Marie Kondo on How to Spark Joy in Your Career

In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, 'Joy at Work,' Kondo espouses the importance of a tidy workspace—wherever that may be.

Marie Kondo, 'Joy at Work' book
(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)

Marie Kondo is the author of the international bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the host of Netflix's Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, during which she uses her signature KonMari method to help people organize their lives. This week, she releases Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, co-authored by organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein, a tip-filled tome for being happy in your career. Though we aren't heading to the office during these unprecedented times, Kondo's lessons can still apply to those who have the privilege of working from home. Here, she argues the importance of keeping a tidy workspace—wherever that may be.

Are Messy People Really More Creative?

A bare, tidy desk is sterile and boring. “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” These words have been attributed to the creative genius and physicist Albert Einstein. Regardless of whether he actually said them or not, his desk appears to have been buried under piles of books and papers. Similarly, Pablo Picasso painted while surrounded by a jumble of paintings, and Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, reportedly kept his office cluttered on purpose. Legends of geniuses with messy offices are too numerous to mention. As if to corroborate these, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded that a messy job setting is more likely to generate creative ideas.

Perhaps because such stories abound, people frequently ask me for confirmation. “But a cluttered desk is good, isn’t it?” they’ll say. “It stimulates creativity, right?” If you’re wondering if your cluttered desk might make you more productive, too, and whether it’s worth reading the rest of this book, here’s a little exercise for you to try. Start by mentally picturing your desk at the office, your studio, or your workplace. Or, if you are sitting there at this very moment, just take a good look around you. Next, answer these questions.

Are you honestly feeling positive about working here right now?

Does working at this desk every day really spark joy for you?

Are you sure that you’re giving full scope to your creativity?

Do you really want to come back to this tomorrow?

These questions aren't intended to make you feel bad. They’re meant to help you get in touch with how you feel about your work environment. If you answered yes without hesitation to all of them, your joy level at work is impressively high. But if your response was ambivalent, if you felt your heart sink, even a little, then tidying up is definitely worth a try.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter which is better—a clutter-free desk or one that is total chaos. The most important thing is that you yourself are aware of the kind of environment that brings you joy at work; that you know your own joy criteria. And tidying up is one of the best ways to find out. Many clients who have used this method to tidy up their homes end up with a bare and simple interior when they’re done, only to realize a little later that they want more decoration. That’s when they begin adding accents they love. Often, it is only after tidying up that people realize what kind of environment sparks joy for them.

Are you the type who can tap into your creativity more easily once you’ve tidied up, or the type who is more creative in the midst of clutter? No matter which you are, the tidying process will help you discover the kind of joyful workspace that makes your creativity bloom.

The High Cost of Nonphysical Clutter

It is not just our desks that need tidying. We’re overloaded with nonphysical clutter, too. In particular, modern technology has generated digital clutter in the form of excess emails, files, and online accounts. Add to this the many meetings and other tasks we need to deal with, and it seems impossible to get things under control. To achieve a work style that truly sparks joy, we need to tidy up every aspect of our work, not just our physical space.

According to one study, a typical office worker spends about half his or her day dealing with emails and averages 199 unopened emails in the inbox on any given day. The Center for Creative Leadership reported that 96 percent of employees feel they’re wasting time dealing with unnecessary emails. In addition, almost one-third of programs installed on most computers are never used. It’s clear from these examples alone that we’re inundated with digital clutter while on the job.

And what about the information we need to use various online service accounts? An average internet user has 130 online accounts per email address. Even considering that some can be combined and managed under one account, such as Google or Facebook, the number of user IDs and passwords needed is still impressive. And just think about what happens when you forget your password. You type in a combination of possible IDs and passwords without success, eventually giving up and changing it.

Unfortunately, statistics show that we’re very likely to repeat this experience. According to a survey of workers in America and the U.K., the loss in productivity from forgetting or mislaying passwords comes to at least U.S. $420 per employee annually. In a company that employs about 25 people, that amounts to more than U.S. $10,000 a year. Perhaps we should setup a “lost password fund” that automatically transfers a donation whenever someone forgets their password and use the proceeds to benefit society.

Meetings also take up a large percentage of our working time. The average office worker wastes two hours and thirty-nine minutes a week in ineffective meetings. In a survey of senior managers conducted by researchers, the majority of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with company meetings, claiming that they were unproductive, inefficient, interfered with more important things, and failed to bring the team closer together. Meetings are held for the benefit of the company, yet ironically senior managers, the very people responsible for organizing them, see them as detrimental. The cost of unproductive meetings comes to more than U.S. $399 billion annually. When I think about this, along with the losses incurred by forgotten passwords and the U.S. $8.9 billion wasted in time spent searching for mislaid items, I can’t help wondering how much revenue the government could generate by taxing for this kind of clutter. Crazy, I know, but still...

Scott will share with you the details of how to tidy nonphysical clutter from chapter 4 on. For now, just note that there will be a few hurdles you’ll need to tackle to make your work spark joy. That means you’ve got great potential for improvement. Imagine having organized not only your desk but also all your emails, files, and other digital data, and always being on top of your schedule for meetings and various tasks. Think how much joy this could bring to your work.

Tidying Up Helps You Find a Sense of Purpose

When I was working for a company, one of my colleagues who had started working there two years before I did asked for advice in decluttering her workspace. During our tidying sessions, she told me, “I’m here to work and make a living, not to enjoy myself. Life is more fun if you finish your work quickly and concentrate on enjoying your free time.”

Everyone has their own working style and their own way of thinking. I know that some people approach their work in the same way as my coworker, but let me be very blunt. That’s a terrible waste. Of course, because we are paid for the work we do, all jobs come with responsibilities. If we work for an organization, there are also many things over which we have no control. As long as we’re members of society, it’s unrealistic to expect that our personal happiness should always be given top priority. Unlike tidying the private space within our home, tidying up at work doesn’t guarantee that everything at our office or in our job will always spark joy.

Still, it seems such a shame to give up and work only out of obligation, making no effort to spark joy in our environment. Next to the home, work is where we spend most of our time, and at some points in our lives, we may even spend more time on the job than at home. Work is a precious part of life. While making good use of our skills, wouldn’t it make sense to enjoy our time at work even a little? And if we’re going to enjoy it, why not also work in a way that makes others around us happy?

Some of you may be thinking, That’s all very well for you to say, but I hate my job. I can’t imagine it ever sparking joy. Even so, I still recommend that you try tidying up. Tidying can help you get in touch with what you really want, show you what you need to change, and help you find more joy in your environment. That may sound too good to be true, but it’s not.

I have witnessed how tidying can transform many aspects of my clients’ work life. One client, for example, remembered her childhood dream while tidying up her books and quit her job to start her own company. While tidying documents, a business owner identified a problem in her business and made a bold shift. And another client, upon completing the tidying process, recognized the kind of lifestyle she wanted and switched jobs so that she worked half as many hours. These changes didn’t occur because these people were unusual in some way. They were simply the cumulative result of examining each thing in front of them and choosing whether to keep it in their life or to let it go.

“This was supposed to be my dream job, but now I’m scrambling just to keep up with a flood of tasks. I’m always longing to go home early.”

“I can’t figure out what I want to do. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but I just don’t know what I really want.”

“I poured everything into my work to get this far, but now I’m wondering if this is really the right career for me.”

If you are having doubts like this about your job or career, now is the perfect time to start tidying up. Tidying is much more than sorting things and putting them away. It’s a major project that will change your life forever. The goal of the method shared in this book is not just to have a nice neat desk but to begin a dialogue with yourself through tidying—to discover what you value by exploring why you are working in the first place and what kind of working style you want. This process will help you see how each task you do is linked to a joyful future. In the end, the real goal is to discover what brings you joy in your work so that you can give it your best. We invite you to experience for yourself how tidying up can spark joy in your career.

Excerpted from JOY AT WORK © 2020 by KonMari Media Inc. and Scott Sonenshein. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

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