Pragmatic Problem Solving

“Does it spark joy?” 

That seems to be the question of the month, with home organization guru Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show, “Tidying Up,” thriving during its first season. If you aren’t familiar with the show, the basic concept is this: Marie Kondo helps average families declutter their homes by eliminating items that don’t spark joy and then organizing what’s left through sharing her collection of shoe boxes (what great drawer dividers!) and teaching a delightfully simple yet magical method of folding clothes.

In addition to being entertaining and inspirational (never have I been so moved to evaluate my closet and purge my drawers!), Kondo’s show got me thinking about problem solving in a new way. As I watched Kondo work her way through various Americans’ households, I noticed that she spent a small fraction of her time organizing items and the vast majority of her time eliminating the non-joy-sparking items. I realized that, in my home organization attempts, I often do the opposite. I spend lots of time trying to organize all the stuff that I don’t necessarily want or need. If I just eliminated half the stuff, organization would be much easier.  In other words, I spend a lot of my time solving the wrong problem. 

I have a similar issue at work when I spend time developing efficient methods for completing tasks that don’t necessarily need to be done, or working hard on a project that I could easily delegate or eliminate. 

I solve the wrong problem when I carefully word message after message in an email chain instead of picking up the phone to have a thoughtful and productive conversation. I solve the wrong problem when I create an elaborate inbox organization system instead of just deleting messages that don’t fall within my purview. I solve the wrong problem when I create a meaningful program on a topic that no one is interested in or has time to attend. I solve the wrong problem when I take on my co-workers problems instead of giving them the space and tools to figure out solutions on their own. 

The first step in solving problems, Kondo’s show revealed to me, is assessing the actual problem.  (Is it that I don’t have a good storage solution for thirty pairs of shoes? Or is it that I have 30 pairs of shoes when I really only need and want ten?). Making this practice “step one” when encountering challenges will save time, mental energy and emotional stamina, better equipping me to solve the real issues at hand in any given situation.

Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.