Four days in, Maria Walley realized she had nothing to wear.
At first she hadn’t noticed. Standing
in front of her closet, the 28-year-old Ohioan, who co-founded and runs marketing for a photography start-up, had admired her newly organized racks and evenly spaced hangers. The piles of old T-shirts had vanished. The once overflowing drawers shut smoothly. Maria had embarked on a radical decluttering mission, and now she was savoring its fruits.
Then reality hit. Cut down by two-thirds, Walley’s wardrobe was so devoid of clutter that it was…empty. “It had only been a few days, and everything I wanted to wear was in the hamper,” she recalled with a laugh. “That’s when I started thinking I went too far.”
Walley had Kondo’d herself into a
corner. She had followed the advice of
organizational consultant Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,
a tiny book with a cloud-print cover and
an ethereal title that has sold more than
6 million copies worldwide since it was published in 2011. Kondo’s prescription for decluttering hinges on a simple principle: Discard anything you own that fails to “spark joy.”
Readers have taken that message to heart. In New York, a consignment chain claimed to the Times that it saw a 20 percent increase in inventory thanks to the book. In the U.K., one nervous self-storage operator issued a press release urging customers not to trash childhood mementos. And Kondo is showing no sign of stopping: Since Life-Changing Magic was translated into English in 2014, its bright-eyed Japanese author, who dresses in
florals and famously smiles at garments as she folds them, has penned two more books, launched an app to guide fans through the decluttering process, and
begun training an army of consultants to, in her words, “organize the world.”
It’s a dramatic goal for a dramatic method. Kondo recommends permanent decluttering through a purge that typically takes about six months. “Aim for perfection,” she writes, and you will transform not only your home but your mindset. In the Kondo cosmology, stuff has psychic power. Discarded belongings should be thanked for their service, and socks should be shown appreciation through careful folding and storage. Animism is by far the most controversial aspect of Kondo — “I can’t believe she sold 6 million copies saying that your socks need to rest in a drawer,” says Barbara Reich, a professional organizer based
in New York — but it’s also her greatest source of appeal. Whether or not you buy the idea that objects have feelings, you probably have lots of feelings about them.
For many on a Kondo journey, one of those feelings is regret. While Kondo acknowledges that regret is a normal part
of decluttering — “You should expect
this to happen at least three times during the tidying process,” she writes in Life-Changing Magic — some followers say her method spurred them to get rid of so much stuff it generated new emotional baggage.
“Clothes, books, out-of-print textbooks that cost hundreds of dollars,” rattles off Kelly St Claire, 50. “What didn’t I get rid of?” Purging feels good in the moment, notes the Virginia wellness coach. “You lose track of time and get in the zone. I could get addicted to that feeling.” St Claire discovered Life-Changing Magic around the time her boyfriend moved out, and saw it as a chance for a fresh start. These days, she considers it more the nuclear option of organizing: “I almost wish the book had come with a
disclaimer. A breakup is not the right time to get rid of things.”
Even those who are happy with the results of decluttering have sore spots. For nanny Trish Mundle, 39, of the Bronx, it was a low-cut red dress with bell sleeves. “I think about it when someone mentions the book,” she says. For Joy Crook, 66, a plant nursery owner in Oregon, it was a tea set — or rather, the idea of herself as owner of a tea set. “I always thought I’d be the kind of person who’d have girlfriends over and entertain. Now I’m coming to terms with the fact that it was an illusion,” she says. Kondo writes that investing objects with anxieties about the future and attachments to the past is a major cause of clutter. Crook agrees. But “as wonderful and freeing as decluttering is, there is an element of grief that the book does not recognize,” she wrote on a Kondo forum.
Other decluttering methods promise less emotional turmoil. Unfuck Your Habitat — a Tumblr that is now a book — advertises itself as “for people who are terrified by Marie Kondo but intrigued at being able to see their floors again.” Its author, Rachel Hoffman, advocates twenty-minute stretches of tidying with ten-minute breaks, rather than marathon purges.
“For me, the idea of taking every single item out of my closet and going through them one by one is overwhelming,” she says. “My approach is more practical rather than sweeping and theoretical.”
Then again, perhaps only a sweeping approach can effect lasting change. Eventually, Kelly St Claire got back
together with her boyfriend. When he moved back in to her house, “he didn’t totally get why I regretted getting rid of things,” she recalls. “He was glad. The house looked better.”