What Marie Kondo can teach us about prioritizing the right work, and what to give away
Liz McKenzie

What Marie Kondo can teach us about prioritizing the right work, and what to give away


Hello. My name is Liz McKenzie, and I’m a hoarder.

Clothes, shoes, bags, books and plenty of other miscellany fill my home, waiting for the perfect time in the future when I’ll be able to put them to good use. The problem’s gotten quite bad - my apartment has been hijacked by all my clutter, making it difficult for me to relax at home.

The reason I’m laying it all out here is because the first, and often hardest step, is admitting you have a problem. Luckily for me, I haven’t gone too far down the rabbit hole. Slowly (and painfully) I’ve started to weed through the clutter, sorting it out into keep, sell, donate and throw piles. For extra motivation, I’ve set a goal of inviting friends over for dinner next month. I’ve also started to embrace tips from the decluttering expert, Marie Kondo.

If you haven’t heard of Kondo, she’s been taking the world by storm with her Netflix series and self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, introducing smart tidying tips that anyone can put into practice. Kondo offers a simple, yet reasonable explanation of why a lot of us are in this mess (pun intended): we were simply never taught how to tidy. Decluttering also isn’t just about having a tidy home; the true value lies in being able to mindfully choose your possessions and having the ability to shape your environment to reflect the life you choose to live today.

Serendipitously, I found myself in a similar place where I needed to reassess my workload. Being with Canva for over a year now, I’ve accumulated a lot of things - and I’m not talking about papers, emails, and various bits and bobs. It was time to evaluate my to-do list and my productivity: am I doing the best with what I have, and if not, what needs to change? I found myself wanting to be more deliberate in setting aside the headspace I needed so that I can embrace the constant change and ambiguity that often comes with many high-growth startups.

And to do this, I needed to embrace ‘giving away my legos’.

Giving away your legos


Canva team photo

The term “giving away your legos’ is a startup concept that was coined by ex-Googler Molly Graham. Having experienced the chaos that is inevitable with rapid scale and growth, Graham introduced this concept to help others understand the uncertainty and pressure of wanting to do more with less - while thriving at the same time. Let me explain further.

During the early stages of a startup, everyone is excited with the fun and opportunity of building new things. Everyone has so many different colored blocks to choose from, each piece potentially playing a crucial role in setting the foundations for this huge, amazing tower. Soon, we find ourselves getting overwhelmed - there is just too much to build and too many legos in front of you that need to be used. Soon, you decide to bring in more builders - and this is that weird moment in time where people start feeling something different… they start feeling nervous about how the other builders are using these legos - are they choosing the right colors? The right shapes? The right placement?

When you use this analogy in the business space, it translates to the uncertainty and distrust of others: whether they are able to execute and follow through on your initial vision. Worse, if that builder is doing a great job, many start worrying that the new person will replace them and take over all the fun or important tasks. Graham uses this metaphor to raise awareness of the need to help people get through these emotions - because if you don’t, the results can be horrendous for the business, and have a negative impact on team morale.

At Canva, we’ve also embraced this startup philosophy. Giving away our legos have allowed us to grow faster and meet our goals. Giving away responsibility — the part of the lego tower you started building — is the only way we can move on to building bigger and better things for our design community.

Canva team photo

The Canva team has doubled in size in 2018 alone.

What I found during my decluttering exercise at home and my personal growth journey at Canva was that there were many similarities when it comes to striving to live and work harmoniously.

  1. Just like hoarding clutter, the act of holding on to your legos can be detrimental not only to your own health and well-being, but also to your productivity at work.
  2. Parting with stuff, like your legos, can be emotional - but totally worth it.
  3. Most of us have never learnt how to tidy properly, much less give away our legos.

As such, there are transferable skills based on these similarities that we can apply at home and in the workplace.

Lesson 1: Hoarding is detrimental to growth

“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.” ― Marie Kondo


You can’t grow if you can’t let go.

I once had a spin bike gathering dust at home. I hardly ever used it, but I knew it was there in case I felt the urge to exercise. And that was all it was - an old, bulky chunk of flywheel waiting for the day that never came. When I sold the bike, I signed up to a nearby gym instead. And because I was paying a monthly membership fee, I was more motivated to work up a sweat at a spin class.

What this goes to show is the more clutter we collect, the less space we have for ourselves. When thinking about our to-do list, there is an opportunity cost. The more you add to your responsibilities, the less time you have to be able to get things done properly - and the more opportunities you may be missing out on to learn new skills and make an impact.

Take inventory of what you have

Everyone has an optimum amount of space at home, and headspace for work. To live and perform at your best, have an honest look of what's on your plate. One of the most confronting tips from Kondo is to lay out all your items in one place. For example, if you were to declutter clothing, ensure every item is right in front of you when you start. That way, you’re in the best position to see how much you have and make a strategic decision about each and everyone of your items. To apply this at work, think about how your roles and responsibilities have grown since your first day. Ask yourself:
  • Are all of the tasks still relevant and necessary?
  • Do each of these tasks provide value to your customer, client and colleagues?
  • Are you still learning?
  • Can you reasonably dedicate enough time to execute on these tasks?
You may be surprised that some of these items on your to-do list are unnecessary, or could be automated, removed or given away to others who are in a better position to execute.


Lesson 2: Giving away your legos, like decluttering, can be emotional

“But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” ― Marie Kondo


There are some items at home I’ll never throw away. My wedding album. A trophy. A ring that belonged to my grandmother. Every time I come across these items they made me feel happy. But there are also other sentimental items around that don’t spark any special feeling when I see them. An old Christmas card, an old school uniform, an old laptop… the list was endless. I had kept them because I never thought about repurposing them or I felt it was just the ‘right thing to do’.

According to Kondo, the best way to decide whether or not to keep something is to hold each item in your hand and decide whether it sparks joy. Joy is described as an uplifting feeling that you get; it has nothing to do with whether the item is practical or you ‘should keep it’.

So applying this concept to our legos at work, it’s important to understand that many of us will naturally feel at odds with giving away some of our responsibilities, despite already having too much on our plate. We’ve worked many hours on the project, and spent many more thinking about the task. It is understandable that a sentimental connection has occurred, and letting go can be difficult.

But this is a natural phase of growth and an ongoing journey. And it’s going to take time. But you can’t build another tower if you’re busy clutching too many legos.

There is enough pie for everyone

Every single person at Canva contributes to the team in different ways, so we pay little attention to job titles or tenure - it’s all about drawing from each others strengths, skills and experience to tackle the challenge at hand. In many companies, there’s a false belief that there’s only one pie - the ‘Power Pie’, the ‘Responsibility Pie’, the ‘Money Pie’ – each to be competed for and divided. This leads to a lot of effort being misspent competing against each other, information gets hoarded, people often think that the only way to succeed is for others in their team to fail. But the idea that there’s a fixed pie doesn’t hold at Canva. We have a huge vision and fortunately a great team to do it. So competition should never be against each other. In fact, the bigger our pie grows, the better it is for everyone. We find that when we focus our energy to expanding the pie, we’re growing Canva into a bigger and better company, and building a better version of ourselves too.


Lesson 3: Learning to let go


Canva team photo

Our latest cohort of Canva newbies!

Growing up, my mother kept a very tidy household - everything had its place and I never had to lift a finger to help. Because I never had the responsibility of tidying, I never learned how. In a business setting, newbies are often onboarded to a company with guidance on how to set up their workspace. They’re given a company dress code policy to help them decide what to wear, and maybe some tips on where to find the best coffee shops in the area. At Canva, we’ve spent a lot of time ensuring our newbie onboarding experience starts before they even set foot in our doors! So why do we expect everyone to just know how to recognize when it’s time to give away their legos?

Based on my experience, and inspired by Kondo’s teachings, here’s a 4-step guide on how to do it.

Step 1: Ask yourself if your skills are better applied elsewhere

“People cannot change their habits without first changing their way of thinking.” ― Marie Kondo

At Canva, we expect our team members to grow as the company grows. What this means is that change is constant, and there are often new challenges to tackle, and new things to learn every day. We try to create a supportive working environment that truly sets everyone up for success. So it’s extremely important that we keep pushing ourselves and set goals that inspire us, because setting a goal that seems really challenging and then being able to actually accomplish it is one of the most satisfying things in the world.

Ask yourself if you’re using your time and skills in the best way, and whether there’s something else that could benefit from your expertise and participation. This plays into the concept of ‘paying it forward’ - where someone before you had to let go of their lego so you can grow and shine; now it’s your turn to pay it forward.

Step 2: See if there’s someone who would benefit from receiving your legos

“We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.” ― Marie Kondo

Be careful of falling into the trap of simply giving away tasks you don’t enjoy.

Finding joy in your work is about being able to recognize 3 key factors:

  1. Providing value to your clients. Is the task essential to keeping them happy?
  2. The ability to teach you new things. Whether its technical skills or soft skills such as resilience, are you able to learn something new by following through with this task?
  3. Contributing to the smooth operation of your company. There are always more interesting or fun things that we’d rather do, but how would passing on this lego negatively impact your businesses if you decided to give it away?

Honest answers will help you figure out whether it’s time to give away your lego, and who the best person is to receive them, based on their capacity and capability. They may be able to benefit and learn from the opportunity.

Papers, please

I liken paper clutter to unnecessary admin and meetings at work. We often spend time filing receipts and letters just because they’re considered official documents. We forget that most if not all of these papers are available digitally. But just like unnecessary admin and meetings at work, doing things just because they’ve always been done that way provides us with a feeling of having accomplished something, but actually provides little to no value to the company. So instead of being busy for the sake of being busy, be mindful of each task you spend your time on - and ask yourself whether this task is still relevant or whether there’s a way to automate it. Work smarter - not necessarily harder!


Step 3: Empower and guide others

“Success is 90 percent dependent on our mind-set.” ― Marie Kondo

New challenges come with a lot of experimentation along the way.

When giving away your legos, expect to provide some leeway for others to transition into the role. The new owner will be using a lot of time learning and testing different hypotheses to figure out the best way to solve the challenges of the job.

To keep everything on track, both parties will need to embrace the art of giving and receiving feedback. Timely and relevant feedback helps everyone stay on track and achieve their goals. Our internal performance coach Sarah Nanclares has written a great post outlining how we’re building a positive feedback culture - it’s both effective and empowering when everyone embraces feedback.

It can become frustrating having to deal with failed experiments, but similar to Kondo’s advice on not interfering with or taking control of other people’s belongings, you need to let people make their own mistakes. Instead of interfering, encourage your team to take responsibility for their mistakes and empower them to be accountable and find a solution.

Step 4: Be a helpful observer


Canva team photo

“We need to show consideration for others by helping them avoid the burden of owning more than they need or can enjoy.” ― Marie Kondo


A lot of people confuse giving away your lego with one of two things:

  1. Delegating without further involvement, or
  2. Delegating without releasing your involvement.

Once another person has assumed responsibility of a task, it’s incredibly important to allow them to own it fully so you shadow them. Shadow means stepping aside to allow others to lead the project - including owning the vision and goals. Your new role is to provide guidance.

On the flip side, over-shadowing means you are still leading, but from the sidelines. This can cause confusion when it comes to ownership and accountability. I find the best way forward is to check in on progress by being a helpful observer. This means guiding without directing, and asking the right questions to ensure they’re on track. Try to refrain from micromanaging, especially if the outcome would likely be the same - this is a surefire way to create a supportive and empowering environment for everyone to flourish.

Setting up regular check-ins can be helpful. Here are some questions you might want to use:

  • Has the problem we’re trying to solve changed since it was first identified?
  • Is the proposed solution addressing the right problem? How can I best help you?
  • Do you need to do this yourself, or can I connect you with someone else?

Check-ins ensure any roadblocks are addressed and keep everyone in alignment.

Giving thanks

This one sounds pretty out there but Kondo encourages everyone to thank each item for its service before discarding it. What this does is give you time to appreciate what you have and to treat each item with respect. How does this apply at work? Once you have given away your legos, as a helpful observer you need to call-out when others are hitting milestones. For example, at Canva, we like to give a special shout-out on our #kudos Slack channel, recognizing success every step of the way.


Final thoughts

“No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.” ― Marie Kondo

Your work responsibilities really are like your possessions at home. Sometimes you need to keep them, sometimes you don’t. Of course not everyone has the luxury of being able to delegate and pass on their skills to someone else - but even for those of us who do, we often don’t always take the opportunity when we should. And all of us have some make-busy tasks, that feel like real work but really aren’t providing value for anyone.

So while I can’t say I’ve mastered the art of tidying, I do know this: decluttering at home and at work is an ongoing process, and the first step is recognizing when it’s time to let go. Hopefully this blog will help inspire you to audit your to-do list, so every second of your time is spent on mindful productivity that sparks joy, is the most impactful task for the company you can be working on and brings out the best in you!


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