The Life-Changing Magic of Folding Socks: Three Lessons from Marie Kondo

“Life-changing magic” is a big claim.

Life-changing magic may come from a powerful love, the birth of a child, a spiritual experience, or, according to one woman… throwing away socks.

Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a blockbuster bestseller with a near-cult following. Earnest reviews rise above debates over how to sort your books (by colour, obviously) into the philosophical. Kondo uses her KonMari tidying method to help people understand themselves, and their lives, through their possessions; it’s therapy, using the home as a teacher.

Her insights mirror Home Liberation’s manifesto: your home shapes your life and identity, and this role deserves far more attention.

Lesson 1: Understanding WHY we hold onto things matters

Most decluttering advice suggests sorting into three piles: definitely toss, definitely keep, and don’t know. While useful, this focus on method ignores why we might keep or toss something.

This why is Kondo’s core thesis: Only keep an item if it brings you joy.

This brutal simplicity cuts across hours of indecision, standing over a pile of stuff and dithering over an elegant sweater you’ve never worn or a lobster-shaped lamp handed down from Aunt Sara – but it fails to capture the complexity of our relationships with objects. Kondo was born and raised in Japan, and her approach is based in Japanese values of extreme simplicity, animism and Zen aesthetics, reinforced by the fact that most people in Japan live in very small houses with limited storage.

This doesn’t always translate to a Western context, so at Home Liberation we favour a slightly more nuanced approach. We have complex relationships with our possessions, which tend to play one of six roles:

  • Tool
  • Memory keeper
  • Mind extension
  • Guilt
  • Longing
  • Just in case

It may not be as brutally simple as “Does it bring you joy?” in terms of clearing our closets, but combining that question with “What’s my relationship with it?” helps us develop a more complex understanding of ourselves in the process.

Lesson 2: Homes are designed by developers, not residents, and it shows

Our homes are often designed from the perspective of producers (developers, builders and architects) rather than residents.

For example: why is garbage kept under the sink, causing a clash between doing the dishes and clearing up after dinner? Well, there’s an irregular space under the sink that would otherwise go to waste – that’s the producers’ perspective. For residents, it’s far better if sink and garbage don’t interfere in that way.

Kondo’s recommendations touch on this disconnect in eye-opening ways, absolving us with the revelation that messiness is often a design flaw – not a personal flaw.

For example, home storage makes things easy to find – but should instead make things easy to put away. If there are socks on the floor, you can bet it’s not because it was hard to find the drawer.

Why does this happen? Our thesis is that outside of the home – libraries, shops, factories – things must be easy to find or people will give up. This doesn’t apply in our own homes, where we know where things go, but we organize this way out of habit.

Some designers have picked up on this, and created storage that makes it easy to find things and put them away. One example is the shadow board:


Lesson 3: Zen and the art of tidying up

Japanese culture underpins Kondo’s philosophy towards clutter, and it has a lot to teach us.

In the 1920s, a German professor named Eugen Herrigel moved to Japan to teach philosophy. He was told the best way to understand Japanese culture was to learn a traditional craft; his wife chose flower arranging, and he chose archery.

When learning a traditional Japanese craft, many teachers spend very little time on the actual flower arranging or arrow shooting; the focus is on learning the movements and process. Once this is mastered, the actual act happens quickly and without thought.

Herrigel’s teacher made him practice letting go of the bowstring for an entire year without touching an arrow. A frustrated Herrigel snapped at his teacher, who told him to meet him that night in the practice hall. In complete darkness, save for a single candle in the centre of the hall, the teacher let fly two arrows into the shadow. When they turned on the lights, the first arrow had hit the centre of the bullseye; the second had split the first down the middle.

Kondo’s KonMari method – careful folding of clothing and sorting of items to throw away, with detailed instructions including thanking each item for its service – reminds me of this Japanese approach to craft. For Kondo, this practice is not just a practical one, but a spiritual one as well.

I think most readers will be disappointed in themselves if they try to emulate her completely: that’s beyond most of us (I tend to throw my socks and T-shirts in a drawer). But we can learn much from other cultures, and from Kondo’s core idea: when tidying and arranging your home,

  • Focus on the process, not the goal
  • Treat tidying as meditation and therapy, not a chore

This fascinating book turns the tidying manual into a self-help book, by looking at why we keep things, how the home is designed, and our cultural assumptions. What’s your favourite tip from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Share it on Facebook, or learn more in our Slideshare and lecture about the psychology of the home (under Course Materials).

Image credits: House Beautiful, Pinterest

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