What Is It: Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo‘s method (a.k.a. “KonMari”) of getting rid of all your junk and rearranging your home—and your life—for the better.
Who Tried It: Rennie Dyball, PEOPLE senior news editor
Level of Difficulty: 10. This is no ordinary purge.
I am a recovering packrat. I used to hold on to everything with even a shred of emotional significance: clothing that I no longer wore but had a good back-story, ticket stubs from college, letters from high school boyfriends, childhood birthday cards…you name it, I kept it.
I’ve tried to declutter over the years, but my periodic clean-outs barely made a dent, and I ended up buying a bunch of organizational products to put all the stuff away (a big KonMari no-no: those products actually hinder decluttering by allowing you to keep more junk.)
About nine months ago, I bought The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for its irresistible title alone, having no idea that it would actually live up to its name.
Kondo is a massive celebrity in her native Japan, with quite a following here, too, thanks to her No. 1 bestseller. In a most charming, soothing way, she lilts through her road-to-zen process in a breezy 224 pages. Reading it is a delight and the results in my apartment speak for themselves. (I’m currently savoring her follow-up for Konverts, Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.)
PHASE 1: DISCARDING
Ignore everything you’ve heard about decluttering. Do not go room by room, or bit by bit. Kondo recommends a daily decluttering marathon, which will take you weeks or months depending on your volume of stuff. But the reward for suffering through this slog is a great one: you will never have to declutter again. Let that sink in. Do this once, and you’ll have a tidy, everything-in-its-place home. Forever.
Kondo claims a zero-rebound record among all her private clients and I can see why. Once you invest months of nights and weekends into this—and then see the transformative results—you’ll never revert back to your prior life of clutter.
To begin the discarding process, she recommends going category by category, and in a carefully planned order.
You start by tossing every single piece of your clothing, from every room, corner and closet in your home, into a pile on the floor or the bed. She recommends doing this in the morning when you have the energy to tackle such a task, but since I am a rebel (and, you know, a real person with stuff to do all day) I decided to start late one weeknight when my husband was away and I had the apartment to myself.
The purpose of making one big pile is meant to be tidying shock therapy: once you see how much you have, you’ll realize how much is excess. (See some of my pile below. This was before I realized I hadn’t touched my dresser or coat closet, so it grew quite a bit bigger.)
Then, she instructs you to pick up each item in your hands and ask yourself whether it sparks joy. If it does, it stays, if it doesn’t, it goes to a “trash” or a “donate” pile. This is no easy task, but Kondo patiently talks you through the process. Her M.O. is basically that we are all imprisoned by having too much stuff, and once we pare everything down to the things that actually make us happy, we regain control and get to live a happier life.
Turns out, she’s really on to something. I’d held on to clothes that I felt guilty about discarding, since they were expensive or gifts (Kondo provides sage advice on how to let all that go), clothes that I was sure would fit 10 lbs. from now (why have guilt hanging in your closet?) and clothes with snags or holes that I’d saved for reasons I can no longer remember.
Three hours into the process, I was left with about a quarter of the stuff I had before—a typical transformation, she says— and was left with only pieces that I actually wanted to wear. If I found I was missing something I really needed, shopping became more fun because I’d only buy things that I loved.
It’s hard not to be addicted to the KonMari method after you tackle your clothes. From here you move on to books, which was not too difficult for me as a longtime Kindle convert. But for those with a penchant for paper, Kondo has solutions for sifting through the titles (yes, you have to hold each one for joy-sparking, but avoid the urge to read them) and narrowing down to books you think you’ll actually read or re-read. Kondo’s got no time for books on the shelf just because you think they’ll make you look smart.
There’s more life-coaching here as Kondo points out the obvious reasons that you do not need to hold on to old credit card receipts, apartment leases or instruction manuals. It’s not that you don’t know these things intrinsically, it’s that the task of going through every piece of paper in your home is daunting, depressing and feels undoable. But after having tackled clothing and books, I was unstoppable. Decluttering had become my religion. I could no longer share my space with unnecessary paperwork. It is a tedious, painfully boring part of the process, but then it’s done, for good, and before you know it, you’re slam-dunking junk mail into your recycling bin for sport.
Komono, the Japanese word for “all the rest of your crap” takes up a lot of time. Among the items in this giant miscellaneous category: CDs, DVDs, bathroom stuff, cleaning stuff, kitchen stuff … it’s a handful. But the momentum carried me through.
Once I started paring down all my belongings to only those that are necessary and/or make me happy, it was hard to leave any storage bin unturned. And it’s amazing what you find: ancient cosmetics samples, 19 coffee mugs, expired soup. It’s not like I was holding on to these things for a reason — I didn’t even realize I still had a lot of it. It’s just stuff that moved with me from apartment to apartment that I was too lazy or distracted to pare down sooner.
A few weeks and one injury later (see video above), there was new breathing room in my cabinets, space under the sink and a much better sense of what I have in my home. Ever go out to the drug store for Advil only to get home to realize you had a bottle or two shoved into a cabinet? No longer.
Only now, after you’ve honed the ability to find what sparks joy for you (still sounds ridiculous, I know) can you easily go through items that tug at your heartstrings and figure out whether it truly makes you happy and is thus worth keeping. For an amateur hoarder like myself, that meant sifting through two giant rattan boxes that I’d purchased specifically to hold all the sentimental crap that I couldn’t bear to get rid of before. Now, it was barely a problem. Certain things I wanted to save, like ribbons I’ve won competing in horse shows, a handful of greeting cards, press passes to movies I’ve reviewed and concerts I’ve watched from backstage, but the rest of it was easy to let go. And I finally got around to the I’ll-do-it-one-day-but-really-never task of compiling all of my photos in shoeboxes and various other apartment locations and putting them into proper albums.
PHASE 2: PUTTING IT ALL AWAY
You find temporary homes for you things as you go in the discarding process, but your reward at the end of the purge is getting to find just the right place for each and every item. This is highly, highly satisfying. Not to mention an ongoing process. I still find myself rejiggering where things will live.
Kondo’s got very specific recommendations when it comes to finding homes for your stuff. In some cases, they made a lot of sense. I dream of one day having a kitchen big enough for all my cooking accouterments to be housed in drawers and cabinets, leaving my bright, shiny countertops free and clear and ready for cooking prep. The Kondo way.
With some of her other suggestions, however, I started to go off script. She thinks storing handbags inside of handbags is best (can’t do it) and that shower products should be dried and stored out of sight, rather than left on the ledge, to avoid soap scum (not a chance).
When all was said and done, I donated and threw out a total of about 25 lawn-sized garbage bags. Kondo claims to help you reevaluate your relationship with your stuff, and I’m a believer. Downsides: Trying to force my husband into KonMari-ing his own stuff resulted in some marital strife (Kondo issues a stern warning about not forcing your loved ones to tidy but I didn’t listen). And we have a toddler, which means tons of toys, books and clothing, and the sheer volume makes me twitchy now. But I try to keep my kiddo’s stuff under control and donate the clothes and toys she’s not into or outgrows in five minutes.
All in all, this journey has taken me from borderline hoarder to an organized, clutter-free, KonMari devotee. If you do it right, Kondo says, you’ll live surrounded by only the things you love (along with the necessities), which will make you happier in your day to day life. She’s right—and it’s magical.
For much more on Marie Kondo (now a new mom!), pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.