The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is everywhere right now. People keep bringing it to my attention, and finally I have caved and decided to address it. I’ve been reading every book about clutter that hits the market since around 1994, when I forgot to cancel my paperback book club order and received a new copy of Simplify Your Life. When I first read Marie Kondo’s runaway best-seller, I intended to review it, but changed my mind before I’d read a quarter of it. Her tone seemed so strict and critical, I didn’t think my readers would find it appealing. I also thought her methods were so successful because of her personal charisma and coaching skills, and because of Japanese cultural differences. For my people, working alone in standard American hyper-accumulation, it seemed that the KonMari method could lead only to self-recrimination. It felt to me like a diet book based more on motivation than nutrition, dashing initial high hopes when results were slow in coming.
Let’s start with house size. According to 2012 figures, the average total floor area of a Japanese home is 1021 square feet, including 4.77 rooms. American homes have steadily increased in size, with newly built homes expanding in size by roughly 300 square feet each decade, so that 2600 square feet is the new average. (My own modest SoCal rental house dates from the 1960s and is roughly 1700 square feet). 1000 square feet of living space in the US now qualifies as part of the “tiny home” movement. [In December 2015, I moved into a 728 square foot house built in 1939]. Many Japanese families sleep on futon, which they roll up and store in purpose-built closets during the day so that the room can be used for other functions. The self-storage industry has only taken off in Japan within the last decade; as of 2009, 79% of the entire world’s storage units were to be found in the US. While both live in wealthy nations, Japanese and American families are by no means identical in lifestyle. We have a lot more space to fill with clutter, and fill it, we do.
Like Kondo, I am a clutter coach. My people are a bit different than hers, because it’s my calling to work with squalor, compulsive acquisition, and chronic disorganization. It’s absolutely standard for me to have to climb over piles of stuff when I do a home visit. Closets have to be opened gingerly, with one hand slipped in to balance box towers and prevent cascading waves of loose items from falling out. The scenarios shown in Hoarders are far, far more common than most people realize. It would be interesting to do a cross-cultural clutter-off, pitting families from Southeast Asia, Europe, or, say, Australia against North American families. The trouble is that my people tend to go in one of two ways. Either they think they’re alone in their struggles, meaning they are reluctant to ask for help, or their friends live the same way they do, so they think squalor is no big deal. Either way, space clearing can be a monumental undertaking.
That’s my main issue with this book. Even with a team of physically strong assistants, it is an extremely challenging task to clear a single American-style hoarded room over a weekend, much less the entire home from corner to corner. My husband and I have had professional movers, whom I like to interview, and we’ve been told stories of families who had more boxes come out of one room than we had in our whole house. That’s by volume, weight, and total count. Kondo appears to work with ordinary, slightly disorganized people who have a bit more stuff than they need. My assessment is that what counts as “needing professional organizing help” in Japan would qualify as “doing great” here in the US. I believe as many as 20% of American households live in what qualifies as level two squalor, depending on neighborhood.
Three elements seem to attract people to the KonMari Method.
1: Does the object bring you joy? That’s a great question that has the power to create instant paradigm shifts. I don’t think it’s nuanced enough, though. While it’s important to me, for example, to have a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, and a go bag, I don’t feel joyful about those objects. Perhaps what I feel is closer to sensible or relieved. It’s like parsing the emotions felt by Sirius Black as he fought the Dementors in Azkaban.
2. Regarding objects as emotionally responsive, perhaps sentient, and considering their needs. This comes directly from the animistic, pantheist religious traditions of Japan, and I can see how it would translate well, as many of us grew up watching cartoons and playing with stuffed animals that embody this attitude. Unfortunately, the sense that stuff has feelings and needs is a massive part of why my people get so emotionally attached to their material possessions. I’ve seen it in action over and over again. Indeed, it’s why my people universally keep stuffed animals into adulthood. The core of my work is reminding people to redirect their affections from stuff to humans. Please think more of your loved ones than you do of how you fold your socks and dish towels.
3. The specific methods of folding and storing objects. I laughed ruefully when I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, because I have been folding my shirts and socks and doing my drawers the KonMari way for many years. I hate folding socks the traditional way. There is nothing funnier to me than the appeal of Kondo’s folding and storage methods, because my people loathe folding and putting away laundry as a rule. It seems like adding one more layer of complexity to this task would be a way of ensuring it never gets done at all. Maybe the addition of the concept of hurting your laundry’s feelings by leaving it in the basket is the missing psychological aspect, though getting rid of most of it would certainly help as well.
GET ORGANIZED seems to have taken the place in women’s magazines that sewing and knitting patterns did just two generations ago. We’re on the receiving end of a continuous stream of advertisements in every medium, morning, noon, and night, indoors and outdoors, exhorting us to BUY ALL THE THINGS. Then, when we snap into alertness and realize that all this stuff is burying us alive, they hit us again with more purchasing opportunities for “organizers,” not to mention the entire custom closet, home remodel, self-storage, professional organizer stuff-abatement industry, of which I am an active part. It is precisely like the model of overfeeding us at one window and over-prescribing pharmaceuticals at the next.
I agree with Marie Kondo that having only what we need and enjoy around us is key to a happier life. Fighting over-consumption is a worthy goal in itself. I also agree that it’s possible to push through and be “done” once and for all. I just don’t think the Konmari Method is suitable for my people, the American-style accumulators. It’s a teaspoon in place of a backhoe. I hope I’m wrong, and if I am, I salute her for fighting the good fight.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.