Marie Kondo is here to bring joy - even while in quarantine
The day of my Zoom interview with Marie Kondo, I woke up early to frantically tidy my home office.
By my home office, I mean the corner of my bedroom where my writing table lives, blanketed as the area is in notebooks and to-do lists that definitely don’t spark joy. It should come as no surprise that Kondo Zoomed in from an edenic set-up, where behind her beatific face loomed lush green foliage visible through a large casement window, against which her new book, Joy at Work, was propped. Among the many strangenesses of life after the pandemic, there will remain this supremely strange fact: Marie Kondo has seen my bedroom.
Kondo rose to prominence in 2014 with the publication of her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which quickly became a runaway global success. Coupled with two additional books, the series has sold over ten million copies worldwide in 42 countries, leading Kondo to become an internationally renowned tidying expert. In 2019, Kondo made a splash on Netflix with her own show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, in which she instructed a handful of southern California families in the process of decluttering both their homes and their spiritual lives.
Kondo’s method, titled the KonMari Method, consists of two parts: discarding and sorting. First, the discarding: amass your belongings of one category into a pile and discard what doesn’t “spark joy.” Then, sort what remains thoughtfully and intentionally, ensuring that all stored items are visible at once. Undergirded by a gentle animism, the KonMari Method asks that we re-evaluate our spiritual relationship with our belongings. Take it from me, an admitted maximalist--the method really works.
This month, Kondo released Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, in which she translates her transformative methods from the domestic sphere to the working world. Co-written with organizational behavior professor Scott Sonenshine, the slim volume offers guidance on how to declutter not just our office spaces, but our calendars and digital footprints, making for a more fulfilling and remunerative professional life. Though Joy at Work is not a work from home survival guide, its lessons are startlingly applicable in this unprecedented moment. I spoke with Kondo about drawing boundaries, making intentional purchases, and finding gratitude in the unlikeliest of places.
Esquire: In this moment of crisis where so many of us are working from home, many people are struggling to draw boundaries. What are some things we can do to draw clear lines between work life and domestic life?
Marie Kondo: Incorporating a small ritual before you start working is very helpful. For me, before I begin working, I make sure my desk is tidy--though usually my desk is already tidy! I use a tuning fork and I let that chime. The sound really soothes me. I might even change the fragrance in the air; I like to use a refreshing aroma. A few minutes of meditation and all these other routines can really help you make that transition into work mode.
ESQ: We talk a lot about work/life balance, and as the lines between work life and home life become muddled right now, it's becoming clear that this balance was always a fiction, to some extent. Do you think that work/life balance is something that can truly be achieved?
MK: I do understand why people can feel that work/life balance is perhaps unattainable, especially given the situation we are in, but something I do that helps me is to treat work and my personal life in the same way. They're of course equally important, but what I like to do is, when I write out my schedule, I don't just do it for my work duties, but I also do it for my housekeeping duties. Everything from making lunch for my kids to doing laundry goes on the schedule. Understanding how I want to allocate my time and what I want to accomplish that day really helps me have a sense of balance at the beginning of the day.
ESQ: In this new normal, many people are ordering new belongings with the hope that these items will help them more effectively work from home. They're ordering new lounge clothes, a new desk chair, new headphones, and the like. What new items do we truly need, if any, and are there ways we can repurpose what we have?
MK: I do understand the need to buy things, and I think it's perfectly fine. For instance, if buying new loungewear brings you joy, I think that's perfectly fine to do. With that said, I also think it's very important that we are aware of how much we have inside our homes. Think about the sheer act of buying: are you buying because it genuinely brings you joy, or are you doing it because it fulfills a sense of anxiety? Are you buying because you’re somehow compelled into doing so by the information that you're obtaining through the media? Those are completely different things, whether you're doing it because it sparks joy for you personally or because you feel anxious. To differentiate that is very important. Uncertainty can lead to a lot of anxiety, so I think it's essential that we take the time to become aware of what we do have inside the home. That allows us to calmly make decisions when we are purchasing.
ESQ: As part of the KonMari Method, you thank the home before you begin the process of tidying. How can we practice gratitude for our homes in this moment when home feels like a prison?
MK: Whether a home feels like a prison or like a place that is protecting you is all up to your mindset. Even if you are in this very atypical situation, I think it is possible to remind yourself how much a home does for you physically and emotionally. It is a thing that's protecting you. This is why I recommend tidying your home, because by tidying, you are considering what you can do to change the environment inside your home so that it's much more comfortable and lovable for you. Something that I myself love to do is to clean the floor. The act of caring for your home fosters a love for your home, so tidying is something that I recommend.
Whether a home feels like a prison or like a place that is protecting you is all up to your mindset.
ESQ: What's your advice for people that are suddenly struggling to balance working from home with these additional full time jobs of parenting and homeschooling?
MK: This is a very common problem. My children are always at home with me now, so more than ever, I feel that it's very important that we share our work schedule and our goals with our partners. In my case, I share it with my husband so that we can align our priorities and have realistic expectations for what we can accomplish in a day.
ESQ: We’re all getting a lot more screen time right now. What are some ways we can reduce digital clutter in our new reality when we're using screens practically all the time?
MK: I think when it comes to digital clutter, it's very important to remember that it's very similar to when we tidy our homes in that you do so by categories. You can devote a day to just tidying your desktop folders, another day for your email inbox, and another day for the apps on your smartphone. This is the foundation of the KonMari method--to always tidy by category and focus purely on each category. That's also important for digital clutter.
Treat yourself to 85+ years of history-making journalism
Subscribe to Esquire Magazine
ESQ: We all have a lot more food in the house right now than we might under normal circumstances. What’s your advice for keeping a pantry tidy when it’s suddenly bursting?
MK: When it comes to pantries, I think it's very important that you take inventory of what you have inside. Calmly take inventory of what exactly is in your pantry. If you’re really going to dedicate yourself to tidying your pantry, I recommend taking everything out all at once and seeing what you have. Check for expired foods and categorize them into types, and when you're sorting through them, use empty boxes to really section them off. Make sure you're storing by category and type, as well.
ESQ: I’ve spoken with people who put the KonMari Method into practice in their home last year. Now that we're all stuck at home, they've joked that they regret discarding some of the belongings that would have kept them entertained, like board games and books. What's your advice for someone in that situation?
MK: I do understand that they are in this unique situation, but I think we have a good opportunity to really reflect on what we do have and what we did decide to keep. Really remember and remind yourself of why you decided to keep those things that you decided to keep and why you let go of certain items. Really cherish the items that you did decide to keep in your life.
ESQ: What are some ways that you’re practicing self-care in this moment?
MK: So, for me, the little things that I do to care for myself are open the window every morning and change the air inside the home. I also burn some incense to uplift the mood through fragrance. Really, what I want to emphasize is that the things you do for self-care don’t need to be complex. As long as we do these small steps with care, they can make a big difference. Tidying is so essential because it allows you to create an environment that you feel comfortable in again. Think about refolding all your clothes inside your drawer and just taking the time to do that. When you open the drawer, it might make you feel happier to see everything tidy and organized. Discovering little joys inside the house and discovering what you can do to bring you happiness can really uplift you and contribute to your sense of stability and peace.
ESQ: Many of the events on your book tour were disrupted by this ongoing health crisis. How do you feel about that, and how are you connecting with your readers in spite of it?
MK: Given the situation, luckily a lot of people have reached out to me saying that they want to take this opportunity to tidy their home. There are messages that I’ve wanted to share with my fans and my readers now more than ever, so I've taken steps to share videos and do stories on Instagram. I’m attempting to check in on my readers as much as I can.
ESQ: Panning out to think about life when we go back to the office, joy is not an emotion that many of us associate with the office or with our working lives. How do we locate more joy in an environment when it seems counterintuitive?
MK: I think this is actually an amazing opportunity for us to really think about what joy means to us and how we interact with the idea of joy. Perhaps we should be moving away from expecting bigger and more impactful joy to looking at the small things in our lives. Even the small fact that your closet is color-coordinated can uplift you. When you get delivery food, try eating it off your favorite plate. That is a small joy in your life, and these small joys can accumulate to a big difference. Even in this situation, it is possible to work from a place of gratitude. Fostering that sense of gratitude can really contribute to a big change in our lives.
ESQ: Tidying, like any new habit, is easy to fall away from. Life gets in the way of our best intentions. What's the secret to making a new habit stick in the long term?
MK: I think it's very important to designate a spot for everything so that where you're storing things is very clear and easy to see. That's really the shortcut to making a tidy home a constant in your life. The reason why I always tell people to file things vertically, whether it's your clothes or even the notepads you have in your drawer, and to boxes and trays and to section things off, is because it allows you to see where everything is very clearly. This method allows you to put things back very easily, too, and that allows you to keep a tidy home.
ESQ: In the book, you write, "Tidying is an epic voyage of self discovery." What do we stand to discover about ourselves through tidying?
MK: I think what tidying allows you to discover is more information about the decisions that you've made in the past—the patterns to your past decision-making. What this allows you to know is the habits and the decisions that led you to your current state. By realizing what sparks joy for you, it allows you to figure out the attitude with which you want to live going forward. Take, for instance, something as simple as your buying habits. Realizing that you've always just purchased things willy nilly without really thinking about it--just realizing that will change your buying habits going forward.
ESQ: How familiar are you with the memes about you that sprang up after your Netflix show?
MK: I'm aware of a few, but I don't know how many memes are out there in the world, so really, I don't know how much I know.
ESQ: What's up next for you?
MK: There's season two of my Netflix show, which I'm very excited about. There are a lot of things that remain to be decided, but that has been announced. In conjunction with the publication of Joy at Work, we also have our online shop where we have tools that people can use to tidy and add joy to their workspace, so I'm very excited to share that with my audience. I just hope that in this situation that we're in, a lot of people can enjoy the act of tidying. I hope that tidying contributes to them living in an environment that feels more comfortable, safe, and happy for them.
Esquire now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.