On Marie Kondo And The Pleasure Of Organization

When I think of the pleasure of organizing, I can’t chalk it up to a superfluous trend. It is a helpful way for me to manage my anxiety.

The night before President’s Day, I woke up around 4am with a racing mind. This happens more often than I’d like, especially when school is in session. But this time my mind was racing because it was excited, even joyful, not nervous or upset. Shhhh, I thought. We have a whole day tomorrow. We can get started then.

“I can’t believe you woke yourself up because you were excited about organizing!” my partner laughed the next day. I had been marathoning Tidying Up with Marie Kondo all weekend as a reward for being ahead on schoolwork. Tidying Up lit a fire under me to tackle the areas of our house where items were not stored thoughtfully or discriminately; having moved in a few days before Christmas, I was concerned with getting things unpacked rather than how they should be organized. The show also reminded me of the sublime pleasure I get from organizing.

Even if you haven’t watched Marie Kondo’s show, you’ve probably seen her in memes and think pieces on your timeline. The eight episodes, which premiered last month on Netflix, are an extension of the KonMari system outlined in Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011). In each one, Kondo meets with a different household (a nice variety of people and situations, including a retired couple, an expecting young couple, couples with multiple kids, and student roommates) to determine their specific needs and household dynamics. She then guides the household through the following steps:

  • Assess the amount of clutter and other issues like distribution of workload, emotional labor, and personal goals.
  • Thank the home for all it does for you and your family.
  • Declutter in the following order: clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous areas (kitchen, garage, etc.), and finally, sentimental items.
  • While decluttering, spread the items on the floor or the bed so that the quantity of clutter is clearly visible. Regard each item by picking it up and asking yourself if it “sparks joy” – if it doesn’t, it goes.

Multiple columnists have pointed out the privilege inherent in decluttering. “Minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice,” Stephanie Land writes, recounting her days cleaning houses that she could only dream of affording. “Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?” It is certainly a luxury to get rid of unwanted items. But one of the chief goals of the KonMari method is to cultivate an attitude of love and appreciation for your home and all the things inside. Anyone, regardless of how much stuff you own, can learn to do this.

I had very little spending money while working as an adjunct professor. Scarcity dictated how I spent anything extra, and if I wanted to do something like go to the mall with the girls or go out to dinner and a movie with friends, I had to start saving well in advance. However, I began to generate clutter in other ways. I saved hard copies of every paper I had written during my last master’s program and every copy of a student paper that I enjoyed reading. As I was teaching five courses each semester, the amount of paper warranted many, many plastic storage bins. Even though I was still in my 20s, living in my first apartment, and did not yet have a surplus of household items, my bins of schoolwork left little room in closets for anything else. I eventually realized that I was holding on to all of these assignments in lieu of being able to purchase things for pleasure. Accumulating paper related to my schooling and my job solidified my identity as a professor. The bins gave me something to be proud of during the harsh reality of underemployment. Clutter is, after all, rarely about the clutter itself.

While watching Tidying Up, I found that several of Marie Kondo’s points echoed what my mom used to tell me. The more items that you bring into your home just because, the more you will neglect items that actually bring you joy. For example, while underemployed I would buy clothes just because they were on clearance and therefore extremely affordable. I wasn’t thinking about whether or not I actually liked them. Years later, I was left with clothes that decidedly did not “spark joy” and in fact hid the ones I really loved. Unearthing these pleasurable items creates pleasure. Making sure that everything has its proper place, as Marie Kondo and my mother have both told me, eases the frustration of fumbling around and gives thanks to the space your home provides.

Our clutter – and more broadly, the condition we keep our homes in – tells a story. Now, in my 30s with a more stable income and more flexibility to spend for pleasure, I want my home to reflect the gratitude of these privileges. I do not want to walk into a room and see stuff; I want to see things that I use regularly and that make me happy. I want to ensure that an item I do not use or enjoy can go to someone who will appreciate it. When I think of the pleasure of organizing, I can’t chalk it up to a superfluous trend. It is a helpful way for me to manage my anxiety. In the continuous stream of stress that is working full-time while going to school and doing scholarship, it is a comparatively simple, pleasant activity that gives me a sense of control. Most of all, it is a way to honor my home with my partner, and to give thanks for our life together.

Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, D.C. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.

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