Marie Kondo visited my quarantine workspace to give me a lesson on letting go

Web Summit 2015

There’s no better motivator to start Marie Kondo-ing your home than learning that Marie Kondo will be visiting your home. Though of course, in the age of the coronavirus, “visiting” means connecting over Zoom for 30 minutes.

The ostensible object of our “visit” is for me to ask Kondo questions about her new book, Joy at Work, and to get feedback on tidying my workspace — a 500-square-foot apartment that I share with my boyfriend, Chad. But in truth, I’m already pretty proficient at tidying. Before I took a job at this magazine, I freelanced from home for two years, which gave me near infinite opportunities to obsess over every surface and crevice. These days, while I have my procrastination hotspots — a jumbled shelf of pots and pans, a drawer of Chad’s derelict possessions, a stack of unfiled tax documents, a box of beauty products under the bed — I’m still pretty tidy.

My real fantasy is that Kondo (accompanied, as she generally is for interviews with English-speaking press, by interpreter Marie lida) would spark our quarantine with some much-needed “life-changing magic.” Co-working and co-existing indefinitely in a tiny apartment is a bit like navigating an otherwise pleasant minefield. Chad and I are allies, but small inanimate enemies lie in wait: coffee grounds on the counter, beard trimmings in the sink, a hanger on the floor, a crumpled tissue by the bed, putty earplugs mindlessly impaled on a favorite pencil. The inevitable explosions have an existential ring to them. “But why, why??!”

So all I really want is for Marie to come over and gush: “You’re doing a beautiful job in pandemic life! You’re cute and your home is clean and you’re going to be fine! We’re all going to be fine!!” Ahead of the interview, I shamelessly stage-manage: dusting windowsills, vacuuming, mopping and picking out a fuzzy turtleneck for Chad (who, without my prodding, has even trimmed his beard). I want Marie to have some conspicuous yet inoffensive targets for critique, so I plant a pile of papers under the desk, leave out a few trinkets, and add a cord or two to a nest of electronics.

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At the appointed time, Marie “arrives.” A copy of Joy at Work hovers on a shelf over her right shoulder, and she looks fresh and minimal in a white crew neck sweater. I say that her press tour is probably going a little differently than planned. “Yes, this is certainly new for me,” she replies. “I’m at home right now, and my children are playing in the other room. I’m home the entire day, so I make three meals for them and in between….” I think she says something about work and a dog and health, but some feedback fuzzes up the connection.

Joy at Work is Kondo’s fifth book, co-written with Scott Sonenshein, an organizational psychologist. While Kondo says that the act of tidying physical and digital workspaces is important, she emphasizes, “For me, the goal was to create a book that allows you to think about how you want to work in the first place, and what your ideal is when it comes to your career. I think this book really gives people an opportunity to listen to their hearts.”

My heart is open as we set off on our tour of my quarantine. I show her my strategically placed messes: the desk with its baubles, the stack of papers and cords, and, just a few feet away, the kitchen island that doubles as a standing desk. We note the printer’s home behind the TV. Then I take her into the bedroom, where Chad is perched on the side of the bed with his laptop on a barstool.

“Here’s where I keep my coffee mug!” he says, pointing to the sill of our cell-like bedroom window. Later, reviewing his cameo, Chad says I might as well have introduced him as “the hulking hairy animal in the dim back room.” But Kondo is not deterred. She tucks a shiny, dark lock of hair behind her ear and leans toward her computer to get a closer look. I notice some other knickknacks Chad has placed on the sill alongside his mug, unbeknownst to me: a picture of us at a wedding and a small, creepy wooden doll of unknown origin. “Oookay!” I say, swinging the computer around. I shut the door on an enthusiastic “Bye, Marie!”

Back at my desk, we recount her observations from our visit. “I’m so happy that you shared your specific work area with me,” she says. “From what I see, it’s not as if you have too many things, or too much clutter in your home or, or anything like that.”

My quarantined heart sings!

“It will just take a few tricks of storing to make it a lot better,” she continues, hitting her stride. “Around your desk, the first things I saw were a few small accessories. Just having a little tray, like the one I showed you just now — or any small boxes that you like — can really clear space on your desk. The electric cords I saw underneath your desk — if you don’t need to keep them all connected to a power source, it might be helpful to designate a spot to store some of them. As for that pile of documents I saw below your desk, it’s amazing how much difference it makes to store them vertically in a file folder. It really allows you to always keep track of what you have and how much you have.”

My pre-production planning is paying off.

In regards to the bedroom, she says, ”I think it’s very important to demarcate when you’re using the bed for work and when you’re using it to relax and sleep on. So disconnect the cords when you’re done at the end of the day and put all of them in a box at the foot of your bed or anywhere you’d like, but just make sure that you’re clearly shifting gears. Anything that allows you to move from work mode to relaxation mode is very important.”

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Throughout our conversation, Kondo’s voice rises and falls with the same warm, expressive timbre that’s endeared her to millions of fans. But I am struck most when I watch her in the somewhat awkward interludes of translation. While she waits and listens, her expression is immaculately attentive. She smiles just enough to make you comfortable, but not enough to be ingratiating. She’s perfected the art of inhabiting in-between space — of inserting herself and then staying present in the waiting.

It occurs to me that much of the work she does with families and individuals on her show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, involves teaching and then stepping back and waiting for her pupils to master the method themselves. She trusts them to have revelations on their own. Her expertise, it seems, is in knowing when to give up control and in helping others take control of their lives by giving up control, too. In letting go of their excess stuff, she helps them leave behind the narratives they’ve told themselves about who they are — about their time and habits and which material possessions they truly need.

I think about my own flailing bids for control. In periods of my life when the onslaught of fear and anxiety about the unknown has been especially relentless, I have used tidying as a salve. But too often, I’ve decluttered to distract, or procrastinate. Or I’ve cleaned and micromanaged to grasp at affirmation for my efforts — from Chad, or even from Marie Kondo. I forget that the point of all this tidying is to clear time and space for our future selves to be better: to be more creative, more kind, more grateful, more relaxed, more productive, more present.

But it’s hard to find a spark of joy when the bad news comes in tidal waves. So I ask Kondo if she has any words of wisdom for the millions of people who have lost jobs or loved ones. Or are waiting to lose jobs and loved ones.

“I completely understand,” she says. She bows her head and closes her eyes for just a second, like a passing meditation. “I know this is a time where a lot of people have anxiety about the future and what’s ahead for us, but I do feel that now is precisely the moment to reflect on how precious the things are that we already possess.”

It’s a statement that, while seemingly obvious, sums up the crux of Kondo’s entire self-care philosophy. “My method is founded on the idea of choosing what sparks joy for you from among the things that you already own,” she continues. “So this time allows you to reflect on how much you already have — from your home itself to the clothes that you wear to the things that inspire you. So the question of what sparks joy for you right now allows you to shift your perspective a little bit and foster gratitude for why you do what you do and the people and things that you do have in your life.” Even the odd hanger on the floor.

This article first appeared on Entrepreneur.