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The Joy Of Being Tidy
IF YOU’RE SITTING at home right now, look around you. Do you see anything that doesn’t give you joy? Something you loved when you bought it but now elicit boredom or indifference? Pick them up and talk to them. Say: "Thank you for all the joy you've given me, but I’m afraid the time has come." Then drop them in the trash can or recycling bin. If they’re still useable, put them in a bag that’s bound for the charity drive or secondhand store.
If you think we’re horsing around, we assure you otherwise. If you still don’t believe us, go watch Netflix’s new show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo - all eight episodes of it. Watch dozens of children, women and men of various ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations pick things up in their houses and say to them: “Thank you… and goodbye.”
Then go on Instagram and search for #konmari, #mariekondo and #sparkjoy. Each hashtag has over 100,000 posts by people who have radically tidied up their homes and offices using the KonMari method. And you can bet that every single one of them has, at least once, held an inanimate object in their hand and said “Thank you”– at the risk of being ridiculed.
You will also see plenty of posts by people who are not wholly convinced by the decluttering craze that’s gripped a good part of the Netflix-viewing world. They’re the ones making jokes on social media like “For those who think decluttering is the new empty, my Kondolences” (stage director Jeremiah Choy) or “Marie Kondo is the manifestation of the Singaporean dream. First you Marie, then you buy Kondo” (poet Joshua Ip).
But a backlash, of course, just indicates just how popular and far-reaching the KonMari method is. Kondo has entered popular consciousness and become part of the global cultural conversation.
THE CULT OF KONDO
Just who is Marie Kondo and why are so many people talking about her? Why is her advice worth listening to, even if her preternaturally earnest personality and spotlessly white outfits seem to have been calculated and manufactured for our post-ironic times?
Also, just to set the record straight– contrary to what book lovers have been saying, she is NOT telling bibliophiles to throw away their old books. You can still keep that dog-eared, yellowing copy of The Catcher In The Rye if it means that much to you. (We journalists love books and wouldn’t advocate her methods if she was.)
Kondo is a 34-year-old pixie-faced phenomenon from Japan who first came to global attention with her bestselling guidebook The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014).
Her journey started in the early 2000s when, as a teenager, she began cleaning her friend’s homes for extra cash. By the time she was 19, she was ready to open an organising consultancy. She became so popular that her clients had to wait many months for an appointment.
And that was just the start of the Kondo craze. Her book’s translation into some 30 languages spurred a global decluttering craze and catapulted her onto Time magazine’s 2015 list of 100 Most Influential People. Despite speaking minimal English and needing a translator most of the time, she was nonetheless engaged to give talks all around the world.
But it was only this January when Netflix commissioned her own TV show that she entered full mainstream consciousness. Debuting auspiciously on Jan 1 – exactly the day when people were making new year resolutions – her method of keeping or discarding things based on whether they “spark joy” was quickly adopted by just about every pop-savvy person this side of Netflix. Gen Xers and Boomers are now asking if something might “spark long-term joy” before they purchase something. Millennials are asking if someone still “sparks joy” in their lives as they cull their lists of friends.
Meanwhile, Kondo has helped raise the profiles of professional organisers everywhere. In Singapore, several companies have seen their businesses improve during the January and February months as people make resolutions to be tidier and prepare their homes for Chinese New Year. There is no shame anymore, especially among working couples, about getting professional help to declutter.
IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU
In a nutshell, Kondo divides one’s belongings into five categories: Clothes, books, paper, komono (which comprises things in the kitchen, garage, playroom and so on) and sentimental objects. Invariably, each category becomes one enormous pile. Pick up each item, decide if it still “sparks joy”, and place it in the “keep” or “discard” section.
If all this seems like simple common sense, it is. (In fact, Kondo’s method of folding clothes is so mind-bogglingly simple, you find yourself wondering how this woman inspires so much devotion.)
But Kondo adds something else to the mix – a Shinto-style spirituality that involves thinking of both animate and inanimate objects as having spirits or souls. Before discarding anything, one must talk to it, thank it for its services, and put it away gently. The guiding principle is that the house has a soul as well, and it’s better to live in a tidy and organised household so that it may also serve you better as a roof over your head.
But if all these practical and animistic principles can be observed quite easily, it still doesn’t explain why Kondo is so popular with her clients. A further explanation may be found in the woman herself, a petite 1.4-metre tall woman with the facial features of Zhang Ziyi and the empathetic ear of Oprah Winfrey.
Kondo is an astute observer who’s able to quickly grasp what each individual wants most out of her life. The best example of this is in Episode 4, where Kondo helps a grieving widow rid her house of her late husband’s belongings. He died nine months earlier, a very short period compared to their decades-long loving marriage. And as Kondo listens sensitively to the widow talk about moving forward, she adds cautious, protective notes on how the widow should proceed.
Her bottom-line is always this: The process is about you and how much happier you might be through the reorganisation of your home. It’s not about having a “minimalist” home compared to your neighbour; if you take pride in your library of 3,000 books and love every single title, you should keep them. It’s about you.
EARTH THANKS YOU
Beyond these, Kondo seems to have also tapped into our contemporary anxieties of owning things. As cosmopolitans, we live in a strange time. On the one hand, we now have the ability to purchase just about anything we want in the world without leaving our bedrooms. On the other, we’re guiltily aware of how our consumption patterns have led to mountains of trash, the depletion of natural resources and the massive loss of wildlife.
Kondo doesn’t use the word “minimalism”, talk about money or say anything about the environmental crisis. But her attitude towards possessions will likely get minimalists, Suze Orman and Al Gore all nodding along simultaneously.
To Kondo, every object has a spiritual life. So before you purchase anything, you might wish to consider whether you’ll be able to love and cherish this object for some time – as you would a puppy or kitten. If it does not produce the requisite “joy” – which Kondo describes as an actual rising physical reaction in your body – put it back where you found it. Don’t be swayed by the “Buy One, Get One Free” or “50% Discount” signage or, heaven forbid, your own internal optimist saying: “There might be a rare occasion when I would be needing this…”
Kondo wants you to rid your life of objects that you think you might – but aren’t sure you will – need. She wants you to stop investing time, money, thought and energy into such objects to begin with. As we see on her TV show, people are reluctant to throw something because they’re already bought it, they think it has significant value, and they don’t want to have to buy it again someday should they need it.
But this kind of “sunk cost fallacy” is precisely what economists tell us to guard against: We think we make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, experiences and investments. But in fact, we often acquire them based on our emotions, and we soon find them hard to abandon precisely because we’ve paid for and become emotionally invested in them.
In her book, Kondo suggests that once you’ve applied the KonMari method, you never have to tidy again. Once you’ve rid your home of unnecessary items and stop buying new unnecessary ones, the home stays perpetually tidy on its own, all year round. Now that’s an ideal anyone can get on board with, wouldn’t you say?
Meet Singapore’s own versions of Marie Kondo - professional organisers who will sort you out in no time
01 Nathalie Ricaud
Founder of Get Organised & Beyond
“Start small, build your decluttering muscle and in the process build the confidence that you can declutter and live with less. Focus on the benefits you are going to get from being clutter-free and organised instead of the task at hand.”
Parents with young children know how hard it is to get their kids to tidy their rooms or toys. But not Nathalie Ricaud’s parents. As a child, she already had a passion for organising. “I was raised without systems or schedules. Looking back, I’d say organising things around the house was my way of creating the structure that had been absent in my life,” she says.
Today, she runs Get Organised & Beyond, a decluttering company that helps clients better organise their homes. She also offers time management services and can teach clients to manage their paper and digital clutter.
While she had a strong inclination towards organising, she says that it was her two decades’ experience in the logistics industry that helped her hone her organising skills, while attending professional organising courses as well.
“A home is just like a traditional warehouse - every item should have a dedicated spot so that it can easily be found when needed and put away in the same place after being used,” she says. “It also helps save time and potentially money as we may end up buying multiples of the same item because we can’t find it or because we forgot we had it and had misplaced it.”
The top three areas that clients need help most are the wardrobe, the desk/home office and the storeroom. “For most people these areas involve items that are not too difficult to part with and/or tend to be a big organising challenge for them,”says Ms Ricaud.
Together with the client, they define the underlying aim for organising an area, such as being able to entertain at home. “We list the activities that will be performed in the room and define who will be using it so we can have some clarity on what belongs there and what doesn’t,” she says. Next, they consider disposal options, such as recycling, selling, or donating, as well as what to keep. “Keep only what you need, use and love. And fits into your storage space. The rest is clutter,” says Ms Ricaud.
Then the physical work starts, by sorting items by category, what to move to a different room, and what not to keep. Storage options are discussed, and items are all assigned to a home. A three-hour session costs S$390.
02 Haw-San Au-yong
Founder of Edits Inc.
“As much as is possible, place everything upright, like books on a library shelf. Take whatever you see around you and stand them upright. Keep papers on your desk in a file holder. Pens should be placed vertically in a pen holder. Have your mobile phone on a phone stand. You can immediately see how much space you’ve freed up by placing things upright.”
Former engineer turned professional organiser, Haw-San Au-yong lives by 3Rs - retrievable, replaceable and restored.
Items in a space must be retrievable in 10 seconds or less; replaceable (placed back in its original location) in no more than 10 seconds, and a messy space must be restored back to order in three minutes or less.
The 3Rs have served Ms Au-yong and clients of her organising firm, Edits Inc., well. “We consider a space organised only when it meets the 3R criteria,” she says.
Without the 3Rs, organising is an art - focused on the aesthetics of a space. “We need something to conclusively and objectively define an organised space, versus just looking tidy,” she says. “When things are organized, they will definitely look tidy; but the reverse is not always true.”
Living by the 3Rs also means that a person can spend less time being a slave to the home, and have more time with friends and family.
Most of Ms Au-yong’s clients are parents with young kids, career-focused individuals, or empty-nesters right-sizing into more manageable homes.
Working in a team of two to three people, Edits Inc. uses a five-step process that helps them get through all kinds of clutter.
It starts with a site assessment to find out about the client’s lifestyle and vision, and the space that needs organising. Storerooms are usually the most congested area, followed by bedrooms and the study. Next is planning - figuring out the most efficient furniture layout and the type of storage needed and where to place them. The third step involves sorting. This is where every single item is pulled out of all the cupboards and shelves and sorted into categories. After that, it is purging - deciding what to keep or discard.The last step is to organise, which is where the furniture layout and storage plan come in handy.
Ms Au-yong says, “If your home is very cluttered, it’s best to call for professional help instead of attempting it on your own – you might run out of steam quickly, and it can take an emotional toll,” she says.
She charges S$80 an hour, which excludes the cost of storage furniture and products.
03 Kris Tan
Founder of The Declutter Professionals
“Pack and keep. We don't need fanciful methods. Just simple straightforward back to basics processes. Each place has its home. Remember it needs to go back to its "home".”
If your house is in a mess and you don’t know where to start, Kris Tan has a suggestion. “Start at the area which gets you motivated most. So it gives you the momentum to finish off the rest of the areas,” she says.”Discard, declutter and organise.”
Ms Tan, who picked up organising skills from her father, because he hates hoarding, started her firm in 2012. Her clients are mostly women, and a mix of working professionals and mums. She has recently been getting more Singaporean clients than expats.
She says that since she is providing decluttering services, it is only right that she works to upkeep her home too. “Once in a while, I have a cheat day where instead of a vacuum cleaner I use a Magic Mop. I try not to pile up for more than a week,” she says.
Chinese New Year and school holidays are her busiest periods, but she also has a team of freelancers to help her out.
After about seven years in the business, no mess fazes her. However, Ms Tan does require that clients be fully aware of the situation at home before she helps them.
She recalls the case of a family needing help to clear their grandaunt's home. The elderly lady had been hospitalised and the family wanted to take the chance to declutter her home. The amount of dust was above ankle level. And it was so bad that the family didn't want to go in. “I didn't take up the case for a simple reason. I needed the owner of the house to be aware of the situation and if she was not, I wouldn’t go ahead,” says Ms Tan.
She charges S$50 an hour for a minimum of two hours. Ms Tan also provides advice virtually if physical visits are not possible or for those interested who aren't based in Singapore.