The process of optimization has become pervasive in almost all lines of work. Whatever the goal of your job may be, the higher pursuit at all times is to optimize your accomplishment of it. Are you a writer putting out pieces regularly? Great. Are you doing it optimally? Probably not. The solution? Working harder, smarter, and better.
This mindset has woven itself into our cultural fabric, for better or worse. Working hard now means taking calls from bed, responding to emails at all hours of the night, and using “busy” as the standard response to how you’re doing. In fact, work is quickly taking the place of many of the facets of life that were once staples of social and cultural activity. This push to optimize one’s work life has come in direct correlation with declines in church, union, and service club memberships.
The downsides of optimization and a never-ending sense of being “on” are widely acknowledged. Self-care, and its importance in fighting the stress and burnout that comes with the pursuit of optimization has burgeoned into an $11 billion industry. Yet there remains a disconcerting uncertainty in whether self-care is truly an escape from the non-stop workday, or merely an alluring tool to further optimize the rest of one’s time spent working. Is self-care a tool for furthering personal growth and meaning, or simply another cultural instrument of optimization?
Marie Kondos’ wildly successful Netflix release, Tidying Up perhaps serves as a prime example of this uncertainty. The premise of the show is simple: Kondo, an organizing consultant, helps people with untidy homes declutter and organize their possessions, who eventually beam with satisfaction over improvements to their relationships, productivity, and well-being.
The show is remarkably calming. With its elegant aesthetic and gentle production style, the show is like a head massage for a stressed-out generation. Content geared towards these primal emotional responses are evident in trends like paint-mixing videos and ASMR, or the subreddit r/oddlysatisfying, which provide sensory satisfaction in an environment devoid of the distractions and concerns of modern life. Watching cluttered homes transform into beautifully organized displays of small boxes and orderly closets in provides a similar satisfactory experience, while also a soft nudge towards finding organization in our own lives.
The show functions as an instruction manual for domestic optimization in order to better meet the duties and responsibilities of adult life. One of the common themes of the show is that once families have successfully organized their living spaces according to Kondo’s method, the rest of their day-to-day tasks become much easier to accomplish. It’s optimization with a friendly face, and people are eating it up. San Francisco thrift stores are experiencing what has been dubbed the “Marie Kondos Effect,” with people flooding their stores with mountains of clothes that do not “spark joy” (Kondos’ criteria for whether an item should be kept or not). Are young people flocking to Tidying Up because it provides a deep and intrinsically satisfying viewing experience, or because it offers a toolkit to further optimize an already high-performing and high-stress life? The answer seems to be a mix of both.
In a brilliant piece for Buzzfeed News, Anne Helen Petersen describes millennials as the “Burnout Generation.” With the need to optimize oneself while simultaneously keeping one’s head above the waterline of everybody else working equally hard at optimization, millennials have lost the ability to complete the simple tasks that exist somewhere in between the triviality of day to day life and the weight of professional pursuits. Going to the post office, cleaning one’s car, doing taxes, and the activities that have come to be known as “adulting,” have only recently become odious chores as opposed to normal aspects of life.
As Petersen observes though, this inability to keep up with the tasks that life demands of people is not a function of generational laziness, but rather the opposite. When the pursuit of an optimized life forces them to spend 10-12 hours a day working in order to gain a slight edge over their peers in the workplace, it is no surprise that millennials come home without the physical or mental energy to cancel their gym membership or return an unwanted birthday present. The need to optimize one’s life professionally in order to establish some semblance of professional security has made everyday life unsustainable for the latest generation of adults.
Contrary to Petersen’s picture of burnout, Tidying Up seems to present a method for optimization that does not detract from one’s ability to complete the tasks necessary in one’s life, but rather makes it easier to do so. With her technique, Kondo offers a form of meta-optimization; she is pushing us to get better at getting better. Perhaps this is a subversive form of optimization, but we seem to need it. While our daily chores seem to get in the way of an optimized live, basic attention to them may help us become more productive, or at least happier as we navigate the era of never-ending “on.” Kondo and Tidying Up have brought us back to the fundamentals, one tiny box at a time.