We all love Marie Kondo. So why is tidying up so hard?

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    We all love Marie Kondo. So why is tidying up so hard?

    The Japanese neatness consultant has inspired millions to declutter. So why is getting your home Instagrammably neat so difficult, asks David H. Freedman

    illustration of woman with neatly organised boxes in her head

    Does an orderly mind follow an orderly home?

    Josie Ford

    By David H. Freeman

    A CLUTTER-free kitchen, living room or office resonates with a clean, graceful aesthetic. Neatness implies organisation and discipline. Stress and inefficiency disappear with stray socks and the morning’s dishes. That’s the promise of Japanese neatness consultant Marie Kondo, as she espouses “the life-changing magic of tidying up” in her Netflix series.

    Today, as rising housing costs and the appeal of urban living leave more people stuffed together in small apartments, a certain level of tidiness can be essential. Our social-media sharing exacerbates that demand. But why are so many of us obsessed by the idea of tidiness? Research sheds little light on the question because virtually all studies of neatness and organisation start by defining mess as dysfunctional.

    There is little evidence that anyone without servants or similar help put a lot of effort into or worried much about tidiness before the 1950s. That suggests we have little innate drive towards neatness. Perhaps our modern admiration of the super-neat took root in the unrealistically sanitised homes of the faux families in early sitcoms and advertisements, just when the post-war boom era was enabling many people to accumulate ever more stuff. So now we either throw ourselves into the task of straightening up or feel guilty if we don’t. But while the benefits that attend tidiness feel obvious and get a lot of good PR, we don’t hear much about its costs.

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    Neatness requires an often considerable investment of resources: time, thought, physical effort, perhaps money for shelving and boxes, or for professional guidance. Tidying up a mess is real work, and even once accomplished requires constant maintenance against the tug of entropy.

    I am well aware of the costs of neatness, having co-authored an entire book on it. But I have also discovered that few people do the accounting when it comes to making a rational, thoughtful decision about how much tidiness might be enough, or even too much.

    People with messy desks told me they spent less time looking for documents than people with neat desks. That makes sense: the most recent and oft-used documents tend to end up at the top of piles, instead of being hidden away according to some complex, half‑forgotten filing scheme. Heaps of clothes work the same way. Disorderly doesn’t mean disorganised.

    So sure, feeling the urge to neaten up is reasonable and practical. But it is worth keeping in mind that excessive tidiness can take a toll too, and a bit of clutter, seen the right way, can be a balm.

    Read more: Dishing the dirt: How clean does your home really need to be?How clean is too clean? The truth about hygiene and your health

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