Mari Kondo and Me: What I learnt from a crazy Japanese woman

Why I followed a crazy Japanese lady’s advice to completely reorganize my wardrobe, and how it changed my life

When you’re a college student with a paper due tomorrow, a job application due the next day and a midterm sometime in the near future on top of that; the last thing on the priority list is closet organization.

This likely goes beyond college students too.  Who cares if clothes or folded or not?  As long as you can wear them, right?

My mother was always puzzled as to why I typically let unfolded clothes pile high on a rather redundant pink chair in my room (to be honest: I detest pink, that was part of the benefit of having it covered with clothes).  My experience working in retail added to this mystery.  I used to work in a Western business-casual store, no less, where most of my eight-hour shifts were spent folding blouses into neat little squares with a board.

Anyhow, the point is that I never thought folding my clothes was particularly important.  I would do clean-up of my wardrobe and refold clothes twice a year so everything could actually fit inside.  Otherwise, as long as my shirt fit inside a drawer, then it was cool with me.

On the opposite end of my likes/dislikes spectrum is the joy I find in beautiful design and aesthetics.  I adore a particular clean, cluttered-yet-perfectly-disarrayed look, the sort you find in Ikea catalogues and on the Instagram feeds of my favourite bloggers.  I tried emulating their sparse composition but gave up because my colours simply didn’t coordinate as well as theirs did.

Two winters ago, “The Magic of Tidying Up” by Mari Kondo ended up in my hands as I was winding along Main Street with a friend one winter day.  I read a few chunks of it and my reaction was, “This lady is crazy.”

For those of you unacquainted with Mari Kondo, she is a Japanese woman who makes a living out of helping people organize stuff.  In her bestseller, The Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo details her “KonMari” method of tidying up, from theory to practice.  She tells you how to store your bags, tidy up your desk, and even how to fold your clothes (because not all methods of folding clothes are equal).  Interspersed are accounts of her own experience. 

One story I remember in particular is her description of how she loved tidying up so much that a daily pastime of hers in high school was to turn the contents out of a few drawers upon returning home and reorganize them.  She did this so often that she found herself going through the same drawers time and time again.  Sure, it taught her an invaluable principle about tidying up: that you need to tackle it by category, not location.  That means rigorously tidying up drawer by drawer isn’t sufficient, rather you should go by category (e.g. all your makeup, no matter where it’s located).  However, this anecdote to me was clear proof of madness.

Still, I was intrigued by how Kondo’s book became a bestseller, so I went online to learn more.  I found several blogs on how following Kondo had transformed crammed and jammed wardrobes into displays pleasing to the eye.  It was very soothing to look at the vertically folded, colour-sorted clothes that Kondo advocates for, even if they weren’t in the monochromatic pallets that graced the Instagram feeds that I subscribe to.

Prior to departing for South Korea, I was planning to clean up my stuff so it wouldn’t simply sit around for months.  If I was going through all my clothes, I figured that this would be time to try out Kondo’s method.

I originally planned on only sorting through my main wardrobe as I thought my drawers were reasonably organized.  But as I started sorting out things, some new categories no longer fit where they used to.  This made me recall Kondo’s advice to tidy up things by category.  I ended up tipping the contents of all my drawers onto my bedroom floor so I could move sections around.  My pants now had a small drawer to themselves and my shirts had a large drawer. They previously were intermixed in one vertical and inaccessible pile in my closet.

Key to the KonMari method is the mantra to keep only things that “spark joy”.  This simple principle was incredibly useful to me. It boiled down all my considerations and concerns to one single question.  It didn’t matter whether the item was wear-able or not, whether I had worn it five times or fifty times.  If it made me happy, I could keep it.  If it didn’t make me happy, I was probably wearing it not very frequently  or not at all, so there was no point in keeping it and having it take up valuable space in my room.  In practice, how I answered this questions ran along these lines in my head:

Thin sweater that I rarely wear because I don’t ever feel fantastic enough to pull it off?  Bye.

Worn hoodie that I’ve owned since high school but is fantastically comfortable and something that I would wear every day? Staying.

This was very different from how I used to approach reorganization.  Before I cleaned out my room KonMari style, I thought that I needed more storage space to store everything.  I was wrong.  It turns out that I had more than enough room for all that I needed.  I just previously kept so many clothes that were of high quality enough to wear, but that I didn’t actually wear because I didn’t like them.  Those took up a lot of valuable space.  When I demanded myself whether these “sparked joy” for me and whether I would really like to keep it, I “gained” a lot of space and a much freer mind.

The most important outcomes for me: lighter mind, joy in how beautifully my clothes are arranged, joy in knowing that everything I see is something that I enjoy wearing, joy in knowing I can live with less, joy in visual sparseness.

Other outcomes: making stuff I wasn’t even using available to others who might like it, or in other words, passing things on that I wasn’t appreciating fully to others who might appreciate it more.  These additional outcomes are no indication of altruism.  They were just externalities to me.

However, the process was no easy task.

I still remember scheduling four hours for this overhaul (I typically refolded all my clothes in an hour or two before)…but four hours was actually how long I simply laid on the floor of my room spread out like a starfish, arms resting on piles of clothes around me.  Just taking everything out and chucking them into categories of “shirts”, “home wear”, “formal wear” and “not keep” was an incredibly exhausting hour that demanded a recovery period four times as long (ok, maybe there was some Daniel Deronda or period drama in there.  Ok, there was definitely Daniel Deronda).

Here are some of the results:

Closet organization 1

Closet organization 2

Pretty snazzy, hey?  I am so incredibly proud of it.  It wouldn’t meet the colour scheme standards for Instagram, but I think it would be worthy of #organizationinspo tag anyways because this is real.

But more than looking like the minimalists I always aspired towards, listening to Mari Kondo helped me embrace this lifestyle for real, beyond the definition of “lifestyle” as newspaper or magazine categories propagate.  Minimalism is about focussing on the things you care about and spending time on those things, which is essentially the keep only things that “spark joy” principle Mari Kondo preaches.  I apply the “spark joy” principle to more aspects of my life now: to things I buy, to things I do, to where I spend my time.

So, it turns out that even a few phrases from a crazy Japanese lady planted a seed for extraordinarily positive change in my life – or should I say, “sparked joy”?

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