3 min read

Marie Kondo for rectangles

I've been a little obsessed with Marie Kondo's tidying method this year, and I'm getting to the point where my flat is almost 'done'. Scare quotes on 'done' because it's not remotely perfect and there are many many things I could still improve, but I'm close to completing the core loop of picking up every object I own and deciding how I feel about it and what to do with it. Every remaining object has a place, even if that place is sometimes 'that crate of miscellaneous stuff under my bed'.

So now I'm thinking about how I apply this to more abstract, digital domains - what does it mean to tidy my finances? Or my photos? Or Facebook? How well do her techniques cross over to this world of staring at rectangles on a screen?

Kondo sort of has a book on this, Joy at Work. Only 'sort of', because it's cowritten with another author, Scott Sonenshein, and the focus is on work in general, and not specifically rectangles on screens. But office work does tend to involve a lot of rectangles, and so there are sections on tidying emails, contacts and files.

I get the impression that Kondo's heart is not really in this topic, but she gets asked about it a lot anyway, so she partnered with someone else who could field the rectangle questions. Most of his advice is fairly generic stuff you'd get from any productivity enthusiast, with only a touch of the Kondo sensibility thrown in. (She does comment on the advice in little boxes, though, and the bit where she clarified that you don't have to thank every single file individually if you're deleting thousands of them was really cute. ✨)

So there are a handful of pointers I could take from this book, but mostly I'm on my own here. And actually sort of conflicted about the topic in general, given that the messy second brain approach works pretty well for notes. Maybe the rectangles can just stay messy and it doesn't matter too much? (I talked a bit about that conflict in my consistency paralysis post.)

Some things to think about:

  • Maybe the biggest difference between normal physical objects and rectangles is that normal objects take up lots of space, whereas rectangles can be shunted to an 'old files' folder somewhere and ignored for a decade
  • This is useful for avoiding visible clutter but also means I have no way to see what the scale of the problem is. How many different accounts do I have to keep track of for banks, utility bills, council tax and the like? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ who knows, I just have to trawl through emails and bank statements and hope for the best. There's no equivalent of a room that I can just keep decluttering until I eventually run out of objects
  • Rectangles are mostly kind of boring aesthetically. A good UI can definitely be enjoyable to use, but there's sort of a low ceiling on the level of enjoyment compared to physical objects. There's no tactile interest, the visual language is mostly very simple geometric forms, there's rarely any kind of satisfying detail
  • They are also impoverished from a spatial point of view - they all live in the same location, the screen. This whole rich dimension of associations is mostly cut out. (Not completely - photos are still associated with physical locations, for instance. But they still live in the screen.)
  • Often there isn't much aesthetic choice - you pick your bank or electricity supplier for practical reasons and it just looks however it looks. (And there isn't the same tight relationship of form to function as there is for physical objects, so you don't really have any sense of elegance of fit either.) This is even more pronounced in a work context where you often have no choice at all. That legacy enterprise timesheeting application is very unlikely to spark joy

So I'm not sure how much is even applicable to rectangles. I think some level of tidying will still be useful though.