“I laughed, I cried, I lost 15 pounds! I cannot recommend this book highly enough!” So said Stephen Colbert in reviewing his own book. Though I haven’t seen Colbert’s book, I suspect that many people feel the same way about Marie Kondo’s slim volume, the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. (Apparently, she didn’t want to clutter up the title with capital letters.)
As winter draws to a close, and Pesach looms ahead, the time is right to examine the remarkable cultural phenomenon triggered by this little book. How did it remain on the New York Times’ bestsellers list for over 66 weeks, take the world by storm, and achieve cult-like status? Has there never been a book written about tidying up before? Have we suddenly discovered that we have too much stuff and it needs to be organized? What happened to warrant the sale of five million copies of this book as well as licenses to print it in 40 languages? Is there something new under the sun?
Ms. Kondo, who named her method “KonMari” (a shortened inversion of her name, often abbreviated as KM on Facebook groups and in the rest of this article), promises that “a dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.”
Sara Fought, a woman in Richmond, VA, says something similar in a blog post: “The KonMari method is more than an organizational strategy that encourages you to come face to face with your own things but a philosophy that can truly cure what ails you…. Trust me when I say that just a few months ago, never in my wildest of wild dreams would I have imagined anyone asking me to share advice about tidying, except for maybe contribution to an article about what not to do.” After describing how she embraced the KM method and how much happier she is with a home she is comfortable in, Ms. Fought says, “[Marie Kondo] is a hero of mine. She freed me from the traveling life museum I had built around myself, trapping me in.”
There are thousands of YouTube videos, articles, and blogs written about Ms. Kondo’s method of tidying, including instructions on how to fold clothes. (She stacks them vertically, so that each piece can be seen when a drawer is opened. And if you think you knew how to fold socks, think again!) Many Facebook groups, including at least one for frum women, have sprung up, where (mostly) women ask questions, give tips and advice, upload before-and-after photos, and generally support each other in the quest for tidiness and an organized life.
Malka Michla Perlow, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, started the Facebook page, KMing for Frum People. She has always been organized by nature, and uses a modified version of KM. “The novelty for me was the idea of only owning the things that you like. People were astonished at the amount of stuff I got rid of and asked, ‘Where did you keep those things?’” It was hard for Mrs. Perlow to part with so many beautiful children’s clothes, but she is very happy with her emptier shelves and the roomier feel to her living space. “I know at this point that, whatever I have in my home, I need it and I like it,” she says. “I really think twice before bringing things into my home.”
More Is Not Merrier
In order to de-clutter, we first have to admit we have too much stuff. Certainly, this malady affects most of the Western world, including our community. According to Emma Johnson, writing in Forbes magazine, “A National Association of Professional Organizers survey found that 54 percent of Americans are overwhelmed by their clutter, and 78 percent find it too complicated to deal with.”
Undoubtedly, the larger the family, the more potential this has to be true. So many of us get caught up in consumerism: the idea that “more is better” and that we should never miss a sale, especially if we have coupons. Ms. Johnson describes how, although the average family size has shrunk, the size of American homes is nearly three times what it was several decades ago. And we fill these homes with possessions, including furniture, decor, kitchen accouterments, toys, and electronics. With ever more acquisitions, we go on to fill up attics, basements, and garages. And when these spaces are overloaded, many people end up renting self-storage units. (As Joshua Becker of becomingminimalist.com reports, “Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self-storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation.”)
This just leads to a downward spiral, says Ms. Johnson. “You don’t know what to do with all your stuff – or you die and your heirs have to contend with it. Someone calls 1-800-JUNK or one of its competitors and pays them to haul it away, most of it to a landfill that you and I pay for through our growing tax bills.”
It’s not just the physical space that clutter takes up that is the problem. There can be psychological and even physical effects as well. Stephanie Vozza, in an online article, writes, “Clutter isn’t just a housekeeping issue; it’s a health issue.” She quotes Robin Zasio, author of The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life, who says, “I’m a firm believer that physical clutter creates emotional clutter. Every time you walk into your home, that clutter brings you down. There's this sense of not feeling comfortable and emotionally free in your own house.” Ms. Vozza says clutter steals your focus, increases your stress, and costs time and money, among other things. Think about the time you’ve lost looking for misplaced objects, the late fees you’ve paid, or the money you’ve wasted buying duplicate or unnecessary items because you can’t even keep track of what you own.
Vozza also quotes Peter Walsh, author of a book about clutter, who calls clutter the “fat” in your house and says that very often it corresponds to bodily fat. “All of us deal constantly with the urge to consume more. They’re just not very different. Clutter and fat: I see it. I want it. I’ll have it.”
So, how do we attack this problem?
It’s Now or Never (or Sometime In-Between)
“There are three approaches we can take toward our possessions,” Marie Kondo writes. We can “face them now, face them sometime, or avoid them until the day we die. The choice is ours.” She believes the root of our inability to tidy up lies in the mind: “Success is 90 percent dependent on our mind-set.” Paradoxically, she says that acquiring the right tidying technique will lead to the correct mind-set for creating order.
Although Ms. Kondo insists that her specific technique is imperative, she says that “a person’s awareness and perspective on his or her own lifestyle are far more important than any skill at sorting, storing, or whatever. Order is dependent on the extremely personal values of what a person wants to live with.” Therefore, while her method remains the same, results will differ depending on what people visualize as their goal – what type of life they want to live. This is certainly true for homes in our community. We place great emphasis on books and religious articles, and we also require many more objects, like extra sets of dishes, etc. Thus, our homes will be quite different from those of the clients Marie Kondo describes in her book.
Ms. Kondo divides the work involved into two broad categories: first, deciding whether or not to dispose of something and, second, deciding where to put the remaining items. Unlike many other methods of organizing, hers takes an emotional approach. She doesn’t suggest you winnow through your stuff and just throw out what you don’t want or need. Her emphasis is on what to keep, rather than what to discard. She demands a very personal hands-on approach to choosing, based on what she calls “sparking joy.”
Ms. Kondo writes, “When we really delve into the reasons why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” She says, further, “It’s important to establish your ownership pattern, because it is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life. Attachment to the past and fears concerning the future not only govern the way you select the things you own but also represent the criteria by which you make choices in every aspect of your life, including your relationships with people and your job.”
Rather than de-cluttering room by room, the KM method divides possessions into categories, which should be tackled in a specific order and in a specific way – ideally as quickly as possible for each category. More than likely, you will have some things in the same category in many different rooms. It’s best to do them all at once so that you know what you own. The organizing sequence is clothing, books, papers, miscellany (which includes kitchen items) and lastly, mementos. By doing it in this order, tackling the easiest categories before the hardest, we develop the necessary mind-set and hone our decision-making skills. Acquiring these skills is what makes the method life-changing.
KonMari and Me
In my own stab at KM, I must divulge that I didn’t follow the “halacha” to a tee. Because I felt it was more important for me to get my kitchen space tackled before the other categories, I did it second, after the clothes. I still have a long way to go, but as I get more organized, I actually do feel more empowered, and it’s easier to do things in my home. Cooking takes less effort now that I no longer have extra pots, containers, and kitchen utensils getting in the way. I also got rid of a lot of embarrassingly old, expired food items. Does anyone have some use for cinnamon, which expired in 2009? Too late: I threw it out. However, there was one can of pineapple, which should have passed on in 2014, that, I have to admit, I opened. It looked okay, so I ate it. I did inform my kids, though, just in case. I told them, “If anything happens to me, don’t bother with an autopsy. It was the pineapple.”
The main, very inspiring message I got from Kondo’s book is something I think I always knew but don’t think of very clearly: If your possessions don’t serve you in some way – either because you need them or they bring you happiness – then they are a burden. It’s doesn’t matter how they were acquired or how much they cost. If they aren’t helping you, get rid of them. Her method has you examine your relationship to every item you own.
Bayla Berkowitz, who recommends the book and hopes to eventually complete a modified version of it, agrees: “One good thing about the book is that it helps you break emotional attachments to things. You don’t need to feel guilty about getting rid of presents if people gave you things you don’t really want. It also makes me think twice before I buy anything.”
Clothing is the first category that KM tackles. I have to admit, when I read her instructions on how to choose items, I thought it was insane, not to mention a huge waste of time. She uses this method for each member of the family individually and for every category. You are to take every single item of clothing you own from all your closets, dressers, and shelves and dump them in a pile on the floor. Then, you pick up and hold each item and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” Since I could not perceive how this action would inspire any joy in myself, I did not sort my clothes that way, and I just went through all my closets and drawers, pulling out what did not spark joy, either because it didn’t look right, didn’t fit, or I just never wear it anymore. Although many, many people swear by her method, I feel I still got good results using this modified technique, even if some might call it cheating.
Discussing the difficulty of getting rid of some clothes, Ms. Kondo writes, “Where did you buy that particular outfit and why? If you bought it because you thought you looked cool in the shop, it has fulfilled the function of giving you a thrill when you bought it. Then why did you never wear it? Was it because you realized that it didn’t suit you when you tried it on at home? Is so, and if you no longer buy clothes of the same style or color, it has fulfilled another important function; it has taught you what doesn’t suit you. In fact, that particular article of clothing has already completed its role in your life, and you are free to say, ‘Thank you for giving me joy when I bought you,’ or ‘Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me,’ and let it go.”
Malka Michla Perlow did adhere to Marie Kondo’s instruction, putting all the clothes on the floor and then choosing what to keep for each member of her family. Chedva Rose of Baltimore did the same. “It was very cathartic and it really does work,” says Chedva. She was able to tell which clothes “sparked joy” and says that “‘fine’ is not a compelling reason to keep anything.” Although she doesn’t fold clothes as precisely as Marie Kondo does, she uses a method very close to it, with the general idea intact.
Yehudis Silverman of Morristown, NJ, said that once it’s on the floor, she asks herself, “Do I love this enough to rescue it?” She found the process itself to be very meaningful.
Is This OCD?
While Kondo’s book has inspired thousands to de-clutter, it is not without its detractors. One can certainly find reasons to poke fun. In quite a few places in the book, Ms. Kondo seems to express compulsive leanings. The most obvious thing that comes to my mind is how she deals with her purse. Each night when she comes home, she empties her purse entirely. She then returns her wallet, comb, pens, etc. to their special places and thanks each item individually for its service to her that day.
Another detail in the book, which can only be described as over-the-top, is in a segment about one of her “advanced students.” Everything in her home was in perfect order, but she still could not achieve total serenity. Finally Ms. Kondo discovered the source of her disquiet. The labels on her storage items and cleaning supplies were screaming out to her! The client was suffering from “information clutter.” The solution: removing all the labels. (I hope that no one in that home will ever need to call poison control.)
More than one person has suggested, as Ellie Herman does in a Jewish Journal article, that Marie Kondo might have a mental health issue: “I cannot help suspecting that somebody, somewhere, could apply a diagnosis to her condition, however successfully she has monetized it.”
Nonetheless, there is much to appreciate in KonMari. “I love her style of folding,” says Miriam* of Baltimore. “I've been doing a modified version for years. I enjoy how organized everything looks.” She does question the act of throwing things out depending on what “sparks joy” in your current mood, which she thinks can be wasteful. Miriam also believes that it seems easier for single people or couples to implement this method, as opposed to large families.
Yehudis Silverman, however, believes KM can help anybody and is especially helpful for a frum lifestyle with its focus of raising large families. “It allows for an efficient household. It helped me achieve many of my goals,” she said. “I wanted to have a calmer household. We had so much stuff before that I would get overwhelmed and gave up on short-term goals. And long-term goals were not being achieved. With an organized closet and fewer clothes, it is much easier to get ready to go somewhere. When I do laundry and am folding to put it away, I really enjoy it. I think, ‘This is mine and I really want to take care of it’ instead of just shoving it into a drawer.” She folds most of the clothes the KM way.
Chedva Rose’s response to some of the criticism of the KM method is to suggest that people just ignore the ideas that seem particularly “eye-rolling” and take it with a grain of salt. She feels that what is different about the KM method is the “process of self-discovery that ensues...It’s not so crazy that we are connected to the things we have, because there is a concept in Judaism that inanimate objects are created for the sole purpose of doing G-d’s will.”
An Attitude of Gratitude
The thanks that Ms. Kondo offers to the items in her purse and even to clothing she is discarding is an ongoing theme. She places much importance on expressing gratitude for what she has. And though we thank G-d, rather than the objects themselves, the idea of gratitude certainly jives with Jewish values.
Bracha Poliakoff, who recently moved to Richmond, VA, concurs. “I will not buy something if I don’t like it a lot or just because it’s on sale.” She doesn’t believe that trying the KM method is an all-or-nothing choice. Although speaking to inanimate objects didn’t appeal to her, the attitude of gratitude did help her get rid of clothing she had been holding onto though she had not worn it in a long time. As she let go of things, her thought was, “This item served me well, but it is not serving a purpose anymore.” She feels that using KM leads to menuchas hanefesh (inner calm). “Everything has a place and is orderly, with no extra stuff, and this makes a big difference.”
Maayan,* in Chicago, whom I found though the frum KM Facebook group, had been getting into “minimalism” and was de-cluttering before she read the book. She also believes that Marie Kondo’s philosophy is not so much about “stuff as about gratitude, which falls in line with Jewish values.” And not only is it okay to have feelings about your things, says Maayan, but you “should have a relationship with your stuff.” She had read articles before finding KM that advised, “Don’t touch your stuff when throwing things out because you will get too attached and won’t want to let go.” To the contrary, she feels that by actually handling the items, it was easier for her to see what “sparked joy” and what she was able to let go.
Maayan finds that, since finishing the KM method, life has gotten easier. She has fewer dishes to do, making Shabbos preparations much easier, because everything is in its place and there are fewer things to take care of. When she shops, she has in mind that “every item is a new responsibility,” so she is careful about what she buys.
Marie Kondo speaks about a “click point,” when things are just right. Maayan believes this is another way of saying shalom bayis. “Everything you own has its own home, and you have a home, too, with things that you love and cherish. You are in a place of complete peace, because your surroundings reflect who you are and everything you love about life. This creates time and space for you to do and take care of what’s really important to you, whether that is a spouse, children, a hobby, your job, or all of the above.”
While Ms. Kondo believes that anyone who follows her book will be able to attain the level of tidiness they desire, it should be noted that many people, for various reasons, are simply unable to begin the job themselves. Indeed, Ms. Kondo, herself, comes to clients’ homes and helps them out. In other words, they didn’t achieve success merely by reading a book but by having a hands-on helper.
I spoke with Tanya Klein and Bonnie Blas, both professional organizers in Baltimore, who noted that people often think they cannot afford to pay for help organizing, even when they are overwhelmed by their clutter. However, it is worth considering that this expense, if needed, is not a luxury but a path to shalom bayis in the literal sense of the words. Not everyone has the skills necessary to deal with this problem, but as Tanya Klein often says, “Your mess does not define you as a human being.”
I found this book very inspiring. After internalizing the main concepts, I feel I gained “permission” to let go of many things tied to the past or future, and it is very liberating. I am still in the process of KMing but already feel I am reaping the benefits.