Organized is not the same thing as tidy. I realized this, years ago, when I invited a prominent professional organizer into my home as part of writing 168 Hours. She looked at my various piles of stuff and then noted that we were not disorganized. We were, in her words, lazy.
I am not sure lazy is the right word either, but I realized she was onto something. Organization is about having systems that make life work. I have plenty of these. All the museum membership cards go in a certain place. The pile teems, but they are all there. The children’s shoes and backpacks are all in the same place in the mudroom. The shoes are seldom lined up in Instagram-worthy fashion, but they are allowed no where else in the house. And so three children get on the bus on time every morning.
On the other hand, being “tidy” — that is, having no visible clutter — is an aesthetic preference. I enjoy it when it happens, much as I enjoy seeing a good painting, and at various points in my life I’ve paid other people to maintain a level of neatness in my homes, but I have realized it’s not a big enough priority in my life that I will sacrifice big chunks of my time to making it happen. I pick up my desk once a week, but the picked-up version still looks messy. So it goes. I wrote two full books in a year at that desk, mess or not.
This brings me to this week’s podcast topics: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo, decluttering and tidying in general.
My co-host, Sarah, is a Kondo devotee. She has now KonMari’d her house twice (though we noted, according to Kondo, this should be an impossibility! She claims once and done, but … nope). She has even rolled her socks. She embraces minimalism, and likes a clean aesthetic. Anyone who has seen pictures of her planner notes can appreciate this. In defiance of all physician stereotypes, she has even, neat handwriting, with lots of open space. My planner pages, on the other hand, have writing crammed at odd angles into every available spot.
So we had a great conversation about our different approaches. I definitely think Kondo has introduced a few useful points to the conversation about stuff. Interestingly, these are borrowed from economics:
Sunk costs don’t matter. Humans are loss averse, which means we hate to admit that something is a loss and move on. You know the mindset: “We can’t kill this project now, we’ve already spent three weeks on it!” It is the same thing with stuff. If people have spent a lot of money on something, they are loathe to admit they don’t use it or don’t like it.
Kondo suggests realizing that the purpose of the object was different from what you originally thought. Its purpose was to give you joy when you bought it, or to teach you what you don’t like. Now that the object has served its purpose, you can thank it (there are heavy Shinto influences in here, that objects have spirits) and send it on its way. Brilliant.
Zero-based budgeting. Humans also pay an inordinate amount of attention to anchors. Real estate agents asked to price a home, and shown a price someone else has put on it, will give an answer far closer to that other price than if asked the same question without an anchor. Likewise in companies, when the powers that be are setting a budget, it’s very likely that each department will get something related to what it had the year before. Everything goes up around 5%, or everything gets cut by around 10%… but why? The anchor, as a previous choice, does not need to determine subsequent choices. Better to start from zero. Each department gets what it gets because that is what it needs to achieve company goals, not because it’s 5% greater than last year.
This, too, figures in the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. In the de-cluttering world, many books have talked about discarding things you don’t like. Kondo completely flips this thought. Don’t just chuck stuff you don’t like, keep only that which sparks joy. Deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to get rid of, pares things down in a way trimming around the edges cannot.
So good so far. My beef is more that time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. And while I do believe that we have more time than we think, I do know that women still spend more time on housework than men do. While men can KonMari — and Sarah reassures listeners that Josh was an active participant in all Unger household decluttering — the book is very much directed at a female audience.
Kondo says again and again that life begins when you put your house in order. But too many women already believe that they can’t go after that promotion or that job that requires travel, because then things will fall apart on the home front. The narrative is already that women need to tend the house before they can achieve outside said homes. I was giving a talk at a conference once when a woman said, in the question and answer time, that she was considering going back into the workforce, but she had no idea when the bathrooms would get cleaned. While I found that thought mind-boggling, she was serious. This dilemma, for her, was real. I know many of my readers have also read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed. Those who have read it will recall that part of her original “overwhelm” stemmed from the story in her head that she couldn’t relax until she’d… insert one: cleaned the oven, folded the laundry, whatever.
Men, in general, do not believe this. Her husband was fine with relaxing, even if the oven wasn’t clean. But if the oven wasn’t actually catching fire, did it need to be cleaned then?
For women, there is often life-changing magic in not tidying up. It frees up time for leisure, hanging out with friends and family, paid work.
Then again, perhaps I’m just saying this to justify the mess on my desk. Sarah manages to work (in a more demanding job than mine), blog, exercise, hang out with friends and family, and maintain a clean desk and play room.
Are you in the tidy camp? Or are you more on the let-it-roll side of things?