“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Our Turf?

February 21st, 2015


George Despres
University Records Manager, Brandeis University

(The content in this blog reflects the opinions of the author, and not of Brandeis University.)

Last fall, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, was released in the United States. This book passed under my radar until a kind colleague pointed out that, in one chapter, Kondo dispenses personal record retention and categorization guidance. Kondo is “an organizing consultant and author.” The book, translated from Japanese to English, reads like rather quaint, Emily Postian, self-help prose, and it is no info governance (IG) monograph. However, this bestselling title sold over 2 million copies worldwide (as of last year), with releases in Korea, Germany, the UK, the US, and probably elsewhere. So, Kondo has reached more people with her specific retention advice than most if not all of us will likely advise in our professional lifetimes.

Yes, there is a distinction here – we advise and act on institutional records at professional organizations from the IG standpoint, while Kondo addresses documents in private closets, trunks, boxes, letter holders, drawers, racks, and cabinets, on coffee, dining room, and end tables, countertops, in bathrooms, basements, attics, and elsewhere. Maybe in car trunks, too. And anyone can write a book about anything. Still, as a records professional, I’m left feeling like this “organizing consultant” is somehow stealing my (our) fire. I hope that you’ll see why below.

About the Book

Kondo’s personal record advice appears in a “Sorting Papers” section of a chapter titled, “Tidying by Category Works Like Magic.” As her chapter title indicates, Kondo emphasizes categorization as a means of getting through personal records and papers. Okay, so far. Her first categorization splits records to be saved from records requiring action. Everyone, she says, should keep a “needs attention” box for the action files. This box should be kept empty, echoing David Allen’s anti-procrastination approach to clean email inboxes in Getting Things Done. Kondo advocates Big Bucket practice, telling readers to “refrain from subdividing” their main record categories. That said, she recommends subdividing papers “to be saved” based on their expected use frequency.

As for specific documents, Kondo urges her audience to keep all product warrantees in one clear container, avoiding complicated subdivisions, since they will be infrequently referenced anyway. Expired warrantees should be weeded only when one happens to be spending the time reviewing a warrantee in the collection, or adding one. Kondo prescribes one year retention for holiday greeting cards “to confirm the sending address the following year.” She instructs us to throw away most product manuals, which can be found online or simply be ignored by fixing the product yourself and “fiddling with the [affected] machine” (!): “Take a look at them [manuals]. Have you ever used them?” We’ll store this tip in the chuck-it-and-cry-tomorrow bin.

One flimsy appraisal lynchpin underlying Kondo’s advice is to keep records and things only if they “spark joy in your heart” (yes, I’m serious). This premise is highly subjective and relative advice that a hoarder or crazy person or perfectly sane person might construe as “all records,” including their 2003 cinema ticket stub for Dumb and Dumberer and the takeout menu from a deli that closed in 1986. Can you imagine instructing your C-Suite executives to maintain only the records that spark joy in their hearts? Even as a prescription for personal records in the home, this advice is murky at best and the efficiency equivalent of peeling raw carrots with a dull butter knife at worst. Conversely, Kondo goads her readers to “limit yourself at first to sorting papers that give you no thrill at all,” as if that button is simply turned on and off, and as if “joy sparking” records will never be interfiled with “no thrill” records in the first place. Furthermore, something that sparks joy on a Tuesday could easily find the no thrill trash bin on Friday, depending on one’s mood. The operating mentality is to let emotion or lack thereof drive personal record prioritization, categorization, and disposition. Huh.

While hoarding (compulsive or indifferent) has been at least acknowledged by the IG community (e.g., here and here), some of us tend to stop at this point and view it as an annoying fait accompli, and organizing professionals and psychologists tend to take over this space. Although we may advocate for record destruction (even this may be changing), many or most of us don’t expend much energy on the psychology of why people want to keep things “just in case,” in order to combat it. Our job is to say: “You can’t / shouldn’t over-retain it, period” (perhaps a couple of hoarder psychology questions would be in order for Part 4 of the CRM exam?). To her credit, Kondo takes on this over-retention tendency by encouraging destruction of some junk. She argues (though without much supporting evidence) for destruction of most conference material: “People often insist, ‘I want to restudy these materials sometime’ but most never do.” She forcefully implores readers to delete credit card documents, used checkbooks, and pay slips, without any acknowledgement of the need to securely eradicate the PII therein (whoops). To be fair, shredders are mentioned elsewhere in the book. Kondo refers to hoarding “lawyer clients” she had who kept asking, somewhat out of professional character, “What if this document is needed in court”? They were eventually cured of their malaise. The more I read through Kondo’s instructions, the more I came away with the notion that this or some of this is our business, or that it should be.

Professional Ownership?

Kondo’s book is popular and successful, and her home “records management” prescriptions are intended as part of a broader life organization and cleansing effort. There is a therapeutic subtext in her book that is, I think, remote from the main thrusts of our profession. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Her Sorting Papers advice and mis-advice demonstrate that much of our knowledge and expertise have not reached the personal record self-help arena and that, conversely, the mass market fails to refer to us when we can really help or better advise.

Perhaps we can take some of this space under our wings by dispensing personal record guidelines to our institutional communities as a bonus service, if we haven’t yet. Some of us, as the retention experts, may have already received informal water cooler requests for guidance on office colleagues’ personal papers (speaking of tax season in February). As if IG program development, big data, text mining and predictive analytics, IoT, mobile/BYOD, FOIA, eDiscovery, PII security, cloud, and social media aren’t enough to track, we should boldly expand our agenda in order to cover the massive – no, ubiquitous – range of topics that records management actually covers. Records are everywhere! Now, that should spark joy in our hearts.

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