Beyond the Marie Kondo Method: The Psychology behind Tidying-up
March 12, 2019
Debuting in January 2019, the popular Netflix show “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” promised to help families decrease chaos and “spark joy” within their homes. Although the notion of watching stressed-out families organize their belongings is baffling to some, Kondo’s approach fits well with popular cultural movements emphasizing minimalism and mindful consumerism. Given the popularity of Kondo’s show, Psychology Resident Lucia Walsh, Psychology Resident Gabriel Casher and Chief Psychologist Christopher Sheldon decided to delve into the psychological research on clutter and well-being so that you can make informed choices when deciding whether or not the “KonMari Method” she uses on the show is right for you.
First, it is not shocking news that disorganization and overconsumption of material goods can affect our well-being. The average American wastes two and a half days per year searching for lost items and uses only 20 percent of the items they own. Further, our level of excess consumption has led one in 10 Americans to rent temporary storage units, contributing to even higher economic and environmental price tags associated with excess buying. Additional consumption can also impact emotional well-being, as clutter and disorganization in the home is associated with higher levels of the stress hormone–cortisol– along with anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Maintaining a tidy environment, in comparison, has many documented positive benefits. First, when personal consumption is lower, families have more money for meaningful activities, like exploring their home town/city, practicing hobbies and attending cultural events. Second, having less to clean leads to fewer hours of housework, ultimately increasing time for leisure activities. If having more leisure time is not convincing enough, consider the benefits to mental and physical health. For instance, those who live in tidy and organized households have lower levels of stress, better quality of life, higher perceived control over their environment and higher efficiency. Though rarely thought of as exercise, tidying is also considered moderate physical activity by the Centers for Disease Control and can be used to meet the 30 minutes of recommended daily exercise.
Despite the negative consequences of clutter and positive benefits of tidying, many people find it extremely difficult to maintain an uncluttered, organized home. This is likely because tidying can be boring, overwhelming and time consuming (if not dealt with daily). Further, daily cleaning can seem especially unapproachable to working professionals and families with children. Barriers to tidying go beyond time and energy. In particular, difficulty parting with sentimental items (e.g., family heirlooms, collector’s items) can make tidying seem more intimidating.
In the face of these barriers, it is not surprising that many people are daunted by the prospect of tidying. One helpful tactic in psychology for motivating behavior change is the use of decisional balance techniques. This approach focuses on the pros and cons of changing behavior (beginning to tidy daily) or behavior staying the same (waiting until the clutter is overwhelming).
For example, one “pro” of daily tiding could be a decrease in stress, while a “pro” of letting things stay cluttered is getting to watch a favorite television show instead of cleaning. One factor we always encourage those using this approach is to consider the long-term versus short-term benefits and consequences of changing your behavior. Using this technique does not require a professional and there are many excellent online resources to guide those interested through the technique.
If you choose to tidy, Kondo’s method has stood out among other approaches as a simple and palatable way to address overly cluttered living spaces. Unlike other tidying approaches’ focus on getting rid of “stuff,” Kondo’s method is more about setting up your personal space for functionality and emotional peace in the future. In other words, the focus is on “what you want” over “what you don’t want.” Another notable aspect of the “KonMari” method is “thanking,” or expressing gratitude, for the objects you are removing from your home. This approach aligns well with research in positive and evolutionary psychology, which suggests that expressing gratitude for personal relationships, objects and experiences promotes positive affect, increases satisfaction with life and may even lead to physical changes that promote health and well-being.
Despite these advantages, Kondo’s technique is far from universally approachable. A recent critique of Kondo’s show in The Atlantic read, “in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones.” Indeed, a certain amount of economic privilege is involved in a person’s ability to get rid of items for good.
Further, people with psychological conditions including hoarding disorder, compulsive shopping, and major depressive disorder may need to make adjustments to this approach. For those with hoarding disorder, many items may “spark joy,” and parting with any objects can lead to intense fear of “needing it someday” or guilt regarding if the object lands in a “good or worthy home.”
Individuals with compulsive shopping often engage in a cycle of accumulation, followed by “purging” to make room for more items and to reduce guilt. In these cases, taking Kondo’s approach when buying items (i.e., “Does it spark joy?”) may be more helpful than engaging in compulsive decluttering. Finally, Kondo’s intense approach to decluttering (putting all clothing in one spot in your house) may be too overwhelming for those struggling with depression.
If embarking on a tidying journey is right for you, here are a few tips for how to approach the process (besides watching the show and reading Marie Kondo’s companion book):
- Enlist support: Ask for help from a friend or family member.
- Use your judgment: Remember, what you decide to keep is a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong object to keep or discard. One helpful question to ask is, “Am I keeping this object because it makes me happy or is it because I think I ‘should’ keep it?” If the only reason to keep an item is to avoid guilt, donate it!
- Tidying is not everything: A perfectly tidy home may feel great, but it cannot come at the expense of staying active, hydrated and rested. Remember the old adage, “progress, not perfection.”
- Start with the “Five Minute Rule”: Set a timer for five minutes and attempt one tidying task (making your bed, loading the dishwasher, etc.). Once the timer is up, you can stop cleaning. The best part of this method? When most people get over the initial “hump” of starting a task, they are often able to complete more than they imagined and feel rewarded by their progress.
- Hire a professional: If you suffer from a psychological condition that makes tidying more difficult, hiring a professional organizer or working with a therapist may be a good place to start.