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Personal Development

Elizabeth Cohn

Developing Academic Self-Awareness Using the Life-Changing Magic of the Japanese Art of De-cluttering and Organizing

There is a Zen saying that “the way you do anything is the way you do everything”, and the corollary that changing the way you do anything—you may change the way you do everything. That may be the true magic of Marie Kondo’s popular book, the life-changing magic of tidying up.1 I wondered if I could increase my self-awareness in my academic life by tidying.   
I am of the age where I have started to worry if I’ll have enough, if I’ll be enough, if I’ve saved enough. I’ve saved everything—so I have too much of some things (stuff) and potentially not enough other things like a small 401K. So earlier this year, I paired my winter break with the KonMari program.
I was afraid of the 30+ years of things we had accumulated in our small home. Our children, both grown and on their own, still had rooms filled with the achievements of their childhood—trophies and awards which were sources of both pride and embarrassment. I didn’t touch those items, not yet.

1. Tidy by Category
I did start as the book instructs by taking all the clothes I had out of all the closets and drawers and placing them in a huge pile in the Livingroom. True to the method, I was shocked at what I found, what I had, and how little of it I could find if I ever needed it.
This category resonated with me related to papers and projects that had intrigued me, but I left unfinished. I strengthened my resolve to finish them or let them go. Especially data that someone else could use.

2. Does it spark joy?
While tidying, I asked myself if an item “sparked joy”. I gave away the items that did not (five huge bags), thanking each item and wishing it well.
The items that “sparked joy” were hung up carefully, according to color, and it was remarkable to be able to find items that I wanted when I needed them. I also lined up my shoes, carefully removing them at the end of the day, thanking them for taking me four or five times across the city and safely home. Dressing and undressing felt very different in the aftermath of this exercise. I returned items to the part of the closet where they would feel most comfortable and found myself treating my clothes and shoes with a gentleness and gratitude. My rooms were less cluttered, and frankly so was my mind. Not everything has to “spark joy” and not everything will, but being able to remove the items that were clearly not joyful had an unexpected effect on my work.
This step of the KonMari method allowed me to reduce my external obligations. Academically, I did this by resigning from a committee with meetings I dreaded. In doing so, I made room for work on a project I was deeply passionate about.

3. Learning that you can do without
I had proven to myself that I had enough and that I was enough. I found a deeper sense of gratitude what I had been given, what I had earned. I appreciated all of it.  As a result, I learned to embrace a calm sense of kondo in place of a terrible case of FOMO.
So, when I was offered a last-minute trip to the West Coast for a two-day meeting that also happened to be on the first day of class and a day I had theater tickets to a production about medical experimentation on plantation slaves, I stayed home in New York and focused my energy on my own work. I took my father to the show and to dinner afterwards.

4. Gaining confidence in life through the magic of tidying
As the semester started up again, I reacted differently to situations that would have normally thrown me. For example, I didn’t panic when a consultant over-charged me $27,000.00. I wasn’t overtaken with worry over disappointing my Dean for double-booking a medical procedure with a graduation ceremony. My new group of students seemed brighter and more enthusiastic than before.
The magic isn’t from tidying exactly, it’s from the realization that everything we need (and so much more) is already here. I significantly increased my gratitude, took note when something “sparked joy”, and made a habit of treating everything with the respect it deserves - a significant value at every level.2-6

1.            Kondō M and Hirano C. The life-changing magic of tidying up : the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. First American edition. ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press; 2014.

2.            Drucker PF. Managing oneself. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press; 2008.

3.            Roberts T. "Myers Briggs test could enable personal and reflective journey". Nursing times. 2015;111:11.

4.            Gino F and Pisano GP. Why leaders don't learn from success. Harv Bus Rev. 2011;89:68-74, 137.

5.            Kanter RM. Innovation: the classic traps. Harv Bus Rev. 2006;84:72-83, 154.

6.            Wolinski K. Self-awareness, self-renewal, self-management. Learning to deal effectively with stress. AORN journal. 1993;58:721-30.

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