The scolding mirror and productivity: Marie Kondo and friends

By Kristin Mueller-Heaslip

Dear reader, does your life feel out of control? Is your home overwhelmed with stuff, impossible to keep track of and keep tidy? Run out and buy Marie Kondo’s book on the simple art of tidying up! Or check out her Netflix show, if you prefer, and gawk as she cheerfully works her magic on the lives and homes of a bunch of hapless middle Americans cursed with too many material possessions. You can even hire her if you have a lot of money (or more realistically, one of her imitators/followers/competitors) to help you weed out your stuff and organize the remainder.

Marie Kondo stands next to a pile of clothes, smiling, with one finger pointing up

Not the hero we asked for, but perhaps the hero we need

Perhaps you’re having trouble staying on top of daily life. Don’t worry, you can always drop $24.95 on an official Bullet JournalTM, with its handy dotted pages and companion app, or try out one of many free productivity apps! From workaday Evernote, with is built-in productivity tools and sharing functions, to the impish Habitica, which treats your life like a role-playing game, there’s bound to be one that works for you.

Or maybe you’re worried about your productivity at work. The business press, technology, and training systems more than have you covered – go and read the revolutionary “Getting Things Done” system, which will teach you either to do a task as soon as it arises or schedule a time to do it later (that’s really about it), or browbeat your team into using Asana, or spend $10000 for a weekend with Tony Robbins and his entourage. And if you just can’t remember to drink water or sleep or exercise, your Apple watch will help you “close your rings”, and any number of self-care apps will periodically ping to remind you to do some yoga or take the time to feel gratitude.

A colourful, graphic page from a bullet journal outlining the user's morning routine

Just looking at this makes me feel like going back to bed

Let me stop being sarcastic for a moment to say that there is, of course, lots of value in many of these things. I KonMari-ed my house a few years ago (I just re-did it to my wardrobe last week, in fact), I make a weekly to-do list on Evernote, and I even follow a bot on Twitter that reminds me to drink water. So if you like one or more of these things and they work for you, great! Why shouldn’t we use the tools and advances of the digital age to make our lives better? But let’s also talk about what this means for who we are, how we think about ourselves, and how they can change, undermine, or damage us.

In the face of the cult of productivity, where workers expected to constantly exceed expectations, job seekers urged to become a “brand” rather than a person, and we are all pushed to always be on, always available, always seeking the next opportunity, always doing more and more with less and less…it’s not surprising that people would begin to feel inadequate to the task of keeping up with everything. (This statement is such a truism that Lifehacker, that clueless cheerleader for the modern crazy-making work climate, published a guide on “reclaiming your leisure time”…with the goal of making you more productive! Don’t forget that even reading or playing basketball is really working and must be optimized.) It’s not at all surprising that people would turn to this suite of what I’m loosely going to call self-organizing tools – apps, services, and service providers who promise to help you get and stay organized – in order to help them keep up. So let’s dive a little bit more into what this means.

It’s hard not to perceive a gendered dynamic in the popularity, for example, Marie Kondo and other home organizing systems. As women disproportionately shoulder multiple work, life, and family responsibilities, they are obviously more likely to seek “magic bullets” to help them manage an overwhelming set of obligations. Even the responsibility of “self-care” becomes an added obligation. You don’t just have to work and keep house and turn your semi-feral children into well-adjusted super-geniuses, you have to stay in shape and maintain your eyebrows and get eight solid hours of sleep every night. Spending time and/or money on self-organization tools isn’t so much an effort to solve this problem, for the very good reason that it’s not really solveable – there’s no amount of planning and organization that will give you enough time for everything – but an alibi against failure. Sure, sometimes your house was a mess and you missed out on that promotion and your kids went to a merely adequate school instead of a top-rated one – but there’s evidence that you tried, you did your best. There’s also an element of what Yannis Gabriel calls “cultural grandiosity”, or the drive to re-invent ordinary or modest experiences, objects, occupations, and achievements as cutting-edge high-level innovations. If you’re so great, why can’t you get yourself together? This very toxic bit of self-talk is a defense against admitting that this overload isn’t just a personal problem, it’s a societal one, and not one you can solve yourself through sheer willpower.

Like in our Instagram post, you can see in this Lacan’s mirror stage. You, an ordinary disorganized person, imagine an idealized, perfectly organized and tidy self. This split between how you think you think you should act and how you actually do act, the disconnect between the image of the self as a perfectly rational actor making rational decisions, and the actual self with its messy, irrational drives, desires, and defences, whether conscious or unconscious, creates an alienating internal “scold” – a part of the self that berates you for not cleaning your room or prepping 30 days of meals in your freezer or upgrading your credentials in search of a bigger and better job.

A diagram of the hypothetical mirror, where looking at the idealized, perfect self creates a feedback of the alienating internal scold

This form of emotional alienation provokes self-harm; it is not only unpleasant, it is damaging to our ability to self-authorize to make choices about our lives. It puts us at a defensive position where we must live up to the standards of another (even if that other is ourself) instead of one where we choose to get takeout if we want, or to be merely OK at our jobs instead of constantly striving to be the best of the best of the best, or to allow our children to play with minimal supervision from time to time instead of being constantly entrained to improving activities. It produces an anxiety which interferes with our ability to think, to choose, to be.

As I said above, there are many good things in these methods. I’ve personally found that Kon Mari-ing your house makes it easier to keep clean and more pleasant to live in. Everyone could benefit from using a to-do list of some kind (if they don’t already), and of course project tracking is necessary for working teams. But perhaps the question shouldn’t be “how can I get all of this done?” but more “how do I want to live, and how do I get there?”

Capitalism is happy to sell you too much stuff with one hand and a home organization system to deal with it with the other. Maybe that’s the nature of the beast. The trick is, you don’t have to buy either.

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