How to KonMari your academic life

On the first day of 2019, the reality show Tidying Up debuted. The show features tidying expert Marie Kondo and is based on her international best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The 200-page manifesto details her approach to decluttering homes: discard belongings that don’t “spark joy,” then organize what remains into carefully designated spaces. The philosophy took the self-improvement world by storm, prompting an influx of items at donation centers across the globe. And if you’ve never folded your clothes into self-standing squares, you are missing out; it is oddly gratifying and practical.

Modern academic medicine can be dizzying, each new day a barrage of patient care, research, teaching, and service. The demands are great, burnout is on the rise, and the whole lifestyle can feel chaotic, overwhelming, and – well – cluttered. When I first applied the KonMari method in my home, I felt a renewed sense of accomplishment and calm.  I wondered if this method could transform my academic life too. I took Kondo’s guiding principles – discard joyless items and find a place for everything else – and applied them to the organizational and time management challenges of academic medicine. In the subsequent months, these small changes yielded big results with increased productivity, balance, and fulfillment. When implemented together, as suggested in the KonMari philosophy, they have even more power and permanence.

Structure your calendar

Tackle your calendar first, as it will create time to implement the next steps. First, make a list of everything you do most days or weeks – tasks like “meet with mentees,” or “medical record documentation.” Group these events into categories such as “meetings” and “clinical catch-up,” then designate specific times on your calendar for each category. The duration of the blocks will vary, person-to-person, and even week-to-week for the same person. The next time you receive a meeting request, plug it into the next available slot in your meeting block. This will limit weekly meetings and protect time for easy-to-ignore tasks like writing.

Second, as odd as it sounds, schedule “unstructured time.”  Research shows you must let your mind wander to innovate, and anything you’re serious about doing needs calendar time. A structured calendar will not only free your mind to focus on the task at hand, but also increase your accountability. The next time Dr. Famous asks you to review a manuscript, you can a) panic, delay, and apologize as the deadline whizzes by or b) plug it into your next writing block and confidently reply “I would be happy to review, and will get back to you on such-and-such day.” Academic mic drop.

Optimize support personnel

If you work with administrative or clinical staff, ensure everyone is working to the top of their abilities. Delegating tasks is perhaps the hardest for junior academicians not yet accustomed to having support. It can also be challenging for type A personalities, who may be used to doing everything themselves. Learning to delegate and rely on others requires an upfront time investment, and team management should be scheduled into your calendar. For example, ask an assistant to help with conference registration, and request that clinic staff follow up on labs and referrals. The rewards are undeniable, both for you as the orchestrator and for the hard-working personnel who reap greater job satisfaction from ownership of responsibility.

Reassess obligations

Introspection is key here. I have greatly benefited from committee service, both internally within my institution and externally on national endeavors. Defining “joy” in this context can be challenging, as every obligation has its perks and its downsides. Overall, if the obligation does not spark joy, you may inadvertently disengage and drag deadlines. A better approach is to streamline your obligations, which will allow you to do better and more timely work, which will ultimately translate into new, more joyful opportunities. Consider your service obligations; have any outlived their excitement? If so, as Kondo says, “Thank them for their service – then let them go.” Sponsor an engaging colleague or mentee by recommending them to replace you.

Organize your email

Unsubscribe from listservs that do not spark joy (occasional discounts from favorite retailers might be worth the detour). If you can swing it, turn off push notifications on your desktop and phone. During calendar blocks that must be free from distraction like writing time, set an out-of-office message: “I am away from email but will respond when next available.” If you need to be clinically available, ask to be paged for urgent issues. This simple solution dissipates the pressure to respond immediately. Sometimes, if you pause your email long enough, issues not actually requiring your input will work themselves out.

Implementation is key

In some ways, the above approach is an intentional oversimplification of a complex problem because intricate solutions are challenging to implement and sustain. These concepts should not further restrict your precious time or detract from the spontaneity that makes life so rich. On the contrary, they should absolve you of guilt and stress when life throws a curveball. Marie Kondo purports that if you adopt her approach, you’ll never revert to clutter again. I won’t make this claim because academic responsibilities ebb and flow, requiring periodic tweaking of balance. In my experience, balance in academia is a long game, defined month-to-month, not day-to-day.

I hope you find this prescription for academic tidying useful. At a minimum, improved discourse on these important topics is needed because demand for sharing best practices far outstrips supply. The exercise may seem contrived or time-consuming, but I found it to be an investment in my future success. I’ll paraphrase the guru herself: “It’s important to understand your patterns because they are an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own, both in heart and hand, is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”

Gita Suneja is a radiation oncologist and can be reached on Twitter @GitaSuneja.

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