By Jenna Helwig
March 31, 2015
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Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up 35060

Have you heard of this book? The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, has been at or near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks.

I love to declutter, but it's not an simple process in a small New York City apartment, especially with a 9 year-old daughter who cherishes every piece of string she's ever cut and every scrap of paper she has put a pencil to. Luckily (for my sanity), my husband is more like me than like her, but I am generally the one who leads the toy and paper-purging sessions at home. (True confession: I have been known to pop and toss balloons after Rosa has gone to bed and hide a stack of drawings for a few weeks to see if she misses them before dumping them in the recycling bin. She never misses them.)

At times Rosa has shown some cleaning initiative. After reading about it in a book she once went on a feng shui kick that lasted a few weeks. But generally the only way I have gotten her to willingly toss papers is to offer a minute of screentime for every scrap she recycles. Don't even get me started on stuffed animals. I don't think there is any reward great enough to encourage her to let go of one of those furry beasts...unless it's another stuffed animal.

So a book like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is catnip for me, but "life-changing" and "magic" are two very strong words. Really?

Kondo's system is deceptively simple: first declutter and then organize what you have kept. This book is not about storage solutions. ("Storage experts are hoarders.") Instead, it's about being very choosy about your belongings. As Kondo says, "The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life."

Indeed, Kondo seems much more excited about the decluttering aspect of her philosophy. She walks readers through the order in which to declutter: first clothes, then books, papers, miscellaneous items like electronics, kitchen gear, make-up, and tchotchkes. The final category is sentimental items.

I couldn't wait to dive in, and started as instructed with my clothes. Unlike other guides which advise getting rid of anything that you haven't worn in the past year, Kondo wants you to keep only what you love. I followed her advice, putting every piece of clothing from my closet and drawers onto the bed. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself, "Does this spark joy?" If the answer was yes it went into the keep pile, if no it went into the giveaway pile.

I discovered a couple of important things during this process. First, I owned a ridiculous amount of clothes, shoes, and bags. Second, I only loved about a third of them. After this exercise I donated four big trash bags of clothes, and as Kondo promised, it sort of changed my life! I have a small closet, and it is so much better organized now. My clothes hang nicely, and the beauty of liking everything in your closet is that it's much easier to choose an outfit in the morning. And, interestingly, by surrounding myself only with clothes that make me happy I have lost any desire to go shopping. I already love my clothes, and I don't want to cram more into my well-organized closet.

Asking a sweater whether it brings you joy did seem a little bizarre to me. Apparently a friend of a friend threw away her winter boots because they didn't bring her January...well before the end of a snowy winter here in NYC. So perhaps we need to be a little flexible with our definition of joy. Having warm, dry feet in February brings me joy even if my snow boots do not. But, quibbles aside, this book speaks to me.

Kondo advises, and I am in agreement, that you can't force others to declutter. I decided before I started that I would declutter without giving Rosa or my husband even the smallest encouragement to do the same. Rosa watched me, though, and as I set aside bags to donate, I talked about how great I felt making more space for the things I really love.

A couple of weeks after my closet clean-out I called downstairs to Rosa. She yelled back up that she was out her toy chest. She asked for a trash bag to put old toys in she wanted to donate. My jaw dropped, and my husband did a double-take. I brought down a trash bag, playing it cool, and saw to my utter delight that Rosa had earmarked about a third of her old, broken, unloved toys to get rid of.

Rosa's room is still over-stuffed, but not nearly as much as before. She has even taken to folding the clothes she sets out to wear to school the next day.

So whether Marie Kondo inspired my daughter to declutter, or I did, there is indeed some life-changing magic happening in my small apartment.

Jenna Helwig is the food editor at Parents and the author of Real Baby Food and Smoothie-licious. Her idea of an awesome Saturday afternoon is cleaning out the pantry and medicine cabinet. But she will always, always have too many cookbooks. Follow her on Twitter.

Book cover image via