This writer put Marie Kondo’s organising method to the test

It's a long way to the bottom of the laundry pile, and happiness

I hold up a sequinned tunic, a remnant of Fall/Winter 2009-10, and ask myself if it… sparks any joy. I know, I know. ‘Does it spark joy?’ What kind of question is that to pose to a tunic, or — as I would over the course of eight hours — ask a pair of flared jeans, a vintage denim jacket and several tops with their price tags still attached? It’s a question that has changed my closet and the way I live. Three weeks after interrogating my jeans, I had thrown away some 25 garbage bags and boxes of stuff, thanks to the best-selling book by Japanese cleaning and lifestyle guru Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up (Ten Speed Press). And believe it or not, I haven’t missed a thing.

It may seem radical, if not entirely insane and cult-like, to be tossing my possessions based on a book. But Kondo’s KonMari cleaning method has become a worldwide sensation. There are scores of hypnotic videos of her neatly folding clothes, and Pinterest abounds with before-and-after photos of closets. Who is this woman and why is she sweeping through our cabinets?

Kondo is the author of four books on the art of organising and cleaning, and she lives in Tokyo, where she runs a consulting business. But the reason behind her success — and why I bought into her method — is that the central theme is simple: Joy. “What things will bring you joy if you keep them as part of your life?” Kondo writes. “Pick them as if you were identifying items you loved from a showcase in your favourite store. Once you’ve grasped the basics, put all your clothes in one heap, take them in your hand one by one, and ask yourself quietly, ‘Does this spark joy?’” 

I come from a family of hoarders: my parents have held on to congratulatory cards from my birth, my grandmother used to stockpile coal all year round to prepare for the brutal winter and my mother’s trousseau included a steamer trunk. I wasn’t stocking coal, but I owned enough things to put my ancestors to shame. Trying to find anything in my closet was like playing a round of Jumanji. My clothes had taken on a life of their own. Hangers would attach themselves to shirt collars, scarves would disappear between pairs of trousers and silk shirts would slither into a pile at the bottom of the closet. I could never find anything to wear, but it wasn’t because I didn’t have any clothes; I had too many. My other cupboards were just as packed with prescriptions and bills, unread books, old college reports, stacks of documents from reporting assignments, old issues of magazines and ATM receipts from the mid-2000s. Every so often, I’d grab a garbage bag and toss things out, but my cupboards only remained clean for a few days before everything built to critical mass and came tumbling out when I made to open them.

The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up terrified me at first. I’d spent money on all these things. How could I just toss them, even if I hadn’t used them in years? But Kondo doesn’t advocate throwing out things merely because they take up too much space, or haven’t been used enough. Instead, she says, focus on what you want to keep. This was a revelation. I had become so used to the idea that cleaning meant just being good at organising your possessions, and maybe chucking some away. But Kondo’s philosophy isn’t about clean closets. It extends to your life. “As you continue to explore the reasons behind your ideal lifestyle, you will come to a simple realisation,” Kondo writes. “The whole point in both discarding and keeping things is to be happy.”

In May, as I packed for a literary event in Dhaka, I realised something that kick-started my Marie Kondo journey. I was taking the same items I’d worn to every literary festival/talk/dinner I’d been to recently: a white satin top, a navy silk Massimo Dutti button-down, a basic polka-dot shirt, tapered black pants and a pair of playful heels. I felt great in these clothes. I could dress them up, down, go to sleep in them. Why did I need more clothes when this is all I wore? It boiled down to one thing: I needed to simplify my choices. It was time to KonMari my life. 

Before starting, Marie Kondo says one has to visualise the lifestyle you want — and how tidying fits into that. She asks that you look at organising not as a one-time exercise, but a lifestyle change. The entire KonMari method can take months, and it’s easy to feel conflicted at the thought of throwing out things that carry great memories, or that you know you’ll fit into one day (will you, though?). But Kondo notes that a lot of these items have already served their purpose: they made you happy once, or they’ve served to gently alert you to your life (your escalating weight might need looking into), and now it’s time to let go. Kondo herself prefers the cold turkey method: “If you tidy up in one shot, rather than little by little, you can dramatically change your mindset,” she says. “A change so profound that it touches your emotions, will irresistibly affect your way of thinking and lifestyle habits.”

I wasn’t sure I could be reformed overnight, but I definitely wanted to be. Kondo advises doing the clean-up by category: clothing, followed by books, papers, miscellany and so on. And so, on a Friday evening, I opened my closets and dragged every stitch of clothing out: from ankle socks, heirloom saris and lingerie, to platform heels and trendy-again gladiator sandals. I dragged out ornate dupattas from their plastic covers, upended large bags of shawls and scarves, and broke about half-a-dozen hangers in the process. Twenty minutes later, my room looked like the aftermath of a hurricane. I crouched on a corner of the bed to take a photo, while my cat attempted to walk over the sea of clothes and accessories, and then finally took refuge in an empty cupboard. At first, it felt a bit silly to be asking my clothes if they sparked any joy. But once I held the shirts and shoes up and felt them, I realised how few I wanted to keep. It took eight-and-a-half hours, two cups of coffee and 16 garbage bags. When I finally got off the floor, it was after midnight, my spine felt permanently bent and my arms ached from folding clothes. I was able to see the back of my cupboard for the first time in years. 

The next morning, I opened the closet doors. It was like walking into a parallel dimension, albeit one where everything was folded in rectangles with almost origami-like precision, which clearly I, in a state of Kondo-driven hypnosis, had done according to her exacting standards. Getting dressed — which used to take hours while I dithered and decided, and changed repeatedly — now took minutes. Everything I touched was wearable.

Over the next few days, I began tackling the rest of my possessions. There was so little I wanted to keep, that it surprised me why I’d had so much stuff lying around for so long. For years, I thought I’d look at some of my reporting files again, or would revisit diary entries written on holidays. I never had, and so out they went, giving way to space on shelves and cabinets as I ripped, shredded and threw things away.

Weeks later, my closet is still clean. I keep it clean because it makes me happy, because it is part of my new, simpler way of life. As Kondo predicted, and much to my disbelief, cleaning and retaining the things that brought me joy has actually made me happier. I work from home, which meant that I would only change somewhat reluctantly when I was going out. But since I’ve gotten rid of every last scruffy t-shirt and pair of ripped pyjamas, I now sit down to write in actual clothes: a chiffon sari, a loose lingerie-inspired top. I feel better, more creative and excited about work than I have in a long time. And now that I’ve pared my possessions down to what I like, I don’t get drawn back into the same old cycles of shopping because there’s a sale, or keeping magazines because they’ll come in handy some day (to do what, papier mâché?). I rip up ATM receipts and throw out carrier bags instead of storing them like I once did. When I’m tempted to keep something, I think back to the pile of garbage bags I amassed, and whether looking at it makes me happy.

So far, 100 per cent of the time, the answer is no. I don’t miss anything. And when I look around, I don’t see someone who is unorganised and thinks mess can be passed off as quaint or bohemian, but someone who is sorted, in every possible way. That alone brings me more joy than any pile of mismatched shirts.  

Saba Imtiaz is the author of Karachi, You're Killing Me! (Random House India)

You may also want to read: Clean up your life