For Martin Law, Marie Kondo’s tidying regimen was life-changing, until it wasn’t. Law, a 32-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, went through with most of Kondo’s popular tidying method two years ago. “I managed to get rid of a great deal of items that I previously had found difficult to let go of,” he told me, including about half of his clothing.
After Law’s big cleanout, though, the stuff gradually crept back in. His kitchen gained a series of useful but not vital devices: a new cookie cutter, a larger whisk, a machine for making peanut butter. The accumulations of the past two years have added up. “The house is probably no better than it was—perhaps marginally better, but in reality probably no better,” he says. His commitment to having very little has, he confesses, petered out.
“If you adopt this approach—the KonMari Method—you’ll never revert to clutter again,” wrote Marie Kondo in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, published in the United States in the fall of 2014. Millions of people have bought her book, and many of those millions have since learned whether her promise holds for them as they systematically purge their homes of items that do not bring them happiness, or “spark joy,” as Kondo famously puts it.
I recently checked in with more than a dozen people who did their first KonMari-style cleanouts in 2015, 2016, or 2017. They were generally enthusiastic (even Martin Law) about the way Kondo’s book made them reconsider their relationship to material things, although many of them lamented the onslaught of new stuff that must always be kept at bay.
That process has come more easily to some than to others. “My house has never gone back to the way it was before I started doing this three years ago,” says KK Holland, a 37-year-old who lives in Santa Barbara, California. Yes, clutter occasionally mounts, but she works to keep it in check. “I remove items that no longer spark joy on an ongoing basis, and I am a pretty fierce guard of what comes into my house,” she told me.
At the end of 2017, she and her husband had a baby girl. “I’m happy to report our KonMari survived an infant,” Holland says. She insists that nothing makes her uniquely good at vanquishing clutter, but that Kondo’s approach has staying power because it prompts people to fundamentally revisit why they own what they own.
Most people I talked to, though, carved out exceptions to or ignored certain recommendations in the process outlined in the book. A couple of them kept more books than they thought Kondo would want them to. And two women—one in Massachusetts, the other in Hanover, Germany—independently told me they thought it was too onerous to remove everything from their handbags each day upon returning home, as Kondo prescribes.
And for some people, the project of going through every last thing they own, one by one, was too much to handle. Mike Fu, a 33-year-old Brooklynite, estimates that he made it through about three-quarters of the KonMari method three or four years ago. “I probably chickened out at the point where it was going through all the papers and non-clothing or -book objects,” he told me. Fu says he’s since come to terms with having a bit of clutter, but he and his partner are planning to give the KonMari method another try, “at our own glacial pace.”
Jasmine Bager, who’s 35 and lives in New York City, also tried a KonMari cleanout but decided it wasn’t for her. After she piled up all her clothing for a Kondo-style review a few years ago, she found the prospect of carrying through with the project too exhausting and avoided the pile, shifting it back and forth between her chair and her bed. She later came up with her own decluttering system, which she says works for her: Every day, when she leaves her apartment, she forces herself to take three items with her to get rid of.
There is some flexibility to Bager’s rule (a bag of garbage counts toward the quota, and she doesn’t follow it if she’s in a real hurry), but she has been sticking with it for more than a year. In the course of what she calls her “little game with the city,” she’s been leaving behind various objects—a magazine, a key chain, a book, shoes—around town, unlabeled, with an expectation that someone who needs them will claim them. Once, months after abandoning a headband she’d made herself, she was pleased to see a stranger wearing it at a subway stop near her apartment.
Whether or not they followed the instructions in Kondo’s book, Bager and the others I talked to for this story discarded a significant amount of stuff. Some thought about it in terms of volume—a Jeep Grand Cherokee’s worth of objects, or enough furniture to fill a two-bedroom apartment. One woman estimated that she and her husband chucked 60 to 70 percent of their belongings.
Even with all this throwing out, people have had very few regrets. Most told me they now don’t miss a thing, even stuff that they hesitated to discard. Some recalled isolated instances of (usually fleeting) second-guessing. Velma Gentzsch, a 40-year-old in St. Louis who KonMari-ed in 2017, says she wishes she still had the pair of brown leather boots she parted with. “I loved them, but they were half a size too big … [but] it’s not a huge deal,” she says.
Christina Refford, whose fourth KonMari-versary is this year, remembers twice going to her bookshelf—once for a stack of cooking magazines, once for Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women—only to realize that she’d tossed out what she was looking for. She wasn’t too bothered. “Almost anything I would’ve gotten rid of can be found somewhere else,” Refford says.
The most missed item in all these purges was a special-edition pack of Pepsi bottles, each emblazoned with a cartoon alligator, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the University of Florida’s football program. The bereaved: Imani Clenance, a 34-year-old graduate of the university who lives in New York City. “Every now and then I think about those, like, Hmm, those might’ve been kind of cool to keep … But if I really wanted them, I could probably find them somewhere on eBay,” Clenance says. (I looked—she could.)
Marie Kondo writes that when doing a cleanout, “starting with mementos spells certain failure,” for they are plentiful, meaningful, and often irreplaceable. Kondo recommends tackling this difficult category last because it’s so hard, and indeed it’s one that the people I talked to struggled with. Many of them still haven’t finished it.
Lisa Shininger, who’s 40 and lives in Dayton, Ohio, told me about a beloved, ragged old T-shirt that she agonized over when she KonMari-ed in 2016. It carried so many memories for her that discarding it would feel like discarding them too. After rescuing it from her get-rid-of pile a few times, she ultimately let it go, and now she reports that she doesn’t miss it.
“If something didn’t make it in a move, or somebody else got rid of it by accident and I didn’t know about it—those kinds of things I regretted not having anymore,” Shininger says. “But I found that [wasn’t the case] when I myself made the deliberate choice [to get rid of it].” She particularly appreciates Kondo’s suggestion that people thank their stuff as they bid it goodbye—she thinks that helps prevent regret.
One particularly diligent KonMari practitioner, a 62-year-old retired child psychologist living in Washington, D.C., mentioned a strategy that helped her with this stubborn class of belongings. (She asked me not to publish her name because she didn’t want her clients’ families reading about her personal life.) She took pictures of the art her children had made in school and some trinkets she’d received from her grandparents. “I enjoy looking at the pictures,” she said, “but do not miss the actual objects.”
Another devotee, Ian Bate, shared his own secret to success. “I was surprisingly ruthless about [mementos], partly because I have an advantage: I’m old.” Bate is 70, an age at which he says it’s become clear which memories matter most to him and, more practically, “who might or might not like [my stuff] after I’m gone.”
“A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective,” Kondo writes. “It is life transforming. I mean it.” Language like this makes her book veer into self-help territory, but based on the experiences of the people I talked to, Kondo wasn’t overpromising. Whether a matter of causation or just correlation, many of the people I spoke to also said that their cleanouts coincided with pivotal moments in their lives.
One had just broken up with a longtime boyfriend when she did hers two years ago, and is planning another with her new partner now that they have moved in together. One found that his cleanout finally unburdened him of keepsakes he’d inherited when his parents died almost a decade earlier. One KonMari-ed, and then made long-procrastinated headway on getting her finances in order. And one finally went on the six-month backpacking trip she’d been thinking about for a long time, once she didn’t feel weighed down by her stuff.
“I wish I had encountered the book when I was 30,” Bate told me. He reflected on his career as a “good American consumer” and concluded that the majority of what he’d bought over the course of his life wouldn’t meet his new KonMari-calibrated standard. “If I had done it back when I was 30,” he says, “I just would have saved myself a lot of hassle by not buying and having to dispose of endless piles of crap.”