For Marie Kondo, tidiness isn’t so much a good habit as it is a genuine philosophy for living.
Kondo’s best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, makes the argument that we have too much stuff, and we’d all be a lot happier with less of it. As she declared in a 2014 interview, ”When you organize things, you can put your life in order, too.”
The Japanese author has been obsessed with tidying up since she was five years old, when her mother introduced the principles of feng shui to their house. Kondo honed her organizational skills working at a Shinto shrine as a teenager, perfecting the art of placing ceremonial objects. Her college thesis, “How to Declutter Your Apartment—from a sociological perspective,” led to a job as a personal consultant, where the waiting list for her services was so long that Kondo decided to write a book so others could learn her methods.
Kondo published Life-Changing Magic in Japan in 2010, but it wasn’t until the devastating 2011 earthquake, when people around the country began to reexamine what was most important in their lives, that sales started to take off. Since the English-language translation was published in 2014, Kondo’s organizational philosophy has exploded into a global phenomenon, so much so that her name has become a verb.
In an interview with Quartz, Kondo talks about why we should value the things others can’t see, her obsessive focus, and how an organized workspace can bring people together.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
In tidying up, the decision to keep or discard something is based on the question “Does it spark joy?” Some may say that this is a rather emotional approach, and suggest that a quantifiable method is more effective or straightforward. For example, when tidying, others may say to themselves, “If I haven’t used this item in a year, I should get rid of it.”
However, the number and types of items needed for individuals to feel comfortable and happy vary from person to person. By using the “spark joy” method to tidy up, you are forced to face each belonging, and really consider if each possession is contributing to your happiness in the present. Essentially, you are forced to reflect on which kinds of things you’d like to surround yourself with. As a result, you develop the decision-making skills to choose what makes you feel happy and, ultimately, create a home that is truly comforting to you.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I have been able to focus on the subject of tidying over a long time, and have almost developed an obsession over it. Ever since I was five years old, I have been organizing. Then, while I was a student, I began seriously studying the art of organization, which led me to later develop my own unique method of organization. Additionally, the decision-making skills I have gained through tidying have made me someone who knows what must be done in various situations. Because I know what sparks joy for me, I can swiftly and confidently take action.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Though this idea is not exclusive to women, my suggestion would be for co-workers to tidy up their workplace together. There are many benefits to organizing your desk space, including increasing your efficiency by spending less time looking for the things that you need, being able to more quickly prioritize your workload, and even feeling better as a result of working in a clean environment.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I wish I had understood the importance of keeping a record of my experiences and thoughts in the form of writing or photos. I have been working as a professional organization consultant since I was a student and, in my busyness, I did not think to take notes about my clients’ experiences or my lessons. I believe that if I had kept better records, the stories of my former clients may have helped my readers even more.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
When I was working as a personal organization consultant, people would often request my services on behalf of a family member. However, these family members would not complete the full curriculum of lessons and would end up rebounding into their messy lifestyles. This is a result of the client not actually wanting change for themselves.
Since then, I have learned to be more selective about who I take on as my clients, and I have decided to only cater my services to those who are serious about wanting to change their lives through tidying.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
Normally our team works remotely across America and in Japan, but then we have a chance to come together at our semi-annual company retreat. When we are together in person, we deepen our understanding of each other’s personalities, discuss our vision for the future, exchange business ideas, and have meaningful discussions. By doing this, I believe that we are able to foster relationships based on trust and work more efficiently.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
As a child, my grandmother always said to me, “Value that which cannot be seen by others.” Her home was always beautifully organized, even down to the drawers in her dresser. Even though my grandmother’s lifestyle was by no means spectacular, she always seemed fulfilled and happy. I respect her so much, and her words always resonated with me.
As I became older and professionally pursued the art of organization, I only became more certain of the truth in her advice. By maintaining these private spaces in a tidy manner for no one other than themselves, my clients are able to cultivate a positive self-image and live confidently.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is tidying up changes your life.
I wish people would stop telling me… that just because I live an organized life, everything in my life must be perfect.
Everyone should own… a decision-making skill to choose the things that spark joy.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.