Bit by the Marie Kondo Bug? Advice for Tidying Up and Keeping it That Way

Spring is finally here. From the office where I write I can see the buds popping out on tree branches and hear birds singing their little hearts out. The sense of release is palpable: just a few more months until summer arrives with warmer temperatures and the promise of a much-needed vacation.

Spring

The sense of relief we feel with the arrival of spring echoes the desire many of us have to feel less burdened in general. I think this is also why the Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” has such broad appeal. The show features home make-overs during which tidying expert Marie Kondo helps clients clear out the clutter and make over their environments so they can experience less overwhelm and greater joy.

Clearing up and cleaning out can be deeply satisfying. It’s energizing to see immediate improvement in our environment and get some control over the stuff we’ve accumulated. (Based on the show’s popularity, it’s equally satisfying to watch others clean up while we lounge on the couch eating potato chips, but I digress.)

But what happens in the following months, once the papers have been cleared, the socks are neatly folded, and Marie Kondo has left the building? My guess is that once taping has wrapped, extra stuff starts to creep back in and things start to get messy again. While revamping a space can be fun and energizing, it’s hard to change old habits and maintain an ideal environment in the hectic pace of everyday life.

Hangars in closet

Once we’ve cleaned up and cleared out, how do we sustain the outer order we worked so hard to achieve?

The part of Kondo’s message that seems to resonate most with followers is the litmus test she uses to determine if items should be kept or disgarded. Kondo asks clients to hold each object and ask themselves if it “sparks joy”. If the answer is yes, it stays; if no, it goes.

This idea is certainly has appeal. For one thing, I like thinking about what brings me joy (I mean, who doesn’t?). Though I haven’t used this method to clean up my own space, I imagine it’s satisfying to keep only the things that make you happy while banishing those that don’t to the Salvation Army bin. Generally, I think we feel overburdened by responsibility and scarce on delight, so I get the broad appeal of this joy-focused tidying method.

But the idea of what does or doesn’t spark joy is also too limited in scope. For example, my toothbrush doesn’t exactly spark joy, but it does prevent the inside of my mouth from feeling disgusting and therefore improves the quality of my life. It’s a definite keeper.

I’m also concerned about how the “spark joy” test works for the long term. Once we tidy up and clear out our space, can considering whether an item “sparks joy” keep us from ill-advised purchases in the future?

Joy

The truth is many of us have deeply-ingrained poor purchase habits. As members of a consumer-driven culture we tend to think that the acquisition of something is the solution to everything. Mad at my boss? Maybe I purchase an expensive face cream during my lunch hour (after all, I deserve it!). Kids driving me crazy? I’ll buy them a new game. Feeling bored or anxious? A shopping spree is just the ticket. Add to this the fact that online shopping is easier than ever (“Alexa, order…”) and we have an environment that urges constant spending that’s hard to resist.

We might experience joy (or something that is easily mistaken for joy, such as a momentary mood boost) at the time we purchase these things, but will these purchases give us a sense of well-being in the long run? Or will joy simply turn to regret as we become overrun by more stuff and greater financial stress?

Shopping

Shopping can also be a form of what’s known in psychology as “avoidance coping”, described as a “maladaptive form of coping that involves changing our behavior to try to avoid thinking or feeling things that are uncomfortable. In other words, avoidance coping involves trying to avoid stressors rather than dealing with them.” That face cream purchase may temporarily delight you, but ultimately it may be just an expensive avoidance tactic that doesn’t solve the problem you’re having with your boss.

The idea of what sparks joy also tends to keep us focused on short-term pleasure, perhaps at the expense of achieving a deeper and longer-lasting sense of well-being.

Instead of joy, what if we use our core values to determine what possessions we keep and what things we buy in the future? Core values are those principles that represent what’s most important to us. To know your core values, you must thoughtfully make difficult decisions regarding what does and does not rise to the level of premium importance in your life. Core values take time and effort to determine but can help make future decision-making clearer.

For example, my husband and I share the value of having meaningful experiences together, which includes travel. To save for trips, we do our best to stick to a monthly budget that keeps our day-to-day spending in check. Over time, as our values have become more clear, we’ve gotten better at gauging the value of daily purchase options against longer-term and more meaningful goals.

While, say, going out to dinner on a regular basis provides more immediate pleasure, it doesn’t give us with the same level of satisfaction in the long-run that travel does. So we are willing to limit our dinners out and curb similar purchases so we can save to take trips. We’ve taken the time to figure out what we value most and use it as a litmus test against which we measure other purchases.

To be clear, I am not at all opposed to the idea of treating ourselves. In fact, I give myself small treats on an almost daily basis; it’s one of the ways I keep myself motivated to accomplish important but challenging things.

But I try to keep my most important priorities top of mind because I don’t want treats to sabotage my ability to have more meaningful experiences. If I need a boost, I might decide to spend 15 minutes sitting outside on a nice day rather than take a trip to my favorite store. I weigh the cost of potential purchases against deeper desires – such as my desire to go to France for my 50th birthday (which is creeping up on me at an alarming pace and kicking my saving butt into gear).

Travel in France

This method isn’t full proof, of course. I still sometimes buy stuff I really don’t need. In fact, I have a recently purchased pair of stylish but completely unnecessary pants from Old Navy in my closet right now proving my point. (To return or keep, that is the question…)

But I do find that knowing my core values and referring to them regularly keeps me on track most of the time. And my values provide guidance for other decisions as well. After all, as a society we’re not just overburdened by stuff but by too many choices in general. Knowing what I value most helps me make careful choices about what books I read, which events I attend, or whom I spend time with, to name a few things.

And those Old Navy pants? Well, I might just have to keep those. I think they’ll look super cute when I’m traipsing around France.