Decluttering guru Marie Kondo helped us organise our home lives, but will her magic work on our professional lives? Sarah Shaffi tries out her new book, Joy At Work, with some surprising results.
I have dozens (and dozens) of unread emails in my main work account. There are so many things saved on my desktop that the icons are now layered over each other. I have 27 tabs open on my internet browser. Despite the fact that I’m a freelancer with multiple clients, I have no dedicated place where I keep track of every deadline I have to meet.
In short, I’m a little bit of an organisational disaster when it comes to work.
This might be difficult to believe for anyone who knows me; I think I present like a person whose life is rigidly organised. But the truth is that I’m working week to week, only doing certain tasks when there is no other option.
I went freelance to get a better work/life balance and enjoy work more, and while I sometimes think I’ve succeeded, at other times I’m so overwhelmed by stuff (the only thing I miss about a full time job is the storage space an office provided me with) and digital clutter that I find myself ignoring work and curling up with Netflix.
So who can help me find joy from my work? There’s really only one person. She helped us organise our underwear drawers, our bookshelves and our kitchens, and now Marie Kondo is back with a new book. Joy At Work, written with organisational psychologist Scott Sonenshein, promises to transform our work lives for the better.
The book isn’t just about decluttering our physical workspaces and tidying up our emails – it’s also about visualising our ideal work life so we can get joy from it. So I tried out the advice in Joy At Work to see if it could, indeed, help me with the career path I’d visualised when I went freelance.
Tailoring your physical work space
As a freelancer, my workspace is my home space, a situation that most of the UK workforce is now familiar with as we settle into our routine of working from home during lockdown.
While there are numerous benefits to working from home, it also means there’s a lot of mixing of work and personal belongings. My notepads sit alongside my DVDs, while pens and train tickets share shelf space with my make-up and skincare products.
In Joy At Work, Kondo advises that we ignore any personal items and focus solely on decluttering the work stuff we own, which I try to do. She also says our work space should take roughly five hours of tidying, and that we should aim to do it in the course of a month at most.
I set aside a weekend and start well, sorting through a couple of cardboard boxes of clothes I’ve been reviewing for a feature. I fold them, make a record of them all, sort out which ones need to be sent back and then put the ones that don’t away.
But I’m quickly overwhelmed by the thing that I own most of…
Organising your books
When I went freelance, I conjured up images of a cute reading nook, which consisted of an armchair and some bookshelves where I could sit and read the books I was reviewing or do some writing.
In reality, I can never get to the armchair because it’s covered and surrounded by piles of books. I get sent a lot of books (I realise this is a privileged problem to have) and I have shelves (many shelves), but the sheer volume means there are always piles of books at the end of my bed. I know it’s getting bad when the piles stretch the full width of the bed and begin teetering when I step too close.
There is little I can do about these books; I can’t get rid of many of these until they’re published. Even then, proofs (advanced copies of books, which make up the majority of my collection) are difficult to dispose of because they can’t be sold in charity shops, so I can’t donate them easily.
However, I do find I can make more space by clearing my ‘guilt shelves’. A term I learnt from Stylist’s books editor Francesca Brown, these refer to the shelves (and piles) of books that we reviewers keep because we mean to read them. Eventually.
Of course, the likelihood of getting through these dozens of books is nil – as Kondo points out – and so I tackle these piles first. I fill three large bags with books for donating to charity, and another massive bag of proofs I’ll send to a school. Getting rid of these means I can finally clear some valuable shelf space, and those piles of workbooks can now be shelved properly.
There are still a few piles at the bottom of bed, and although Kondo might not love it, they will always be there. I’ve made a vast improvement on my previous situation, meaning I can bring in a little side table on which I can place a gorgeous vase of flowers to enjoy while I actually sit in my comfy armchair to do some work reading. Kondo says we should add things to our work environments that “simply add a touch of joy even though you don’t need them for your work”; she calls this “joy plus”. The flowers are definitely adding some “joy plus” to my workspace.
Throwing away unnecessary paper
It has to be said, I am a bit of a paper hoarder. When I first started as a journalist I used to keep cuttings (actual cuttings!) of all my articles, from nibs to big features. Over the years I’ve managed to get rid of most of these, but there’s still a folder full of them lurking in my room. I take Kondo’s advice to photograph anything I want a record of, and then suck it up and chuck a bunch of stuff into the recycling bin.
As I don’t have a dedicated workspace outside of my bedroom, I usually create a temporary desk on the dining table if I’m working all day from home. This desk is usually populated with a couple of folders full of what can be best described as miscellaneous paper – in other words, everything I can’t be bothered to put away. I decide to tackle these all in one go, and it’s amazing how much of it can be simply thrown away, stored elsewhere, or put into my personal space rather than my work one (birthday cards, an optician’s letter, really old magazines, an embroidery kit!).
The art of “komono”
Like in Kondo’s guide for tidying the home, “komono” refers to everything else in your office space. For me, that’s mostly stationery.
I thought my stationery was organised, but I’m quickly hit with the evidence that it’s not; the first two pens I picked up to make notes for this very feature didn’t work. As I start sorting, another three get quickly added to that not-working pile.
I take stationery I’ve been storing in its original packaging (which takes up precious space), and fit everything into my stationery holder – it’s much more streamlined and now I can see everything I own.
But it’s the notepads that prove to be the most difficult to sort; I have A LOT. Friends gift me notepads because they know I love them, and working in publishing means they’re often part of goodie bags and mailouts. The problem lies in the fact that I always want to save the nice ones, but recently I’ve been trying to make use of them more.
I’d been storing them all horizontally, which made them hard to access; inevitably I’d need a notepad from the middle of the pile, and then they’d all get shuffled about. I decide to heed Kondo’s advice about storing paperwork in the office vertically, and reorganise my notepads, matching similar sized ones and putting those I’ve already used a few pages of in one place, so that I can finish them before starting a new one.
It all makes for a much neater, more appealing looking shelf of “komono”.
Decluttering your laptop
The digital clear out is what I’ve been dreading, and it’s definitely the most difficult part of the whole process; you can’t see your emails or your files if you just shut your laptop down, so it’s easy to ignore the build up or give up mid way through.
But I decide to start with something easy…
My desktop is a huge mess, but I figure it’ll be pretty easy to clear out, since it’s mostly full of screen grabs and downloaded images. As I delete all the things I don’t need, I come across a photo of Priti Patel which I’d used for an opinion piece – that image is definitely not bringing me any joy and I take great pleasure in deleting it.
Kondo says she has just one folder on her desktop; I can’t manage the same, but I do cut my desktop down to just four folders; yes, one is called Misc., but I promise it’s not just full of everything that was on my desktop before.
Files and folders
Once I’m done with my desktop (it took 10 minutes, why didn’t I do it before?), I move onto the files in my cloud. Sonenshein recommends sorting documents into three folders: current projects, records and saved work, with sub folders in each. I follow his rules roughly, but because I create the sub folders first, I end up putting some current work into a sub folder that eventually finds its home in the saved work folder. Having just three master folders will take some getting used to, but being able to open a window and not be greeted by a mass of files is such a lovely feeling that I know it’ll keep me disciplined.
One thing I don’t do is go through my Google Drive, but I plan to tackle this at a later date as I’m fast running out of space there and know I have stuff I can definitely delete.
This is the one I’ve been putting off, and I’ll be honest: it’s an ongoing task. Sonenshein says there are three types of people when it comes to their email: frequent filers, spring cleaners and no filers. I’m a spring cleaner, which Sonenshein describes as people who go “through cycles of cluttered email where they can’t find anything, followed by brief periods of near-empty inboxes after they deleted most messages”. He aptly calls this “the worst of both worlds”, as you’re “living in clutter and then losing an important message”.
The problem with my method is that my email folders – and I have way more than the 10 (including sub-folders) that Sonenshein recommends – are chock full of stuff that I never really look at again unless I need something specific. Really, going by Sonenshein’s rules, I should only be keeping emails that:
- will help me with my job in the future
- provide knowledge, inspiration and motivation for future work
- spark joy
So I decide to set aside an hour each day to go through my folders, so I can rapidly decrease the ones I don’t need. This takes some getting used to; a hangover from my training as a news journalist is to keep all paperwork for two years (the amount of time after a piece is first published where you can be sued), and I’ve moved that to my “thinking on” email, which has to be kept forever since the internet is forever.
But I slowly work my way down to having a reasonable number of unopened emails (inbox zero, one day I will meet you!), and I start deleting emails I don’t need as soon as I’ve read them.
Filtering your social media networks
Joy At Work isn’t just about deleting files and emails and clearing your physical space; it’s also about clearing space in your mind so that you can find more joy at work. I find some chapters less relevant to my current situation as a freelancer than others; the sections on decision-making, leading teams and meetings would be useful if I was working in a company, but for the moment I read them, take them on board and then set them aside.
But a section on networks is something I do find useful. I spend a lot of my day scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, with occasional forays into LinkedIn. Sonenshein advocates smaller, more useful networks, as opposed to sprawling ones where we don’t make meaningful connections. So I take the decision to shut my Twitter DMs; they’re stacked full of unopened messages from people I don’t know asking me to review their book/speak for free at an event/share my contact details so they can invite me somewhere, and it’s been stressing me out.
Doing this takes a burden off my shoulders and means that people who really want to get in touch with me for something useful will do so via other channels that I use more frequently for work.
Did I find joy at work?
“Working in an orderly environment feels good, giving us a more positive outlook and allowing ideas and inspirations to flow,” writes Kondo towards the end of Joy At Work.
I have to say I agree; as I look at my small, organised pile of paperwork (all things I need and will use in the coming hours) and cast an eye over the reading nook I’ve always dreamed of, I’m feeling good, more efficient and like I’m finding joy in my work life.
Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein is available to buy now
Images: Unsplash, courtesy of author