Book Summary and Analysis |

Popular Psychology, Personal Growth and Self-Help



Summary and Analysis of

Marie Kondo’s

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Japanese Art of

Decluttering and Organizing

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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The KonMari Method is a unique decluttering and organizing method that includes two important activities:

  • Identifying those possessions of yours that do not “spark joy” in you, thanking them for their service and discarding them;
  • Designating a place for each item that you choose to keep in your home without buying any complicated organizing equipment.

According to Kondo, the process of discarding is a very intuitive process that can be learned. Those readers who feel positive about applying their intuition to a decision-making process should feel enthusiastic about the way in which the KonMari Method relies on intuition. On the other hand, those readers who value logic and rational thinking over intuitive thinking might find it difficult to use the joy-sparking approach.

Kondo writes about her KonMari Method with great conviction. She states that the KonMari Method is a universal method of tidying that will work for lots of different people. She further assures us that people who use the KonMari Method to de-clutter and organize their homes properly, will never need to battle clutter in their homes again. These two statements are debatable.

First, the KonMari Method is based on what Kondo has learned from her own history of trying out various techniques and programs, testing different storage solutions. Her conclusions about the effectiveness of the KonMari Method come from case stories of her clientsmostly female professionals and homemakers. We do not have sufficient information about its effectiveness for people of other age groups and gender.

Second, Kondo says in her book, “I can’t claim that all my students have perfected the art of tidying. Unfortunately, some had to stop for one reason or another before completing the course. And some quit because they expected me to do the work for them.” Therefore, some people do fail in their attempts to follow the KonMari Method, but no information is provided in her book or her later presentations on what percent of the total number of Kondo’s students actually quit their training or what their reasons are for quitting.

Third, the KonMari Method was developed only a few years before Kondo wrote her book, and no serious scientific studies have been conducted in order to verify that all the people who apply this method to their lives never go back to their original state of clutter.

Fourth, Kondo’s proposal that the KonMari Method can be universally effective for people from different countries and cultures is questionable. It is certainly questionable with regard to American and Western European cultures, where the KonMari Method, which promotes minimalism, clashes with the culture of over-consumption and the mainstream belief that buying more things can make people feel happy.

From a very young age, people in the US and Europe are continuously subjected to marketing messages about having a spark of joy when they acquire material possessions. Consequently, it is difficult (and sometimes even impossible) for them to distinguish a spark of joy that they have when an item makes emotional connections with their true inner nature from a spark of joy that they get because they have been conditioned (programmed) by the marketing industry to experience joy from acquiring material possessions.

The KonMari Method does not help people to distinguish these two kinds of joy, and Kondo does not address this problem in her book. She does not suggest any meaningful way for her followers to develop awareness of how marketing techniques affect their psychology, defining their ability to experience joy from buying things and cluttering up their homes.

In some cases, informal social expectations and biases can play a role in addition to planned marketing manipulation. For example, a person can experience a spark of joy when buying an item that “plays along” with the person’s vanity or when the item allows the person to create the appearance of achieving certain social status. These motives will not make the person happier over time, but the person will nevertheless experience a spark of joy from possessing those items and holding them in his or her hands.

Kondo writes that the things that people own are the consequences of the choices that they make, and by discarding objects indiscriminately, people are denying responsibility for the choices they make. Unfortunately, Kondo does not discusses how our social and economic systems affect these choices—to over-consume, buy things that are not needed and clutter our homes. The KonMari Method does not address the fact that the mainstream culture of over-consumption is the reason for cluttering in many cases.

Moreover, Kondo makes one statement in her book that I think is particularly worrisome when it comes to consumption-obsessed societies:

 Slimming belts, glass bottles for making kefir, a special blender for making tofu, a weight-loss machine that mimics the movement of horseback riding—it seems a waste to get rid of expensive items like these that you bought by mail order but never fully used. Believe me, I can relate. But you can let them go. The exhilaration you felt when you bought them is what counts. Express your appreciation for their contribution to your life by telling them, “Thank you for the boost you gave me when I bought you.”

That is, instead of advising people to remember such unfortunate buying experiences next time when they think to buy things they do not need, Kondo tells people that they have to be thankful for the boost that they get and the exhilaration that they feel when they buy things that they do not need.

Such an approach can throw some people into a repeating cycle of feeling liberated and renewed when throwing things away and then, a few months or a few years later, feeling exhilarated when buying other things that they do not need (you can always throw those things away later, thanking them for giving you the thrill of buying them). In this way, the KonMari Method can actually encourage consumerism and wasteful over-consumption supported by the economic system that perpetually sends people messages about how things can make them happy.

These considerations do not mean that I suggest dismissing the KonMari Method as totally wrong or ineffective. On the contrary, the KonMari Method provides a clear strategy for de-cluttering, simplifying and organizing your life in order to make it more meaningful and enjoyable. However, it misses one important step that, in my opinion, has to be included in order for it to be really effective and to prevent people from a relapse. By relapse, I mean not just cluttering your place again, but buying things that you do not need.

The missing step is the principle of mindfully acquiring things in the first place, which requires you to explore the real reasons behind your purchases (for example, when you decide to discard things) and refuse to buy things out of vanity, because of social pressure and under the influence of marketing messages. Moreover, you have to educate yourself about the techniques that the economic system uses to lure people into buying things and make them think that buying more things is a way to joy and happiness.

For example, when you de-clutter your house and make a decision about discarding some of your possessions, ask yourself if they caused a spark of joy in you because of some marketing tricks. Ask yourself if those items sparked your life with joy because you really liked them or because they appealed to your vanity, or your desire to keep up or elevate your social status.

The principle of mindful acquisition requires us to realize, for example, that social status cannot be elevated through things. If a person lacks cultural and intellectual refinement, then buying things only gives that person an illusion of elevating his or her social status. Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a French play writer and actor who is known by his stage name Molière, criticized this phenomenon in his play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman or The Middle-Class Aristocrat).

The principle of mindful acquisition also requires people to educate themselves about various tactics used by marketers. After all, according to the ReportLinker, the global management and marketing consultancy industry is expected to reach almost 388 billion dollars in 2015! This includes the money that businesses are willing to spend in order to manipulate consumers’ minds, making them buying more things.

In our age of 24-hour online shopping opportunities, people with various socioeconomic statuses indulge themselves in buying products that they often do not need and that do not make them any happier. In stores, marketing specialists set numerous “traps” for customers, manipulating them into buying things as well. For example, in their article, “The Power of Touch: An Examination of Effect of Duration of Physical Contact on the Valuation of Objects,” James Wolf, Hal Arkes and Waleed Muhanna point out that touching an item can make you become emotionally attached to it.

In their experiments, researchers asked participants to touch and examine coffee mugs. Then the participants were asked to participate in a sale where the mugs were auctioned off. It turned out that participants who held the mugs in their hands longer were ready to pay over 60 percent more for those mugs than participants who held the mugs in their hands for shorter periods. For example, Apple uses the psychological effect of touch in Apple stores, where you can touch and play with Apple products as if they were your own.

You will need to make a serious mental effort to free your mind from the influence of these numerous marketing techniques. This is why the principle of mindful acquisition is very important to any person who wishes to avoid cluttering his or her home with unwanted things.

In her book, Kondo explores how people’s attachment to the past and their fears about the future relate to the choices they make when they decide which items to keep in their homes. However, the psychological issues that some people exhibit with respect to their past and their future are not the only ones that can lead to clutter. In fact, there many psychological and psychiatric conditions that can cause clutter in people’s homes.

For example, some people have difficulty letting go of their things because they suffer with perfectionism, procrastination, separation anxiety, compulsive buying disorder, or issues with their physical appearance. In some cases, chronic disorganization and clutter can be a symptom of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and dementia.

Recently, psychiatrists identified a new type of psychiatric disorder—hoarding disorder—that is defined as “persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their value.” Psychiatrists estimate that about 2 to 5 percent of population may have hoarding disorder. David Tolin and other researchers from the Yale School of Medicine studied two areas of the brain in people who are predisposed to hoarding—the anterior cingulate cortex and insula. The activity of these areas of human brain is usually associated with physical pain. The study demonstrated that these two areas in brains of hoarders become activated when the hoarders discard items that they own and cherish. This means that a hoarder’s brain perceives the loss of possessions as an event that causes physical pain.

People with the conditions listed above have difficulty with concentrating, planning, and making decisions, and they remain in the states of denial, anxiety and guilt as long as their psychological issues are unresolved. It is highly unlikely that a one-time de-cluttering event can cure their minds. However, when applying the KonMari Method, they may come to realization that they need professional help to address their psychological or psychiatric problems.

In most cases, though, clutter is not a result of some psychiatric disorder, but it is a consequence of less intransigent mental errors and flawed judgment; for example, when a person thinks that he or she should keep clothing of a wrong size just because one day he or she might lose weight and wear it.

Anybody can make mental errors. When you assess your material possessions, you can take the opportunity to recognize those patterns of irrational thinking and get rid of them, along with the things that you do not need.

* * *

I believe that the KonMari Method can improve the lives of many people when it is combined with the principle of mindful acquisition and acute awareness of social and marketing pressure that makes people buy things they do not need or really enjoy.

At the same time, I would like to point out that the idea of intuitive de-cluttering is not a new one. The idea of keeping only what you need and what gives you joy has been known in Western culture for a long time. For example, Henry David Thoreau, the early 19th century American naturalist, philosopher and author, conducted a two-year experiment living a simple life on the shores of Walden Pond (Massachusetts). He promoted simple and sustainable living in his book Walden (1854).

While modern Western culture welcomes thoughtful and enlightening words of wisdom from Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing guru, I would like to remind you how more than hundred years ago, Jerome K. Jerome, a British writer, brilliantly described the idea of de-cluttering and simplifying in his book, Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog:

I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretense and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man – all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness – no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre-waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchids, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work. Time to drink in life’s sunshine – time to listen to the Aeolian music that the wind of God draws from the human heart-strings around us…

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