The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Marie Kondo
Contributed by Sharen Felty

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Chapter 1
Summary

You can’t tidy if you’ve never learned how

Many people across the world are usually shocked by the fact that Kondo is a teacher who educates people on how to be tidy and organized, and is followed-up by questions about how she makes a living out of the said area of practice. Most people do not acknowledge the need for the service that Kondo offers, questioning the idea of whether people actually need lessons on a “simple” concept such as tidying up their spaces. In Japan, most people culturally believe that tidying up is not something that ought to be taught to an individual, but inherently ingrained in an individual. Yet, this cannot be any further from the truth, as most people are not naturally gifted with good tidying and organization skills.

From a young age, most people are required to tidy up their rooms and other spaces. But instructions on tidying are neglected as parents expect their kids to teach themselves this critical skill. This continues on in school, where little time is spent on teaching the students on tidying. In most circumstances, society and schools — in general — ignore teaching the concept of tidying up on the premise that it is a skill that is acquired through experience, and hence the need for specific training is unfounded. However, this is not true as tidying up is not directly proportional to a person’s experience of the act. Therefore, most people cannot realistically tidy up for the simple reason that they have never been properly taught how to do so.

A tidying marathon doesn’t cause rebound

One of the major misconceptions about tidying up is that a rebound is healthy and comes with the territory. This is usually observed in instances where a person cleans, organizes, and tidies up a place. But it does not take long before the same space becomes disorganized once again. Various newspaper articles have propagated this misconception by improperly advising their readers not to clean their spaces in one go, but tidy them up in bits, and justifying this skewed line of thinking as a way of coming up with a rebound. Kondo, however, disagrees with this line of thinking and dispels the thought that a rebound is a normal occurrence in tidying up. She acknowledges of having believed this misconception at an early age, and it only discouraged her to continually tidy up since it was just a matter of time for the already-organized spaces to become completely disorganized.

On the other hand, Kondo strongly believes that a tidying marathon should not lead to a rebound. In this regard, a person should put his/her house in order and tidy up in one swoop — being contrary to the misconception that lead individuals to tidying their spaces in bits. According to the author, rebounds usually occur to individuals who believe that they have tidied their spaces thoroughly; yet all they have accomplished is having sorted and stored things halfway. If an individual decides to organize and declutter a particular space, he/she should go for the long haul and avoid shortcuts in doing so. Therefore, a person who tidies correctly cannot experience a rebound as he/she will have significantly made changes in his/her life. At this point, Kondo narrates on how she started organizing various items at home and school at a tender age. This experience became valuable later in life as she was able to look back into the mistakes that she made and correct them accordingly — with one of the significant errors being how she believed that a rebound was the norm in tidying up, and hence people should get used to that fact.

Tidy a little a day, and you'll be tidying forever

Another misconception about tidying up is that an individual should make it a habit of doing so daily, but a little bit at a time. While this advice may sound enticing, a person should not tidy their space in a piecemeal manner as the process will be never-ending. It is important to note how challenging it is to change deeply-ingrained traditions as it is directly linked to an individual’s way of thinking. However, there is a way in which a person may dramatically change how they feel about tidying.

Since tidying leads to a physical result that can be seen and appreciated, if a person tidies up in one fell swoop, as opposed to bit-by-bit, they will experience the success firsthand. The change evidenced may be so profound that it changes not only a person’s way of thinking but also their mindset. Therefore, a person should concentrate on using the right method of decluttering and organizing by eliminating clutter thoroughly, and in its entirety, within a short period — leading to the desired results that will encourage individuals to keep their space neat and tidy moving forward.

Why you should aim for perfection

Kondo dispels another misconception about tidying when she differs with those who do not immediately strive for perfection in the decluttering and organization of their spaces. Certain people believe the process should start off slowly, by discarding even one item per day. Such an approach, according to Kondo, is for those who lack confidence in their tidying abilities. A person should aim for perfection from day one, and throughout their tidying regime. The author herself had once fallen victim to such a misconceived piece of advice — but soon realized that she was beginning to tire with her tidying, as she did not see any significant results from the process. Despite it seeming daunting and, sometimes, impossible to achieve perfection at the beginning of any task, it is essential to set your goals high to propel towards achievement.  

A person should not clean his/her house half-heartedly in the hopes that they will have a transformative experience. Instead, the said individual should make bold steps and aim at perfection from the word go in their decluttering and organization. Also, it is important to note that tidying is a physical act that can be broadly divided into two categories: some objects may be arranged, and those that will be discarded. To tidy up correctly, a person should be decisive on these categories and retain what they deem as important while discarding the extras.

The moment you start you reset your life

Most people clean and tidy their rooms as a way of temporarily calming their nerves when faced with anxiety. Kondo aptly narrates how she used to clean and tidy her room on the verge of examinations. She would be so carried away by the cleaning that by 2 a.m., she would come to the realization that she had not read much. Naturally, this affected her grades in school as she was more focused on the temporary relief than the actual cause of her anxiety — being the pending exams. In this set of circumstances, the human brain is ready to study; but when it realizes a disorganized area, attention immediately shifts to putting something else in order.

The short-term remedy of tidying in such circumstances temporarily refreshes a person’s mind, and puts them in a better position than before to handle the crisis at hand. The visible mess in a room acts as a distraction from the main subject matter, causing the distress. Therefore, if someone is in a clean and organized room, they have no distractions; hence, they can quickly focus on the main issues at hand and deal with them effectively. To this end, the moment a person starts tidying up, they reset their life.

Storage experts are hoarders

Most people associate tidying with storage, and hence most students in Kondo’s course expect to be taught on how to store the various items they have. However, she cautions that there is always a trap in the term “storage” as it may lead to a person hoarding up certain properties and not actually getting rid of what they do not need. Furthermore, various sale promotional articles advertise storage units in a manner that is appealing to most people, and hence they opt to store most of their items — including those that they do not need. To this end, Kondo is of the considered view that this storage phenomenon is a myth in an organization that needs to be debunked.

Putting things away in an orderly manner via storage units creates the impression that the clutter has been well-sorted and resolved; but soon, it turns out to be just organized clutter. Also, the use of storage units is not sustainable, as the units will soon be filled to the brim and confusion will ensue in no time. Additionally, it is important to note that most storage experts are hoarders who do not want to let go of their belongings even if they have become useless. The storage units take up physical space in a room, and thereby a person may still feel cramped even when the clutter is organized in these units. Therefore, a person should have the self-control to discard what they do not need, instead of just simply storing them.

Sort by category, not by location

As a young teenager, Kondo believed in tidying one location at a time. She would, on a particular day, clean and organize the bathroom, and tidy the sitting room on another day. This approach involved cleaning one room at a time, and even included formulating tidying slogans, such as “Today is clean the pantry day”, to focus only on the tidying of the pantry. This behavior began in junior high, and it went on all the way to high school. However, she soon realized that the approach was not working when organizing her drawers. Sorting by location has the weakness of repeatedly sorting out the same type of clutter. Since most people store the same kind of item in different places, sorting by location comes with the disadvantage of sorting the same item repeatedly.    

As a result, an individual should sort clutter by category. Through this approach, a person will localize a particular item and sort it throughout their room. Sorting by location results in a person repeating the same work in different locations, hence it is a hectic and non-conducive. However, a person who sorts by category can tidy holistically and finish up with one item at a time. This approach is a more-orderly and -efficient way of sorting clutter as it ensures that a person can see the physical results of their hard work. In essence, the person is not confused by whether he had sorted out a particular item as he will not need to tidy the said item again. Also, tidying by location denies a person the ability to appreciate the huge amounts of items that they may have hoarded. Through tidying via categorization, a person can have a realistic grasp of what he/she owns, and possibly leading to proper strategies of decluttering and organizing.

Don’t change the method to suit your personality

Most home economics handbooks advance the thought that a person should choose a tidying method that suits their personality, taking into consideration of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, there will be a tidying schedule that accommodates the lazy people, the busy people, and even the picky ones. From this argument flows the thought that there is no one fix in tidying for everyone as people are different. Even though this argument sounds convincing, it is flawed in principle.

In tidying, people are easily categorized according to their actions rather than a generalized public trait. Using this approach, people can be broadly categorized into three groups, namely: the “can’t-throw-it-away” type; the “can’t-put-it-back” type; and the “first-two-combined” type. From Kondo’s extensive experience, a majority of people belong to the third subgroup as they are neither willing to throw away what they do not need nor put it back.

It is important to note that tidying, whichever way a person choose to approach it, must always begin with discarding. This fact transcends the personality traits that individuals may possess thereby directly countering the perception that someone may use a tidying method to suit their personality. To this end, Kondo observes that as long as clients appreciate this fact, then there is absolutely no justifiable reason to change how she teaches tidying methods to suit the client's personality. Other factors that affect or are affected by cleaning depends on a person’s levels of tidiness and his tidiness goals.

Make tidying a special event, not a daily chore

Tidying is a special event that should not be reduced to an everyday activity, and should be done once and for all within a specific period. Most students are usually shocked by the fact that Kondo discourages people from cleaning daily, as tidying is not an everyday chore that should be endless. Kondo states that there are two types of tidying, namely special event tidying and daily tidying. Daily tidying involves using an item and returning it to its original place — and it will always be part of an individual’s daily life. However, people should embrace tidying as a special event that is crucial in putting their homes in order. By doing so, the individual can enjoy the experience and participate more towards the tidying-up process. Once this process has been completed thoroughly, they can easily put things back to where they were after using them.  

Also, it is essential to change an individual’s perception, with regards to tidying, for them to tidy effectively. Certain people believe that they are poor at tidying, and this trickles down to their actual ability to declutter and organize their own spaces. It is therefore critical to have a positive attitude towards tidying, as no one was born untidy. Once a person experiences the dramatic changes in their lives due to a proper tidying regime, the person will most likely experience a holistic change and continue living in a decluttered and highly-organized space.

Analysis

Most people cannot tidy merely because they have not been properly taught to do so. A majority of individuals believe that tidying up is not something that ought to be taught, but an inherently-ingrained concept. However, this cannot be any further from the truth as most people are not naturally-gifted with good tidying and organization skills. Kondo believes that a tidying marathon should not lead to a rebound; hence, a person should put his/her house in order in one fell swoop. This is the very way of avoiding a rebound and negatively spiraling back to clutter. Therefore, if a person tidies a little a day, he/she will end up tidying forever.

Additionally, a person should aim for perfection from day one, and all through their tidying regime. Even though it seems daunting, and sometimes impossible, to achieve perfection at the beginning of any task, it is important to set your goals high to propel towards fulfillment. However, the decluttering of an item a day does not work, as only insignificant small steps will be made, resulting in nominal change in an individual’s life. A person should not clean his/her house half-heartedly hoping that he/she will have a transformative experience; instead, the said individual should make bold steps and aim at perfection from the word go in his decluttering and organization.

Of concern is how most people resort to storage units as a way of getting rid of visible clutter, and not knowing how they are opening themselves to another problem. Putting things away in an orderly manner via storage units creates the impression that the clutter has been well sorted and solved, yet it soon turns out to be just organized clutter. Also, an individual should sort clutter by category, which is done by localizing a particular item and sorting it through their room. Sorting by location results in a person repeating the same work in different locations, being a hectic and non-conducive form of tidying. Finally, it is important to note that tidying, whichever way a person approaches it, must always begin with discarding. Tidying is a special event that should not be reduced to an everyday activity.

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