Tidying Up Your Digital Life with Marie Kondo: The Untenured Professor

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“The KonMari method is a means to realize your ideal life,” says Marie Kondo, smiling serenely at the camera. “My client this time is an assistant professor with most of their life on a computer. Through tidying, I hope to help this professor create a file system that will result in productivity, efficiently, and most importantly, joy.”

She is talking about me. You can definitely tell I’m a professor because of the bags under my eyes and my thick glasses in a quirky color. But just in case it’s unclear, there is a brief video montage: me walking across campus, slightly hunched from the weight of my messenger bag; me at a coffee shop, looking absurdly grateful when the barista hands me a cup; me gesticulating animatedly in front of a classroom of slightly bored-looking students; me meeting with a small group of grad students in my office, peering at them over the pile of papers and books on my desk; and finally, me sitting at my desk typing frantically.

The camera pans over my shoulder, and shows my desktop completely covered with various open windows — a word processor, a web browser with at least ten open tabs, a twitter client, a text editor filled code, a citation manager…

Behind me, Marie Kondo hops into my office. A literal hop over the threshold. She is the most adorable human being I have ever seen. She is like if Etsy were a person. Like someone mashed together a crocheted flower, an anime princess, and a sweater set, and then breathed life into them.

“Hi, hello!” she bubbles. “I am so excited to meet you, I am Marie! I am excited to tidy with you!” She continues then in Japanese, and her translator, who has entered the room with less fanfare, says, “And I am so eager to see your computer, would you like to show me?”

I would not like to, to be honest. This feels far more intimate than opening up my closet at home that contains many socks without mates, a couple of t-shirts from high school, and at least three different sizes of clothes. These are my files. I brace myself, and click my mouse to minimize all the windows currently open on my laptop, revealing a desktop cluttered with icons of files piled on top of each other.

Marie gasps in delight. “Oh! I love a mess!”

She encourages me to show her some of the files, and in quick succession I open a Lyft receipt from some conference travel last weekend, three versions of a reference letter written for graduate student, a spreadsheet full of grades from a class last semester, the latest copy of my CV, the second-to-latest copy of my CV, and approximately fifteen versions of the exact same conference paper in different templates and formats (chi_cameraready_final.pdf, chi_cameraready_final_newtemplate.pdf, chi_cameraready_final_newtemplate_newnew_final.pdf, etc.). Marie is practically vibrating with excitement by the time I get to a folder labeled MISCELLANEOUS. She nearly falls over when she sees the folder inside the MISCELLANEOUS folder that is also labeled MISCELLANEOUS. I am pretty sure that folder leads to Narnia.

Marie speaks rapidly in Japanese, and her translator says, “Digital tidying is about creating a file system that sparks joy. The point of this is not to force you to delete content, but for you to consider each file and how it makes you feel.” She takes the mouse from me and clicks on the icon for Dropbox. She navigates to a file titled surveyproject2015_paper_revised2018_v8_adk.docx. Below it is a file titled surveyproject2015_paper_revised2017_v4_dlj.docx.

“How does this document make you feel?” she asks me.

I consider this briefly, then answer honestly, “It makes me remember just how much of a jerk Reviewer 2 was, and that if it weren’t for them this paper might have stopped at version four.”

“So maybe that version does not spark joy for you? It should make you feel like — ” She squeezes her shoulders in and scrunches up her face adorably, then smiles brightly and explodes, “Ping!”

“I am not sure this concept applies as well to paper versions as it does to old college sweatshirts…” I say, skeptical.

“Ping!” Marie repeats. Which inexplicably seems like a perfectly reasonable answer. “Now we will greet your computer and we will thank it.”

“… thanks?” I say to my computer while Marie appears to be in a meditative trance.

She then goes on to explain, with the help of her translator, the categories of the KonMari method for your digital life: documents, emails, applications, komono (downloaded files, folders labeled “miscellaneous,” etc.), and sentimental (media, including photos). She tells me to consider items that do not belong in my life ahead, reminds me about joy (“ping!”), and then leaves me to my own devices.

Another montage follows, as I try over the next week to make my files spark more joy. I delete early versions of published papers; I delete receipts from travel when I was a grad student; I delete grade rosters from classes where the students have long graduated. I open all the applications on my computer and ask if they spark joy (an IRC client does not; a time management game about a supermarket does). I somehow take my email inbox from unread 4,324 to unread 142 (but reconcile that Inbox Zero is only for superhumans). I create sub-folders within documents by project and by course; I create folders labeled “reference letters,” “paper reviews,” and “unfinished novels.” I delete 19 of 20 versions of the same selfie; I delete three seasons of Golden Girls that I don’t remember downloading; I create a folder labeled “memes I might use in a talk someday.” I do most of this while binge-watching The Crown on Netflix.

I create a folder labeled MISCELLANEOUS and hide it deep within my file structure where no one will ever find it.

When Marie hops into my office again, I open my DOCUMENTS folder with a flourish, and she squeals and gives me a hug.

“How do you feel?” she asks me.

“… tired,” I say, honestly. After all, it isn’t like the time it took me to do this magically materialized in some timeless bubble. The only file on my desktop now is marked TO DO and it is all the things I did not do this week because I was tidying instead.

I click on the “Trash” icon in my doc, then empty the trash, and watch my computer gain 64 GB of storage space. Maybe I could have kept the Golden Girls episodes. “But slightly less stressed,” I add.

“This is good!” Marie exclaims. “You have so much joy now!”

“Thank you for your help,” I say sincerely.

She lights up, an anthropomorphism of joy. I then watch as she turns in a circle in my office, her eyes lighting on my bookshelf. She stares at my books.

“No,” I say.

“But perhaps — ”

“No,” I repeat.

“You should hold each book, and — ”

“Ping!” I say, and open the door for her.

Author’s Notes:

This piece was inspired by this tweet from Amy Zhang, and is a bit of a spiritual successor to my Mister Rogers fanfiction from earlier this year. Marie Kondo’s serene advice on the new Netflix show Tidying Up feels quite a bit like Mister Rogers to me…

This is autobiographically inspired only up to the point before the tidying is actually done. :)

I wish you all luck on your resolutions to tidy your own digital lives, and may every email in your life spark joy!

Faculty in Information Science at CU Boulder. Social computing, copyright, ethics, women in tech, fan communities, geekery. www.caseyfiesler.com

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