Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Why organization is key to sparking joy in your work and how to find it


Published on July 11, 2022

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When Scott Sonenshein was touring for his book Stretch, he would often receive questions from the audience asking how his work compared to Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method®. At first, Sonenshein didn’t understand why. Whereas Stretch talked about how to be resourceful with your time, money, relationships, and materials, the KonMari Method® is a simple, yet effective tidying technique in which you only keep items that truly spark joy so that you can achieve an environment that really makes you happy.

“I thought it was a bit of a peculiar question because we have very different professions and different areas of focus,” says Sonenshein, a professor and researcher in the area of personal and organizational change at Rice University. “But in many respects, it really was a perfect question because so much of what she focuses on is how we literally and metaphorically clean out our closets.”

Kondo, however, understood the connection immediately. When she heard about Sonenshein’s book, she reached out, and the two eventually wrote a book together called Joy at Work. It combines Sonenshein’s research—from how we might change our own work practices and habits to how organizations might restructure their processes and routines—with the KonMari Method®, and helps readers learn how to make space for work that really matters.

Now, more than ever, many people are revisiting their messy relationships to work. Sonenshein says three questions can clarify how to tidy them up.

Declutter your space and your mind

The first question to ask: is this absolutely necessary for me to do my job?

“There's a general cultural narrative out there that says, the more that we have, the more that we can do,” he explains. “But what we know from the science is that that’s often not the case. When we surround ourselves with abundance, whether that be abundance in material things or abundance in time or information, it changes the way that we interact with those resources.”

He compares it to having a closet full of clothes but not necessarily knowing how to put together the best outfit.

Similarly, clutter can also change the way the brain thinks. When there are too many things distracting it, thinking creatively can be difficult. For example, if you have a dozen similar pens on your desk or a handful of productivity apps that might do more or less the same things. The KonMari® method provides a philosophy and system for how to pare down what you have so you can really focus.

“I’ve had clients realize that they need far less to be able to do their job and that they were living in this cloud, whether it’s having too many direct reports or having too much in the stationery cupboard,” says Gemma Quinn, Australia’s first certified KonMari® consultant. “And that they can work far more efficiently without all of it.”

Quinn has appreciated organization since she was a child, but in the last five and a half years, she’s been teaching people how to “live their best life” (as she likes to put it) as a trained professional organizer. “You don't realize your relationships with your objects until you kind of just take them for a moment and do the joy check and ask yourself, ‘does this bring me joy?’” she says.

This doesn’t just apply to tangible things and people, but also the way in which we work with others. In fact, tidying in relation to work can sometimes be even more transformative because it involves not just yourself, but other people as well.

“I‘ve also found that a lot of people changed some of their methods of communication as a result of decluttering,” Quinn says. “They’ve become far more articulate and they’ve improved their relationship with their colleagues.”

Think about the future

The second question Sonenshein says everyone should ask is “will this help promote some type of joy in the future?”

There’s a basic psychological tendency to live in the present and, as a result, we tend to discount the future. “What we're really trying to do is to teach people to think more consciously about the choices that they're making,” says Sonenshein.

For example, Marie Kondo talks about this in regards to vacuuming. It might not bring joy in the moment, but it means having a clean home later.

With your digital life, Sonenshein says the trick is to visualize what you want it to look like. For instance, ask yourself what you want your inbox to look like when you check your email tomorrow. If spending the time now to clear it of unnecessary emails will make you feel a lot happier tomorrow, then you should do it. If going through cloud documents one by one and deleting the ones that you no longer need will make you feel more at ease when you turn your computer on the next day, it might be worth the mind numbing task in the moment.

Taking the time to revisit how you organize your remaining documents—from how you name files and folders, to what’s stored where—might feel like a chore, but that upfront investment could go a long way towards reducing clutter for your future self, too.

The same applies to studying something that’s boring in the moment that will become useful knowledge that you can use in the future. Or you might be working on things that don’t excite you, but they help you grow and acquire new skills to get to the next step in your career—like a promotion. Regardless of the task, this question should essentially motivate you to understand why you do things in the present.

Do what really makes you happy

The last but most important question is, “does it intrinsically spark joy?” 

“Have a deeper reflection over what that task is actually doing,” says Sonenshein. “If there doesn’t seem like there's much of an impact there and you're not intrinsically enjoying what you're doing, then it’s probably time to start thinking about finding something different to do or at least a different place to do it.”

The same way you would “joy check” your household items with the KonMari Method®, asking yourself this question in relation to your work is the foundation of finding joy.

“You don't realize your relationships with your objects until you just take them for a moment,” says Quinn. “And you’ll even start to understand yourself more.”

In fact, Quinn says these joy checks may start to permeate into other aspects of your life—fundamentally changing not only how you work, but how you live.

“It changes how you see the world and it teaches you to understand what brings you joy,” she says. “And it gives you a perspective on your own life and yourself. And what I find most powerful about it is it’s completely agnostic because it's based on your own personal beliefs and values, so it’s something anyone can do.”