Tidying Up Your Career

Any time is an appropriate time to simplify and tidy up, but January, with its quietude and general dreariness, is a perfect time to clear some space in our lives. I’ve always been attracted to the concept of simplification, but I’ve spent more time this winter diving into it. A few of the resources I’ve most enjoyed are Simplicity Parenting, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix. Marie Kondo’s process of “tidying up” (which sounds so sweet and disarming) is the primary inspiration for this post.  

In the Winter, the cold weather and shorter days encourage us to stay indoors and do less. For most of us, our worklives are quieter in January than in the bustling Spring and Summer months to come. No matter how busy you feel right now, this is an excellent time to clear some space in your career so that when it’s time to plant new seeds in the Spring, you have the energetic space for the kind of work you desire.

When we want change in our careers, whether it’s a fresh feeling of vitality, a new job, or a different team, we have a tendency to look outward to find it. We start exploring, researching, and imagining what’s possible. That’s all well and good, but it skips a major step that I’ve found to be so helpful to those of us who are ready to start a new phase in our careers.

What we skip is the process of tidying up.

Take a second to imagine the most interesting, luscious, ambitious work project you can. What would you be so excited to do with your time and energy? If you don’t know or can’t get a clear picture, that’s okay. See if you can identify an opportunity or experience outside of work that you’d love to receive.

If that amazing, wonderful thing dropped into your life today, would you have the space to receive it? Do you literally have room on your desk? Is your inbox decluttered enough that you’d easily see the email? Do you have the mental and physical energy to engage with it and dive in?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, you’re not bad or failing in your career. In our culture, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the maniacal cycle of “go, go, go!” and “do, do, do!” Rarely do we take a breath to step back and create more space in our days and our lives.

Come Springtime, the Earth will invite us to plant our intentions into her warm, rejuvenated soil. As Spring rolls on and Summer arrives, we will tend to the seeds that take root and let go of the ones that didn’t sprout. In order to make meaningful changes in our worklives this year - no matter how big or how small, whether they’re external or internal - we have to give the soil of our careers some space and time to regenerate.

There are many ways to go about doing that, and taking lots of time at home to rest and be unavailable for busyness is a big one. You can explore that topic in more depth by listening to my podcast episode, Why Slowing Down is the Best Thing for Your Career Right Now.

Another more active way to regenerate in your career is the “tidying up” process that I’ll share below. This should only be done in parallel with greater rest in and outside of work.

This process is one that I do regularly and one that I explore with my clients at the beginning of our coaching process. I encourage you to let your intuition lead and dive in wherever feels most helpful to you!

Step 1: Tidy your workspace.

This is the step closest to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of tidying, which is an in-depth process of pulling everything in your workspace out of drawers or shelves and releasing anything that doesn’t “spark joy” for you. As you reconnect with the items you’d like to keep, you can thank the ones that no longer serve you and discard them. She recommends that you organize like items with one another and keep a clean surface whenever possible. By doing so, you see that there is space in which to feel at peace. For more detail, you can check out her website, https://konmari.com/.

Even if we’re in a really grumpy place in our career, noticing which of our tools spark joy for us can foster gratitude for the things we use every day but take for granted. By clearing away clutter, we can see how the chair we use supports us, or how the keyboard we use so perfectly dictates our thoughts for us. Tidying brings us into greater presence, and doing so on the physical plane is often the easiest and best place to start.

Step 2: Tidy your relationship to email.

Uggghhh, email. It’s such a black hole and a burden for so many of us. There are entire companies in the field of “inbox management” now, and it makes me want to cry. Email is a wonderful tool, and it needs to be used with consciousness and self-discipline.

The main things that have helped me the most with email are strict boundaries around the time I spend using it. I close email when I’m not actively corresponding with others so that I’m not distracted when a new message comes in. If your work is largely based on email communications, I still encourage you to block out times in the day when you do not have your email open so that your brain can focus on deeper or different work.

In addition to using email in specific periods of time, I try not to check it until after I’ve finished my morning work, which is usually the most creative and intellectually demanding. When I worked in customer service, I would often open my email first thing in the morning to find a series of urgent requests that threw me off and put my body into a panic mode. In hindsight, I wish I had settled into my workspace and spent at least one hour working on my existing commitments to customers prior to becoming available to new requests. Some of that would have required being in my inbox, so I’d have to give myself permission not to engage with new messages.

Step 3: Tidy your calendar.

When I had my first “big” job in Human Resources, I was surprised to find out that people would just add meetings to my calendar without asking me first. I’d start my day under the assumption that I’d have a big chunk of open work time in the afternoon only to find out that someone put a meeting right in the middle of it without asking me first. I started blocking out open time on my calendar so that it looked unavailable, but even then meetings and obligations would appear! I wish I’d had the same level of self-respect that I do now so that I could decline those meetings, but I almost always acquiesced and ended up catching up on my tasks later in the evening or early the next morning.

I encourage each of you to begin expanding your sense of ownership over your time. Even if you are employed by an organization and paid to be there, you are still an autonomous being with sovereignty over how you use your energy throughout the day. If a meeting seems superfluous or unnecessary to you, it probably is. Most meetings are a waste of time. You should feel justified in politely declining or pushing back on the necessity of the meeting for the sake of everyone involved.

You likely have recurring meetings or tasks on your calendar that are no longer relevant but that signal to your brain that something is required of you. Take some time to clear out the items you no longer need and decline the requests that don’t serve you or the work you do.

If your mind launches into thoughts like “But I can’t!” or “I’ll just fit it all in,” or “My boss expects me to go to those meetings,” I understand. Our brains get attached to the story of overwork and obligation, and we’re often more comfortable there because it’s familiar. You can begin in small ways.

Tidy up the recurring meetings or tasks that you set for yourself first. Then, as time vampires come to suck you into their nonsensical meetings or drama, ask yourself, “Is this the best use of my energy at this time?” If it’s not, you must ask for what you need. You can: a) request that the information be shared in a concise email, b) ask for an agenda prior to the meeting, c) politely decline and ask for notes afterward, or d) handle it in whatever way makes sense in your organization’s culture but with respect for your sovereignty.

Step 4: Tidy your morning routine.

Our mornings are the foundations of our days. That’s not to say that we can’t rewrite a day gone awry or that we have to do every morning perfectly, but a small amount of intentional time in the morning can have big implications for the rest of our days.

Imagine the difference between you showing up at work rushed, stressed, and without having had a nourishing breakfast versus you showing up grounded, fed, and well-rested. By showing up in a more centered fashion, you have the resources to deal with the stressors that come up in your workday. Rather than adding to the frenetic environment you might be in, you take ownership over your energy and become a grounding presence for yourself and those you work with.

How to create more spaciousness in your mornings is totally up to you, but I encourage you to get rid of any tasks or items in your routine that are unnecessary or that don’t serve you. You might choose an outfit the night before, or pack your lunch ahead of time, or give yourself permission to get to the office a little later than usual. Carving out time for meditation, journaling, and a nourishing breakfast is ideal, but you get to decide what’s most helpful to you.

Photo by  Paul Varnum  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Varnum on Unsplash

When we tidy our worklives, interesting consequences can arise. Sometimes the extra space makes us feel anxious and like we need to fill it. We see an open slot on our calendar and assume that some task or meeting has to go into it. Or we have an empty desk and worry other people will think we’re not working hard enough. Often these beliefs are unconscious, but they inform our behavior all throughout the day.

The big question after tidying is, “can I enjoy the open space I’ve created for myself?” By creating more spaciousness and peace, we nourish the soil within us so that it can become fertile again. We don’t have to know what’s coming next in our careers in order to benefit from this process. Creating the space is a gift in and of itself. That said, it always makes us more available for the kinds of experiences and opportunities we’d like to have in our careers.