the relief won’t last because you haven’t addressed the true cause of your anxiety. If you let the temporary relief achieved by tidying up your physical space deceive you, you will never recognise the need to clean up your physiological space.

A messy room equals a messy mind.

When a room because cluttered, the cause is more than just physical. Visible mess helps distract us from the true source of the disorder. The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue.

Confronting anxiety.

If you can’t feel relaxed in a clean and tidy room, try confronting your feeling of anxiety. It may shed light on what is really bothering you. When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state. You can see any issues you have been avoiding and are forced to deal with them.

Special tidying only needs to happen once.

Once you have put your house in order, tidying will be reduced to the very simple task of putting things back where they belong. Unbelievable as it may sound, you have to experience a state of perfect order once to be able to maintain it.

Countering our negative perceptions of ourselves.

“I was born untidy…”, this is swept away the instant they experience their own perfectly clean space. This drastic change in self-perception, the belief that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, transform behaviour and life-styles.

Why it’s important to set a change in quickly instead of gradually.

When you tidy your space completely, you transform teh scenery around you. The change is so profound that you will feel as if you are living in a totally different world. This deeply affects your mind and inspires a strong aversion to returning to your previously cluttered state. The key is to make the change so sudden that you experience a complete change of heart. The same impact can never be achieved if the process is gradual.

Visualize your destination before you start and ask yourself why

What do you hope to gain through tidying? Visualize the ideal lifestyle you dream of. Think in concrete terms so you can vividly picture what it would be like to live in a clutter-free space. Your next step is to identify why you want to live like that.  Why do you want to do aromatherapy before bed? Why do you want to listen to classical music while doing yoga? Ask yourself “Why” again, for each answer. Repeat this process three to five times for every item. The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy. When you find the answer, you are ready to move on.

Choose what sparks joy

The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: Does this spark joy? If it does, keep it. If not, throw it away. This is not only the simplest but the most accurate yardstick by which to judge. Keep only things that speak to your heart.

Start with easy decisions

The process of deciding what to keep and what to discard will go on more smoothly if you begin with items that are easier to make decisions about. (Somehow I think this applies to your career as well). As you gradually work towards the harder categories, you will be honing your decision-making skills.

The role of objects that don’t spark joy

Every object has a different role to play. Not all clothes have come to you to be worn threadbare. It is the same with people. Not every person you meet in life will become a close friend or a lover. Some you might even find hard to get along with or impossible to like. But these people too, teach you the precious lesson of who you do like, so that you will appreciate those special people even more.

What to do if you find it hard to let go

Think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end all that will remain are the things you really treasure.

To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose. To throw away what you no longer need its neither wasteful nor shameful. Free them from the prison to which you have relegated them. Help them leave that deserted isle to which you have exiled them. Let them go, with gratitude. Not only you, but your things as well, will feel clear and refreshed when you are done tidying.

On why you should fold your clothes

The Japanese word for ‘healing’ is ‘te-ate’, which literally means to ‘apply hands’. Before modern medicine, people believed placing one’s hand on an injury promoted healing. Gentle physical contact from a parent, such as holding hands, patting a child on the head, and hugging, has a calming effect on children. The same has a positive effect on our clothes. Folding makes the clothes taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant.

The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies.

On how to deal with discarding gifts

The true purpose of a present is to be received. Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings. When viewed from this perspective, you don’t need to feel guilty for throwing a gift away. Just thank it for the joy it gave you when you first received it.

Less is more

By paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings. Just because you throw something away, does not mean you give up past experiences or your identity. By selecting only those things that inspire joy you can identify precisely what you love and what you need.

When we honestly confront the things we own, they evoke many emotions within us. Those feelings are real. It is these emotions that give us the energy for living. Believe what your heart tells you when you ask, ‘Does this spark joy?’

If you act on that intuition, you will be amazed at how things will begin to connect in your life and at the dramatic changes that follow. It is as if your life has been touched by magic.

Don’t underestimate the ‘noise’ of visual information

Tear printed film off packages that you don’t want to see. By eliminating excess visual information that doesn’t inspire joy, you can make your space more peaceful and comfortable.

Understand your ownership pattern

Your ownership pattern is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life. Attachment to the past and fears concerning the future govern not only the way you select the things you own but represent the criterial by which you make choices in every aspect of your life, including your relationships with people and your job.

Face your possessions and problems

The process of facing and selecting our possessions can be quite painful. It forces us to confront our imperfections and inadequacies and the foolish choices we made in the past. Face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The choice is ours.

If we acknowledge our attachment to the past, and our fears for the future by honestly looking at our possessions, we will be able to see what is really important to us.

On leading a minimalistic life

Life becomes far easier once you know that things will still work out even if you are lacking sometime. Selecting and discarding ones’ possessions is a continuous process of making decisions based on one’s own values. It hones one’s decision-making skills.

We amass material things for the same reason that we eat – to satisfy a craving. Buying on impulse and eating and drinking to excess are attempts to alleviate stress.

Human beings can only truly cherish a limited number of things at one time. Pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart.