The Life-Affirming Science of Tidying Up

By Jon Miller Updated on February 4th, 2019

When book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published a few years ago, I read it with interest. It describes an unintentional application of 2S principles in the home (sort & straightening / set in order). Author and consultant Marie Kondo has reportedly been obsessed with tidiness since childhood. As a result of her dedication the book is now a bestseller. Her KonMari method is even featured in a Netflix show.

The title of the book is misleading. There is no magic to tidying up. Kondo is not concerned with science, art or magic. She just wants to help people tidy up. But there is a science, which is to say a logical underpinning, for why tidying up can improve our lives. Here the parallels to the science of using our time and resources better, a.k.a. lean, are interesting.

Kondo encourages people to only keep items that “spark joy” and to say goodbye to other items in our lives. This is goal-oriented thinking applied to decluttering. When we are driven to achieve something, either in our hobbies or careers, we envision a target condition. We may call it motivation, our why or purpose. In business we ask, “does this action contribute to our goals? or “does this feature delight the customer?” and “does the downstream process value my effort?” We do this to determine what we to stop and what to continue. Kondo is encouraging the same, but in personal rather than business terms via the life-affirming focus on joy.

Next, Kondo asks us to say goodbye to our possessions, thanking them for their service. This strikes some as quirky. In Western culture we don’t pay respect objects or thank them. Parents in most cultures teach their children to take care of their belongings. Waste not want not, and so forth. In Japan this is less a practical matter than a spiritual one. Their traditional religion allows for all things in nature to have a spirit or heart. Objects can feel joy if they are appreciated or feel sad when neglected or abused. The idea of thanking things we throw out for their service comes from what we can call a”respect for the humanity of objects”.

The one useful idea I took away from the books is to roll up items of clothing into tidy bundles. Kondo’s specific ways of folding clothes makes better use of storage space. Her method for folding and rolling clothes up standardizes the packaging and presentation in our closets and drawers. In lean terms, this is an example of eliminating wasted time and space by reducing variation.

The simple act of decluttering can have a lasting impact on our quality of life. People can fall into what is called “learned helplessness” after repeated failures at something, believing there is no use in trying. Coming home to a cluttered house that never gets better can have this psychological effect. A KonMari blitz can help people learn that they can make a change, and thus feel empowered.

Studies have shown the productivity effect of decluttering in both knowledge work and in industrial work. There may be a psychological aspect to it, but this is also practical. If we can find what we need quickly, spend less time deciding, searching or choosing, we can spend more time creating value and engaging with customers and colleagues.

Now that more than 300 certified tidying-up consultants are at large teaching with the KonMari method, I am curious about its long-term prospects. Neither 2S nor 5S are by themselves a sufficient system for “life changing” improvement to be sustained. The following questions are similar to those we see with continuous improvement efforts within organizations.

Event-driven improvement or daily improvement? A Kondo visit is like a kaizen event, down to the Japanese consultant with an interpreter speaking English for her. A lot of change happens during a short time. We are given the courage to act via the presence and advice of an expert. Things that we couldn’t change or throw away for years, we accomplish in mere days. What happens in the weeks and months after the consultant visit? Have we changed the fundamental human behaviors that resulted in the accumulation and clutter in the first place? Or will the newly tidied up home go back to clutter before long?

Problem solving or solution jumping? The KonMari method gets rid of things (sort) that don’t “spark joy” and neatly organizes (straighten) what remains. But there are at least two other 5S actions worth considering. The third S of “sweep” is to clean up a little each day and during the day, building the habit of recognizing when things are getting cluttered. This helps us detect the causes of clutter, and prevent them at the source. The standardize and sustain / self-disciple steps of 5S provide a routine to audit our tidied space, check against our standard or ideal condition. Without this, the risk is that we do one big cleanup and forget about maintenance. Throwing things out is a solution to clutter. But what deeper problem are we trying to solve? Clutter may be merely a symptom of other dysfunctions which a quick cleanup may not address.

Paper savings or bottom line savings? The financial impact of Lean improvement is often not fully realized. Some call this “paper savings” because on paper, the kaizen event saved millions, but the CFO can’t see it her monthly reports. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. An improved process may allow us to deliver the same value with less of one or more fixed resources, but without additional volume the cost stays the same. Or the cost may have genuinely been reduced, but the accounting system is not designed to report this correctly. Or it may be that whatever we save in one process we waste away at the next, because we made point improvements to optimize a small area rather than improve the flow across the value stream. How do people convert the savings from KonMari into a better quality of life? For example does a more organized closet reduce time spent choosing what to wear and getting dressed? If time is saved, is this converted to more quality time with family or to more time staring at our phone or binging TV shows? In the worst case, we may celebrate a tidy house by buying more clothes, books, furniture, to fill the space.

Tidying up the things around us is the first step to tidying up our lives in general. Why do we have these things? Where do we put these things? How much stuff gets do we have to put away or retrieve to get the the fun stuff? The answers to these reflect how we choose to spend our time. Start with some life-affirming reflection on joy and gratitude and you can’t go far wrong.

  1. Javier

    February 4, 2019 - 7:33 pm

    Great analysis Jon (as always) I have been somewhat curious about Marie Kondo’s Netflix show and whether I could show parts of it to make a point during 5S training, even if to show only cultural aspects. On the other hand, maybe some people can only see how her ideas apply only at home and not so much at work. (I am speaking specifically of the country I am living in at the moment)

    • Jon Miller

      February 5, 2019 - 11:01 am

      Hello Javier. It think you could show selections from the show to help people. If they can see it applies at home that is the first step. Home and work are both part of life, so if tidying up is good at home why not also do what is good at work? Encourage people to start it as a personal / home experiment and then expand to their work space.

  2. Sean Tissiere

    February 5, 2019 - 2:08 am

    Jon Miller,
    Very great article. I really like how you opened up with how the title is misleading. It often is the small changes and tweaks in mindsets that help effectively make the most impactful changes. I believe a very important term is the word allocation. Being able to properly allocate time and resources among other variables goes a long way to reducing waste either in a firm/company or personally. Regardless, proper allocation through “tidying up” goes a long way to yielding more positive personal, financial, and overall gains for often all parties involved, either directly or indirectly. I am a senior at the University of Rhode Island and lean improvement is a very important value to me. I thank you for taking the time to post this and really loved how you touched on the importance of reflection and gratitude over material items. I am actively trying to maintain this mindset and wanted to end on a question, What do you believe are some of the best ways to create alternative metrics to gauge progress if traditional metrics (financial mainly) are not as easily measurable?

    Thank you again for the post as it was a pleasure to read.

    Sean Tissiere

    • Jon Miller

      February 5, 2019 - 11:12 am

      Hello Sean

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Good for you on starting with lean thinking so early.

      Best ways to create alternative metrics? Partly this is an exercise in measuring both process and results. We need to track progress with both metrics and results metrics. An example process metric may be hours of aerobic exercise, house of sleep, calories consumed. The results metrics would be change in body weight, body fat, energy level, general well-being. There are cause-and-effect relationships between inputs (calories, exercise etc.) and weight, energy. But these relationships are often complex. People have different metabolisms and may gain or lose wight differently. We may lose weight but feel horrible, and have low energy. We may find that what we eat makes a difference, not only calories. If we only measure the “financial” result of what the bathroom scale reads, we can harm ourselves with fad diets, crash diets, exercise burnout etc.

      We can’t abandon financial metrics. We need to use them to set experiments on to track various processes and inputs to see which ones repeatable and desired effects.

      Hope that helps.


  3. Namdeo Bote

    February 21, 2019 - 12:18 am

    Good information which help someone. The KonMari method gets rid of things (sort) that don’t “spark joy” and neatly organizes (straighten) what remains in good idea & concept.

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