There is only one person who could make folding clothes a trending topic on Twitter: Marie Kondo.
In case you’ve been on a digital detox, this woman has taken the world by storm with her organizing tactics. She first rose to prominence with her 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. That fame was parlayed into a Netflix series that premiered this year and has turned Kondo and her methods into a bonafide internet star.
The basic premise is this: When purging a room of excess “stuff,” hold every item in your hands. If it brings you joy, keep it. If it doesn’t, trash it. (But not before gently thanking it for its service.)
Marie Kondo’s popularity got me thinking: does this method work for offices?
While I couldn’t talk to the queen of clean herself, I did have a conversation with someone who’s equally cool: Paul Silverman. He’s the President of Integra Workshops, which helps professionals increase their productivity and reduce their stress through organization. He also happens to be the first westerner to ever be named the head of a Zen Temple in Japan, and serves as the Director for Chaplain Services. Some of his clients include White House senior staff under President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton’s personal staff and officers at the Pentagon.
Until speaking with Paul, I didn’t realize how much a clean workspace can affect our spiritual and mental health. Yet after chatting with him, I’m sold:
On your website, you mention how disorganization can affect work/life balance. Can you tell me a little about that?
Every aspect of your life is a spiritual reflection. It’s either an opportunity or a block. Clutter inhibits people from connecting, because they can’t think clearly.
I know that people like to put their own personal mark on their office. Yet it’s important to ask: “Am I putting this decoration up to get attention, or to deeply connect with people?” Some might say that a big thing on the wall can be an icebreaker. But when an office is filled with tschotskes, all I want to talk about is that. And that can prevent me and someone else from really diving into whatever it is that we’re trying to discuss.
I believe that you don’t need objects to be warm and inviting. You personally need to be warm and inviting.
From a more scientific perspective, the prefrontal cortex—AKA your higher self—can only process so much. It’s where empathy and compassion comes from. But if you’re trying to process too much data from a busy space, then you go into the limbic system, which is all about survival.
When I evaluate someone’s space, I ask them, “Are you helping people stay in the best part of their brain?”
How does your perspective on cleaning differ from Marie Kondo’s?
I’m more rational and specific than Marie Kondo. There doesn’t need to be interpretation of what “joy” means. Instead, I’ll pick up and object and ask, “Is this helping you get your job done any faster, and back to your friends and family any quicker?” Because that’s where your real life is.
What decoration do you recommend for an office?
I always recommend anything that brings you emotional juice, like photographs. For example, I have one picture of each of my kids at my desk. Those photos make me happy, and remind me that I want to go home and get back to them as quickly as possible.
Say someone has a list of a ton of tasks to complete. How do you help them decide which one to complete first?
I always recommend writing a to-do list in the morning. That allows you to dump all the stuff out of your prefrontal cortex. If you don’t do that, the Zeigarnik effect happens.
What’s the Zeigarnik effect?
It was inspired by Lithuanian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik. She would sit at a cafe in Paris, towards the back, and observe people. Occasionally she would ask the waiters what the different couples were ordering. The waiter could quickly recite whatever it was back to her. At some point, the couple would pay and walk away. Bluma would ask the waiter, “That couple that’s walking away, what’s their order?” And he could never say. That’s because his energy has shifted from one activity to another. He doesn’t need to remember what he’s ordered anymore.
How does that connect to corporate employees?
Well, if we have too many activities open, our productivity dramatically suffers. This dramatically reduces happiness, and destroys our prefrontal cortex. As I said before, a cure is making lists. If you write it down and it’s next to you, your brain doesn’t have to use as much energy. Another simple tip is to keep your to-do list to one page. When it’s giant, it’s really hard for your brain to figure out what the priority is.
If you could give people one tip to organize their lives more, what would it be?
Look at how the brain is designed to be productive. Is the way you’re working increasing or decreasing your focus and concentration? If you understand that, managing your work and getting back to your loved ones will be far easier.