The cheerful Japanese organizing expert known as Marie Kondo is making many Americans think twice about how much stuff they really need in their lives. With a much buzzed-about show on Netflix and globally best-selling books, Kondo is popularizing her version of Japanese minimalism in the U.S. She is helping messy folks and pack rats — and the occasional celebrity — tidy up using a unique approach: Choose to keep only things that “spark joy.”
The vision behind her ‘KonMari’ approach makes Kondo different from other organizing experts. According to her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the goal is not just neatness but a restart in life. “The act of cluttering is really an instinctive reflex that draws our attention away from the heart of an issue,” she wrote. “When your room is clean and uncluttered, you have no choice but to examine your inner state.… You will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change.”
Kondo’s rules of tidying can seem a bit unorthodox: Tidy all at once even if it means persevering over a few months, rather than starting and stopping because you’ll run out of steam. Aim for perfection this one time in life; don’t clean half-heartedly. Tidy up by category in this order: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items and mementos. If you start with mementos you’ll get caught up in reminiscing and never finish. Hold each item and keep only those that make you happy. When discarding, thank the items for their service and then let them go.
At work, similar benefits can be gained with a tidy space. “A cluttered desk is a time suck. It forces our brain to constantly re-assess what we need to do,” said Amanda Jefferson, former director of partnerships for social impact at Wharton now owner of Indigo Organizing and a certified KonMari consultant. “Clutter in paper form is usually just delayed decision-making.”’
Jefferson wants to help folks “declutter their minds at work, so that they are always focused on the most important work at hand. Having a great workflow system leads to a clearer space.” That’s because “clearing out mental and physical clutter opens up enormous space and clarity,” she added. “At its heart, KonMari is about prioritization and efficiency, about stopping to take stock of what’s truly essential to fulfilling your mission and then doing the hard work to eliminate all the other noise.”
“A cluttered desk is a time suck. It forces our brain to constantly re-assess what we need to do.”–Amanda Jefferson
Physical, Digital and Mental Messes
To start, set aside a day in the office to de-clutter and put each item through the “spark joy” test, Jefferson said. “Give people time to decide if all those desk tchotchkes, old stale reports, and books they never got around to reading really deserve a home in their space,” she said. Schedule a donation pick-up or ask for volunteers to drop off the stuff. “It creates an awesome ‘reset’ and the end result is a lighter, more spacious office.”
But it’s more than just physical mess one could tidy up. Also focus on the digital stuff that accumulates — the hundreds of emails at work, for example, that have grown wildly out of control. “Your creativity and productivity are significantly impacted by visible clutter in your physical work environment — and equally so — by the degree of disorganization in your email inbox and the number of apps on your smartphone,” said Erin Owen, executive coach in the Wharton Executive Coaching and Feedback Program.
“You can reduce your stress level, improve your mental focus, and reduce the time it takes you to find what you need by removing, recycling, shredding or donating old books, files, papers, and even deleting lesser used apps and removing old digital files to an external hard drive,” Owen continued.
For example, Owen said she recently decluttered her own inbox while on vacation in Mexico and “ruthlessly unsubscribed from eight to 10 email lists” each day. “By the end of my weeklong vacation, I had reduced emails coming into my inbox by 40%, which has given me back more time and energy to focus on high-value activities like business development and client service.”
Mental clutter is also important to clear. “When my executive-level coaching clients are exploring what they want to do next in their career, I encourage them to ‘make space’ for their next opportunity by respectfully resigning from low-value obligatory commitments and other activities that drain their energy,” Owen said. “Then they can transfer their newly found time and greater energy to higher priority meetings with strategic contacts.”
Tidying up also brings benefits at the organizational level. Managers can look for opportunities for team members to work on projects that spark joy, Jefferson said. “Let them stretch and shrink their jobs when possible. Maybe they love sales but hate writing proposals. Maybe they love the behind-the-scenes, but hate the schmoozing,” she said. “Think beyond the surface-level morale boosters like a staff lunch or an outing. Think about how you can help people re-engineer their jobs for more joy.”
Employees can also take the opportunity for a reassessment of their career. “Ask yourself, what is the ideal lifestyle that you want to live?” Jefferson said. She quoted Wharton management professor Adam Grant’s adage to “doubt the default.” “Are you in a state of inertia or do you truly love your work? What doesn’t spark joy? Said in another way, what energizes you and what depletes you? [After finding the answer,] let go with gratitude.”
“Your creativity and productivity are significantly impacted by visible clutter in your physical work environment — and equally so — by the degree of disorganization in your email inbox and the number of apps on your smartphone.”–Erin Owen
Jefferson took her own advice. “When I left my career as a nonprofit leader, I was able to let go with such a sense of gratitude and pride,” she said. “I had dedicated six years of my life to furthering an organization that I still care deeply about today. But I was able to recognize that I was ready for a change, and to make the change with gratitude for all that the role had taught me.”
Taking KonMari a Step Further
Beyond tidying up one’s desk, take it a step further by considering the redesign of the entire structure of the office as well, according to Hina Jamelle, senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “When your spaces are designed to be well organized, it will increase your efficiency and your time becomes more productive,” she said. “A calm and inspiring office is very valuable.”
The workspace of her firm, Contemporary Architecture Practice with offices in New York and Shanghai, was designed to convey a sense of serenity. Not only is the office a soothing white, Jamelle said, the wall of a long entry corridor is designed to catch ripples of light. It opens to a space where employees share a large table in a central location, with their computers facing one another. All other stuff is behind minimalist cabinets that are part of the decor — music system, servers, filing systems, product library and so on. “I can say it does spark joy when I open it,” she said.
Jamelle believes that creating a calm environment does promote creativity. “We are a creative company,” she said. “It is absolutely important that everyone working on our team feel creative and focused and rejuvenated.” Such a calming environment has a positive impact, especially since most people spend the majority of their waking hours at work. “Your body language changes, your perception of the space around you is enhanced. You’re uplifted,” Jamelle added. “An office should be a space people are inspired to come to.”
A workspace can be designed to meet specific needs of the firm as well. For example, a hierarchical company might wish to flatten the organizational structure somewhat and encourage employees to work more closely together. Jamelle cited the case of a corporate client in Nanjing, China that requested a workspace design to “inspire teamwork, collaboration and productivity” among its more than 3,000 employees. The resulting design comprised a series of large spaces, airy meeting rooms, plush seating, benches and other aesthetics.
The Science Behind Decluttering
Science generally supports the commonly believed benefits of decluttering, but with exceptions. “If decluttering improves your mood and makes you feel better about yourself and your surroundings, we know that a more positive mood reliably leads to greater workplace creativity and productivity, and so decluttering would be very effective,” said Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade. “If, however, decluttering has no influence on your mood — or even influences it negatively, there would be no effect or the opposite could occur.”
“A calm and inspiring office is very valuable.”–Hina Jamelle
For instance, the time spent to declutter does cut into productivity, said Barsade, citing the work of Eric Abrahamson at the Columbia Business School. In a paper on disorganization theory, Abrahamson wrote that some messes are tolerated for a time because it is actually more productive than having to put things away immediately. For example, it might be better to endure a small mess of papers for a current project on one’s desk instead of constantly putting them away and bringing them out again. They’ll be put away once the project is finished.
Messiness brings other benefits, too. “Messes enhance creativity [by making] it possible to retain radically new entities that do not fit into the existing ordering scheme,” Abrahamson wrote. Messes tend to “juxtapose entities belonging to different categories, bringing to mind new combinations of entities that would have been hidden” if they were filed neatly into their own categories. For instance, he said, companies that mingle departments have a better likelihood of coming up with cross-functional ideas.
“For women, having what they perceived as a cluttered home did correlate with stress and depressed mood.”–Sigal Barsade
Men, Women React Differently to Clutter
Another research paper that looked at clutter in the home shows that it affected women differently than men. “For women, having what they perceived as a cluttered home did correlate with stress and depressed mood,” Barsade said, citing the paper, “No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol,” by University of Southern California’s Darby Saxbe and Rena Repetti of the University of California, Los Angeles.
The study followed 30 middle-class, big-city and dual-income couples with young children for one week, to see if messiness increased stress and led to a depressed mood. What they found: Women who came home to clutter and unfinished home projects experienced more stress, which is linked with negative health outcomes. Moreover, women who saw their homes as a source of more demands showed “greater increases in depressed mood across the day, consistent with greater fatigue in the evening.” That means they had a tougher time relaxing after work.
In contrast, the results for husbands were “largely null” — not reliably leading to more stress or a depressed mood. Why? Results “suggest that women may be more sensitive to the home environment or may feel a greater sense of responsibility for the home (for example, feeling guilty about clutter),” the paper said. These findings back up other research showing that the home is traditionally viewed as a woman’s “domain and ultimate responsibility” even for couples where both are employed.
So a home free from clutter and unfinished projects does result in a more restful environment for women, which has positive implications for their health, the authors concluded. The home environment is important to their well-being and “psychosocial functioning,” and in turn, this well-being could translate to a woman’s “perception or maintenance of a pleasant home environment,” according to Saxbe and Repetti’s paper.
What if one succeeds in tidying up, but other people in the home or office are messy — say, a mountain of dusty knickknacks is annoyingly visible from the next cubicle? Take a deep breath — and ignore it. “In KonMari, we focus on our own belongings,” Jefferson said. “It’s common for my clients to be frustrated that their partners or colleagues are not on board, but they quickly learn that just knowing that they have control over their own things gives them a sense of calm. One of life’s biggest lessons is learning how to focus on only those things that we can control.”