The Benefits and Limits of Mari Kondo’s Method

Like many people this year, I found myself swept up in the fever of Mari Kondo’s “Tidying Up” on Netflix. I loved it and quickly found myself sorting my clothes while watching episodes of others sorting theirs. And then I expanded that to other areas of my life, asking myself, “Does this spark joy?” for both material and non-material objects.

I quickly found that there were some ways in which Mari Kondo’s method was incredibly helpful! I can honestly say my dresser drawers have never looked better, and I got rid of so many cds, knickknacks, books, and craft supplies that I began to realize were never really going to be used because I didn’t like them (it’s amazing how much you can horde out of guilt that you “should” use it someday but don’t actually have a desire to).

I even deleted over 500 files from my computer after realizing that I had no intention of returning to that short story again and didn’t need to keep that paper from high school anymore.

Probably the most important shift was finally having the courage to deactivate my Facebook account. It wasn’t a hard answer when I asked if it sparked joy. The answer for months had been a resounding “NO!” It was a source of stress more than anything, but because of how important Facebook had been in helping me build community and find support when I first came out as bisexual and when I began my recovery journey from the cult, I had a hard time letting go. Kondo’s advice to offer gratitude as you released something was the missing piece I needed to be able to finally say, “I no longer need this in my life.”

There’s a certain amount of truth that in releasing the things that don’t really spark joy, I have more energy for things that do. I’m more likely to grab a cd and pop it into my car knowing that the ones on my cd tower are the ones that I actually enjoy. I also have returned to some old hobbies and creative projects now that Facebook no longer clutters my mind, and I’m finding ways to increase the meaningfulness of my connections with others through letter writing, text, and phone calls.

But I also found there were limitations to her method.

For me, it’s not enough to touch a book as a way of “awakening” it before deciding to keep it or not. I have to read it because, until I know what it contains, I don’t know whether it has joy or value to me. Reading through my books and choosing to release the ones I don’t like has been a project I’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s a slow process that doesn’t offer that immediate satisfaction of releasing like Kondo’s method, but ultimately I think it’s a more thorough gauge.

There’s also a limit in how much one can do solo when you co-habit with others. My partner is decidedly not on the konmari trend, and so much of our possessions have become intermingled that I can’t really decide on my own whether something should be removed. And unless I took a whole week off work to sort, I can’t really afford to pile things into the middle of the room by category. Perhaps that’s my own limitation more so than the limitation of her method, but I’ve become resigned to the fact that it’s just not going to happen.

However, probably the biggest limitation is in applying the joy question to the things from my past, the “sentimental” things, as Konda would call them.

She recommends saving those until last, but it was inevitable that as I sorted through desk drawers I would come across pictures, diaries, notes, and various other things from my past. After having my PTSD triggered sky high by uncovering some pictures and sermon notes from summer indoctrination camp shoved in the back of a drawer, it hit me that the question of “Does it spark joy?” was horribly inadequate given my history, even if I save it until the end.

“Joy” is not a word I would apply to my childhood. Even the best of memories are laced with the pain of trauma and loss. There’s a part of me that would like to just burn anything that reminds me of abuse, to eradicate any evidence of the unusual life I led, and to bury anything that reminds me of all I lost in trying to break free.

But I also know that if I did that, I would be left with nothing from my past, and I’m not prepared to erase who I was entirely. Some of those memories are important, even if they are painful.

Keeping it all probably doesn’t make sense, but figuring out what to release and what to save is going to require more than the joy question.

It’s going to require processing the painful memories, discharging the triggers, and integrating those parts of myself. And that’s a time-consuming, slow process that will only happen in increments. Only then will I be ready to say whether something is meaningful—and I say meaningful because I doubt that I will find it “sparking joy” even then.

I think what I’ve found in the last few months of playing with her approach is that I like her “spark joy” standard as a beginning place. From there, if it’s not sparking joy, I think I have to find another set of questions to ask myself.

I’ve become comfortable with this method with books. Not all of the books I keep are books I like. Sometimes they’re books I think are important to keep on hand for utility purposes or because they are important for reference.

The same goes for anything else. Expecting nothing but joy from the things in my life might be naïve, but I can at least expect that the discomfort they create will be purposeful. If it’s not sparking joy and the stress, pain, or discomfort isn’t serving some important purpose, it needs to go.