Many of you may be familiar with the hot bestselling book by Marie Kondo, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, in which Kondo teaches us how to conquer the clutter in our closets and our homes. Her technique is brilliantly simple and asks one fundamental question, “Does this spark joy?” Pick up every piece of clothing, every item in your house, one by one, and hold it in your hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?”. If it does, it is a keeper and you hang it back up, recommitted to it. If it does not, then it is out, no questions asked. There is no rationalizing, or justifications. There is no “maybe”. It is in, or it is out.
When I first read this, I thought, why should sparks of joy stop with our closets? I personally would like everything in my life to spark joy, and eliminate all the rest. Fireworks of joy, in all parts of life, all the time! Wouldn’t that be great?!
So, I took a stab at sparking joy in my life outside my closet and have been living this way ever since (and coaching my clients to do the same!).
Here’s my step by step guide to “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up YOUR LIFE”. It’s surprisingly simple, but also pretty damn transformative.
1) Go through the “drawers” of your life and say “goodbye” to un-joy.
The alternative to throwing out everything in one fell swoop (as I did in my life a couple of years ago, and is sometimes not a bad idea), is to start with each “item” in your life. Often, the best place to start is how you spend your time. One of my all time favorite quotations is from Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.” If you’re spending most of your day doing things that are un-joyful, you’re living on the balance, a pretty un-joyful life. Of course, the opposite is true as well.
Open your calendar, or your schedule, both personal and professional. Treat every calendar entry as an item of clothing in your closet. Look at every single coffee date, meeting, dinner, activity, and ask “does this spark joy?” Notice every time there’s a feeling of “ugh” or “blegh”, or something that you know you will try to wiggle yourself out of last minute, because you said you were sick the last week and the week before you got stuck at work, so what will it be this week? Feel it in your body, too. If you get a queasy feeling in your stomach, or a tightness in your chest, or your throat, then that it probably a feeling of “un-joy”. Note what “un-joy” feels like. If it isn’t joy that it sparks, it’s “un-joy” and it needs to go! Another way of saying this is, “If it isn’t a HELL YES, then it is a HELL NO.” For our purposes, like Kondo’s methodology, “maybe, if I have time” isn’t an option. This is not the only way to un-joy your life, but it’s a good place to start.
Of course, for most of us, that is often easier said than done, when we’re dealing with things like relationships, and employment, and not a sweater. Most of the un-joy in our lives are things that we either “should” or “have to” do. Eliminate everything from you calendar that you can easily without too much resistance from yourself, or others. For everything else, keep a list of the things that you know are un-joy and you wish you could eliminate, but you feel that you “can’t” for whatever reason. We’ll get back to these.
The other difference here, than with clothing and belongings, is that you can always add things back in. If every “networking” coffee on your calendar, conjures up visions of the dentist, then maybe you should quit networking right now, and you can always start it back up again when it actually does spark joy, or when the right person comes along, you will experience delight at their invitation and you will say “yes”, and it will turn out that you were just networking with the wrong people. This starts, though, with saying “no”. Give yourself permission to take a 90-day time out from any of these activities, set a calendar reminder to revisit in 90 days. You’ll know when and if you should add them back in.
This process is an ongoing one. I continue to do this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Hopefully, I’m not saying “yes” to anything that brings me un-joy today, but sometimes, in a particular week, or day, it turns out that it does bring me un-joy, or maybe I committed to it several months ago, and things have since shifted for me, so I re-evaluate the joy level of my life on a regular intervals.
2) The Commitment Test: “The Barren Closet” or the “Empty Elevator”
One challenge that you may encounter at this point, especially if you’re ruthlessly eliminating all things un-joyful in your life, is that you suddenly have a lot of empty space and time in your life, with nothing to fill it with. You may feel bored, or lonely, and it can feel truly painful. At this point, many people will decide that it is too hard, and give up, or fall back into old patterns. When I left my job, and had absolutely nothing on my schedule, I definitely felt bored and lonely. I call this “the commitment test”, which begs you to answer the question, “how committed are you to creating a life you love?”, “how badly do you want to live your best life?”
One of my favorite teachers, Martha Beck, calls this the “empty elevator” syndrome. When you start working towards living more fully with the intention of creating your life, directed by your joy compass, rather than A life, of shoulds, you will have to leave the floor that you are on in your life, and get on the elevator to go to the next, more joyful, floor of your life. However, when you get on the elevator, many of your friends and other people and things in your life, may not be able to come with you, and that elevator ride may feel very lonely and long. When you get to your “new” floor, though, you will discover how much more joyful the people, places and things on this floor are, and how much better suited this new floor is for you than the old one was.
Boredom and loneliness is a great sign, and if you stick with this process, you will come to find that in boredom and loneliness, and even sadness and impatience, there is a great opportunity and means you are doing something very right. This means that you have successfully created space and time to add joy into your life, and also to welcome new kinds of joy into your life that you didn’t know were possible, whether it be in the form of relationships, work and other professional opportunities, hobbies, or fun.
Nature abhors a vacuum. After much practice with this technique, I have come to look at boredom and loneliness with excitement, when I experience it, because I know with certainty now that that means that I have the capacity to welcome something new into my life–a project, an activity, a hobby.
Bottom line: stick with it. The process of building a life that you love living requires grit, commitment and courage, which is why most people don’t do it. It’s a radical act, certainly, but like Kondo’s process, once you do it once, you will never have to “revert to clutter” or “get your house in order” from top to bottom again. The process will live in you and become an integrated, living, breathing part of your life.
3) Going “shopping”, or Cultivating Joy
Now it’s time to go shopping in your life! There are many ways to begin to add things that you love to do into your life with the newfound space you’ve created by eliminating all the un-joys of your daily life. Some of us have a list of things we’ve always wanted to do, hobbies that fell away at some point, or things we just wish we did more of. Live music, cooking classes, reading fiction, writing a novel, doodling, traveling, museums, ballets, the list goes on and on. Do as many of these things as you possibly can! Say “yes” to things you wouldn’t ordinarily say “yes” to. Get curious. Things that “force” us to commit are always good. Signing up for classes, or buying tickets, usually help us hold ourselves more accountable, at least in the beginning, than tentative dates we make with ourselves. The amazing thing about these activities, is that they give us more energy than we started with. Joy, you’ll soon find, begets joy.
Replacing or exchanging items is also an option. For example, you might find that you dread going to your workout class, and your stomach hurts every time you see it on your calendar, but you love the way working out makes you feel. Your stomach pain never leads you wrong, so that is a definite un-joy and an automatic toss. But, now you can decide to spend the next week trying out different workout classes, and when you land on that one, exchange the barre class for the spin class.
When shopping, focus on things that feel “fun”, or playful. It’s one of the many things that we un-learn as adults, or resist because we think responsible adults do not “play”. Play is simply doing something with no set goal or outcome in mind. Actually doing it just to do it, and because we feel like. No explanation or justification needed. This is surprisingly difficult for high-achieving and ambitious people, who are used to setting goals and going after them with a vengeance. At least, it was for me.
The completely counterintuitive part of “play”, though, is that is precisely what catapults us to the next level of success, achievement, creativity, and effectiveness, as a leader, a professional, a partner, a friend. It gives us the space to think innovatively, and as above, but on an internal, smaller scale, nature still abhors a vacuum here, and it allows us to “think different”, to borrow the very creatively-minded Apple slogan.
We never know who we will meet, what we will hear, or what will land with us when we show up for ourselves and “play”. I can personally tell you that my entire career today came from giving myself permission to play. I found coaching by showing up to a class that I had no idea why I was going to other than it “sounded interesting”. I’ve never found a new client, or a new opportunity, or direction to expand and scale, from talking to someone because I thought it was a logical, “strategic” conversation to have. It has always, always been from a conversation, or an event, or class, that I just felt drawn to. I’ve actually built an entire business in this way. In it’s most basic terms, I have found that the more you play, the more you earn.
4) Finding your personal “style”, or Calibrating your personal integrity
The delightful and organic side effect of the above steps is that you will start to calibrate your personal joy to un-joy compass, and rediscover what it is that you like and don’t like again: the things that bring you energy versus the things that drain you, the things that bring out the best of you versus the things that, the things that engage you versus the things that bore you. This applies to people and places as well. Many of us of spent so much of our lives saying “yes” to everything and everyone that we can’t even tell the difference between something we want to do and something we think we “should” do anymore. For so many of my clients, who are highly accomplished, the question of “what you really enjoy doing?” draws a blank. It certainly did for me before I embarked on this path.
Just like with cleaning out your closet, it becomes easier and more clear what your personal aesthetic is, with practice, you will know intuitively, somatically, what things to say “yes” to that spark joy, and what things to say “no” to, and therefore, what your personal style of living and way of engaging with the world is.
In other words, this is seemingly small process of eliminating and adding activities to your life is a the beginning of calibrating your integrity, or your personal truth, and resetting your internal GPS towards your life purpose. It is the process of rediscovering your intuition, and trusting it again. You will find that you suddenly know where you are going, and no longer feel lost, even if you don’t know exactly what the destination is.
5) “The Big Joy”: Seeing the patterns
Eventually, patterns will start to emerge, of things that bring you joy and un-joy respectively. For example, I had a client who discovered that everything she wanted to throw out from her closet had been gifted to her by her mother. Big pattern here, and clear indicator of some inner work to be done! For me, it was everything that I had purchased in order to be “professional”, mostly in my early 20s. That was a pretty good indicator that I should not be considering working anywhere where “professional attire” was part of the deal.
If you are looking at your work calendar, and you begin to look for a pattern, you may realize, for example, that every meeting that brings you un-joy, or is out of your personal integrity, is led by the same person. Perhaps it is time to think about a new role, project, or team, where you are not working with this person. Or maybe every conference you are attending that is focused on data, is decidedly un-joyful for you. That’s an exciting and clear indicator that you should be steering your career away from data-focused roles. Or maybe it is conferences, in general, that make you feel a constriction in your chest. Time to start looking at how to say “no” to all conferences. Instead, think about what you are trying to achieve by going to conferences, and find other more joy-inspiring ways to achieve those goals.
Here’s the other good, or bad, news depending on how you look at it: start small and the big problems in your life will become unbearable. Once you’ve calibrated your internal GPS, or your joy/un-joy meter, it becomes harder and harder to “suck it up” and “get through” things. This is very painful if your intention to tolerate a lot of things because you “should” do them, but it is absolutely delightful if you are on a joy-seeking, life-transformation mission. Soon, every time you feel un-joy in your stomach, it is like an easter egg, or a hidden message, that is clearly steering you in a different, and once you trust it, better direction. This can be very inconvenient, at times. Perhaps you discover that something you thought you loved dearly, or that you needed for your stability does not bring you the joy you thought it would–your partner, your job, or maybe just Thanksgiving with certain members of your family. Your joy may disappoint others, and it may not be easy to eliminate from your life. However, you are not doing anyone any favors by living a life that is out of alignment with who you are, and these conversations and boundaries will serve you well.
This is also a good time to look back at the list you created of things that you have a nagging feeling bring you un-joy, but thought that you could not say “no” to. Get really honest with yourself here, too. Ask yourself, “why ‘should’ I do that? What am I afraid will happen if I don’t?” Many of my clients, and female clients in particular, find that most of these come from “good girl syndrome”, or a place of pleasing everyone, meeting everyone else’s needs, not rocking the boat, and avoiding confrontation. This might be a tough self-realization to swallow, but you will find so much freedom in knowing and addressing this pattern. Armed with this information, you will be able to get out of your own way in blocking yourself from living the life that you long for.
These are the juicy topics that are worth digging into more deeply, in whatever form of introspection, examination or personal growth you prefer, perhaps with another person in coaching, or therapy, or alone in a journal.
6) Rinse, wash, repeat!
So, why does this process work so well?
As I alluded to earlier, you’ll soon discover that our biggest barrier, to authentic achievement, impact and contribution, intimacy, happiness and joy is generally ourselves. This is not unique to you, or to me as I had feared, but rather a natural part of the human mind, or spiritual ego, that is programmed to prevent us from harm, and thus, driven by fear. It’s the part of your mind that tells you that you should not apply for that new job because you might be rejected and that would be embarrassing. Or that I should not write and share this piece because no one will read it; or everyone will read it and hate it and I will lose all my friends; or worst of all, everyone will read it and love it and then I will be faced with the terrifying prospect, that I might have something to add to the conversation. Note: we tend to be more afraid of being our full potential selves, than we are of keeping ourselves small and not reaching our full potential. (This should be alarming! That’s the programming you are defaulting to, if you don’t consciously address the way you are approaching your life! It’s pretty hard to image a well-lived life if you are listening to your sabateur voice.)
What the joy/un-joy calibration, or aligning with your personal integrity, allows you to do is bypass the logical mind, which is where your sabateurs live. Spoiler alert: you can only get so far using your logical mind and thinking through things; or “figuring things out” will only get you so far, before it becomes self-defeating. Seeking joy, and eliminating un-joy, is outside a logical experience. Back in our closets, we may come up with many logical reasons why we should keep something (“It might come back into style”, “It has so many great memories from 15 years ago”, “I’ve never worn it so I have to keep it”), but the “spark joy” question cuts through this mind chatter directly and goes to our core, intangible, not entirely knowable, reasonable, or rational part of us, for the answer.
This framework, doesn’t only apply to the way we create our individual lives (although I would suggest starting there). I spend as much of my time working with founders, entrepreneurs, and businesses, as I do with individuals, and it also applies to the way we create businesses, teams, and organizations. Interestingly, the place in our lives where we think our brains should know all the answers, our professional lives and pursuits, is the place that is most in need of a brain-bypass.
Often you’ll hear people say that they make decisions by this motto: “choose the path of least resistance.” This has never landed with me. Resistance from whom? From my boss? From my mother? From “society”? From my inner critic (who by the way, resists pretty much everything, so I’d be spending my life waiting around for non-resistance to action that would never come)? I spent a lot of my time following the path of least resistance, and it worked for a long time, until it didn’t, and decidedly did not lead me to living my best life, as my most authentic self. Instead, when you are conflicted, ask yourself, “What is the path of my maximum joy?” The answer to this question will never steer you wrong. If you aren’t sure, check your now calibrated internal GPS, then wait until you do know the path of maximum joy.