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Sparking joy in your career

Marie Kondo organised your home. Now she wants to organise your desk, your office, your job

Think about your job. Does it fulfil you? Are there moments when you’re glad you’re doing this job and no other? Do you wake up some days thinking how lucky you are to go to work? Do you get shower, get dressed, and walk to your car with a spring in your step? In short, does your job “spark joy”? – a once little-used phrase that, since January 2019, became a popular litmus test for whether you should keep something.

Marie Kondo, the minute-sized minimalist martinet who makes millions reorganising people’s homes, has just released a new book titled Joy At Work. Her timing couldn’t be better – or worse – depending on where you are career-wise. On the one hand, being quarantined might just afford you the headspace to take stock of your life. On the other, you could be mad-busy trying to save your career and/or company in a looming recession to care what she has to say. Worse, you could be out of a job along with the thousands laid off or furloughed in the pandemic.

Kondo – often revered, occasionally ridiculed – co-authored this book with Scott Sonenshein, a business writer whose bestseller Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less & Achieve More than You Ever Imagined preaches the kind of minimalist work life that dovetails nicely with Kondo’s ethos. But make no mistake – this is a Kondo book. The crux of all decisions to be made when clearing your desk, reorganising your meeting and restructuring your network rests on her trademark question: Does it spark joy?


(Related: Have Time for Yourself)


Clear that desk

Minimalist desk.

First, the desk. Now we all know colleagues with messy desks who get good work done. We also know neat colleagues capable of the same. In fact, the state of one’s desk – be it your office desk or home desk, now that most of us are WFH – is no indication of the quality of one’s work.

But Kondo thinks otherwise: “Clutter adversely affects health. According to a study by scientists at UCLA, being surrounded by too many things increases cortisol levels, a primary stress hormone. Chronically high levels of cortisol can make us more susceptible to depression, insomnia, and other mental disorders, as well as such stressrelated physical disorders as heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.”

Wow. Scary.

According to her book, studies show that tidy people gain others’ trust more easily and are more likely to be promoted. “The tidier a person’s space, the more likely others are to see them as ambitious, intelligent, warm, and calm,” she claims.

Her question to all of us: Does your desk spark joy? Does it make you love working at your workstation? If you hesitate to say yes to either question, you may need a bit of Kondo guidance.

The mortal enemy of hoarders everywhere wants you to discard everything made of paper, unless they’re legal contracts, reports, statements and any document you’re mandated to keep. When it comes to objects, bin everything except (1) those that give “personal joy” (such as family photos), (2) those that spark “functional joy” such as a stapler or highlighter, and (3) those that will create “future joy”, such as receipts for reimbursement, a cheque that needs to be deposited, and so on.

If there are trophies marking work victories, snap a photo of them and then discard them. If you don’t know what to do about the mountain of name cards you’ve accumulated over the years, you may as well discard most of them – chances are, the most important contacts can still be found online.

Kondo says cleaning your desk is way easier than cleaning your house: You could clear your workspace in as little time as three hours – or, if you have a personal office, 10 hours tops.

But here’s something to remember: You mustn’t discard things before you give thanks for their existence and the joy they once gave you. In Shinto, the traditional religion of the Japanese, inanimate objects are considered to be living things. It behoves you to acknowledge their existence and give them a proper send-off.


Let’s get digital


Delete those unnecessary emails.

Next, your email inboxes. Sure, no one will judge you for how often you clear out your spam, since no one else gets to see them. But clutter catches up on you, especially when you’re searching for a particular document: The “Search” function is much less effective if the system has to sift through tens of thousands of emails.

Kondo divides digital documents into three categories: email, documents (such as spreadsheets and Word docs) and smartphone apps. For email and documents, ask these three questions: “Do I need this document to get my job done? Will this document provide me with guidance or inspiration for future work? Does this document spark joy?” If the answer is not “yes” to any of these questions, delete them instantly.

As for smartphone apps, fewer apps means fewer distractions. Kondo cites popular studies that show people completing several tasks more efficiently when their smartphones are in the other room. The question to ask is: Does this app help me work better? Does it spark joy?

Kondo says: “Don’t make excuses to keep apps, such as: ‘I paid for that app’ or ‘One day it might come in handy.’ If it’s been sitting on your phone dormant for months, you’re not going to wake up one day and finally use it.” The ones that you do keep should be divided into different categories and organised on your screen in folders with titles such as “Work”, “Leisure”, “Photography” and so on. You’re less likely to click on a distracting app if it’s kept in a folder.


Stay? Or quit?

So far, so good. And anyone who’s watched her extremely popular Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which debuted in January 2019, would be already familiar with her strict minimalist methods.

But it’s the latter half of the book that might interest both fans and those new to her ideas. It deals with various aspects of work and work relationships, such as how to make decisions, conduct meetings, be a better leader, and choose whether to stay in or quit your job.

Not surprisingly, her general advice on relationships tends towards what’s clean and direct: Don’t gossip, don’t get drawn into office politics, resolve any misunderstanding with colleagues, and nurture professional connections that are mutually beneficial instead of exploitative.

As far as work activities are concerned, she groups them into three neat categories:(1) core tasks, which are the key things you do that justify your existence at work; (2) project tasks, which are those that have a discrete beginning and end; and (3) developmental tasks, which help you grow professionally.

It helps to list all your activities under each category, and then look at them one by one to see which you should keep or discard: Is this task required for me to keep and succeed in my job? Will this task help create a more joyful future, for example, improve job security or get me a promotion? Does this task create joy for me and contribute to my job satisfaction? If any of the listed activities don’t meet any of these three conditions, you need to stop doing it.

She writes: “On the surface, tidying decisions appears very different from tidying your physical workspace. Keeping a favourite stapler seems worlds apart from making decisions about how to interact with a customer or when to collaborate with a coworker. But in fact, it’s really the same process. Start by asking, what’s worth keeping? Or, more precisely for this category, which decisions deserve my time and energy?”

The same process informs your decision on whether to stay in or quit your job, if you happen to be at a career crossroads. You may wish to analyse the causes of your dissatisfaction first, and then decide whether to resolve them in a way that would improve the situation, or quit the job altogether.

Kondo errs on the side of optimism and gratitude. If, for instance, you decide to leave your job, she says: “Think of your job positively, with gratitude, recognising that although it may have been hard, it taught you such things as the importance of keeping a certain distance in your relationships, or that it was thanks to this experience that you could find the work style that’s best for you. This kind of attitude will lead you to the job that is just right for the next stage in your life.”

Drop any bitterness, say your thanks, and bid it goodbye. That’s the only way to keep the transition clean and clear.

Will Joy At Work transform Kondo into the queen of career coaching, just as 2014’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up made her a household name? That’s anyone’s guess. Objectively speaking, Kondo’s methods do not reinvent the wheel, and there are better books out there on career management.

But if you’ve met the many real-life people who now fold and store their clothes according to the Kondo method – as we have – you may wish to reserve judgment for now. Her meteoric rise from organising expert to Emmy-nominated celebrity is the stuff of fairytales. This manic pixie clean girl may just have magic dust up her sleeve.


(Related: Colin Chen: A happy meal)


What local experts say

Marie Kondo’s method is one among many proposed by executive coaches and professional organisers.

Many of them agree that, with most people working from home, now is a good time to relook how work can be done more productively.

Adrian Tan, a practice leader at a HR solutions and technology company PeopleStrong says that not being in the office means less time wasted chatting in the pantry, and with some self discipline, it can mean ending the work day at home at an earlier time.

The time saved commuting could be put to some use, such as giving the inbox a much needed clean up. With virtual meetings, it could be the right time to find new ways of conducting them.


Dealing with emails


Dealing with emails.

Rather than spend time dealing with each email as it comes in, Nathalie Ricaud, a professional organiser and founder of Get Organised & Beyond says, “it is best to allocate time slots in your schedule to deal with emails. Otherwise you end up switching from task to task and studies have shown that it takes your brain four times longer to recognise and process each task.” Depending on your job, executive coach Jacinta Quah recommends setting aside an hour, thrice a day.

She coaches her clients to apply the 4Ds in dealing with email during that one-hour period. “If it requires immediate action, deal with it. If it is irrelevant, delete it. If needed, delegate it. Or if you need time to reply, delay it, but schedule a time on your calendar to work on it,” says Ms Quah. “Don’t let emails dictate your life.”

If you have a habit of opening every email but not dealing with them immediately, and later find yourself searching for specific emails, Kris Tan of The Declutter Professionals, has a trick to deal with that. “You can read through the emails and then mark it as unread if you have not replied. So this ensures you don’t miss out on urgent replies.”


Meetings with a purpose

Haw-San Au-Yong Edits Inc. Jacinta Quah

(Left) Haw-San Au-Yong, founder of Edits Inc. (Right) Jacinta Quah, executive coach.

Besides emails, meetings often take up most of a work day, says Ms Quah. “I’ve heard of clients who Zoom in and out of one meeting after the other,” she says.

Before scheduling a meeting, Ms Quah suggests applying her 3Ps rule. The first P is purpose – ie. is it to inform, discuss ideas or to ask for input? The second P stands for people. “Who are the people you want input from, and what will they take away from attending this meeting,” asks Ms Quah. “If you don’t require their input, nor think they will walk away with any output, then this person shouldn’t be at this meeting.” The last P stands for place. “Should it be a group meeting, or a one-to-one, or maybe even an email is enough,” says Ms Quah.

Mr Tan says meetings should be targeted and specific. “Rather than call for a meeting, consider whether or not it is really needed. Maybe a phone call, or an email, or even an instant message will suffice,” he says. Another must is to set an agenda and not digress from it. This also ensures that meetings do not overrun. And if another issue crops out, then schedule another meeting for it if necessary.

Professional organiser Haw-San Au-Yong, founder of Edits Inc says meetings should ideally last no more than 30 minutes. “Setting a time limit on the meeting forces attendees to focus on key points. Often than not, whatever points that are missed out, may not be so important after all,” she says.


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Updating the contact list

If there are contacts in your phone that you don’t recognise, consider deleting them. “If you have no idea who the person is, it’s unlikely you’ll use this contact. However keeping the contact may come handy if the person contacts you again and based on his/ her message, you can figure out how you met and reply using his/her name. So I would keep such contacts,” says Ms Ricaud. She recommends setting aside time once a week, to update your contact database, and adding in some useful information about each name. “It helps you remember the recipient better and they often appreciate you recalling little details about them.

Ms Tan makes it a point to key in a person’s name, designation and company name on her smartphone, when keeping track of clients. When she is sending out an email to a new client, she also includes their contact details in the email. This way, she is able to find the contact number in her email correspondences right away and “I don’t have to worry if I forget to save the number in my phone and the namecard goes missing,” says Ms Tan.


Nathalie Ricaud Kris Tan

(Left) Nathalie Ricaud, founder of Get Organised & Beyond. (Right) Kris Tan, founder of The Declutter Professionals.



Digital decluttering

It’s time to spring clean your desktop icons and smartphone apps.

For desktop icons, whatever floats your boat, says Mr Tan. His laptop wallpaper is a family photo, and “icons are kept to a minimum on the side, so that they don’t cover the faces of my family,” he says. He has seen other laptop screens with icons all over, and “the user can still find what they are looking for.”

Ms Au-Yong suggests dividing the screen into quarters. Decide what folders and icons to go into each sector, and place them accordingly. “It may take a little more effort, but it can be a time-saver,” she says.

Same for her smartphone. Instead of folders, she arranges apps of the same category on a single page, so that she can find them more easily. “More frequently used apps are on the first few pages,” says Ms Au-Yong.

Ms Ricaud, however, prefers keeping her apps in folders for a cleaner look. “You should only keep what you need and use, otherwise you’ll waste time locating the apps that are very useful amongst those that are not. If you’ve paid for an app, make sure to cancel the subscription but keeping it on your phone won’t make you use it,” she says.

Ms Tan says she doesn’t download an app if she doesn’t foresee herself using it more than once. “For instance, if a restaurant staff recommends using an app to order the food to get some points, I would consider carefully if there are real perks to it before downloading. If it’s an immediate perk I might do it and then delete the app.”

Daniel Soh, managing partner at Leadership Advisory Inc. is a fan of ‘declutter – the Marie Kondo way’ and has no problem in keeping his work environment organised, but what is more important is planning your day the night before.

“This can be done by developing a list of tasks and stick to that plan no matter what. Focus on the urgent and important ones first, and if a new task comes in that is not urgent, designate a time that you will work on it uninterrupted. This way, it can help you to focus on what you need to do,” says Mr Soh.


This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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