What if you tried Marie Kondo’s methods at work? Here’s how it went for me.

My KonMari journey began a few months into the pandemic.

I picked up Kondo’s definitive work about tidying up out of boredom. I admit I was surprised at how quickly her ideas resonated. It might have been the rut I was in because of lockdown and working from home, but I was immediately following the steps religiously at home. During a period of excessive time indoors, her process brought much-needed peace and joy to my home.

Work was a different story, though. While my home setting was more peaceful, I felt the opposite about my job, which I was also doing at home. It got worse as the months dragged on. As a software engineer, I looked at the clock, noticing I was working later and later into the night. Work was annexing my life.

Let me declare that I’m no official consultant or expert with years of experience in the methods of Marie Kondo, nor has Ms. Kondo endorsed this post in any way. However, I did find her ways helpful when applied to my decisions at work enough to share them here. Once I found I could use her tidying up and decluttering thought processes for my job duties, I became much happier at work and with the code I was writing.

Marie Kondo took households by storm in 2014 when she released The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Based on her KonMari Method, the book was an instant success, prompting The New Yorker to declare her followers part of a decluttering empire. In the years since more than 8.5 million copies of the book have been sold, Kondo’s starred in two Netflix reality series based on her ideas.

For the uninitiated, adherents of the KonMari Methodfollow six principles that ask them to choose what to keep by identifying what “sparks joy”—rather than focusing on what should be eliminated. This method, Kondo advises, ensures that you are surrounded by objects you love. You’re not compelled to throw away something because you actively dislike it, but because you’re thankful it once made you happy—and now it’s time to let go.

While Kondo’s techniques were initially devised to apply to the home, her principles are also surprisingly effective at work—and not just in terms of physical clutter on your desk. Her principles are just as powerful when applied to the tasks and projects people take on each day.

People are happiest at work when they get to do the skilled work they were hired to do—it’s what gives people energy and the feeling of joy. However, they’re currently losing 58% of their time on “work about work,” according to the 2022 Asana Anatomy of Work Global Index, a survey of 10,000 knowledge workers worldwide.

Often, the near-constant inbox pings, unproductive meetings that could have been emails, and a general lack of cross-team coordination get in the way of reaching that joy.

After some introspection, I came to three realizations about work after I viewed my job through a KonMari lens:

  1. Working late hours wasn’t helping me achieve career aspirations.
  2. Related to that first point, working late hours was certainly not “sparking joy.”
  3. Enjoying work should not be antithetical to career progression.

I’ve spent the last eight months following six KonMari principles at work. Each translates quite well when thinking about the cognitive clutter of my day. They helped me reduce work-about-work and be more productive in areas that energized me—without sacrificing a sense of peace.

Here is how you can apply Kondo’s decluttering principles to your job:

Principles 1 and 2: “Commit yourself to tidying up” and “imagine your ideal lifestyle.”

The purpose behind these two principles is to set your intention and the direction of your journey. At work, I find it easier to combine these two concepts into one action of setting goals to help align attention with your intention.

Part of goal-setting is imagining your perfect day at work:

  • How much of your time is spent in energizing collaboration sessions? 
  • How much time is spent alone on projects that demand deep focus?
  • Do you prefer fielding questions or writing documentation for those conversations?

When I asked myself these questions, it helped me set goals that clarified what was important to me. Goals help with prioritization and prevent us from setting unrealistic “New Year’s resolutions”-styled targets that are doomed to fail by the end of the month. 

Detailing goals should also involve reflection on your capacity and energy levels: How much are you realistically able to do?

Personal work goals can look like “become a Senior Analyst” or “establish a better work-life balance.” Whatever the goal, making it quantifiable can help measure progress. An example metric for “establishing a better work-life balance” can be “75% of the days in a month, leave the office by 5:30 p.m.” 

Principle 3: Examine commitments that no longer bring you joy.

Gather all your obligations and analyze them individually: A commitment can be as small as a recurring 1:1 meeting or as big as your role on the team. By gathering all your commitments and analyzing them individually, you can determine if and why it is no longer creating happiness. Is it that you feel you’ve outgrown the responsibility, or do you feel “stuck” and procrastinate when it comes to the promise you’ve made to your team?

When you’ve outgrown the commitment, consider offloading or delegating. Removing it as an area of responsibility should not be seen as abandonment. But instead, these commitments can be excellent career growth or learning opportunities for someone else.

Principle 4: “Tidy by category, not location.” 

This fourth principle asks us to take a step back and look at the complete picture.

Where are you spending the most time? Where would you like to be spending more time?

Consider which tasks are the most important to you and the organization, and drop the rest. Also, consider if there’s duplicate work, if you can automate any assignments, or if you can cut any process from tasks.

Principle 5: “Follow the right order.” 

I think of this principle as organizing your day according to your energy levels.

Humans are not machines that can endlessly be at their best at all hours of the day—our energy levels ebb and flow throughout the day according to our circadian rhythms.

Hack this ebb and flow to be more productive by working on more difficult/creative work during peak energy levels and doing more mundane tasks like responding to emails during periods where you feel less energetic. 

To achieve this segmentation at work, try blocking out your calendar to create “focus time” and use a form of “do not disturb” signaling during your peak periods. 

Principle 6: Ask yourself if it “sparks joy.”  

For me, this one offers a direct correlation to work. Before taking on new commitments, ask yourself if it “sparks joy.”

It can be challenging to discern between responsibilities you want to take on vs. commitments that seem like a good idea but aren’t a fit for you. Some tools can help you with this—such as the “whole body yes.”

The “whole body yes” is the idea that when faced with a decision, listen to your mind and how your body reacts. What are you feeling? Nervous or afraid? Annoyance? Excitement? Listening to your body is also a component of “sparking joy.” Pay attention to those feelings; these reactions should clarify whether you should take on the new commitment.

Before implementing these tips, a warning from me: Try to avoid the trap of toxic productivity. Burnout is inevitable when we push ourselves past our limits, and that style of work is unsustainable.

I found that making my existing work hours work better and spending my off-hours doing other activities I loved brought joy to all aspects of my life, whether I was working or not.

Nasheya Rahman is a software engineer for Asana.

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