Spring has sprung! And with it comes spring cleaning. Like any good millennial with a Netflix account, I am well aware of Marie Kondo and her system of tidying up. In a nutshell, Kondo’s system asks participants to gather all of their belongings by category (for example, all clothing), pick up each item individually, and decide whether or not the item “sparks joy.” If it does, it stays. If not, it goes. While the system and corresponding Netflix show are popular and have inspired a new wave of decluttering (as evidenced by the number of #KonMari hashtags on Instagram), they are not just an element of pop culture or organizational know-how. In fact, the underlying principles behind the KonMari Method remind me of a few principles in economic theory.
Although Kondo recommends framing tidying up in terms of items to keep instead of what is removed, we are going to start our discussion with items that are discarded. The KonMari Method instructs that when determining if an item sparks joy, the participant should not consider past experiences with the item, but rather whether or not the item currently inspires positive feelings. This relates to the economic concept of sunk costs, which are expenditures that have already been incurred and cannot be recouped; they are considered to be irrelevant to current decisions because they have already occurred regardless of the decision one makes today. For example, if I buy a concert ticket in advance but I have the flu on the day of the event, I should not take into account the purchase price of the ticket when deciding whether or not to attend the concert while sick—I’ve spent the money either way, and I would be better off staying home and resting (and keeping my germs to myself). Similarly, discarding items that do not presently spark joy is a way of disregarding sunk costs in the tidying up process.
In addition to sunk costs, the method illustrates the concept of utility. In the economic context, utility is a measure of how useful or enjoyed a good or service is; things that are more useful or provide more satisfaction to someone have higher utility (as measured in “utils,” or imaginary utility units). For example, a dress with pockets would have higher utility than the same dress without pockets, because pockets are great. That being said, measures of utility are different for different people: while my ballet shoes have incredibly high utility for me, they are useless to my RESI colleagues. Based on this definition, Marie Kondo’s question of “Does this spark joy?” is really a reframing of the economic question of the utility of an item. And items that have low utility are discarded, while items that “spark joy” have higher utility and are thus kept.
Diminishing marginal utility
An extension of the concept of utility is that of diminishing marginal utility, which states that as someone obtains additional units of something, each subsequent unit becomes less valued. For example, if I have one cup of coffee, I will be alert, and a second cup of coffee will still help, but will have less of an effect than the first cup. That is, while my overall utility will increase with the second cup of coffee, the second cup is less valuable than the first; this is diminishing marginal utility, as each additional unit brings me less joy than the previous. However, if we continue this pattern, eventually I will be worse off. For example, if I have eight cups of coffee, I will be over-caffeinated and have a lower level of overall utility than if I had stuck to two cups of coffee. In a similar light, we can consider the KonMari Method of removing excess clutter in terms of utility: by getting rid of clutter and the stress (or decreased utility) that it causes, participants are better off.
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo not only acts as a show to binge watch nor a set of organizational guidelines for spring cleaning. In each episode, we can see real-world applications of economic theory—which sparks joy for this economics nerd.