I Tried Bestselling Minimalism Book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” And It's Brilliant (But Also Bullshit)

The best-selling guide to decluttering is amazing…if you live in a perfect, wealthy alternate dimension.
Publish date:
March 24, 2015
books, privilege, interior decorating, organization, Minimalism

Minimalism is my crack.

Not that you’d ever guess. My living room is flamingo pink, my couch is bright fuchsia, and multicolored doorway beads are my idea of “subtle.” I’m a grown-ass lady whose style idols are Kesha and Claudia Kishi.

But my heart has clean white walls and zero clutter. (I swear I’ll start meditating once I vacuum up all that glitter!) I dream of being the kind of person who stretches every day, quits making piles of crap on the living room floor, and isn’t constantly running late. Instead, I have tangled cords, dead batteries, and a friend’s forgotten water bottle I’ve been meaning to mail back for four months. (She’s either died of thirst or bought another one. Whoops.)

Which is why I snapped up a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as soon as I heard about it.

The bestseller by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo sounds too good to be true: Her unique approach to de-cluttering, The KonMari Method, has a three-month waiting list and a relapse rate of zero. Clutter isn’t meth, obvi, but it’s still pretty impressive. I decided to try her method and see if it worked.

Keep Only What Gives You Joy

Kondo’s central teaching -- and I will totally be one of her monks if I can get a purple ikat robe -- is that you should only keep stuff that makes you happy. It seems obvious that you can expand this to also include useful stuff, because my plunger sure ain’t gonna bring me joy unless I bedazzle it. But I’ve definitely been hanging onto some stuff I just don’t like.

My aunt, for instance, made me a pretty mini-tapestry with a lily on it. Unforch it was more Janine than Claudia, IYKWIM. I was hanging onto it because my aunt might die soon and it would be shitty to throw it away, right? Nope.

“The true purpose of a present is to be received,” Kondo writes. “Presents are not ‘things’ but a means for conveying someone’s feelings.”

Kondo says you should gently thank things for serving a purpose in your life and let them go. So thank you, hand-sewn thingie, for telling me my aunt loves me and is thinking about me. Now I can give it to Goodwill and express my appreciation by writing her an email instead. Why would I want something on my wall I don’t actually like?

The same goes for clothes and kitchen stuff I was keeping “just in case” or “because nothing was wrong with them.” I bought a kickass mug from Urban Outfitters that says “It’s motherfucking teatime” without realizing it’s hand-wash only. It sat in my sink for three weeks before I realized I’m too lazy for that now that I have a dishwasher. BUH-bye. You might be responsible and patient enough to hand-wash things, and that’s the beauty of it. Kondo’s advice works differently for everyone.

She also says you should start simple: with clothes and papers before books, and finally mementos. That’s because if you start by going through stuff that makes you nostalgic, you’ll get stuck and never finish. Do the easy stuff like giving away that itchy shirt from Forever21 or that hole-y underwear, THEN tackle the hard stuff once you’ve got some momentum going.

Do It All At Once

Kondo’s other big thing is that you should have a massive declutter-fest once and never do it again. Lots o’ peeps end up tidying a little bit every day (guilty!) and never getting anywhere, like that dude with the boulder. Most tidying websites tell you to do one room at a time.

Surprisingly, Kondo strongly discourages this. Do it once and forever be done with it, she says. Because once you’re rid of everything that doesn’t bring you joy, you’ll have plenty of space for what you do love, and then all ya gotta do is put stuff where it belongs. She raves that clients who do this experience a magical-sounding mental clarity, too, like the courage to write a book or get a divorce. Maybe physical clutter really does mirror emotional clutter…

Don’t Be Seduced By Storage

Kondo also warns against The Cult of the Container Store. More storage solutions only disguise the problem: too much shit ya don’t like. Containers and fancy storage solutions mean you still have a bunch of crap, now it’s just harder to get to! HEADDESK.

Organizing stuff you love is a different story. Kondo’s all about anthropomorphizing stuff, like talking to your things and letting your socks “breathe.” She recommends folding clothes in tight little squares, storing them with the end up so you can see everything when you open a drawer. I got inspired and covered my socks and underwear drawer in wrapping paper, then made a little divider out of some cardboard:

Be Honest with Yourself

Another thing I love about The KonMarie Method is her insistence that you be honest with yourself about who you are today and what your lifestyle really is. If you’ve bought books and never read them, get rid of them, she says. You would’ve read them by now if you really wanted to. (Ouch. Harsh but true, for me, at least.) If you find yourself wanting to read a certain book in the future, you can get it then.

The Problem

Which is where I have a problem with The KonMarie Method. It’s definitely aimed at richies -- who else could afford a one-on-one tidying consultant? Minimalism in general seems to ignore poor people, which is ironic, since sometimes they have the least stuff. (I have the same complaint with the tiny house movement.)

My grandma grew up during the Great Depression, and she’s a total hoarder. It makes sense: If you live through tough times, you’re gonna hold on to what you’ve got. Maybe that’s why Grandma has three bottles of Mrs. Butterworth’s in her garage.

One of the main reasons people hang onto things is “It might come in handy someday.” Kondo disapproves of this, but it’s cheaper and less wasteful than just tossing out a bunch of stuff, only to buy it new in a few months. I get wary when minimalism is tinged with elitism and consumerism.

Sure, I could get rid of absolutely everything I don’t love…but then I’d only have, like, one pair of pants, and I’d totally use that to justify a shopping spree. Sometimes you have to keep stuff that’s just okay for practicality’s sake.

But overall, I love Kondo’s soothing, thoughtful tone and her advice. I might never have a capsule wardrobe of only 20 items, but I do hope to slowly but surely swap out cheap-o clothes for better-made ones I adore to pieces. Or I could just become a nudist. That’s the point of minimalism, right?

I obviously haven’t been able to follow Kondo’s advice perfectly, but so far it’s been really energizing and freeing to get rid of things. It’s too soon to tell if I’ll experience a related psychic cleanse, but I have been procrastinating less lately. And it’s made me more careful about what I let into my house. Maybe I’ll get all the glitter off my floor just yet.