I’m in the process of moving from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., which has given me the chance to do something I have always dreaded: go through my stuff. Ever since I moved out of my parents’ house, I have accumulated things nonstop: clothes, records, books, scores, recording equipment, office supplies. With one exception, I’ve moved this stuff every year of my life since 2013, and the bigger the space I move to, the more stuff I find myself accumulating—or “collecting,” as my therapist calls it. “Collecting” is common behavior among people, like me, who have ADHD.
Collecting doesn’t reach the level of hoarding, but it can still pose a problem, especially when one is moving to the smallest apartment size: the studio. My stuff began to overwhelm me. My therapist recommended none other than Marie Kondo.
Here’s how Kondo’s magic works: First, she arrives at a client’s home and takes time to say something genuinely nice about it, then sits with the family to thank the house for all it’s done. Then, she encourages each member of the family to gather their belongings one category at a time, beginning with clothes, followed by books, then paper documents, then miscellaneous (komono in Japanese) objects from the kitchen, garage, bathroom, etc. Within each of these categories, the family member spends time with every single object, asking themself if it “sparks joy” before deciding whether or not to keep it.
Kondo’s method is tailored to collectors like me: chronically anxious people with ADHD. For people like us, clutter is often a problem because we have difficulty with what is called executive functioning, the mental processes that help us organize information and regulate our decision making. This makes setting up systems, routines, and boundaries challenging. People with ADHD tend to keep things because we believe they trigger a memory or will be “useful” in the near future—and, being easily distracted, we simply store them away and forget about them.
I’ve always been meticulous in maintaining a personal history of my life….But the “spark joy” question led me to rethink that impulse. I ended up asking an even bigger question: Does my own material past make me happy?
Kondo’s method works because it circumvents some of these habits directly. Instead of asking, in reference to household items or memorabilia,“do you use or need this?” (a very easy question for the ADHD mind to answer in the affirmative), Kondo asks something the ADHD mind cannot outrationalize: How does this object make you feel? In addition, the KonMari method is much less overwhelming than other organizational methods because it breaks what seems like a monolithic wall of stuff into distinct categories, so that the decluttering process becomes easier to approach and easier to complete. And having the subject gather all of their belongings within a certain category in one place helps someone like me visualize exactly how much stuff they’re actually dealing with once it is liberated from however many cubbyholes they’re saving it in.
Perhaps most importantly, Kondo is non-judgemental, and her approach is centered around empathy and conscientiousness. Because she starts from a non-confrontational place, encouraging self-sufficiency among her clients (she is not there to clean for you, but to teach you how to clean), she allows the viewer to become introspective. The show is not about what to get rid of, but rather about what to keep, and this is crucial. It asks viewers an important question: What makes you happy?
I was shocked to see how many of the things I collected I kept either to impress others or because I felt that I needed to truck around a complete material history of my past. As someone who frequently advocates that people design and conceive of their spaces as being for themselves first and for impressing others second, I was surprised that I kept so many books because I needed people who came to my house to know that I knew a lot about dead composers and that I was musically literate based on how many scores I had. I’d continued to hang onto them despite the fact that I am no longer involved professionally in classical music (and that keeping these belongings reminds me of the career change I didn’t necessarily want to make). Though some have complained that Kondo’s method is all about purging instead of keeping, I didn’t get that sense at all. For example, I kept almost all of my books about architecture and design, because these genuinely make me happy; having a veritable architecture library gives me a sense of competence and self-sufficiency.
I’ve always been meticulous in maintaining a personal history of my life. I had to keep that dress I wore when I ran off with a guy to Chicago my junior year of college; I had to keep every single music theory paper I’ve ever written. But the “spark joy” question led me to rethink that impulse. I ended up asking an even bigger question: Does my own material past make me happy? I’ve written before about how people tend to over-design their homes for an aspirational future, but applying Kondo’s method led me to wonder how our spaces accommodate, or should accommodate, our pasts. In particular, I began to think about how ADHD turns a luxury (having a lot of storage space) into a hazard. I found that the more space I had to put things in, the more things I accumulated, and when the time came to move to a smaller space, I was forced to reconsider the relationship I’ve had with stuff for my entire adult life. KonMari has made me more mindful of the goods I bring into my home in the first place. I find myself in the store holding things I want to buy impulsively and asking myself, how does this really make me feel? Can I picture exactly where this will belong in my home?
The way Kondo thinks about objects, about empathizing with our things as if they have feelings, is similar to the role of the design critic, who believes in the emotional and physical power of the objects and spaces in our lives. Instead of the materialistic object-lust usually displayed on American TV, Kondo makes looking at objects a critical activity, where, for each object, the person doing the examining unwittingly creates their own material history for that object: where it came from, what it made you feel when you first saw it, your memories associated with it, and finally, how it makes you feel now. This gives ordinary objects dignity that they rarely see, and that, for me, sparks joy.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.