JULY 6, 2020
JOY AT WORK OPENS with the story of Aki, an office worker in a real-estate agency with a small but messy desk. Aki’s workday is chaotic: she frantically searches for pens and folders, she rushes to meetings, she reprints documents that were lost in her piles of paper, she loses her glasses. She wants to clean her desk, but keeps putting it off. By the end of the workday, Aki is exhausted. “Sitting at that messy desk was totally depressing,” she told organizing expert, author, and reality television star Marie Kondo. But, as Kondo is quick to point out, it isn’t just Aki that suffers as a result of her disorderly desk: “Clutter is bad for business, too.”
Marie Kondo (along with her trademarked “KonMari” method of cleaning) became a household name in 2014 with the unlikely New York Times best seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Readers were encouraged to systematically tidy their homes by categorizing objects, creating giant piles, thanking the objects for serving them, and discarding anything that didn’t “spark joy.” The process, Kondo promised, had the power to create long-lasting domestic order and, simultaneously, “change your life forever.” Over the next six years, Kondo expanded her empire as she set out to “organize the world.” She offers virtual classes for becoming a “Certified KonMari Consultant” ($2,000), created and starred in her own Netflix reality series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and, ironically, developed an online store where you can purchase things like “Joyful Accessories” for the office or a “Handmade Wooden Tool Box for Decluttering, Tidying and Organizing” ($90). In Joy at Work, she carries her mission to the workplace, encouraging readers to “restore order” to their careers and, in turn, their lives.
Kondo’s popularity might, at least partially, be attributed to the longstanding concerns her books and methods promise to resolve. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up taps into contemporary anxieties about consumption and pathologizations of clutter. Mass-produced goods are cheaper and access to credit more available. At the same time, representations of domestic ideals — from Instagram to HGTV — are unavoidable. Americans have more access to stuff but also experience increased pressure to live up to clutter-free perfection. Kondo relieves this tension by giving us permission to discard the material purchases we’ve grown bored of and purchase more beautiful objects to take their place. Throughout, she also reassures us that achieving Pinterest-style minimalism will, in fact, bring the domestic bliss we hope for. Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously asserted that dirt was just “matter out of place,” arguing that the panic that we feel about material excess is really just a thinly veiled panic about social deviance. Meanwhile, as Scott Herring notes, “hoarding” (a disorder only officially recognized in 2013, a year before the US publication of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) is so startling because, as it imagines new and transgressive object relationships, it disrupts ideals of heteronormative family life. In Kondo’s first book, then, hyper-organization worked as the inverse to “hoarding” or other forms of material deviance, promising to restore social and moral — as well as physical — order to the home.
Joy at Work now pushes readers to grapple with the boredom, ennui, and depression they feel about their jobs. Kondo brings on co-author Scott Sonenshein, a professor of Management and Organizational Behavior at the Rice School of Business and author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, a guide for businesses looking to get by with less (from fewer company perks to fewer employees). The authors open by proposing an exercise: “Start by mentally picturing your desk at the office, your studio, or your workplace,” they suggest. “Next, answer these questions: Are you honestly feeling positive about working here right now? Does working at this desk every day really spark joy for you? Are you sure that you’re giving full scope to your creativity? Do you really want to come back to this tomorrow?” Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Kondo’s clients are depressed.
Mifuyu, for example, took a leave of absence after she was diagnosed with depression due to overwork. But, the authors promise, tidying up “restored her emotional equilibrium, and she was able to work with purposeful composure.” With a newly clean desk, Mifuyu “was able to accept her mistakes constructively, telling herself that next time she would try to do things differently and even feeling grateful for the learning opportunities they gave her […] Mifuyu’s work speed also improved dramatically.” Ken, an engineer, shared a similar story. He wanted a clean desk where he could work more efficiently. He wasn’t sure what his ideal work life might look like, but said that “it might be nice to go home earlier.” But, in the process of tidying his desk, he sorted through his books and “found that he had many on self-development and particularly on how to lead a more fulfilling life and find more passion in one’s work. This showed him that he longed to enjoy his job more and achieve self-fulfilment through doing his best.”
Wrestling with the relationship between work and sadness is, of course, not a new undertaking. Weber famously asserted that Protestant asceticism was a way to instill dignity to otherwise very dull labor. Marx called work “unhuman nature” and attributed the “alienation” a worker felt to labor that did “not belong to his essential being” and that therefore “ruins his mind.” The more recent post-work and anti-work imaginaries of Antonio Negri, Kathi Weeks, Bob Black, Alex Williams, and Nick Srnicek among others challenge us to confront the organization and politics of work and to envision universal emancipation. Weeks pushes us to denaturalize work’s place at the center of our social and political lives and to think about what a different arrangement might look like. Instead of a job, she suggests that we “get a life,” a collective and political provocation that prescribes deep consideration and, ultimately, a different future. For Weeks, as well as for Williams and Srnicek, the demand for universal basic income is undergirded by feminism as it exposes what Weeks calls “the arbitrariness of which practices are waged and which are not.” (KonMari-ing your home is so often, as Laurie Ouelette has argued, an added form of unwaged labor that predominantly falls on women.) But while others posit that the apathy and depression we feel about our jobs is intrinsic to late capitalism and to work that is very likely truly pointless (what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”), Kondo argues that our sour moods actually come from unkempt cubicles and retaining emails that fail to spark joy. It’s a curious counterargument.
In the past, Kondo described “sparking joy,” her trademark measure of value, as a physiological sensation of cells lifting up in the body when you hold or touch a treasured object. Conversely, objects that do not spark joy feel like a burden, weighing the body down. But Joy at Work expands these definitions. “If the words spark joy just don’t seem to click in your work setting, feel free to substitute something else that does,” Kondo suggests. “I know a CEO who used, Will this help my company prosper?” Throughout Joy at Work, Kondo and Sonenshein back away from the life-affirming power of objects and recast “joy” as a gauge of usefulness for the company or a means of making an employee more productive. They recommend, for example, holding on to papers you might feel unenthusiastic about if the papers will help you to “work conscientiously.” Remembering the last time she had a job, Kondo says,
[T]he first thing I did when I reached the office was to clean my workspace. I put down my bag, took a favorite dust cloth from a drawer, and wiped the top of my desk. Then I took out my laptop, keyboard, and mouse and gave them a wipe, all while focusing my thoughts on this little phrase: May today be another great day at work! I wiped the phone, too, thanking it for always bringing me wonderful opportunities. […] I got down on my hands and knees, dusted the legs of my chair, then crawled under the desk and wiped the cords. […] As I continued with these daily practices, my work performance improved, resulting in more deals made and higher sales.
But it’s not just Kondo herself. In fact, all of Joy at Work’s stories of successful workplace decluttering follow the same narrative arc: a worker with a messy desk is depressed but, after tidying their desk, they’re transformed into a happier and, subsequently, more effective worker. Kondo recommends “visualizing your ideal work life.” One client who followed this advice said, “By the time I reach the office in the morning, I’m already excited. … Placing the coffee I bought on the way to work on a favorite coaster, I freshen the air with a spritz of mint aroma mist, take a deep breath, and get to work.” Clutter, the authors argue, leads to unproductivity, costing businesses about $89 billion annually (it’s unclear where this calculation comes from). But tidying the workplace both “improves performance” and “enhances the joy we get from our work.” For Kondo and Sonenshein, these are one and the same. Their clients report that decluttering helped them to boost sales performance, increase efficiency, and “reassess the meaning of their job, rekindling their passion for it.”
Joy at Work makes two impossible demands: first, that work should be joyful, and second, that achieving this feeling of joy is the responsibility of the worker. The authors recommend arriving at work two hours early to clean, promising that tidy desks will result in a “higher evaluation of our character and capacity.” This will, in turn, raise our self-esteem and encourage us to work harder and perform better. “Looked at in this way, tidying up sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it?” Joy at Work is surprising in its transparency. Kondo and Sonenshein make it clear that the benefits of tidying your desk are benefits reaped ultimately by the employer. But the fact is that Kondo and the KonMari method have always been neoliberal. From The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, Kondo has consistently promoted the importance of individualism, personal choice, and responsibility — the choice to be tidy, the choice to consume better, and now, the choice to work harder. “Our work and our lives are the cumulative result of our past choices,” she says. “Whatever happens is the result of our own decisions.”
This sentiment feels especially untrue right now, as many of us have had our work and lives upended by a pandemic and an insufficient government response that both feel very much out of our control. It’s strange timing for a book about tidying the workplace. Stay-at-home orders have necessitated that we transform former sanctuaries (the sofa, the kitchen table, the bed) into home offices, inverting Kondo’s suggestion to outfit our cubicles with aroma mist and a favorite coaster. As the lines between work and the rest of our lives are blurred, our domestic spaces are contorted to serve multiple purposes — from dining table, to desk, to changing table. The increased responsibility to manage our homes-turned-offices and the push to work harder at jobs that are increasingly precarious may “help the company prosper,” but it doesn’t spark joy.
Kondo and Sonenshein acknowledge that a tidy workspace might not elicit universal job satisfaction. You might, after KonMari-ing your files and drawers, find yourself at an immaculate workspace in a job that you still hate. “Even so,” Kondo says, “I still recommend that you try tidying up.”