For our Interview series this month, we sat down with Christine O’Brien, founder of Sparks Joy Home. In this interview, we ask her about her background as an educator and child development specialist, her challenges as a new mom before finding the KonMari method, and her experiences in forming new communities and mentor groups around the simplicity lifestyle.
Trellis Magazine: Minimalism. It’s a movement that’s become a cultural phenomenon. It also goes by the name Simplicity Living or Essentialism. In your words, what is this movement all about and why has it become so attractive?
Christine O’Brien: I love the word essentialism because then the question becomes: “what is essential for me?” I might be a minimalist but there’s a lack of abundance in that word. And I feel like I have abundance, even though I don’t have a lot of stuff.
We as a people really want to get back to what’s really important. Minimalism is resonating with a lot of people because maybe we’ve gotten a little off track, from knowing ourselves and trusting ourselves. There’s this inner peace that comes with having what is right for you, rather than taking everything in and keeping it and not knowing what to do with it.
TM: We’re taught in very subtle ways (thank marketing for that) to buy this, buy that, get this thing and that thing, and so we do. And then the question becomes “Well now what? I’m drowning in stuff!”
Christine: I had such an interesting experience with my daughter who was 4. We were looking at a catalog with all these beautiful clothes, and we were saying “I want that, I want that one”. And we were getting really into that wanting, and then all of a sudden my daughter said “actually I don’t want any of that stuff. I just want to be in that world that they’re in.”
I was blown away. Because that’s totally how it feels sometimes: oooh, I want that nice dress…because I actually I want to be in Greece or wherever they are and have this other persona. But when you get the dress, you realize it didn’t really change my life in the way that I wanted it to.
It’s an interesting way of noticing why you want stuff. Is it really about needing a particular dress? Or is it more about wanting something that’s not physical that we’re searching for? I think that love, and connection, and happiness is part of it.
Experience in a way is about connection. That’s what joy is about—connecting with others, having a memory of being together or just being “in the now.”
That’s why I got interested in the KonMari method by reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Her question of “Does it spark joy?” which helps us connect with that heart-centered feeling rather than only in that mind speaks to that.
TM: James Altucher put this well: the importance of thinking through what you’re spending money on and shifting that around so instead of spending money on things, you’re spending money on experiences. Because the experiences, and the memories of those experiences, have a more profound effect on us than just the things. Like with your daughter—what she realized is she didn’t just want the things (the clothes she was looking), she wanted to experience something that those pictures seemed to be showing.
Christine: Experience in a way is about connection. That’s what joy is about—connecting with others, having a memory of being together or just being “in the now.” Working in the garden together, or going on a vacation, or whatever you’re doing in your experience—that’s really about connecting with your family or friends, or maybe even yourself if you’re just hiking or doing something independent. There’s a connection that is happening that feels different than with stuff.
But if you have the right amount of stuff for you, and you can build a good relationship with your stuff, then there’s a connection that’s important there as well.
TM: You mentioned Marie Kondo’s book which has become very popular: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Was reading that book the catalyst for you getting into this movement? With your background as an educator and child specialist, and eventually you became a mom, did you come to a point where you felt overwhelmed with stuff and needed a change?
Christine: I’m not very materialistic, so it wasn’t that we had too much stuff. I had been a preschool teacher and also worked with teachers to set up their classroom. I was good at looking at the environment and what kind of materials are out, making sure everything was simple and labeled and set up well for the children in the school there.
But then at home, it was different. Before we had a child, my husband and I would spend the weekend cleaning up. We would get piles of stuff going during the week, and then to take the time to take care of it at the end of the week. Then after having had our child, we discovered Oh, there’s never any end of the week anymore! We needed a better system. The whole transition to motherhood was a huge shift for me, and I felt we needed to get on top of this.
I read an article one of my friends posted on Facebook about Marie Kondo’s first book, and I loved it— the question of “does it spark joy” and having this kind of “agency” over my life, that I could choose what to keep or not. After going through the process of the KonMari method, I realized I was keeping a lot of stuff that I had brought with me through my life that I never really thought about. Why do I have this? Do I need it? So reading Kondo’s book definitely got me on the path. It spoke to me in a way that aligned with my passion of setting up environments that support the lifestyle or the education you want for yourself or your family.
What I love about the method is, if you’re going through your things by category and asking each item “Does this spark joy for me?”, you’re really trying to tune more into your heart rather than your mind for making decisions.
TM: After reading the book, you started a Facebook group for the KonMari method which has become very popular now. How did that come about?
Christine: The main idea of the method is that you go through everything that you own by category and decide if it sparks joy. And I felt really overwhelmed with the prospect and like I needed a community, other people who are also doing the method and could be accountability buddies. So I started the group and named it something really simple, similar to the name of the book, such as “KonMari Method of Life-Changing Magic”
Immediately, hundreds of people started joining the group. And I thought “whoa, this is really different than I thought it was going to be!” However, it actually did help me stay committed to finishing, and I learned so much about everyone’s process and felt connected with other people on their journey. And I was able to support other people along the way, so in the end I really found a passion with it. Eventually I attended a seminar on the KonMari method, and then went through the KonMari consultant training and got to meet Marie Kondo in person.
What I love about the method is, if you’re going through your things by category and asking each item “Does this spark joy for me?”, you’re really trying to tune more into your heart rather than your mind for making decisions. Obviously some things are necessary and you need to keep them. But then there’s also a part where you’re thanking things you’re letting go of and feeling this sense of gratitude. I think that’s a unique aspect of the KonMari method for sure.
TM: There can be a lot of guilt around getting rid of something—if it has any kind of sentimental value, or if it was just useful at one time in the past. Someone might feel guilty, like they’re letting this thing down or getting rid of their legacy. There can be a lot of emotion tied up with things.
It seems like Marie Kondo has found a way to unlock this ability to feel like you’ve brought that thing to its successful conclusion in your life and now you can move on.
Christine: Definitely. I totally agree that it is permission to let go. That’s what I felt from reading the book, where she says “trust me. You need feel no guilt with this.” I think that’s a big transformation, because there is so much emotion connected with our stuff.
Another part of it is the idea of living in the now, and having what’s useful and serving you in the moment. You learn to live more in the moment and open up to receiving more things that are relevant to you now.
TM: What other things specifically do you find are truly life changing with Marie Kondo’s approach? Obviously home organizing methods and resources have been around forever—there’s a huge market of people who are consultants and writing books. So why aren’t everyone’s homes already organized? Why has the KonMari method all of a sudden had such a transformational effect in so many people’s lives?
Christine: I can answer this from my own personal experience. I’m not sure how it is for everyone. But for me, going through my stuff as Marie Kondo says is like facing myself. I definitely learned so much about myself, and I realized that I was really critical of myself and had a lot of room for transformation: growing in self-compassion and learning to like myself and be kind to myself.
Before, I was held back because I felt like I wasn’t good enough—hiding behind perfectionism. Now I know what I want in life and how I want to live my life—even waking up in the morning and feeling excited.
For me, that is the real transformation. Yes, my house is more organized and easier to clean up and feels like more airy and pleasant. That’s wonderful. But internally, I feel more confident and have become more mindful, noticing those little criticisms and negative self-talk that I would engage in: I haven’t done this, I haven’t done that. Somehow, going through my stuff really woke me up to that. It also brought a lot of other thought leaders into my life. Brené Brown talks a lot about vulnerability, and she also introduced me to Kristin Neff who teaches self-compassion meditations that are really helpful.
Before, I was held back because I felt like I wasn’t good enough—hiding behind perfectionism. I think it’s common for women in particular to need to be 80% sure of something before they do it. For myself that was meant I was never doing anything that felt scary. And so sharing my voice (like right now talking to you!) is something I wouldn’t have been able to do before I went through this method and found different resources to help me change my mindset and my heartset.
Now I know what I want in life and how I want to live my life—even waking up in the morning and feeling excited. My daughter will wake me up and instead of being grouchy and dreading the day, I really feel so excited and happy to see her. We’ll wake up with kisses and we have a really nice morning routine.
I hope this is possible for everyone. It seems like it’s reached that point. I commonly hear strong transformational stories and I know the possibility of it.
TM: You have begun to help other people, and especially moms, in various ways go through this process and learn about the KonMari method. Can you explain a little bit about how you how you go about that? What is it like when you are working with someone?
Christine: Yes, I do home joy sessions and can help people no matter where they are in that process. I think a lot of us can feel really overwhelmed with the prospect of going through our stuff. And so I help and coach people through the process in their homes.
I also have a group program called Creating Calm Community where we support each other, have weekly goals that we announce to everyone, and then we have the weekly celebration to find out if we reached our goals or what we learned from the attempt. It’s a great way to connect with each other to support each other.
It’s sort of like the idea that I had when I originally started the Facebook group for the KonMari method, but now with myself and also a partner, Bev Treadway, who is leading the group with me, we really can focus on that support people are looking for. We’ve both been through the process of going through our stuff, I’ve been trained as a KonMari consultant, it’s great to have this program that supports people who are going through the process themselves.
In addition, I also have an online course that’s available for moms to simplify and find joy. I’ll soon be interviewing Kim John Payne, the author of Simplicity Parenting. After I read Marie Kondo’s book I felt like there was a missing element of: how do moms and families approach this? And so I became trained as a certified Simplicity Parenting coach. Payne’s book was really helpful in bringing it all together, showing how a mom who doesn’t really have that much time would be able to do it. His approach is more focused on trying small, doable steps, instead trying everything at once. It makes going through the process more manageable and you avoid the overwhelm.
TM: One last question just for fun: if you could help introduce two inspirational figures in your life and then be a fly on the wall as you listen to their conversation, who would they be and why?
Christine: Oh funny! I just have to bring it back to Marie Kondo and Kim John Payne because they’re these two people that I’ve brought together in my mind with similar strategies. I would be really curious to hear them both talk, because foundationally they are in agreement around “simplicity is better,” having less stuff is going to result in a more simplified life. They also agree that leading by example is essential. But regarding the method and how you involve children or not and at what ages, I would just love to hear a conversation between the two of them really addressing where they’re aligned and where they’re different.
TM: Maybe you’ll get to host a panel like that someday! Thank you Christine very much for being with us. Be sure to check out Christine’s website at Sparks Joy Home.
Christine: Thank you so much for asking me to be here. I really appreciate this conversation and sharing my voice.