Three Important Points to Remember When “Kondo-ing”

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I’m faced, this summer, with the melancholy task of emptying my mom’s house, the house I grew up in. The process has been an extended, physically demanding and emotional mediation on the nature of our possessions and our mortality. I often find myself thinking about the person that will have to sort through the stuff Kelly and I have accumulated over the years. Which is why I find myself drawn back to the work of controversial de-cluttering master Marie Kondo.

My mom was not a hoarder but she struggled, like most of us Westerners, with the problem of storing and maintaining vast piles of stuff. In her papers I found a file about tidying. It contained a sort of diary entry expressing her own frustration, as well as an article of standard, pre-Kondo advice: that one should get a bunch of boxes, sort stuff and file it away. Kondo notes, in her book Spark Joy why this approach doesn’t work, “When things are put away, a home will look neat on the surface, but if the storage units are filled with unnecessary items, it will be impossible to keep them organized, and this will inevitably lead to a relapse.” This is exactly what I’m faced with at my mom’s house: boxes of neatly filed away stuff that was never used and that occasionally spilled out during her lifetime. These possessions became a burden, a time-sucking sorting task that claimed many hours of the last years of my mom’s life.

This has sparked a, perhaps, overly emotional reaction to quickly get rid of stuff at our own house. We’ve had aborted “Kondo-ing” attempts before but this time I’ve decided to more carefully re-read Kondo’s directions. It’s easy to think that Kondo-ing is just about de-junking. This completely misses her point. Her method is not about getting rid of stuff. It is about about creating joy. And it’s very important to follow her directions closely.

Here are three of those directions many people miss:

1. Setting a goal
Kondo says in the introduction to Spark Joy,

Think about what kind of house you want to live in and how you want to live in it. In other words, describe your ideal lifestyle. If you like drawing, sketch out what it looks like. If you prefer to write, describe it in a notebook. You can also cut out photos from magazines.

For me I like to imagine that American Bungalow Magazine is coming over for a photo shoot. Without a clear and joy-sparking goal in mind it would be a lot harder to part with sentimental items and those “things I’ll need someday.” If it doesn’t fit into my ideal bungalow it goes. All I really need is a clean living room, a place to write and a functional workshop. I got a book out of the library on bungalow interiors and I’ve referred to it often in the course of emptying my mom’s house and Kondo-ing our own.

2. Asking the “spark joy” question
Kondo insists that you hold every object and ask if it “sparks joy” (the Japanese word Kondo uses is tokimeku which Wikipedia translates as “flutter, throb, palpitate”). It an item doesn’t spark joy you are supposed to thank the object and let it go. This part of Kondo’s philosophy is heavily influenced by her Shintoism. In Shintoism, what we Westerners think of as “inanimate” objects contain a kind of spiritual essence. In practice, we’re all Shintoists. Don’t believe me? Just ponder the odd ontological phenomenon of the auction value of celebrity owned pieces of junk like Elvis’ bath mat. The fact is that even diehard Western materialists ascribe spirit and meaning to belongings. This is why you can’t skip Kondo’s suggestion to hold things and thank an item if you need to get rid of it. I sometimes get in a frenzy and skip this important step. Do so and the effect is cumulative. You begin to keep things you shouldn’t.

3. Reviewing Kondo’s directions
I’ve found that, during this summer’s arduous Kondo-ing, I have to go back to and re-read the introduction and first chapter of Spark Joy on a regular basis. It’s easy to just fall into the trap of thinking the Kondo message is about de-cluttering. In fact, Kondo’s process can be long and painful. If you lose sight of the goal or fail to understand her directions you’ll end up stalling out as we have in the past.

Postscript
Lastly, I’ll note that Kondo has a simple, free app that I’ve found useful. It’s basically just a checklist with the added social media function of being able to create and share before and after photos.

And, at the risk of zealotry, I feel the need to defend her against what I think is a typical, Kondo-backlash article in the New Yorker. First, I don’t think the fact that her first book proposal won a prize in a “how to write a bestseller” negates its content. The article goes on to assert that her method won’t work for actual hoarders. True, but sadly, no method yet devised seems to work for pathological hoarders. One thing I like about the New Yorker article is the mention of the work of photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki who documented the condition of Japanese homes and apartments in a book Tokyo: A Certain Style. Tsuzuki book, which has haunted me for years, shows Japanese homes as they actual are: crammed with junk, spilling out of every cabinet and closet in spaces that are much smaller to begin with than what we are used to in the US. This rampant consumerism combined with the horrors of the tsunami, definitely helped catapult Kondo’s career in Japan. But, again, I don’t think this undermines the value of Kondo’s message.

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13 Comments

  1. Below the backlash article is an article about Hemingway and things he kept. If it is good enough for Hemingway, I will do the same. The tidbits we leave behind define our life. No, not talking about hoarding. Of course, that defines a life in a not-so-nice way.

    The fact that we ascribe serenity and impeccably clean and free of clutter Japanese home shows we are chasing something that does not exist except in articles that want to promote a vision.

    Would you have rather your mother left a sterile environment that you did not have to anguish over as you got rid of things she cherished for whatever reason? Maybe handling her things is a cleansing for you and a way of completely knowing her.

    Now, I will not sing praises of the cluttered home and life of a hoarder.

    I got rid of things in my own home after my mother died, and I will regret that forever. I made emotional choices that were not well-informed.

  2. Your first paragraph exactly describes my experience in dealing with my mother’s and my in-laws’ stuff after their deaths. The experience was emotional and eye-opening, making me confront my life in a new way.

    As far as Kondo backlash, I also agree with you. In particular, the letter responding to the New Yorker article sent in by the editor of Simple Living magazine made me truly angry. It managed to be sneering and racist while conveniently not mentioning why she and so many professional organizers hate Marie Kondo, namely that they make a lot of money selling “organizers”–bins, racks, and boxes of all descriptions. As the FlyLady says, “You can’t organize clutter.”

  3. I’m in the middle of a similar task this summer. My mom passed in June 2016 and my dad this past January. They both grew up in the Great Depression and were married 63 years. There’s a LOT of stuff.

    I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, and her method makes sense until I think about all the mundane things I own and use (hammer, shovel, pots, pans, 5 gallon buckets, twine, etc.). None of those things spark joy, but I’d miss them if they were gone. So, what to do with all the garden supplies, art supplies, etc. The activity may spark joy, but much of the tools and materials involved, don’t. That’s the thing that’s tripped me up. I can justify keeping all kinds of stuff that don’t spark joy because I use them (or might, someday).

    • As I took away from her book, “spark joy” also refers to the feeling of satisfaction you get when you have the tool you need for the job – ie while a wrench might not be cute or sexy and “spark joy” from an aesthetic standpoint, you sure appreciate one that is well made and works when a pipe goes wonky. IIRC, the example she gave in her book was a time when, early in her journey before the book, she discarded a screwdriver, needed one but didn’t have it, then busted a favorite ruler trying to make it do a job it wasn’t designed for. She then realized the “useful” component of “spark joy” and included that in the book so that people wouldn’t think that they needed to toss important tools ;-). I like “The Minimalists” take on this as well (which I see as just a different way of framing what she was getting at) – ie there is a difference between “just in case” v. “just for when”. The former is fear based. The latter covers things like the aforementioned screwdriver and basic tools needed for the inevitable household issues up until the point that a professional is needed. And when you call a professional or otherwise outsource is going to vary from person to person. (Eg you have your own gardening tools, which makes sense if you enjoy gardening or like the cost savings of diy since you already own the tools. For another person, they don’t like it/have time for it/have room for the tools and prefer to pay someone for their gardening needs, so owning their own tools doesn’t make sense.)
      For Erik – it was watching my parents’ stress-filled journey of spending nearly a year sorting the items in an artist bachelor uncle’s house after he died that turned the light on for me of what I did *not* want to leave for others. I’m hedging that your mom – amazing teacher that she was – is pleased that you are using this experience as a learning opportunity to make your life – and others’, by sharing the story – more joy-filled in the long run. Blessings. p

  4. I go back and forth with this. The reality is that I really did not like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The reality is that I still need to be tidier. I do like the idea of focusing on my ideal lifestyle as a guide, moreso than being completely tidy.

  5. Admittedly I have never read her book.I think the rise of all these clearing out type of books are a symptom of our greed here in the west; shopping as a hobby, that seems to define us,”the one who dies with the most toys wins” We can’t seem to stop ourselves and so we shop for books to help us organize.

    I grew up very poor and as an adult I kept everything that could possibly be useful, luckily I never got into the habit of shopping (starting out with nothing means money spent only on necessities)
    Now as a older but wiser adult I have sorta followed the spark joy thing, but I use the “if I don’t consider it useful of beautiful” why do I keep it.
    As someone who has lots of hobbies there are a great many things I find useful, so I have cluttered areas in my house, which I endeavour to at least keep tidy.
    The first point about setting a goal; what type of house do you want to live in….when I think about that I picture an old cluttered cottage with cats and books at hand, comfy chairs, with blankets close by, footstools, tables to hold cups of tea. This is basically what I have, all my sparks of joy close by.

  6. The backlash is from people not truly understanding her philosophy. The true intent is to focus on the things that bring you JOY. I see it as prioritizing; ascribing a value to the things we own and getting rid of things that don’t bring value to our lives. Decluttering is just the physical results of this process.

  7. Thank you for this, p. It certainly makes sense. I don’t remember that part likely because the book was bedtime reading, and I might have been dozing off at that point. It’s happened before. :-)

    As I’m clearing my folks’ house, there’s a definite “spark joy” aspect to some things, especially those related to family history like an envelope of 100 year old photos I don’t remember seeing before. Other times, there’s more of a sense that I *should* keep some items because, well, it was my mom’s or my dad’s but I don’t really have any use for it. And then there are things like drawers of bank statements from the 1960s that are no-brainers.

    I find that items from my growing up years are much more likely to spark joy than things they accumulated in the years after I moved out of the house after college.

    It’s definitely an eye-opening experience from a lot of angles.

  8. Affluenza. Could it be helpful to address ‘affluenza’ as we do any other addiction ?

    Insights from Christian theologian Ched Myers

    ChedMyers.org

    Sabbath economics

    Watershed discipleship

  9. I can understand your pain. The husband has been tasked with clearing out his late brother’s house after the latter’s unexpected death last year at a relatively young age. The house had been in the family since 1952 and was filled with all sorts of things from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents – making my brother-in-law’s house something of a shrine to the long-dead. Adding to the stress is that it’s a 5-hour drive away from our home. It has made us do some thinking about what we leave for our kids to sort out.

  10. I simply could not get through the book due to all the woowoo BS. My bras do not “have an aura”. Socks don’t “spark joy” and neither does a basic white t-shirt. Cleaning stuff does not bring me any joy either, but I’m not going to chuck the windex and papertowels. I don’t aspire to a bare hotel room house. I liked and now use the clothes-folding method, but that’s it.

    Also, I have a life apart from cleaning things. I like sewing, quilting, knitting, spinning, beading, crafting, gardening, hiking, biking, travelling, cooking, hanging out with friends, volunteering and playing with the dogs. There’s stuff for pretty much all of those things and what really ‘sparks joy is walking out to my studio at 8pm and being able to make nearly anything I want that I saw on Pinterest 5 minutes ago. I really can’t see that someone whose only interest is throwing stuff out is going to help me with any of that.

    Your earlier blog post was a lot better: http://www.rootsimple.com/2015/02/de-cluttering-for-diyers-homesteaders-artists-preppers-etc/

    I’m sorry to hear of the passing of your parents. That must be hard.

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