(First published in the April 11, 2019 issue of City Pages)
I experimented with this trendy technique of tidying up. Its effectiveness surprised me. Yes, I’m a believer
It started with a comment made by a date I had over to my house one evening. “You’re a bit messy, huh?”
“Excuse me?” I was flabbergasted. Although I have, let’s call it, minimalist views on cleaning, I tend to think of myself as relatively orderly. I’m not much of a buyer of stuff and I’m not one to make much of a mess in the first place. The comment threw me for a bit of a loop.
It turns out us Americans aren’t nearly as tidy as we think. That’s the theme of the recent Netflix phenomenon Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Hearing about Kondo from a local yoga teacher, I decided to check it out.
I think I was destined to love the show. As someone who has spent a lot of time in Japan, speaks semi-fluent Japanese (not that I use it much these days) and has spent a lot of time in Japanese homes and apartments, I had an idea where Kondo was coming from.
Having been a Shinto shrine maiden at one point in her life, Marie Kondo incorporates a lot of the Shinto religion into her tidying up practice. Several episodes into the Netflix show, I was committed to using her techniques and philosophies in my own house, which I’ve owned for about three years now.
The cool thing about Kondo is that her KonMari method fits in well with some of my other philosophies, such as my attitudes toward money, especially from the website Mr. Money Mustache. He advocates for living a “slightly less ridiculous lifestyle,” in order to save money toward financial independence; Kondo advocates a sensible minimalism of a few less things. Mr. Money Mustache advocates spending money in a happiness optimized way, truly evaluating each dollar you spend and its impact on your happiness; Kondo emphasizes assessing each item in your house to decide whether it “sparks joy” (tokimekuin Japanese, the literal meaning “to flutter”) or has outlived its purpose.
The basic idea of KonMari is that you go through five categories of stuff in this order:
• Miscellaneous from kitchen, bathroom, garage
• Sentimental items, the idea being that this latter category includes some of the hardest items to part with.
Turns out, this basic categorical approach is brilliant.
Instead of going room to room—as with many other home de-cluttering processes— you tackle a category of stuff that might be spread all over the house. This prevents simply shoving one mess into another room or closet.
Starting with clothing, you gather it all into one big pile. Yep, all of it. Then you go through each individual item and decide whether it sparks joy. Anything that doesn’t gets thanked for its service and sent on its way. Items that do spark joy are saved for future organization.
Staring at my own pile of clothing seemed daunting. What happened next through this process surprised me.
First I started with clothes. I ended up getting rid of a lot.
On each episode of the show, Marie Kondo at one point gathers everyone into just the right spot in the house, sits in seiza (Japanese seated postured with legs folded underneath) and quietly “introduces herself” to the house. The wives of the show seem to like it, and the husbands at least tolerate it, though this and some of Kondo’s other methods have been accused of being “woo woo.”
But don’t knock till you’ve tried it.
It’s important to note that in Japanese culture, Shinto and Buddhist rituals are often integrated into daily life without the religious connotations that Western culture might see. Many Japanese will still form prayer hands and say “itadakimasu” before a meal — it’s a Shinto tradition of saying thanks to the meal for giving its energy to you. It’s a religious tradition, but doesn’t necessarily connote religious piety. It’s more like a habit, or ritual.
The show itself is a refreshing addition to the reality television scene. Unlike other reality shows that go for cheap thrills by highlighting people in the most extreme living conditions, such as Hoarders, the people Kondo visits are pretty typical Americans. Only one of the six homes she visits really borders on the term “hoarder” and most even look somewhat tidy initially… until the cameras go deeper into the house.
Although Kondo’s rituals are off-putting to some, her approach is pretty reasonable. As she advises one client on the show, she never forces anyone to get rid of anything. Each person makes that decision on their own.
The point is to actually make the decision.
Often we find ourselves accumulating stuff without thinking about it, and it adds up.
This was my own experience. I went into my own KonMari project already with a sense of minimalism and thrift. I’m not one to go on shopping sprees or to engage in retail therapy. I had no clothing in my closet with the tags still attached. I didn’t have more than 100 pairs of never-worn shoes in my closet like one guy on the show did (yep, a dude who loved to collect sneakers).
Even so, I was truly surprised at how much clothing I was able to get ride of. I found items that I avoided wearing, because they were too big or too small. Some were simply worn out. Others just didn’t spark joy. And I’d even done my own wardrobe audit only a year before.
There’s something about putting it all in one big pile and dealing with your items categorically that is strikingly effective.
Books were another story. I love books, and going through them was more about organizing than eliminating. The books I did thank for their service mostly went to friends who I thought would like them; others were boxed for Goodwill.
The papers category was perhaps the most striking. I found the paperwork for an old 401k retirement account from a previous job. I knew it existed somewhere but never looked. Turns out there was a lot more money in it than I had thought. Not enough to retire early though, I’m afraid, so you’re stuck with me a bit longer.
I admit I haven’t finished the project completely. After “papers,” things get a little more nebulous.
The miscellaneous category includes kitchen, bathroom and garage. There are other projects too, such as thoroughly sorting through the top drawer of a dresser I’ve had since I was born. It was cool finding an old US bond from the year I was born. The garage I put off for warmer days, which are now approaching.
Books were a challenge. I mostly organized them. I tend to get sentimental about books.
What I didn’t expect from the KonMari technique is how good it would feel.
Sitting in my well-organized living room really does spark joy. In the morning, walking into the more tidy kitchen (I’ve been working on this over time) offers a feeling of contentment I never felt before.
I sensed this change immediately upon finishing the clothing part of the KonMari technique. Just seeing how everything now fit nice and orderly in my closet gave me a sense of accomplishment and peace. Who knew?
That’s no accident, says Ashlie Montana Zeidler, a yoga teacher with 401 Flow Yoga who has been using KonMari technique herself.
Tidying up transforms spaces to create room for something new, Zeidler says. “For people who have mental hangups or are holding on to things for emotional reasons, it can really propel you to move forward in a way that is wholesome and well-rounded.”
Zeidler started exploring minimalism when she didn’t want to move a lot of stuff when changing living spaces, and came across Marie Kondo a few years ago. Tidying up is now an ongoing practice, she says. Though Kondo advises doing the whole project in a short time frame, it’s often easier to break it up, which is how I approached it as well. “Pick one area that causes distress when you think about it, and see how you feel,” Zeidler says. “Often the momentum will carry you through.”
Benjamin Lee is a 31-year-old corporate trainer who came across KonMari and minimalism about four years ago. He and his wife Tiffany started with clothing, and was thoroughly surprised with how many items of clothing didn’t make the cut.
Today, Lee, who has three boys between the ages of 3 and 11, lives a minimalist lifestyle. He owns a few high-quality pants and shirts. Children’s toys are often high-quality wooden toys, or Legos without all the themes like Harry Potter or Star Wars, and there are fewer than average. When new toys are added, the children pick out old toys to donate.
They’re a family of musicians, he explains, so there are plenty of instruments. But you won’t find the fake plastic ones in their house.
The basic idea is that instead of owning a lot of cheap things, you carefully curate a few treasured, high-quality items.
Paring down items isn’t about self-denial; it’s about making space for the things that truly bring joy, Lee explains. They skipped the books category when they went through the KonMari technique, he explains. Books are an important part of his family’s life, and their family tradition of writing a message in books when gifting them lends a personal meaning to these items.
Their newfound minimalism seemed pretty strange to their extended families when they first started, Lee says, but eventually they got used to it. Most of the challenge was learning how to handle situations like hand-me downs — family members learned to ask instead of just assuming they wanted whatever it was they were giving away.
“After a few years in, it became easy to have those conversations,” Lee says. “Still, sometimes I have to remind people I don’t want these big plastic things in my house.”
The Lees emphasize experiences as gifts rather than physical items. Their oldest son for example recently went on a trip to Florida to visit a relative with money from Christmas and birthday combined.
One local woman with a business helping others tidy up and get organized uses some of Marie Kondo’s techniques. Stacey Hoops, founder of Wausau Area Concierge, says she likes Marie Kondo’s approach of going through and weeding out unwanted items before organizing everything. It’s something she incorporates into her business when she organizes client’s homes.
Hoops has noticed that some people think it’s a little weird that Kondo “thanks” objects for their service before sending them on, but it does make sense to Hoops. “I notice so many clients feel guilty about getting rid of things,” she says. “So thanking the items for its purpose makes it easier to let them go.”
Once people start the process, it has a positive effect, Hoops says. “People say it feels like a weight lifted off… Then they keep going, it’s great.”
KonMari for life
I haven’t completed the full KonMari project yet. I am stuck on step four, miscellaneous, because it encompasses so many areas and I’ve tended to make them into small projects (um, don’t look inside that one closet just yet…) Like many of the others I spoke to for the story, I consider it an ongoing process even once finished. I will probably do a mini-KonMari every few years.
But I also hope it continues to have a lasting effect on me. My already low penchant for spending on “things” is even lower, and something about achieving a new level of tidy inspires one to want to keep it that way.
I even adopted a technique Lee told me about: They devote just 15-20 minutes per night to cleaning so they all wake up to a happy, clean house. I played around with this over the weekend, dutifully setting my phone timer to 15 minutes and throwing on the latest podcast on my headphones. It’s kind of amazing how much you can get done in 15 minutes, and I have to admit there was joy in waking up to a sparkling, dishes-free kitchen area when I make my coffee and feed my kitty in the morning.
Maybe it seems strange to need something like KonMari to keep my house clean, or Mr. Money Mustache to take control of my finances. I guess there’s something about having an actual technique or paradigm to follow. Maybe in both cases — Marie Kondo and Mr. Money Mustache — it’s that it comes down to just being slightly less ridiculous.
Other de-cluttering basics that really work
For an Abode story several years ago, I documented a whole-house de-cluttering project led by a professional. Some of her basic tenants have stuck with me, and ever since I’ve been a constant but critical consumer of other “tips and tricks.” Not everything works for everyone. But I have noted a few foundations that work wonders, whether they’re applied to day-to-day habits or big projects.
• Working space versus storage. Know the difference. Your everyday work spaces such as kitchen counters and active shelves, nightstands, and bathrooms need to flow, to be as open and free as possible. It’s space only for things you actually use everyday. Once you’re protective of keeping work space free and clear, it’s quite easy to organize your things.
• Discard an old thing for each new thing you bring into your home.
• If you touch it, deal with it fully. For example: mail. Go through each piece before walking away.
• Use math to inspire dailyaction— That is, remember that five things a day that you’ll “get to later” equals 70 things in just two weeks.
• Think an old item sparks joy? Admit though, that if you’re not caring for it, or haven’t seen/handled it for years, it’s not really creating genuine joy. So instead of saving that college sweatshirt, stick a small piece of it into a scrapbook. It’s the memory the counts. (by Tammy Stezenski)