Why I have problems with Konmari methods

The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising.  Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy.  In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill.  Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK).  Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).

So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone.  In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes).  Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die.  When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there.  And it was liberating to be just so.  Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’

Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a  ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’.  Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials?  In the actual Japanese version of the book,  Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy!  But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.

Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding.  The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them.  Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house.  For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons.  Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well?  Anyway, it was my gain.  But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard.  That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy.  There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?

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Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’).  So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop?  Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so?  Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up.  Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.

Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after.  Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly.  But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives.  Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life.  So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system.  Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born.  Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever.  The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,

‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’  (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)

I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself.  The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer.  Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections?  Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.

Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders.  This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful.  I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc.  Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.

So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself?  First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops.  Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire.  I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world).  These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants.  And there are lots of books!  (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was)  I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them.  My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials.  Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time.  There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always.  But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that.  So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!

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Why I won’t tell others to declutter

I have a close relative who, until this week, I did not recognise as being depressed.  The signs were all there- habitual untidiness, slowness, procrastination, hoarding and wearing of mismatched and old clothes (some of which were in tatters). She would refuse to visit others and refuse to let others visit her (except me).

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cluttered desk is a sign of cluttered mind?  (credit: wikimedia commons)

I could see her habits were having a detrimental effect on her family and her children.  The hoarding also helped to prevent others visiting her and her husband was complaining that they could not invite others.  Her husband would come home from work and stand, drinking his tea because there nowhere to sit- just stuff everywhere.

I thought it was a simple case of being careless about her appearance.  For many years, I sent her books and videos on decluttering, self improvement, spirituality, household management, and even fashion.  She never read or saw anything I sent her, instead all this piled up on the existing clutter.  I’d cajole her sometimes and sometimes plead with her.  I took her to other people’s homes on other pretexts but I was secretly hoping that she might be inspired by other’s tidiness. Each time I visited, I would tidy up her place, hoping that the change would inspire her to keep it that way.  She would refuse to part with anything, so I would leave these things in a bin bag and pray that after I left she would throw the rubbish away.  Each time after a few days, the place would go back to how it was.  She would explain that she was so busy that she had no time to tidy up but in reality she was at home, not working elsewhere.  Her home was her work.

She resisted any efforts to ‘improve’ her. People would always talk about ‘poor her’ and how she could not manage- and I didn’t like hearing people talk like this about her.  But I felt there was nothing I could do.  Slowly I stopped visiting her, instead I would ring her from time to time.

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Clutter may not be as simple to get rid of by asking questions about sparking joy

This week has been the Mental awareness week in the UK, and I was listening to a young woman on the radio talking about her depression.  One of the things she said that struck a chord with me was that she deliberately wore tattered or mismatched clothes to draw attention to her mental state, i.e. she would use her choice of clothes, instead of words, to show the world what her mind was going through.  I realised that my relative was doing exactly the same. I had failed to understand that and instead in a superficial way, was trying to ‘correct’ her.  I feel extremely ashamed now of what I had been trying to do. Instead of seeing her inner life state (depression), I was viewing it as a superficial problem, which could be solved through ‘logical’ and rational means such as self help videos and books.  I had been extremely insensitive for decades while she had descended into chaos- she wanted help in other ways but not through books and videos.  She had let me into her life perhaps hoping that I would help her but I had failed to even grasp the problem for years. I had failed, not her!

I have now reflected on my own selfishness and ignorance and am no longer going to tell her how to live her life or tidy her home.  Instead, I am hoping to rekindle our friendship and love- and help her in the way she wants. People sometimes confuse grief and depression and I had done that too in this case. In some decluttering books and videos, hoarding is viewed as signs of grief and loss.  People are asked to look at things and ask if they ‘spark joy’ and to let them go if they don’t.  While grief is a natural response to a loss, while depression is an illness.  People who are grieving find their feelings of sadness and loss come and go, but they’re still able to enjoy things and look forward to the future. In contrast, people who are depressed don’t enjoy anything and find it difficult to be positive about the future.  So for depressed people, nothing sparks joy- this is a useless question to ask of hoarders who are also depressed.  This is what was going on with my relative. This incident also showed me how judgmental and insensitive I was- I am grateful for my relative for helping to reveal this part of my nature to me. After all these years, I realised I needed to work on myself, not her!  She was my mirror but I had not looked properly.

Have you faced a problem like this, trying to help someone close to you?  How did you go about it?  Let me know by commenting.