Why the KonMari Method Works, According to Science
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a proselytizing believer of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. No sooner did I roll up my last pair of socks did I feel my mindset change. I knew I needed to be more intentional about what belongs in my home and around my family, but I couldn’t figure out how to go about weeding out the keeper items from the rejects. Until I read the book.
The KonMari method turned traditional decluttering methods upside-down and inside out, then rolled them into neat little categories that made perfect sense. But there was more to it than the categorization, and as I read, I started thinking about why this method worked.
Then, the aha! moment came. Remembering a college Behavioral Economics class that centered around consumer purchasing decisions, I began to think of our homes as tiny economies. As I read through the book, oddly I recalled names of Behavioral Economics principles as I came across them. (Amazing, what sticks with us and what dissipates once the exam is over.)
These ideas have been thoroughly researched and have made their way into commercial marketing methods. Now, if we are aware of them, we can balance our own mini-economies within our walls. No wonder the method works. Here are some of the concepts that Kondo takes on to break us from from our hyper-consuming and hoarding tendencies.
Before we left for our epic Vermont road trip, I loaded up my Kindle with everything I could possibly want to read. I needed a fiction option, a couple of business books, a few recommendations from my favorite personal development writers and two biographies. I was ready.
How much did I get through? About three-fourths of the fiction one.
When choosing items for future use, we tend to want variety. But when we choose items to use now, we are more sure of what we will actually use and we don’t look for an assortment.
Kondo encourages us to live in the present and select or keep items that we love and find useful today, not in the future. With that mindset, we don’t need nearly the quantity of items that we predict we need for some unnamed time period down the road. So, we give up the imagined need and keep items for now.
Thinking about a decision even for a second seems like a nearly idle activity, but it requires effort. Think of decision-making as a fuel tank that can be depleted. Making too many decisions, or making few intense decisions throughout the day leads to an empty decision-making tank, and we run the risk of poor choices once we’re running on fumes. Self-control and self-regulation are the first to go once we’ve exhausted our decision-making reserves.
The KonMari method emphasizes the path of least resistance to get to your things. She recommends arranging clothing in a way that we can see everything, and we can what we want to wear is always in plain view. Similarly, she advises organizing our belongings in a way that we always know where everything we own is. If we do not have too much and it’s easy to put back in its place, we will not spend time and energy searching for things.
This eliminates the unnecessary decisions that we are not even aware we’re making. Sifting through clothing until we get to our garment of the day is like saying “no” to everything we move out of the way. When we lose our keys, we are essentially making a series of decisions about where to look before we find them. When we love everything in our closet, when everything has its place, we save our decision-making muscle
The idea behind loss aversion is that losing something has a much bigger psychological impact than gaining it. People are more likely to engage in risky behavior avoid loss than to gain something.
Kondo takes the sting out by telling us to thank the discarded item for its service. Even when that dress still has tags on it, you thank it for teaching you more about your own style and preferences. It feels strange at first, but it does change your thinking in a way that makes it easier to part with items.
We humans go to great lenths to avoid the shoulda, woulda, couldas. As with fearing loss, we also fear regret. We don’t want to toss something that we might need again someday, or that we might purchase again in the future because we’ve made a mistake.
Kondo prepares us for the unpleasantness of regret. She acknowledges that we might make a mistake when discarding, but not to worry. The benefit we will have derived from all of the successful rejections will greatly outweigh any short bouts of regret we feel from making an oops.
Status Quo Bias
Status quo bias is related to loss aversion. Often, we know we should make a big decision but through inaction we show a preference for things to stay the same. This holds even when the cost (mental, monetary or other) of the change is small and the decision will make a substantial difference.
Sunk Cost Fallacy
We really, really don’t like to give up items once we’ve paid good money for them, nor do we like to change behaviors once we’ve invested lots of time or money into something. The sunk cost fallacy is the perception that we’ve made an investment and now we’re committed, even if it would benefit us to let go of an item or a goal.
The KonMari method tackles the sunk cost fallacy in two ways. First, she carefully explains the various costs of keeping something we don’t need, want or like. Second, her method first works on items easy to part with, gradually proceeding to difficult, effectively easing the pain of letting go.
Herbert Simon coined the fusion word “satisficing” to describe the tendency for people to choose the option that satisfies and suffices, rather than optimizes.
In other words, we say, “yup, that one is good enough.”
Marie Kondo tells us that we should keep only items that spark joy – quite a change if you’re a “good enougher” like me. A spark is abrupt and attention-grabbing, and joy is a feeling of nothing less than delight. Something that satisfices us doesn’t do those things, so we resist the urge to settle and purchase only the ideal.
With “does this spark joy” at the forefront, we more readily give up things that we don’t love, and we’re more conscious about what we bring into our homes.
The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up doesn’t introduce groundbreaking ideas. However, the book does frame known concepts in a new context. Generally speaking, people tend to share ways of thinking and behavioral tendencies. Those tendencies can be used in or favor or to fill up our homes with things we don’t need. Marie Kondo, whether she realized it or not, decided to use her knowledge for good.
My shrunken laundry pile couldn’t be more thankful.
Readings that informed this article
Read, D., & Loewenstein, G. (1995). Diversification bias: Explaining the discrepancy in variety seeking between combined and separated choices. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 1, 34-49.
Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making choices impairs subsequent self‐control: A limited‐resource account of decision making, self‐regulation, and active initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 883‐898.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263-291.
Seiler, M., Seiler, V., Traub, S., & Harrison, D. (2008). Regret aversion and false reference points in residential real estate. Journal of Real Estate Research, 30(4), 461-474.
Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. J. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.
Arkes, H. R., & Blumer, C. (1985), The psychology of sunk costs. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.
Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63(2), 129-138.