How One Guy Tried to Clean His Clutter for Productivity

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Marie Kondo haunts my dreams.

Well, admittedly, she only appeared once. But given who she is—a four-foot-seven Japanese woman with a warm smile and cropped bangs—it’s still hard to believe that Japan’s cleaning guru played a terrible antagonist in my recent nightmare.

Shortly after Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was published in 2014, it made th New York Times Best Seller list, making her the new darling of the self-help universe. My mom has been telling me to clean my room for years, but it took only one episode of Kondo’s new hit Netflix series to compel me to break out the broom and get to work.

When Kondo works with her clients, she often asks “Does this spark joy for you?” This catchphrase is at the crux of her famous KonMari method—a wholesome, spiritual approach to domestic tidiness that encourages an attentive mode of empathy when decluttering stuffed closets and drawers. Simply put, a possession either sparks joy or it doesn’t. Of course, recognizing when it is time to let go can be impossibly tough. But by fostering gratitude for everything that particular object has given you—all the memories and emotions tied to it—you are practicing a form of spiritual self-care. Or at least that precious, healing sentimentality is what Kondo is aiming for.

But would the act of maintaining a tidier room produce a tidier mind? Well, according to Harvard Business Review, clutter is a productivity killer. Last year, “workplace stress” cost American businesses up to $190 billion, and an untidy station is one of the serious culprits for causing this expensive anxiety. Assuming an ecological view of clutter, a group of psychologists conducted a study to find the correlation between household clutter and procrastination, deducing that an overwhelming number of possessions can bring on “negative emotions” and “impaired social ability.”

Although a messy desk is often indicative of a creative mind, it can also point to one’s lack of discipline and work ethic. It was time for me to stop making excuses for being a slob and grab some trash bags and cardboard boxes.

When I finally started my purge, I discovered that I owned some less-than-savory items that were overdue for a trip to the pavement. I could hear Kondo in my head as I dangled a pair of five-year-old shoes in front of me. No, Marie—I don’t think these smelly Vans with eight holes spark joy for me anymore. To the trash they go!

Many tough decisions were made that day, but perhaps the most excruciatingly difficult call to make was determining the fate of my beloved college-dorm Nacho Libre poster. As I held it in my hand, I could feel Kondo whispering in my ear: It is time to let go. Au revoir, Jack Black in stretchy pants! Till we meet again. Little did I know that following her advice would spin my dreams into a terrifying vision.

Marie Kondo, or who I now presume to be her evil twin sister, visited my dream world the night of my tidying session. Barreling into my room without a word, she plunged violently into a cleaning frenzy. The first victim was my Nintendo 64. With one swing of her tiny arm, it was launched high into the stratosphere, magically filtering through my ceiling. Who knew the queen of clean’s doppelgänger had such latent superhuman strength?

From a logistical standpoint, tidying up improved my daily productivity. An international survey revealed that information workers could gain up to two hours in a cleaner environment—and the same went for me. No longer was I wasting precious time clearing my desk of its daily tangle of pens and books. Without the claustrophobic feeling clutter creates, my creativity received a welcome boost. Words came easier, and time management was not some foreign concept. But why was clearing out the drawers and closet causing my nighttime imagination to go haywire?

It might be because Kondo’ing one’s life actually requires a complicated, emotional-based calculus: How many minutes do I save each day for every T-shirt donated to Goodwill? Must I get rid of my CDs to reach the joyful state Kondo promises is awaiting brave, bold and tidy souls? As I followed her method, these kinds of questions were stressing me the fuck out. She never said her method was easy and totally painless, but it wasn’t a perfect fit for me. It’s not so simple, Marie!

In an article in The Atlantic called Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter, writer Arielle Bernstein says, “If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry.” If that is so, then I essentially pawned out my identity in exchange for more productivity, forgetting the most salient tenet of KonMari: empathy for yourself. I took the KonMari method too far by aiming for white walls and zen-like minimalism (the opposite of who I am) instead of a sustainable middle ground. In the pursuit of a happy medium, I tried some new tactics: pins for my posters instead of washi tape; biweekly sweeping; neatly folded clothes; tidy stacks of magazines. It’s not much, but if you know me well, it is a promising start.

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