Tidy living: organized space can bring peace of mind

For The Baltimore Sun
Want peace and serenity? Get organized.

As a stay-at-home mother of a toddler and an infant, Tayloe McKenna readily acknowledges that her daily schedule doesn't leave much time for housekeeping.

"My home is hardly an example of Zen, simplified living, especially with small children," says the 33-year-old South Baltimore resident. "We have a three-bedroom home, and between toys and clothes, our spaces do become cluttered."

Eager for solutions, McKenna checked out a library copy of a popular new book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," by Marie Kondo.

Kondo, a Tokyo-based cleaning consultant, aims to help clients transform their messy places into what she dubs spaces of "serenity" and "inspiration."

The book, which is compact in size and runs 224 pages, has become an international sensation, selling more than 2 million copies worldwide. After being translated and published last October in the U.S., it has sold some 350,000 hardbacks and e-books domestically, to date.

"It's been on The New York Times' best-sellers list for 21 weeks and counting," says Daniel Wikey, associate marketing manager at Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group at Penguin Random House. "It's been at No. 1 the past few months."

While feng shui was once all the rage, Kondo's book has generated buzz about tidying.

Chapters boast subheads such as, "If you're mad at your family, your room may be the cause," and "Storing socks: treat your socks and stockings with respect." (It suggests thanking your socks for the work they do, and never rolling them up in balls but allowing them to relax in the drawer as if they're at a spa).

Indeed, Japan's so-called "queen of clean" promises that if you properly declutter your home once, you'll never have to do it again.

The book melds practical tips with new-age philosophy, steering readers through her patented 'KonMari Method,' a category-by-category approach to efficient organizing and straightening.

Kondo suggests that one attack disorderly rooms in one fell swoop, instead of doing it piecemeal. The process should feel like a "special event," she explains, rather than a monotonous recurring "daily chore."

Her methodology relies upon a singular question: examining items one by one and simply asking, 'Does it spark joy?' If so, Kondo advises, it's a keeper. And if it doesn't meet that benchmark, get rid of it.

"Keep only those things that speak to your heart," she writes. "Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle."

Organization trend

Kondo's theories arrive as television shows take on extreme hoarding, celebrity gurus breeze into the lives of ordinary people to help them organize and beautify their spaces, and some architects discard so-called McMansions in favor of smaller houses.

"In the last decade, we're seeing that people want to live smaller — the average [new] home has gone from 2,800 square feet down to 2,500 square feet," says Rob Brennan, president of the AIA Baltimore Board of Directors, and a principal with Brennan + Company architects in Ellicott City.

"Instead of adding more space, we explore moving walls and redistributing function. You're also seeing cubbies below staircases, built-in dressers and cabinets and other niches in homes to encourage less clutter."

One national lifestyle expert believes that Kondo's book is essentially a 21st-century primer in what once was called "home economics."

"How to cook, clean, sew, and maintain a home used to be taught widely in schools, but that's been lost over time, in part due to the stigma," says Beverly Card, president of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS), which was founded back in 1909 as the American Home Economics Association. "In some ways, our homes have become dysfunctional, because so many people don't have basic skills. Or, they lack time management to get the tasks done."

The Virginia-based AAFCS has some 4,500 members and affiliates nationwide, including a Maryland chapter. Industry professionals can seek certifications in Family and Consumer Science, a comprehensive body of skills, research and knowledge intended to help people make informed decisions about their well-being.

The field represents personal and family finance, housing and interior design, food science, consumer issues and more.

"When we talk about attaining an optimal quality of life — be it raising children, finances or interior design — it's not simplistic," says Jacqueline M. Holland, Ed.D., an assistant professor at Morgan State University, one of dozens of colleges and universities nationwide that offer Bachelor of Science degrees in Family and Consumer Sciences."Not being wasteful in the home is a sustainability and environmental issue. So in that way, it ties into public policy and is very important."

Clearing home and mind

Kondo's concepts are appealing to McKenna, a certified massage therapist, who meditates and enjoys reading self-help titles.

"Hoarding is an affliction that has plagued my family for generations," she half jokes. "I do think that hoarding runs in families, and in my observation it seems prevalent in those who are especially nostalgic and/or indecisive."

She appreciated that the book provides detailed guidance on tackling different types of household items, be it piles of papers (i.e. credit card statements, warranties, and lecture materials, etc.) to storing photographs and books.

"Marie Kondo instructs readers to organize by category, starting with clothes," McKenna. "Then you repeat the process with other categories in your house."

An overarching theme of the book: clear the clutter from your home — and, by extension, your mind.

"When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too," Kondo writes. "As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don't, what you should and shouldn't do."

The author said her clients regularly report "life transforming" testimonies: losing weight, better job performance, improved marital relations — and in at least one case, a divorce.

While a spic and span home doesn't necessarily spur dramatic emotional shifts, there's some evidence it does make folks happier.

According to the American Cleaning Institute (ACI), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents the U.S. cleaning products industry, past surveys found that shiny floors, a tidy toilet, and clean countertops made consumers the happiest.

In another questionnaire commissioned by ACI, two-third of respondents indicated that they annually 'spring clean.'

"Typically, after a winter's worth of cold and ice, we're ready to open the windows and clear out the dust," says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman.

He touted cleaning as the first offense in controlling common indoor allergens which may trigger asthma and other issues.

Jane Vincent intimately knows mites and mildew. She is co-owner (with founder Courtney Kellogg) of Ecolistic Cleaning, an eco-friendly firm with offices in Baltimore's Bolton Hill community, Annapolis and Delaware.

Over the past decade or so, the MICA graduate has cleaned all kinds of homes — from historic mansions to modest apartments. Today, she oversees two-or three-person crews that on average spend a few hours getting a home in shape; they scrub, mop, vacuum, dust, and if the client wishes, organize bookshelves, desks and the like.

"People are just extremely grateful when we're finished," says Vincent, whose team uses non-toxic cleaning products and natural ingredients such as baking soda, vinegar and lavender oil.

Besides payment for their services, her staffers frequently receive gifts and even hugs.

"A recurring thing I've seen with clients is that it's very hard to focus when the home is out of control," she adds. "It becomes a distraction. Once it's taken care of, most people just seem happier."

While McKenna "loved the book and its philosophies," she didn't follow every tip, such as one that suggested paring down one's bookshelf. "I love having a home filled with books so that doesn't work for me."

However, she was motivated to purge craft supplies that weren't being used, a stockpile of "onesies" that her 4-month-old son has already outgrown, and stacks of old magazines.

"I got my wardrobe down to about half its size." Her dresser drawers got a make-over, too.

And she does embrace Kondo's advice about having items in one's home that evoke joy.

"You should appreciate the things you own, and be grateful for what they contribute to your life," says McKenna. "If they contribute nothing, then why are they in your house?"

 

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Kondo's wisdom

Here are some of the author's tips regarding komono, a Japanese term for 'miscellaneous' items.

Spare buttons. "You will never use spare buttons," Kondo writes. She suggests sewing spare buttons to the lining of a shirt, blouse or jacket when you first purchase them. "If you're not going to use spare buttons anyway, it shouldn't matter that you get rid of them."

Used checkbooks. "Used checkbooks are just that — used," she writes. "You're not going to look at them again, and even if you do, it won't increase the amount of money in the bank, so, really, get rid of them."

Unidentified cords. "If you see a cord and wonder what on earth it's for, chances are you'll never use it again," Kondo notes. "…Are you worried you might need it if something breaks? Don't be. … In the end, it is quicker to buy a new one."

Bedding for the guest who never comes. "Quilts, pillows, blankets, sheets — spare sets of bedding take up a lot of room. …Bedding stored indefinitely in the closet often smells so mildewed you wouldn't want your guests to use it anyway. Take a whiff and see for yourself."

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