Marie Kondo has a reputation for ruthless and quirky minimalism. Ruthless, since she encourages people to discard the possessions that don’t “spark joy.” Quirky in that she anthropomorphizes socks, wallets, and screwdrivers, thanking them for their service after each use.
Kondo has inspired the world to tidy. Her first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” sold over 2 million copies worldwide. Her newly released second book, “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up,” is climbing the bestsellers lists. Disciples of her method—“Konverts”—boast of how many bags of clothing they’ve discarded and post photos of empty book shelves, sparse closets, and drawers containing tight little packages of clothing standing on one edge.
Kondo offers a teleological approach to tidying. Aristotle defined the ultimate aim or purpose of a thing as its telos. The telos of an acorn is an oak; the telos of a child is an adult. The telos home is not a tidy place, but a joyful refuge for oneself and one’s family. The KonMari method helps people determine what possessions they value and why. A successful Konvert does not have an empty house, but a home filled with meaningful, purposeful possessions.
Tidy and Purge—With Purpose
Broadly speaking, Kondo’s approach to tidying consists of 1) discarding and 2) organizing. According to Kondo, most people don’t know how to tidy, because they don’t know how to discard. People often skip the purging phase and organize instead. Or people sort through their possessions room by room, without gaining a clear picture of one’s possessions.
Purging, moreover, evokes feelings of guilt or regret: thinking about how much money they spent on unused items. Kondo recognizes these limitations and therefore encourages readers to tidy—and purge—with purpose.
According to Kondo, readers should envision the completed space before discarding anything. There can be a great variety in the end result: one Kondo client desired a serene space to listen to classical music and do yoga; another wanted to showcase cartoon photos and slot machines. The Kondo process is amenable to both visions.
Methodologically, Kondo recommends purging by category rather than by room: beginning with clothes and ending with sentimental items, such as photos. Focusing on categories allows one to understand the scope of one’s possessions and properly gauge the value of each item.
Reducing Our Overstuffed Guilt
This is useful, to be sure, but not particularly unique. Plenty of self-proclaimed tidying gurus have outlined methods to tidying. KonMari’s special contribution comes on her psychological insights. She focuses on finding the joy and purpose of items rather than unleashing feelings of guilt or regret.
The KonMari process eliminates guilt and regret by focusing the tidier on what is kept rather than what is discarded. We should keep 1) items that “spark joy,” meaning we feel a tinge of excitement when touching them or 2) items that are necessary albeit unexciting (e.g., vacuums, tools, or work uniforms). We shouldn’t keep something because we might possibly use it someday in the unspecified future—such items have no purpose.
Kondo thanks her possessions for their service and encourages her readers to do likewise. Recognizing “contribution and letting them go with gratitude” eliminates the guilt of purging. Thanking items, moreover, daily reminds us of their purpose.
Many readers understandably balk at talking to one’s possessions. Thanking one’s possessions feels like living in “Goodnight Moon”: Goodnight clocks and goodnight socks! Thank you for getting me through the day! (Although, honestly, what parent hasn’t talked to an inanimate object for the benefit of a small child?)
More About Psychology than Specifics
While “The Life Changing Magic” hints at animism, “Spark Joy” heartily embraces it. Her appeals to the “god of tidying,” however, lack the storybook charm and evoke a greeting out of “Game of Thrones”—the valar morghulis equivalent of “all men must tidy.” Kondo sees a home and its contents as having a spiritual presence. But one need not embrace animism to appreciate the true purpose of one’s home and the possessions within it.
Kondo has amassed a following, but not everyone has Konverted. Indeed, objections go beyond chatting with socks. Maureen O’Connor calls Kondo’s “jihad on messiness” an annoying fad. Naomi Schaefer Riley denounces Kondo’s tidiness as “a kind fetish for a certain segment of the American population,” most notably “childless, often single, [people] living in major metropolitan areas, without much space but with plenty of disposable income.”
Likewise, Lisa Miller suggests the KonMari method is for the prosperous: “To live as Kondo recommends requires a faith in a continuing abundance and prosperity that I was raised not to have. How can you whittle your sock drawer down to six joyful pairs when you know full well that socks wear out.” Meanwhile, in The New York Times, Dominique Browning takes a less vitriolic approach, celebrating “the gentle art of clutter.” Clutter is life, she cheers: by accumulating things, “We admire. We desire. We love. We collect. We display.”
These criticisms misunderstand Kondo’s method. Although discarding is essential to the KonMari process, Kondo is not advocating asceticism. She contends that we cannot organize—put things in a dedicated space—until we have sorted through all of our possessions and determined their purpose. She never insists on an ideal number or type of possessions.
Indeed, she highlights the odd things that her clients love, including mushroom figurines and a collection of driftwood. She understands that most people have possessions they neither like nor use, but nevertheless have difficulty throwing out. The KonMari process addresses the methodological and psychological barriers to discarding items.
If we understand KonMari as a teleological approach to tidying, then the process is not limited to certain income brackets. We all ought to be good stewards of our possessions.
A Zen Version of Aristotle
To be sure, visions of solitude and contemplation explain why critics denounce the tidying as KonMari method as a process for wealthy, childless people. In reality, though, KonMari is family friendly. Kondo reveals in “Spark Joy” that half of her clients have children. Tidying is an individual process with implications for the entire family.
She insists that readers focus on their own possessions and not attempt to purge other people’s items. One cannot coerce others—especially family members—into tidying. (Kondo learned this lesson the hard way. She would secretly discard her family’s belongings, much to their chagrin.) Rather than feeling frustrated by family members’ possessions, we should recall that those possessions bring our family members joy. Instead of trying to force others to tidy, one should lead by example.
Kondo’s method is not about stark walls and bare floors. It’s about understanding the purpose of your home and your belongings. A home is not simply a tidy space. Nor is a naked room intrinsically magical. Kondo’s advice on tidying is life-changing because, at the end, one has a joyful home filled with meaningful possessions for all members of the family. She’s no zealous minimalist—just a quirky, Zen version of Aristotle.