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The Behavioral Economics of Tidying Up

a tidy craft room

This is most definitely not my craft room. Photo by Alison Headley on Flickr

I’m a bit addicted. To what, you may ask? Mostly: craft supplies. Though clothing and accessories come a close second.

But oh, the irony: I love a tidy, well-ordered house. For example, I have a “keys” station right by the door so no-one ever misplaces their keys (it actually works). I have a paperwork station with designated folders for each category of documents. We have a family calendar practice and established routines. My house is far from perfect, but it’s probably better than most. My craft room is, though, a disaster area. But one book is changing everything that’s wrong with it and helping me out of a miserable rut. An article in The Atlantic explains why this particular book isn’t like any other home organization book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read them all!).

Marie Kondo’s book on home organization, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is a revolution. You’ve probably heard about it. Originally published in Japan in 2010, the English version of it came out in 2015 and subsequently took the US by storm. I’ve read and tried MANY home organization theories. I’ve even hired a professional come to my house. Even now, I’m attempting a 365-day decluttering project for 2016’s 366 days (yay! Leap Year!).

3 boxes marked "Donate, Sell, Keep"

Jan 1, 2016: Set up an organization station.

As I said, I am constantly working on having a well-ordered house, even if I don’t achieve it often! The KonMari method jumped me ahead at least 5 years in one sitting. Seriously. Until I read this Atlantic article, I didn’t understand why.

According to a study by market analysts Freedonia Group, home organization products alone (excluding services) is a 9Billion US$ industry. Like most home organization experts, Kondo, using her self-named “KonMari” method, encourages not the overuse of storage bins but the virtues of having fewer things and ensuring that each one of those possessions brings you joy. Kondo also teaches a folding and drawer method that is easy to understand and convenient.

The main reason the book is stupendously successful is its use of Behavioral Economics. Behavioral Econ is the study of how and why people make decisions (generally speaking, about time, goods and services). It studies how typical human cognitive biases prevent us from making rational decisions. Behavioral Econ throws original Economics on its head, as the economist of old was working on the theory of  the existence of a “homo-economicus” <- a little rational, money/benefit-focused dude directing your choices at your financial console a la Pixar’s Inside Out.

Psychologists, of course, had known for a while that decisions are emotionally-based and are rarely rational, but the economists just kept sticking with their imaginary homo-econ friend. It’s only been in the last few years that economists have parted ways with the old thinking (see Freakonomics and the work of Dan Ariely for examples).

Kondo, in Tidying Up, addresses each significant cognitive bias that guides us to keep possessions, even after those things have fulfilled their usefulness and outstayed their welcome. Kondo gives readers easy-to-stomach ways to side-step these very strong tendencies. It’s genius, really.

You should read the book. But this article in The Atlantic, written by the former editor of Freakonomics.com, Bourree Lam, outlines some specific cognitive biases and Kondo’s unique advice for overcoming them. For example, Ms. Lam points out how Kondo deals with our inaccurate attempts to “plan for the future:”

Another important point that Kondo protects us from is the folly of prediction: People systematically make terrible guesses about the future. So instead, people should focus on the present, and in tidying, this manifests in the form of using present-day valuations of all of one’s belongings. People are wrong when they think that pair of jeans will ever fit again, Kondo is arguing. They’re also wrong when they think they’ll read that book again. These optimistic predictions keep people from getting rid of things they don’t need.

Sister, can we say “fat and skinny clothes?” Women are notorious for holding on to clothes that are either too big or too small for their bodies, “just in case” some major size shift happens again in the future. (In fact, along with Kondo’s advice, I’m working on a theory about jeans and weight. I’m getting rid of all my pants that are too big now that I’ve lost weight. It’s like Sun-Tzu’s Art of War and burning the boats. I have to stay this size because I don’t have larger size clothes to fall back on).

It’s great stuff. Read the article then read the book. Let me know if you are planning to tidy up this year.




Full text is in the pdf below but you can read “The Economics of Tidying Up” by Bourree Lam while it’s still up at The Atlantic.com.

An Economist’s Guide to Tidying Your Apartment – The Atlantic copy (PDF)

Freedonia Group study abstract

Marie Kondo on Wikipedia

365-Day Decluttering Project

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
(Amazon Affiliate link. If you buy through this link, it helps support Purplecar.net and a struggling writer. You’d be a patron of the arts. Thanks!)


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Otir 2 January 2016, 10:25 pm

    I am (always) planning to tidy up this coming year. So I guess, I will make sure I read your good advice and the book. In the meantime, this is bookmarked. Not that my bookmarks are not also cluttered…

    • Christine Cavalier 2 January 2016, 11:28 pm

      Otir, the book is translated into French, I think. It may be a better read in French! Who knows? Good luck and let me know how your tidying efforts go. Maybe do the 365 15-minute declutter days. There’s a calendar and links. Tomorrow I conquer the kitchen utensil drawer! 🙂

  • Otir 2 January 2016, 10:40 pm

    ps: your affiliate link is not included (gives me “blank”); you may want to edit your post and add it.

    • Christine Cavalier 2 January 2016, 11:26 pm

      Thanks! I think I fixed the affiliate link. Those don’t ever embed well.