Marie Kondo is immaculate. Tidy hair, pristine cream jumper, lit by the Los Angeles sun streaming through a huge glass window. Behind, a light breeze ripples through the leaves of a verdant tree.
By contrast, I am surrounded by teenage posters and Harry Potter paraphernalia, talking via videoconference from my stepdaughter’s bedroom.
The 35-year-old tidying guru is diplomatic. “It’s your home and personal space,” she says through a translator, though suggests I might use the coronavirus lockdown period to try her KonMari organisation method. This encourages people not to tidy room by room, which ends up shuffling things around. Instead, we should organise by category — books, toiletries, sentimental keepsakes — and only keep those items that spark joy.
“I do have an inkling that it’s a time people will want to tidy their home,” she says. “If you feel that burgeoning feeling, you should do it.”
Ms Kondo came to worldwide attention in 2011 with her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, drawing on an organising obsession which started at school and later became her career. Last year she became a TV star with the Netflix reality show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, helping people organise their homes, to be followed next year with Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo.
The method of tidying is rooted in the Shinto spiritualism. Tidying and finding objects that spark joy might be better seen not as decluttering and minimalist interior styling but as a form of mindful meditation.
Restoring order to your job
Now the Japanese tidying guru has turned her attention to the matter of work, in her new book, called, unsurprisingly, Joy at Work, co-authored with organisational psychologist and professor of management at Rice University, Scott Sonenshein.
“Are you asking yourself, is this all life’s about?” they write in the book, “Just checking things off a to-do list? Isn’t there some way to restore order to my job, my career, my life?” The solution? Tidy up, of course.
“I advise beginning with small steps,” Ms Kondo tells me via videoconference. “Even tidying the environment you’re in helps a great deal.”
This is not just about tidying the physical workspace. But about digital data, organising contacts, setting priorities as well as the inevitable: how to spark joy in your career.
As coronavirus spreads across the world, wreaking havoc on the global economy and people’s jobs, this seems an unfortunate time to ask people to find joy in work. Most will count themselves lucky to keep on to their jobs, and many are risking their health to work.
Prof Sonenshein, who I speak to separately, insists that the book is still relevant. “People are trying to get work done when they don’t know the future, and also at the same time combining work with kids at home. People are facing unprecedented demands. So we need to strip down to the work we need to do, get the meetings out of work.”
But he also points out that a time of such upheaval is a clarifying moment. “As difficult as times are now it doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy the work we do have.” Crises are a time when people reflect on their lives, he says, and it encourages them to think about what they really “want to do on this planet. People work on autopilot. It’s a time to ask whether work is bringing joy. People will drop a lot of initiatives that they fill their time with and reset what they want to do in their work and lives more broadly.”
Finding meaning in your work
Joy at work is essentially about finding meaning in it. “Two people won’t find joy in the same thing. It’s a sense of a pleasure that you get from doing the work that you’re doing. Younger generations get this a lot better than older generations. You have to step back and ask yourself honestly what you want to value [and] personal goals. When you hit them, you get personal joy.” It is important as people are in crisis mode and unable to see each other face to face to express appreciation to a colleague, Prof Sonenshein says.
Before he agreed to work with Ms Kondo, he wanted to sample her methods. “I decided to tidy my office. I had 400-500 books. I threw all of my books on the office floor and picked up each one and thought, did it spark joy? There were many books I held on to as I studied it in college but didn’t need any more. I threw away about half of them. I have the most immaculate office. The transformation is unbelievable. I know where files and books are. I am so much better, I am so much more focused. I feel more in control of my work now.” It goes beyond the physical space, he says.
“Tidying time is very important. These are powerful ways of taking control of our life. Part of this is about experiencing joy but another gift is taking control of an environment that we don’t feel we have control over.”
Focus is hard for those who are in crisis mode, I say, while also trying to juggle caring responsibilities. “You need to focus on the time you are actually going to work,” says Prof Sonenshein. “It’s really easy to get disoriented. In the time that you aren’t working you need to focus on that.”
Ms Kondo says that in her own case, she and her husband — the co-founder and chief executive of her company, KonMari Media — talk at the beginning of every day and discuss their priorities, and map out times they need to be in meetings and when they can be available for their two children, aged three and four. “I try to designate a specific time for home and work,” she says. They are, however, in the privileged position of having a nanny.
There are “natural tensions in balancing” the demands of children and partners at home, says Prof Sonenshein. “This is a negotiation of your time and deliverables, so start by being clear on what a positive outcome looks like for everyone.” He encourages people to talk to their boss and teams. “Let them know what you are balancing and ask for their support and feedback on what’s essential in a crisis, and what can wait. Get clear on what parts of your job are time bound, and how much flexibility you have for when your work will get done.” Time shaved off commutes and the school run will help. If parents talk to children who are old enough to understand, they might volunteer to become “good helpers”.
Prof Sonenshein’s own offspring are 12 and seven. “We asked our kids to help develop a schedule for learning so we had some buy-in from them. We decided that we care most about active learning and less about curriculum, so during blocked-time for subjects, we let them explore what they are intrinsically interested in. This lets us get some work done, while they do learning.” Apps that gamify subjects have helped more than worksheets.
His older daughter even participated in his MBA class. “I was actually teaching crisis leadership one day and the importance of improvisation. Myaan has been doing theatre since she was five and knew the activity I was doing. When I didn’t have enough volunteers for the activity, Myaan volunteered over Zoom and did a great job in front of 60 students. She got a college experience, my class had a seasoned participant that helped illustrate a teaching point, and our family had Myaan occupied for the afternoon.”
But also, he says, do not fret about giving your kids screen time. “These are trying times!”
Five tips on finding joy at work in the age of coronavirus
Set daily goals for yourself in the categories of mind, body and soul. Mind could mean making progress on a work project or making a list of your most critical functions at work; body could mean taking a walk while talking to a colleague on the phone or getting enough sleep that night; and soul could mean saying thank you to someone supporting your work or phoning a friend at work to check in on them.
Practise gratitude. Appreciate what you do have, and focus on what you are thankful for. Be thankful for being healthy and the opportunity to help during the crisis – your work supports you and so many others.
Make human connection. This is important to our well-being. Hop on conference calls a few minutes before the start time and chat with whoever joins early. Ask colleagues how they are doing “today”, given how our moods fluctuate. Give people an outlet to share how they are coping. During times of severe stress, everyone can benefit from building quality relationships.
Add a daily joy. Do something that no matter how the rest of your day goes, you have something joyful to look forward to. A moment of quiet reflection, a call to someone you care for deeply, or even a piece of chocolate.
Positive meaning. Psychologists find that the brain pays more attention to bad news. End the day by identifying one thing you did that made a positive impact on someone.