Marie Kondo's Magic Lies Not in Tidying, but in Regarding 'Stuff' in a Whole New Way

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Marie Kondo is considered a decluttering diva, but perhaps she's onto something more. (Photo: Debby Wong/

By now, you've probably heard of Marie Kondo and her popular method of organization called KonMari that involves only keeping objects that bring joy to your life.

Kondo has written several books that not only help people to declutter their homes but also to bring a sense of calm and happiness to their lives. Her books have been such a success that she now has her own series on Netflix entitled "Tidying Up with Marie Kondo."

On the show, Kondo goes to different people's homes and helps them tackle overwhelming amounts of clutter. Some episodes focus on families that had to downsize drastically from a large home to an apartment, and others are more emotional with a family member not being able to get rid of a loved one's possessions after they've passed away.

For those who don't have a Netflix account, her bestselling books provide the same valuable tips and tricks.

How to organize not only your home but also your daily tasks

Marie Kondo's second book, "Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up" is an even deeper dive into the territory she covered in her first how-to bestseller, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up." The follow-up book includes illustrations of how to fold odd-shaped clothes and organize drawers, how to pack a suitcase and store reusable bags, how to tidy a desk, and what to do with everything from warranties to baking supplies. The author goes into specific detail about what order you should follow for your tidying, and how to handle different rooms of your home. (And by detail, we're talking not just how best to fold underwear and socks, but what kind of box to keep them in, and how they should fit into your closet as a whole.)

Her approach is about how the parts fit together cohesively, with each part carefully considered. She writes in the clothing chapter: "If you view your closet as a small room, you will be able to create a beautiful storage space." In a word, this book is exhaustive, and just the thing Kondo's many (many) fans have been clamoring for — more KonMari (that's Kondo's moniker for her method of organizing). I agree with Kondo when she suggests that if you're already a fairly proficient organizer, you can just jump right into "Spark Joy," but if you're not, you might want to start with "Life-changing Magic" first.

I loved "Spark Joy." It's fun to read, accessible and can be absorbed in two-page bites, though I read it in a couple of sittings. But before I continue, I have to make a disclaimer: I feel a very strong kinship with Kondo, and reading her books is like meeting a more obsessive, quirkier, Japanese version of myself. Just like Kondo, I spent my young teenage years organizing friends' rooms after school. When I worked at a nature center for the summer when I was 15, I reorganized it entirely — and I did it in two days, from the crammed closets to the visitor exhibits, and transformed it into an open, welcoming space where hikers would want to linger.

I have long seen the stuff that surrounds me as imbued with some kind of energy of its own, and like Kondo, I like to see that my things are well taken care of and that they serve a purpose. If something is off in some way, I get rid of it. I'm no minimalist — my home is filled with art and books and textiles and plants — but there's little that I would discard if I got rid of the things that didn't spark joy. When I look at my possessions, I get a positive thrill, just as Kondo's main principle holds. Every object has a home and is happiest when it is there.

I don't know how common this kind of thinking is, but my sense is that it's not. So the following is based on the fact that I'm already KonMari-fied in most of the ways she describes. But I'm far from alone. There's something deeply attractive about Kondo's point of view — otherwise her first book wouldn't have been translated into 35 languages.

It's not about organizing; it's about what you surround yourself with

What is it about this particular kind of organizing that attracts devoted crowds to every Marie Kondo appearance? Underneath the specifics of organizing — which, let's face it, everyone from Martha Stewart to celebrity organizers has written about — something else lurks. It's a profound message about our stuff.

Most of us have too many things that we've spent too much money on or we don't take care of well, and we create an incredible amount of waste in the pursuit of it, both in energy to create it and landfill space when we finally toss it. Guilt is the common emotion when people are faced with a pile of their things.

Why all the stuff and all the guilt? Could it be that it's because we use buying, collecting, gathering — accumulating, basically —to take the place of things missing in our lives? That's one idea. Or maybe our things are a distraction because we'd rather not think about more difficult issues. You'll notice neither of my hypotheses are about the practical challenges of organizing.

So, perhaps we need a spiritual and practical answer for a problem that is both spiritual and practical — not just one or the other. Kondo provides just that, peppering her book with the nuggets of what I think of as "the spirit of things," which could be an alternate title for this second book.

Saying thank-you changes your perspective

Kondo asks us to hold objects in our hands to understand how they make us feel, and to thank those things for the work they've done that we discard them. They are, like the Velveteen Rabbit, alive in their own way. She writes, towards the end of "Spark Joy," "There are three facets to the spirit that dwells in material things: the spirit of the materials from which the things are made, the spirit of the person who made them, and the spirit of the person who uses them."

This perspective may derive from Japanese Shinto beliefs. Kondo suggests that when she writes: "... it occurred to me that Japanese people have treated material things with special care since ancient times." Her example is the concept of yaoyorozu no kami (literally, 800,000 gods): "The Japanese believed that gods resided not only in natural phenomena such as the sea and the land but also in the cooking stove and even in each individual grain of rice, and therefore treated all of them with reverence," she writes.

Others have picked up on the spiritual side of Kondo's work, and why it's appealing, but see it pointing to their own beliefs: Karen Swallow Prior in the Washington Post writes: "Decluttering, like cleanliness, has become almost its own religion. But its real magic is in the joy of recognizing that the desire to create order amid chaos, to resist the dirt of decay, reflects the order and purity of the one who created us."

And Laura Miller at Slate thinks all this concern about our stuff is really about something deeper than the ideas above, mainly death. "Kondo’s books constitute an insistent if oblique consideration of our own mortality, and the soon-to-be-departed, dear reader, is you. Death: the supreme life-changing magic," Miller writes.

Our things, whether clothing, decorative objects, tools or kitchen appliances, take time, attention and energy, so only those worthy of that expenditure are worth keeping. Unused, unwanted and unloved things are a terrible distraction — so if you change your mindset about them via Kondo's "spark joy" approach, you are likely to consume less, be more thoughtful about what you buy, and tend towards fixing something you love rather than tossing it. Or — and this is a revolutionary idea — love it anyway, despite its small flaws. (This isn't a new concept, the Japanese word for appreciating what is imperfect is wabi-sabi — you may have heard of it.) All of this conscious consumption is likely to have financial and waste-reduction benefits — as well as mental health, and possibly spiritual perquisites too.

When you boil Kondo's thousands of words down a la Michael Pollan's advice on eating (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants), you might get something like this: Love your things. Not too many. Recycle the rest.

Seems quite sensible to me.