Before you accuse me of “sour grapes” regarding the hoopla surrounding Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, hear me out. I think this is much more a case of brilliant marketing than of a brilliantly-written organizing book. Just look at that title:

  • Life-changing: Many clients have actually said, “You’ve changed my life!” so using that phrase was pure gold.
  • Magic: Ooooh – that sounds way better than “physically exhausting” or “emotionally draining,” right? But getting organized, while invigorating and exciting, can also involve a lot of hard work.
  • Tidying up: This sounds more pleasant than “de-hoarding” or even “de-cluttering,” but in my mind, “tidying up” is what you do right before company arrives: put away the unread newspaper, the dishes drying in the rack, and make sure the guest bathroom is clean.

The third time I read this, I used green tabs to mark passages I agree with and pink tabs to mark passages I disagree with:

My tabbed edition

This would be a much longer post if I cited every aspect of her process I take issue with, so I’ll focus on the six primary points I find impractical, puzzling or problematic:

  1. Marie says there’s only ONE correct order for “tidying” by category as listed here:
    • Clothes –She’s generally opposed to hanging clothes for a variety of reasons, but in my experience clients are more likely to re-hang a shirt than to lovingly fold it one very specific way and place it in the drawer one very specific way. Hanging often prevents things from becoming a pile on the floor.
    • Books – No one ever rereads a book, she says, and if you own a book you’ve never read, you’ll never read it. If she wants to save info, she RIPS THE DESIRED PAGES OUT OF THE BOOK! (Yes, I just shouted that. As a book lover, this is wrong on so many levels.)
    • Papers – The most time-consuming to organize, we usually save for later unless it’s the client’s primary goal. See #2.
    • Everything Else: CDs, DVDs, accessories, electronics, household goods… again, in this very specific order. Her “everything else” category is too extensive; any one of those areas might be where we start if it makes sense.
  1. You only need three folders for paperwork. Hahaha! Whew, good one, Marie Kondo! In spite of my diligent efforts to eliminate paper, not everything can be maintained online. Mari says it’s better, easier, and less stressful to quickly know that you don’t have the paperwork you need and to simply take action to get it. How is that easier? I’d run myself ragged if I didn’t have a well-maintained filing system. Take a look at my situation:
    • I run a business – this requires paperwork for insurance, payroll, taxes, financial reports, expenses, professional affiliations and more.
    • I manage our household – there are financial, medical, and insurance files, auto records, household repair records, etc.
    • I handle my elderly mom’s paperwork – and maintain paperwork for deceased loved ones. You need to keep things like death certificates.
    • We own income property – again, lots of necessary files.
  1. She dislikes organizing bins or totes. Marie says words on bins create commotion in your mind. However, she loves using shoe boxes. I’d rather see matching plastic bins labeled and lined up on a shelf than a row of mismatched shoe boxes that don’t contain any shoes. Where do all those empty shoe boxes come from, anyhow?
  1. Only keep things that “spark joy.” Blech. That phrase doesn’t apply to the utilitarian or necessary items in our lives. Maybe this is a translation issue, but I’m sick of reading, “Does it spark joy?” No, my toilet plunger does not spark joy. Here’s how I query clients when reviewing their stuff:
    • Do you need it?
    • Do you use it?
    • Do you love it?
    • Do you have a place to appropriately and respectfully keep it?
  1. Marie keeps her kitchen tidy by drying her sponges, towels, dishes, etc. on her veranda. She proudly explains that she doesn’t need a dish rack! She puts dishes in a large bowl and sets everything outside to dry. Gah! Her book is peppered with this type of suggestion and I can’t imagine it makes sense to anyone.
  1. Other examples of impractical Mari Kondoisms:
    • Empty your purse every night, put the contents in your closet, thank your purse for its service, and refill it in the morning. *sigh*
    • Take the shampoo, conditioner, and soap out of the shower every day, dry them off, put them in a cupboard, get them out the next day. You just know, three times out of five you’d get in the shower and say, “Dang. Forget the soap again.”
    • Keep your books on a bookshelf in your closet, where you also keep your keys, jewelry, and all other personal belongings. She says forget about “frequency of use” storage/placement.
    • Putting things away creates the illusion that a clutter problem has been solved. Huh?

Kondo states, “You must sort by category, in the correct order, and keep only those things that inspire joy.  Do this thoroughly and quickly, all in one go.” It’s not unusual for a client’s home to have a full basement, a packed attic, and a two-car garage filled with everything but cars; yet my clients have experienced long-lasting success using my “baby steps” approach.

Marie Kondo’s one-size-fits-all approach does not address hoarding or chronic disorganization. In those cases, her proposed method might actually do more psychological harm than good.

I’ve been organizing clients’ homes and lives for nearly twelve years. Whether working one-on-one or presenting a seminar on organizing, I stand by my five-step approach to tackling any organizing project, no matter the content or quantity:

  1. Start small – I encourage clients to “baby step” their way to success. Get started by breaking large projects into small manageable segments.
  2. Like with like – you can’t decide which coffee mugs to keep and which to donate until you gather them all together to review. This applies to any grouping in any order.
  3. Categorize – Decide what you’ll keep, distribute, sell, donate, recycle, or toss.
  4. A place for everything, and everything in its place – you can’t put it away if it doesn’t have a home.
  5. Maintain and move forward – As you complete one area, maintain it and move on to your next project.

Although Marie Kondo touches on some of these points in her book (thus, those few green tabs) I think her process is unrealistic. For most organizers, where we begin and the pace of our progress is based on the individual client, their situation, stamina, needs and goals.

As my website simply states, “Being organized is about finding what you want when you want it.” At Home Solutions, the mission is to help clients create a home or work environment that is functional, visually pleasing, and meets their current needs.  

I’m sure she’s laughing all the way to the bank, but her book gets a two-thumbs-down review from this experienced professional organizer.

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19 Thoughts on “the life changing magic of tidying up – a book review

  1. Lovely and sane. That’s what you are, sister.

  2. At the risk of creating a rant myself, I chose not to publish my review of the book. You’ve hit just about all of the points I didn’t agree with, Jamie.

    My main concern, as you noted, is her strident attitude that there is one way to declutter and that it works for everyone. In fact, she adds, no one she has worked with ever reverts back to their old habits!

    Leaving hoarding, chronic disorganization, attention deficits, depression and limited mobility out of the equation, there is no way her method can work for everyone.

    I, too, think she has a brilliant marketing machine behind her. Or is it just that people are so desperate for relief that they pay $17 for a “magic” book that says not to keep books?

  3. Your analysis is filled with wise statements. Marie Kondo is young and has obviously not encountered the range of clients that you & I have. It is one thing to create some catchy phrases that are new and shock the system. But trying to apply all of that to one’s home is so unrealistic. People will never give up that much stuff. I saw a photo gallery of Marie’s home — who would want to live in such a barren place with no color and no personal belongings? There was nothing welcoming about her home. Maybe in Japan that plays differently.
    Jamie, what you & I do is the real magic.

  4. Thank you for articulating this so perfectly! I hope it reaches those people for whom this book failed.

  5. Thank you Jamie for the succinct review and serious flaws of Mari Kondo’s marketing venture. As a professional organizer, ‘marketing venture’ are the only words I can use to describe it. Life changing and magic, buyer beware! You are absolutely correct that organizing is invigorating and exciting but is also hard work for those involved. Each client has their own set of challenges in which to overcome and must be dealt with accordingly. Not hanging clothes, drying shampoo bottles and removing after each use? Tsk, tsk, tsk indeed! Jamie, please begin immediately on your book!

  6. Thank you for your post saying everything so many of us who work with clients on a daily basis think.
    I have seen so many bloggers (not professional organizers) writing about this book and how it “changed their lives”, but I’m pressed to believe they’re just trying to ride the tide of fame this book has.
    I find fascinating how it took such a huge proportion around the world when we know that most people wouldn’t do any of it in the first place.

  7. Sue Knott on June 1, 2016 at 11:36 pm said:

    I’m not going to read that book! (Though I may rip some pages out.)

  8. I am so happy to hear an honest review. I reviewed the book back last December (http://hkpowerstudio.com/?s=marie+Kondo)…didn’t break it down the same was as you have but I did “take issue” with a lot of the same things. I just bought the next book, ‘Spark Joy’ and am anxious to read it so I can give it a through evaluation. It’s even longer, has diagrams and as I stated somewhere on a forum…I think there’s more here that’s marketing magic than organizing magic! Drives me nuts!!

    • J.Shaner on July 31, 2016 at 10:35 am said:

      I haven’t gotten the second book yet, but I suppose I should, just to stay informed. At least the first one was an easy, albeit frustrating, one to read from an organizer’s standpoint.

  9. Marguerite on July 19, 2016 at 3:30 pm said:

    This book turns me off completely!

    • J.Shaner on July 31, 2016 at 10:34 am said:

      It’s not a book I could recommend with a clear conscience to most of my clients, Marguerite! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. Mari Thomas on February 9, 2017 at 3:37 pm said:

    What books would you recommend to your clients? Just curious.

    I read Kondo’s book and have to say I already do many of the things she advises so I personally resonated with it. I think it’s a very simple, to the point read and that too makes it easy to deliver, market, etc. I listened to it on one of those listening to books apps and I did find “joy” (no pun intended) in the thought of being that consciously organized (I’m trademarking that term Gwyneth, so back off). This book actually got me looking at the profession because of how Kondo reflected on “client” stories.

    Anyway, I’m new to the professional organizing industry and so far, hungry to learn more. I enjoyed your review of the Kondo book and didn’t think about it in the ways you addressed, so it made me wonder what books you would recommend to clients?

    • Jamie Shaner on February 22, 2017 at 7:27 pm said:

      Quite honestly, in nearly 12 years, I have rarely recommended a book to clients! Most of the organizing books I have in my library have come from clients who admitted they either didn’t read it, didn’t like it, or didn’t follow the guidelines presented. I think the shorter and simpler, the better. I need to write that short simple book!

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