The (Behavioral) Magic of Tidying Up

Feb 28, 2019 | By Liam Speranza in Blog

We’re already heading into March of this new year, 2019, which means we’ve all made new years resolutions and the fresh start effect is driving many of us to make some changes in our lives, and we’re definitely sticking to them now… right? While we are usually all about sticking to goals and creating new, beneficial habits, if your resolution was to binge-watch fewer TV shows this year, you may want to reconsider your goal, because we have a show for you to watch — in the name of improving your life with behavioral science, of course.

One of the most recent additions to the streaming service world is Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and it has taken the world by storm. In the series, ’tidying expert’ Marie Kondo helps people clear out the clutter in their homes — and choose joy. She helps them sift through their cluttered belongings and reorganizes their space to better fit their lives. It’s based on a technique popularized in her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

What does all this have to do with behavioral science? At the end of the day, the series is about understanding behavior and human decision-making, which is what we at ideas42 use to solve some of the world’s toughest problems in the name of social good. While in our work, we try to understand what drives people’s behavior to make the world healthier, wealthier, more just, and more sustainable, one of our core values is applying a behavioral lens to everything we do, and that can (and does) spill over into the more mundane aspects of our team’s everyday lives. Supporting our work tackling complex social problems during my own time at ideas42 led me to learn about ways to optimize my own life from a behavioral perspective, and I was delighted to find an opportunity in a popular television series.

One of the reasons I find Kondo’s approach so useful is because it offers the ability to integrate her core insights from the show into optimizing my own life.

We value the things we own and feel pain from losing them

Behavioral science can provide a deeper understanding of why it’s so hard to get rid of our belongings: we ascribe more value to things merely because we own them, known as the endowment effect. As Kondo’s clients sift through dozens of boxes of personal items, they assign a deeper meaning to them. Some of these items with a deeper meaning “spark joy”, which can take some time for clients to understand, but it can be the feeling you get from the shirt you reach for after each time you do laundry, or a book you’ve read over and over again.

It’s also easy to experience loss aversion when considering whether to discard or to donate possessions. Tidying up doesn’t mean discarding of all your cherished items. Instead Kondo’s methods guide her clients to decide which ones truly bring them joy, and which ones don’t mean too much after all.

Framing is a powerful behavioral tool for decision-making

“Does this object spark joy?” Kondo asks clients while they hold something like an old shirt to their chest. More often than not, her clients are conflicted as to whether or not their objects bring them joy. (It’s hard to know when you’re under the spell of the endowment effect!) She then reframes the question and asks if they’d like to carry the item throughout their life. When most people make decisions about getting rid of an object, they usually focus on what it is they’re giving up, but not what they would gain by keeping it. Her use of such a reframing tool allows Kondo’s client to shift their mental model, and they may find that the object doesn’t actually bring them joy. This framing device decreases decision fatigue by reducing their options to either sparking joy or not, as opposed to a longer set of options, such as how long they’ve had the object, when they’ll use it next, etc. This process clarifies what to keep, to throw away, or to donate as opposed to having us rely on our abstract desire to hold onto things just because we own them.

Framing has been shown to affect people’s decisions in many other contexts as well, and can have a tangible social impact, from reducing food waste to changing perception of HIV risks (and potentially reducing infection rates) among youth.

We tend to avoid things that stir up negative emotions

While the endowment effect and loss aversion play a role in our clutter, when it comes to tasks as mundane as organizing your sock drawer, or as crucial as socking away enough to build secure retirement savings, we also tend to put off things that trigger intense negative emotions—such as feeling guilty about having too much stuff or worrying about finances. The ostrich effect, or the tendency to avoid negative information, is seen throughout the series (and likely has been featured in all of our day-to-day lives at some point).

How many drawers do you have filled with old mail and bills that you need to empty and sort through? How’s your anxiety level thinking about cleaning those drawers? The thought of cleaning can stir up negative emotions and prevent you from completing the task.

On Tidying Up, Marie’s presence acts as a both a commitment device for her clients and helps them overcome the ostrich effect. Her process instructs people to physically put all of their clothes in a pile on their bed, allowing them to see how much they actually have (while also forcing them to complete the task if they want a bed to sleep in that night). In doing so, they’re able to “face the facts” of their overzealous consumption and start to decide what it is that they actually need in their lives.

Physical objects won’t necessarily give us boosts of joy over time

Hedonic adaptation, or the principle that the happiness that comes with something new will fade over time, is a running theme throughout the series. We’ve all bought that new shirt and can’t wait to wear it. After a few months, it’s become part of your wardrobe and it might not have any more significance than just another shirt in your closet—thus contributing to our clutter of unused items. This isn’t to say that items can’t continue to spark joy after some time. Instead, this insight can teach us that we might not need more “new” consumption in our lives to pursue happiness. Rather, repetitive, smaller positive experiences, such as exercise and spending time with loved ones, could have more lasting effects on well-being. After going through Kondo’s method, many people may think twice before buying something new, further allowing them to declutter and potentially lead to a larger benefit of reducing consumption at a larger scale.

What did I learn from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo? I, for one, have too much stuff that doesn’t spark joy in my life and the show has made it socially acceptable for me to speak openly about my clutter (thank you, descriptive norms!). More importantly, it presents yet another example of how behavioral science can positively impact people’s lives—ranging from something seemingly trivial like decluttering an apartment, all the way to improving public policies, programs, and products that can make the world healthier, wealthier, more just, and more sustainable — further reinforcing the importance to making behavioral science a ubiquitous tool for the world’s problem solvers.