Why Not Tidying Up Could Be the Secret to Having It All

I studied the lives of successful, happy women and discovered a surprising trend.
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I studied the lives of successful, happy women and discovered a surprising trend.
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I subscribe to numerous women’s magazines and have long noticed a pattern: Come April, the spring cleaning stories return like the tulips. It is time to air out the house. We chuck the old and let in the light. The appeal is as much metaphorical as anything else. An email from Martha Stewart Living instructs subscribers to “Start Fresh This Spring” and Real Simple’s April cover urges readers to “Spring Clean Your Life.”

This cleaning-as-a-fresh-start image has gained popularity in the past few years with the rise of Marie Kondo, the Japanese decluttering expert. Her manifesto, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, sold millions of copies with its admonition to throw things out until you “experience an exhilaration you have never known before and gain confidence in your life.” Indeed, tidying is the first step in all achievement: “Your real life begins after putting your house in order.”

To be sure, tidying up feels productive. However, as I study the schedules of women who do amazing things with their lives, who build careers, raise happy families, and still have time for fun, I am often struck by how little time they spend tidying. They refuse to make fun wait for the house to be clean and well-ordered. They have discovered the life-changing magic of not tidying up. Often, that is the secret to having it all.

As I have shared with Verily readers in past columns, I have long been frustrated by the narrative that working mothers are inevitably harried, with no time for joy. So for my most recent book, I Know How She Does It, I collected time diaries from women with big jobs who had kids living at home. For the most part, women were able to combine work and family just fine, but I noticed that some had schedules that exuded more stress than others. Some women woke at 5:15 a.m. to do laundry. Others? They spent early morning time writing in their journals, doing yoga, or sleeping. Some women spent whole weekends doing chores. Others relaxed and played with their kids.

The difference could not be explained by who employed a housekeeper, or whose husbands stayed home with the kids, or even the number or age of the kids themselves. I soon realized it was about attitude. Some women felt they were supposed to patrol the household wastebaskets, emptying them as soon as a single tissue landed in there. Other women realized that a state of pure tidiness is an illusion—some might say a patriarchy-perpetuating illusion—designed to keep women too busy to enjoy life in all its messy glory.

Time is a zero sum game. Time spent on tidying is time not spent on other things. The question is what those things are. The annual American Time Use Survey, done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, finds that women with full-time jobs spend fewer hours working for pay than men with full-time jobs. The difference is within striking distance of the gap in time spent on “household activities.” The quest for tidiness is far from the only reason for the pay gap, but it is part of it.

To be sure, plenty of people have no desire to work longer hours. But consider this: Housework takes time away from family, too. The hours women devote to housework have fallen since the 1960s. During these decades, time diaries show that the time women spend with their children has actually risen. This is why we now call women who are not employed outside the home “stay-at-home moms” instead of “housewives.” The emphasis of the job is completely different.

Though the hours devoted to tidying have fallen over the years, I believe they can fall more. This is not about outsourcing chores, a topic that sets people into a frenzy any time it gets mentioned. It costs money to outsource household chores, but it does not cost anything to lower your standards. When I talk with women who tell me they have no time for leisure, I remind them that there is no 11 p.m. home inspection with someone coming to check that all the toys are put away and the house is straightened up. The toys will just come out again the next morning, but you will never get that hour back.

Better to use it for something more pleasurable—for those things women often claim they have no time for, such as reading a good book, pursuing a hobby, calling a friend, or chatting with your partner while enjoying a glass of wine. Kondo asks, “Can you place your hand on your heart and swear that you are happy when surrounded by so much stuff that you don’t even remember what’s there?” Because I am also surrounded by meaningful work and healthy children—with all their toy flotsam—I would say yes. Life does not begin when you put your house in order. Life begins whenever you want it to. The state of your cupboards matters not a whit.

Photo Credit: Cari Wayman