Until recently, my tiny third-floor flat existed in a state of chaos.
My wardrobe groaned with the bulge of never-worn clothes, greasy old champagne bottles lined the top of my cooker and random piles of books peppered every conceivable surface.
I could hardly brush my teeth without sending a mis-mash of beauty products flying in domino effect.
And the weird thing is, I barely noticed the growing storm of clutter. I mostly ignored it and when I did acknowledge it, my answer was to buy more shelves and boxes in which to cram more things.
I’m usually a bit sceptical about self-help books, especially ones that come with a lot of hype. But Kondo’s simple and perceptive logic is deliciously easy to consume.
(Disclaimer: the above snap is sadly not my flat, but I think it represents the kind of minimal look you’re aiming for with the Kondo method).
The basic principles
Don't think about what to throw away, but what to keep
Before I read the book, I would spend my life in an endless circle of clear-outs. Every six months or so, I would tackle the mountain of clutter that had invaded my flat - only for it to build up again one week later.
According to Kondo, my approach was all wrong. I was thinking, 'What can I throw away?' instead of 'what should I keep?'
Only keep things that 'spark joy'
This is the central premise of Kondo's book and it's a tough one to stick to.
You can only keep things that spark joy.
If you do this, you will end up surrounded only by things that speak to your heart - and end up appreciating everything that surrounds you, rather than failing to see the jungle for the trees.
Act on your heart, not your head
How do you know what sparks joy? Go on instinct.
According to Kondo, we approach the process of clearing-out with far too much thinking. We caveat the idea of chucking out something with 'but it's such a waste' or 'I might need it someday...'.
We should neither keep possessions for the sake of it, or mindlessly discard them - but instead confront each one honestly and decide straight away whether it sparks joy or not. Anything that doesn't is out.
Start by discarding, all at once
"From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to re-set your life," says Kondo. "As a result, your life will change."
This change is so dramatic, that it can only be achieved by a huge all-at-once purge of your belongings.
Repetition kills motivation, so if you decide to merely chip away at the surface or take things slowly, you will never achieve the kind of permanent, revolutionary result laid out in the book.
You know when you've finished discarding by the same instinctive process that gears the whole thing.
Something in you will just 'click', Kondo says, and you will know you're done.
Discard by category, not location
Part of the problem with conventional clear-outs is that we tackle belongings by room rather than item. This means that we end up with one type of item scattered across different areas of our home which, says Kondo, is the path to chaos.
Her method involves tackling five categories in this order: clothing, books, paper, misc. items (electrical items, spare change), and lastly, photos and sentimental items.
By tackling types of item rather than areas of your home, you are better able to discern what sparks joy - as you can compare the same types of things side-by-side (all the dresses you own, for example).
And the categories take place in order of difficulty; so once you've trained yourself to chuck away clothes and books, you will be better equipped to tackle the emotional minefield that is photos.
Storage is the enemy
According to Kondo, storage only encourages hoarding.
No matter how clever the storage 'solution', it merely serves to hide more clutter and delays your decision over whether you want things, or not.
The few storage ideas she does suggest are ridiculously simple and revolve around seeing clearly what you have; things like open shoe boxes and clear plastic folders.
How it worked for me
When I first read about the idea of 'sparking joy', I have to admit I scoffed a little.
But in practice, it's scarily effective.
I knew straight away the things that sparked joy - even when they made little sense, in practical terms (a Hawaiian dress belonging to my sister I haven't worn since I was 16, a slightly broken water puppet I picked up in Vietnam).
Much more difficult was being honest with myself about what didn't spark joy.
Part of the appeal of the book is that Kondo doesn't just tell you to chuck stuff out; she guides you through the psychological wrench of it.
Her advice reads like a kindly, slightly hippie aunt as she tells you how to confront and thank each item for its time, before joyfully discarding it and sending it on its way to a better life (or erm, the rubbish bin).
Kondo explains that because our possessions are imbued with personal neuroses, confronting them and everything they stand for can be a difficult process.
For example, as someone who actively seeks our people’s approval, there’s no coincidence that I’ve kept almost every single card or letter with the word ‘love’ in it. It was painful to throw away the £150 jacket I wore all of twice, because it highlighted my haphazard approach to money (and fashion).
I also noticed a tendency to hoard books that make me look good (“Reading Lolita in Tehran“), or those that symbolise the ghost of given-up hobbies ("Introduction to Spanish“) rather than reads I actually enjoy.
Kondo says we struggle to throw away items for two reasons; attachment to the past (the purple boa I wore to my 21st which has irritated me ever since by shedding bits of feather) or fear of the future (my stockpile of Annie Sloan paint cans for when I might move house and - even more unlikely - upcycle furniture).
Both reasons weigh us down and stop us living in the now. Once we acknowledge our own flaws and what’s holding us back, we’re better equipped to throw things away.
The other thing I found tough to throw away was unwanted gifts from loved ones.
Kondo's reasoning is the joy of a present is in the giving of it. You will always have the frisson of love that came between you and the giver when the present was exchanged. Neither the giver or the present will benefit if you keep it after that, simply for the sake of it (and especially if you end up quietly resenting it).
In fact, says Kondo, we don't forget items when we throw them away. What we conserve is not the item itself, but the joy it brought us at some point - and that will always form part of who we are, regardless of its physical presence.
All this reasoning sounds completely frivolous, which it is - in fact, the whole issue of too much stuff is very much a first world problem - but you have to take it seriously to kick-start the purge.
The good news is, once you've plucked up the courage to chuck more difficult items, the rest comes easily.
It really is a training process and once I popped, I couldn't stop.
I ended up clearing out around 39 bin bags in total, so far. My husband, spurred on by all the drama, began gleefully chucking things out himself (though not, it has to be said, as gracefully or thankfully as Kondo suggests - he merely chucked stuff down the stairs in a big bonfire of rejected belongings).
Our local charity shop began greeting us slightly warily and the nearby recycle bins didn't know what had hit them. But our library was delighted to receive so many good-condition books (I didn't even know libraries took donations, before this).
Bits of carpet and wall we hadn't seen in five years began revealing themselves. I could finally look at a cupboard and know exactly what was in it and I relished the ability to have a full, clean kitchen side devoid of crap to cook on, not to mention the unfamiliar joy of moving around my flat without bumping into things.
The bits that didn't work
Brilliant as Kondo's book is, not every part worked for me. Some of it got too outlandish and spiritual. For instance, she suggests that when you come home from a day's work, you should take everything out of your bag and put it in its correct place, and thank it for the work it has done - as a token of appreciation (which will be paid back by the item staying in good nick). I'd never have time or energy for this.
And despite those who rave about her 'KonMari' method of rolling clothes rather than stacking them (in order to fit more in and see more clearly what you have), I'm unable to conjure up the willpower to do this.
Also I'm not clear on what you do about the things that don't spark joy, but are essential household items. For instance, a bleached-based toilet cleaner doesn't spark joy but I need it.
For some reason, not one pair of pants I owned sparked joy but I could hardly ditch them all. So I'm holding onto a few until I get around to investing in a more joyous collection.
I never realised how cluttered my life was (physically and beyond) until I followed Kondo’s book. Aside from living in a serene and ordered space, here are some of the benefits you can gain from it:
No more clear-outs - ever
The beauty of Kondo’s method is its finality. Once you do it to its full extent, you won’t look back (she says). Your life will be forever tidy and devoid of excess possessions. I haven’t finished my clear-out yet, but already I see how much easier cleaning will be. I won’t have to waste two hours a week, or a weekend every six months trying to keep on top of things. It sounds crazy but once your items are in perfect order, things will stay tidy by themselves.
Make better decisions
Kondo’s approach helps you have faith in yourself and the decisions you make. Instead of ignoring the items that surround you, you’ve decided exactly what to keep, and what not to keep. This will involve some tricky decisions - and inevitably, a few mistakes will be made along the way - but it’s empowering to prove to yourself that you can make choices, and deal with the consequences. And once you’ve cut through the “noise” of clutter around you, your mind will be free to make better decisions in life.
Discover what you really want to do
“Tidying is a way of taking stock that shows us what we are really like,” says Kondo. She recalls stories of clients whose clear-outs have prompted a change in career - because by keeping only what they like, they are able to see far more clearly what it is they’re drawn to in life.
The reverse also applies; she references clients, who, spurred on by ridding their lives of excess baggage, have gone onto lose weight or seek divorces.
As hoarding brings stress, so purging brings a clear mind that can define more clearly what it is you need to be content.
Live life to the full
The journalist Katie Glass once said she’d much rather be “Queen of Chaos“ and live life to the full, rather than be a uptight “clean freak” of the kind who’s obsessed with Kondo’s book.
But she’s missing the point. Nobody wants to spend their lives tidying. But by putting your house in order, you free yourself of physical and mental distractions forever more. Instead of being governed by things in your external world, you get to think about your inner state. You see the issues you’ve been avoiding, and deal with them.
It sounds a bit happy-clappy I know, but by de-cluttering your home in this dramatic way, you learn to live more fully, and pour your time and passion into what brings you most joy. And that is the real magic of it all.
This article was originally published in May 2015
Main image: Unsplash