Earlier this year, a few weeks before my birthday, I was at my friend Jo’s house in Dehradun, en route to Mussoorie for a holiday with my son. The home was lovely, and bookshelves in every corner beckoned. Until a tiny unassuming book called out to me and I was lost for the rest of the day. It was Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art Of Decluttering And Organizing.
I had, at the time, not heard of the book, let alone the fact that it had sold over two million copies in its English edition (the original was in Japanese) and that the author was so big that KonMari (derived from the author’s name Marie Kondo) was now a verb. For someone who started as a tidying consultant, that is huge. I must add here that there is a minimum six-month waiting list for her services in Japan. Of course, her popularity in the US has also led to a backlash. So while The New York Times did an article on celebrating clutter, others poked holes in her methods. It might be disconcerting to some that in a country like the US, where minimalism is not a matter of pride, KonMari has had a pandemic effect over the last year or so.
In this book, she describes her step-by-step tidying method (now trademarked as KonMari): a simple but time-consuming process of going through every single thing we possess and keeping those that spark joy.
She had me at joy.
It’s such a simple filter really. Something we can apply to a lot of things, beyond clothes and books. We know it when we feel it; it’s strong and palpable, devoid of rationality, almost like a thrill. Plus it can be a great lens through which to view other life choices too.
I was riveted.
As I flipped through the 200-odd pages of Kondo’s book, I found myself nodding and sighing, being shocked and relieved in equal measure by some of the revelations. And yet it was all so commonsensical. She draws attention to the common mistakes we make while tidying (or decluttering, as we call it). Sort by category, not by room, she urges. Bring everything that belongs in one particular category, say, books, to one place (her preference is the floor) and do not put them back until you have gone through each and every item in that category and chosen what to keep.
The criterion for keeping something was simple: Does it spark joy?
I could already visualize all my books lurking in different places—the kitchen, the living room, the hallway, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, even the drying area. Clearly, there was a lot of work to do. I was soon making notes, promising myself that I would be practising what I read as soon as I got back to Mumbai in a week. Yes, I had been KonMari-ed, hook, line and sinker.
Like most people, I struggle with clutter in my life. Although I don’t buy clothes or books often and retail therapy doesn’t do for me what it did in my 20s, I find myself overwhelmed by stuff every two years or earlier. I rationalize that it is the frequent moving (I, like most city people of no permanent address, have moved more than I would have liked to—about 14 times in the last 24 years, since I left my parents’ home). I have done more than my fair share of donating clothes, books, electronics, furniture and utensils to NGOs and orphanages. I have had garage sales and barter meets in my home. I have gone off shopping completely for long periods (two years being the last stretch). Whenever I decluttered, which was often, I followed some blanket rules: Throw away anything you haven’t used in two years (or one year, or six months, depending on how irritated you are). At times I found smart storage solutions. For a year, I also spent 10 minutes every day getting rid of things you don’t need in the house. But within a few days, there would be a clutter relapse and I would feel the same as before.
It appeared like I had no control over the way stuff was multiplying in my home.
Yes, I was tidying up (to use Kondo’s quaint word for decluttering). Except, I was approaching it the wrong way. I was focusing more on the negative (“I really have to get rid of these things”) than the positive aspect (“This is what gives me joy”) of tidying up.
And that is why Marie Kondo’s book has created a tidying revolution of sorts: Choosing what you want to keep is far harder than deciding what you want to give away. It brings to the fore the anxiety of human decision making at its worst. It’s tedious and time-consuming and requires commitment. But once done, it’s a great feeling.
In a country like India, bred on Gandhian philosophies of minimalism, where Feng Shui is a recent religion of sorts, it is shocking how much stuff we accumulate. Some of it is inherited from our parents, some is a byproduct of marriage—that big merger of stuff (also, having children reinvents clutter in ways you never imagined). Some of it is nonsensical gifting by people we otherwise love, but most of it is things we buy and hoard mindlessly. Indians also have this knack of building storage systems—overhead swivel cupboards, beds with box storage, enclosed attics, kitchen units that extend up to the ceiling, dining tables that fold into storage units—if we have too much stuff, we find ways to put it out of sight. What you don’t see cannot harm you, is the philosophy most of us live by.
For the past year or so, I have been feeling ambushed by my own clutter. It was also the time when I was going through major life changes—my separation, moving houses (again), and having my mother move in with me. The upside was: I finally had all my stuff in one place. Trouble was, I still couldn’t find things, because I didn’t remember where I had put them. And I felt I had too much.
I returned home a few days before my birthday, ready to begin the rest of my life with Marie Kondo. I followed her instructions meticulously. She recommends clothes first, then books, then papers, komono(miscellaneous), sentimental items, mementos, and lastly—photos.
Clothes and books were far smoother than I had imagined. I found myself caressing each item of clothing, asking if it sparked joy (some were a straight yes or no, a few were ambiguous but not as hard as I had imagined). The yes was always definite. The no was sometimes overridden by guilt (“I paid so much for it, I should have worn it more”). But letting go was easier than I thought.
According to Kondo’s philosophy, there should be a designated place for everything that belongs in your home. Folding is a very important aspect of the KonMari method and I realized why my closet was so noisy earlier. I just wasn’t folding right. The book doesn’t have photos or illustrations, but there are several videos on folding ties, socks, underwear, shirts, T-shirts the KonMari way on YouTube (yes!). I folded all my clothes into neat little rectangle envelopes (it was somewhat challenging for typically Indian items like salwars, saris, anarkalis, etc, but I worked around those). I trained my son to fold his and he said it felt like origami. It is, actually.
The idea is not to stack up but to arrange clothes vertically so you can see the edges of all your clothes (it took me some time to understand this). In the Indian scenario of cupboards/shelves versus drawers, this can be challenging, but it is still worth a shot.
Next was books. I can finally see the coloured back panels of my bookshelves and a month later, I still don’t regret giving away any book—a thing that would happen quite often earlier, causing me to go out and buy another copy of the book I was missing.
For me, papers were the most intimidating part, as one is always holding on to them for a “what if” scenario. Since there is no way they can ‘spark joy’ to most of us, KonMari recommends brutal discarding: How many bank statements, passport photocopies, bills, credit card statements, warranty cards, user manuals and car papers can you hold on to? I pared it down to a single box of papers, stacked vertically in simple files.
After two very productive weeks of sorting, discarding, folding and organizing, I was stuck. It was komono.
Komono, which Kondo defines simply as miscellaneous, is actually the biggest roadblock in the KonMari method. It is stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere and yet is all over the place. It is the rest of your crap and it is a lot of crap that includes, but is not limited to: CDs, DVDs, make-up/toiletries/cosmetics, accessories, valuables (what was she thinking?), passports (this terrified me!), electric equipment and appliances, mysterious cords, wires, household equipment (stationery, writing material), household supplies (detergents, medicines, tissues, etc), kitchen goods (spatulas, pots, blenders, etc). But I guess everyone’s komono is different. As Indians, we have way more komono than the Japanese, I am sure.
I figured food was low priority for Marie Kondo, because in India there is no way kitchen could be komono. I also kept thinking, “She definitely doesn’t have kids.” Because she doesn’t factor in school things, toys, board games, portfolios, masks, art and craft supplies. Apparently she does have a child now, and I can’t wait to read her post-child KonMari.
I guess all the gaps in Kondo’s book can be books in themselves: KonMari of marriage, KonMari of children, KonMari at work, Digital KonMari, KonMari of relationships, friendships and more. It’s the kind of thing that can be extrapolated and applied to every aspect of your life, each time yielding the same results: Once you are clear about the noise of things that clutter your life and home, you can focus on enjoying the things that really matter. I don’t know what first-date conversations are like now, but it would be worthwhile to try and suss out a potential partner’s KonMari quotient.
If you want to start the KonMari method of tidying up, here are a few tips:
- Sort by category (for example, clothes, books, papers, etc.) and not by location (living room, bedroom, bathroom, etc.).
- Tidy up in one go and do it alone, preferably.
- Gather all the items in a category on the floor, so you can see every single thing. Pick up each item and decide if it gives you joy. If it doesn’t, let it go.
- The focus is not what you must get rid of, but whether the things you want to hold on to make you happy.
- Follow the right order: clothes, books, papers, “komono” (miscellaneous), sentimental items, mementos, photos.
- Have a designated spot for everything in your home (for example, bag, shoes, wallet, phone, etc.) and return it to that spot every day.
- Store everything vertically, even clothes (you can, if you fold them right)
- Visualise your destination: How do you want your room, your closet, your bookshelf to look? Then work towards it.
- After discarding, designate a place for every item and stick to that place, to avoid a clutter relapse.
- Empty your handbag every day. It’s where clutter starts.
I don’t know if the book has changed my life; I still have to tide over my komono, and my mother is still holding on to hers. But I am able to get more done in a day and I look forward to the next. I also feel I have KonMari-ed my life, in a manner of speaking—holding on to work, memories, people and things that truly spark joy. This little book about tidying ended up being about much more than tidying. There is a certain calmness in my cupboard and drawers and bookshelves, and perhaps some of it has passed on to me.
(This post first appeared in Mint Lounge on 3rd September, 2016. http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2Ox6Si3QDJnpF11nM8H0JL/Why-KonMari-is-the-new-detox.html )