For most of us, the past few weeks have represented nothing short of an earthquake in our lives, not least in the way we work.
From ministers dialling into Cabinet meetings by video link, and TV presenters hosting shows from their living rooms, to the rest of us trying to run a company from the garden shed or taking conference calls in the bathroom for a bit of peace and quiet, the reality of widespread home working has been, to say the least, unsettling.
But help is at hand — in the form of Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru who has become a global sensation.
Her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying, published in the UK in 2014, sold 12 million copies around the world and launched a craze for blitzing our homes — and streamlining our lives — in the process.
Marie Kondo (pictured), the decluttering guru who has become a global sensation, has shared her tips for looking after your workspace
Since then, she’s had a hit Netflix show, opened her own online shop, and moved from Japan to the U.S. to establish her consultancy business there, with a fleet of ‘KonMari’ consultants trained in her tidying method.
Now, not content with having cleared out our cupboards and attics, Kondo, 35, is turning her attentions to our messy desks and overflowing files.
Co-written with organisational psychologist Scott Sonenshein, her new book Joy At Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, is all about bringing calm to where we spend so much of our time.
‘I received a lot of feedback from readers of my first book, who tried tidying their homes and then they asked me, well, what about our workspaces?’ she says.
Plus, Marie — ‘fascinated’ by tidying since she was five — began her career teaching stressed executives how to sort out their messy desks. ‘So the book is very much based on my experiences.’
Marie and her husband, Takumi Kawahara, a former HR consultant who is now CEO of their company KonMari Media, have two daughters, Satsuki, four, and Miko, three (pictured)
Of course, these days our homes and work spaces are one and the same for many — including Marie. Today, we’re speaking over videolink with the aid of a translator who’s also phoning in remotely.
Marie looks as fresh and tidy as ever in an embroidered lemon cardigan, sitting in her Los Angeles home by a window showing green leaves and blue sky, and seems unruffled about making the switch to home working.
‘A lot of my work has been conducted online so, in that sense, it has always been a part of my routine,’ she says in a soft voice. ‘And I also write from home of course.’
While her small team based in Los Angeles would usually be in their office in a co-working space, they were ready to adapt. ‘In the spirit of maximising productivity and working joyfully, we [already] work remotely about one to two days a week,’ she says. ‘I coordinate a lot with our Japanese team as well. So I think we’re very well prepared in that sense.’
Marie revealed she loves having trays on her desk. She added it’s important to be surrounded by things that bring joy (a large wool and leather organising valet tray is pictured)
A Sculptural & Artistic Ceramic Planter (left) and a Desktop Zen Garden (right) are both for sale on Marie’s website
But there have been other challenges — as every working parent will know. ‘My children’s schools have been closed, so my children are always at home.
‘They’ll come into my room while I’m working. So having that distinction between my private life and work life is somewhat of a challenge.’
She and her husband, Takumi Kawahara, a former HR consultant who is now CEO of their company KonMari Media, have two daughters, Satsuki, four, and Miko, three.
‘We try to do a lot of childcare in shifts, when we have to try to complement each other’s schedule that way and support one another.
‘But also I think the time that my children spend watching movies, for instance, has been a little bit longer.’
But what about those of us for whom all this has been less a lifestyle tweak and more a head-on collision between our working and personal lives?
The Organised Desk Concrete Desk Set (pictured) could be bought and used to keep pens and other smaller items tidy
In November last year Marie launched her upmarket lifestyle shop on her website. Items for sale include a Gemstone Water Bottle (left) and a desk drawer organiser (right)
She says: ‘It’s important to begin by taking time to think and visualise your ideal work environment, and start your tidying work towards that ideal. I think those steps are very much similar whether you’re tidying your home or your work space.’
Today, she’s speaking to me from her husband’s home office — ‘it has the best internet connection’; even she can’t tidy away patchy wi-fi — but it’s similar to her usual set-up.
‘It’s quite simple,’ she say tilting her camera so I get the full view. ‘My desk has a laptop, and that’s a charger, you see. It’s actually wireless. And it’s available on the shop. It’s one of my favourites.’
Ah yes, the shop. It sparked controversy when in November last year Marie launched her upmarket lifestyle shop on her website, selling $135 (£108) linen pyjamas and a $86 (£69) candle.
Weren’t we all supposed to be getting rid of clutter, not accumulating more? Kondo said people often asked her about her favourite things and the goal of tidying was to ‘make room for meaningful objects, people and experiences’.
‘I think the work desk should be a place that’s for tools that you need for work,’ she tells me now.
‘That said, you can add little flourishes and touches that spark joy for you. In my case, I always have flowers and crystals within view, things that relax me.’ She lights up as she displays a few choice objects.
‘I personally love trays. This is something that’s available at my store as well. But it sparks a lot of joy for me to have trays to put all of my necessities in.’ Which are? ‘I love crystals, of course.
‘And if I have my tuning fork and chime it’ — she gives it a ting to demonstrate — ‘the sounds soothes me’.
That’s not all. ‘So this is called a zen egg,’ she explains, showing me a wooden egg. ‘And just by rolling it on the palm of my hand it relaxes me. It’s a little soothing accessory for the home.’
Tools for work should be placed on a desk, Marie says. She adds that organisers or things that spark joy can be added
Watching her serenely rolling her egg ($40, or £32, plus shipping, on konmari.com), I feel calmer already — until the sound of a small child shouting interrupts us briefly. ‘That’s my daughter,’ she explains with a smile.
Knick-knacks? Children interrupting? The oh-so-perfect queen of decluttering is becoming more relatable by the minute. Although there are limits.
‘So as you can see, so far as anything that gives you a little bit of joy and uplifts you, that’s great — but when you have a lot of small accessories on your desk it can look a little scattered and chaotic, so I really suggest having a basket or tray just to keep everything sorted.’
Of course, if your existing set-up leans more towards working out under which pile of papers your laptop might be hiding, you’ve rather more to do.
A zen egg (pictured) can be used for workplace meditation. It’s also for sale on Marie’s lifestyle website. Tidying a desk by the KonMari Method takes as little as three hours, Marie points out
That’s where her famous tidying technique, the KonMari Method, comes in. Basically, you need to sort everything in your work space into categories, such as books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items, such as offices supplies, gadgets, multiple tubes of hand cream), and sentimental items.
Then, you work through each category in turn, keeping only those items that ‘spark joy’ and gratefully discarding the rest. (With its focus on finding joy in the mundane, some see her method rooted in traditional Japanese spirituality; Marie was once an assistant at a Shinto shrine — a place of worship.)
But you don’t have to chuck your stapler — this type of boring but useful item falls into the handy category of ‘functional joy’ in that it makes your life easier; likewise, old receipts that will let you claim expenses — brilliantly, you file them under ‘future joy’. Finally, you decide where to store the things you are keeping.
Marie has previously shared tips for balancing working at home with raising a family on her Instagram page (pictured)
The idea is to do this frenzy of organising ‘quickly and completely, all in one go’, although she clarifies in the book that within ‘about a month’ is fine, so long as you set a deadline.
That done, you can apply the same tidying principles to your emails, calendar, even your contacts — although she seems a bit less fascinated by the non-physical side of things, handing over to her co-author for those chapters. After that, it’s just a matter of ‘daily tidying’ to keep things ticking over.
The secret to home office happiness
Mentally picture your desk at the office, your studio or your workplace.
Or, if you are sitting there now, take a look around. Next, answer these questions.
1. Are you feeling positive about working here right now?
2. Does working at this desk every day spark joy for you?
3. Are you sure that you’re giving full scope to your creativity?
4. Do you really want to come back to this tomorrow?
If you answered yes without hesitation to all of them, your joy level at work is impressively high.
But if your response was ambivalent, if you felt your heart sink, even a little, then tidying up is worth a try.
Tidy by category
‘When you go about tidying, the key point is to do so by category,’ says Marie.
‘This helps clear your mind. Dedicate one day just to documents, or to clearing your desktop, or work space, and so on.
Focus on one spot at a time — it allows you to see you’re making progress.’
It’s the komono (miscellaneous) category that has clients sending her desperate emails, overwhelmed by the sheer variety.
Keep breaking things down into more categories, such as ‘office supplies’, ‘electrical items’, then sorting through each in turn.
Get the right kit
Following Marie’s method does not mean buying heaps of boxes and folders to rearrange your existing mess.
Marie is a fan of a few choice items. She uses a cable tidy box (it hides chargers and sockets. Find it on Amazon from £10).
And she likes upright filing boxes to store any papers. When they’re lying flat, you forget about those at the bottom of the pile.
Anyone who thought home working might offer an escape from office meetings will, by now, have had a rude awakening.
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the amount of time you’re spending talking to your screen, Marie says the answer is a strict agenda.
‘For a company it’s been important for us to structure the meeting and share the objectives beforehand. I think that contributes to the efficacy of the meeting itself.’
Daunted? On the plus side, tidying a desk by the KonMari Method takes as little as three hours, Marie points out; while a family home may need up to several months.
The benefits, she believes, are high. According to scientists at the University of California, being surrounded by too many things increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol — mess really does tax the brain.
Meanwhile, her own clients report that tidying their work places so increased their efficiency they could leave work two hours early (in the days before ‘work’ and ‘home’ collapsed into one confusing blur).
Of course, not all of us have a home office or desk, however messy — and may now find ourselves hot-desking with our families at the breakfast bar.
‘It’s very important to have that distinction between work mode and your private mode,’ says Marie. ‘So if, say, you’re working on the kitchen counter that day, it’s important that you clear everything away that you’re using for your private life in a tray or boxes. You can be pretty rough about it.’
I have visions of sweeping breakfast plates off my dinner table-cum-desk ready for the working day.
Just make sure that the environment is ready for you to work and vice-versa: when you finish working, you put away all the things you use for work. Having that transition is important.’
In the absence of their usual commute, many are struggling with the boundaries of when the working day starts and ends, too.
She recommends a routine to help mark it. Waking up around 6am, she opens the windows to let in fresh air, burns incense and always gets dressed. ‘Before I enter work mode, I like to take my tuning fork and crystal and really observe the sound: I close my eyes — almost meditate a little bit. I just centre myself.’
Well, watching Good Morning Britain over a bagel is almost the same. Still, all this upheaval must have inconvenienced her a little?
‘Given the situation we are in, I do take a moment to speak with my husband and go over our respective schedules,’ she admits. ‘But as far as our daily routine goes, it hasn’t changed that much.’
Admirably, she never makes the same lunch twice in a week, mainly cooking healthy Japanese dishes such as rice and natto (fermented beans) and miso soup.
It’s a far cry from the emergency bowl of cereal that the unprepared home worker may find themselves scoffing.
Life hasn’t always been so serene, though. In the book, she reveals that the early days of her global success — and jam-packed schedule — left her exhausted: ‘I simply couldn’t go on like this.’
Since then, she has been scheduling time to spend with her family; a massage (when allowed) and tells her fans to make their wellbeing a ‘top priority’.
I’m pleasantly surprised the KonMari way means being an understanding manager of yourself at home, with regular breaks.
But making more time for her personal joys hasn’t slowed her down. Season two of her Netflix show, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, has been announced, but shooting has not yet begun. Is it really possible, when everything is so uncertain, to find joy still?
Marie says: ‘I definitely do think it’s possible to find joy even at a time like this. We’re spending so much more time physically at home.
‘So I think this is a great opportunity for self-reflection.’ Now is the moment, she suggests, to ask yourself questions about what you want.
‘By tidying our environment and our minds,’ she promises, ‘it can contribute to having a sense of security and comfort.’ At the very least, as I start to address the mess that is my kitchen table-turned-desk, it can help us feel a bit more in control.
Joy At Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein (£16.99, Bluebird), is out now.