Marie Kondo’s Joy at Work arrives at an awkward time. What does it mean to be “at work” now that we’re social distancing? And how would one find “joy” in anything, save for the fact that it’s 11:08 a.m., I’m writing this in my pajamas, and I’m somewhere between second breakfast and first lunch?
It’s not Kondo’s fault that her book is being published during a pandemic, but it’s impossible not to read it in that context. Work is changing fundamentally right now for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Joy at Work (preorders ship Apr. 7) isn’t a manual for service-sector employees who may not have paid sick leave and could find themselves needing guidance on how to make the best of economic ruin. When Kondo refers to “work,” she’s talking about whitecollar types who are likely to receive a bimonthly paycheck without much disruption.
Her book is for people who seem generally discombobulated—whose own messes present no logic even to their creators—and are searching for remedial organizational tools. In the first chapter we meet Aki, who routinely has trouble finding a pen. How is Aki going to stay employed in the coming months? One of the benefits of being in an office is that the collective gaze of disapproval forces us to get our s— together.
Kondo’s first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold more than 11 million copies since 2011. The 2019 Netflix series has been shown in 190 countries. Kondo’s premise is simple: Being more organized will make you happier, and if you’re happier, you’ll have a better life. You organize by discarding anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” No task is too mundane for examination. Kondo suggests folding your socks as opposed to balling them up, for example, because their holiday in your drawer is the only time they’re not under stress. She introduced me to a new dimension of fastidiousness that I’m either trapped by or thriving in. I had hoped Joy at Work would do for my desk what Tidying Up did for my closets.
Written with Stretch author Scott Sonenshein, an organizational psychologist and business school professor at Rice University, Joy at Work offers 200-plus pages of advice about the benefits of tidying your physical and digital workspace and figuring out how to make meetings and networking less onerous. Any thought one gives to being happier at work is helpful, but to answer the obvious question, no, I can’t say that the book sparked joy.
The advice is often rote—“Be especially careful with the ‘reply all’ button. If you have a clarifying question that’s only applicable to the sender, then ask the sender only”—or not all that relevant in an apocalypse: There’s a lot of emphasis on using index cards but no mention of Slack or Zoom.
And the conclusions sometimes imbue cleanliness with a great deal of transformative power. Mifuyu cleaned her desk and became “far more stable emotionally. Not long before, she’d been diagnosed with depression due to overwork and had had to take sick leave. Tidying up, however, seemed to have restored her emotional equilibrium.” In another instance, “Lisa’s relationship with her son dramatically improved, she lost 15 pounds within a month of tidying her decisions, and she gained a rekindled sense of optimism.”
I believe Mifuyu. I’m excited for Lisa! But I’m not getting to the other side of this pandemic without putting on a solid 15, and the prospect of leaving my apartment only to buy produce is not inspiring optimism. These are the realities of work now, no matter how disciplined we are at sorting our komono (“miscellaneous items”).
I wish the book had left me with something to look forward to once things return to normal. But who working in an office doesn’t already know about the perils of multitasking, the time suck that is email, or the fact that 62% of your LinkedIn connections are random marketing dudes from Cincinnati? The truth is that most people have no control over their workday, and paring down our paper clips probably isn’t going to change that.
When we’re back in the office, however, I’m going to apply a few tips I learned about meetings. My favorite comes from Tony, a “midlevel employee,” who tells his boss, “If I go to this meeting, it will detract from work that actually adds value to our shareholders.” I plan to say this verbatim, even though Bloomberg LP is a private company, and I hope to look feral enough from self-quarantine that my colleagues just let it go.
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