After reviewing Julie Morgenstern’s latest book in my column on Real Simple’s website, I asked her publicist if I might be able to do an interview with Julie here on Unclutterer. Schedules were lined up, and we had the opportunity to talk about many of the details from her insightful new book. Below is a transcript of that interview, and I hope that you enjoy it as much I did. Also, a special thank you to Julie Morgenstern for taking the time to speak with us!
Unclutterer: In your book When Organizing Isn’t Enough, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life, you define clutter as “any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you, or depletes your energy.” I believe that most of our readers will agree that objects and spaces are prone to being or collecting clutter, but commitments and behavior may not immediately come to mind as clutter. Can you explain how a behavior or a commitment could be cluttering up one’s life?
Julie: Commitment clutter takes the form of unfinished projects and to-dos, unfulfilled obligations, and cumbersome roles which bog you down, make you feel bad about yourself, de-energize and deplete you. They occupy space in your schedule that would be better used for something else. By behavior clutter, I am referring to bad habits such as perfectionism, procrastination, chronic lateness, mindless escapes, and workaholism. These habits drive us to mindlessly pad our schedules with activities that provide little or no value. Bad habits steal hours every day, not only from actual time lost watching endless hours of TV, or coming up with (yet another) excuse for being late for example, but the energy you spend beating yourself up over it. All of that self-flagellation is clutter too—expending energy, effort and time that could be freed up for something energizing, productive and useful.
Unclutterer: You identify times of transition (retirement, new baby, career change, loss of a parent, etc.) as being moments when the desire to SHED is strong. Do you believe that life transitions are an integral factor in wanting internal and external changes? Why do you think this is the case?
Julie: When we are in transition, we feel a loss of control—and SHEDing allows us to take control where we can—our homes, our stuff, our schedule, our own behavior. Also, we each have a certain amount of stuff and activity that anchors us. Transition, whether internally driven or externally imposed, is a time of movement, we feel the natural need to lighten up, and lift anchor so that we can move forward.
Unclutterer: You address that clutter often comes from the past, but can it ever come from the future? Can unrealized goals or inaccurate self perceptions also be clutter?
Julie: Sure, but when you think about it, these are really connected to old beliefs from the past. They are beliefs or goals we adopted in the past, and which no longer fit.
Unclutterer: In your chapter “When Organizing Isn’t Enough,” you recommend that people set “treasure guidelines” for deciding which objects, behaviors, and activities should stay and which should go. I love the example you provide that likens selecting treasures to choosing photographs for a wedding album. How can a person set his or her specific treasure guidelines?
Julie: Before diving into the pile of clutter, picture your theme, and ask yourself, “If all of this were to go away, what are the one or two things I would want to keep? That really would serve me now and as a meaningful memento of the past?” It is essential to write your list of treasure guidelines on a post-it, or piece of paper, and lay it on top of the pile, or the box, or the folder so that when you actually go through the pile of stuff, you are simply evaluating every item based your list of treasure guidelines. If it’s on the list, you keep it, if it’s not, it goes. And, if it’s something you hadn’t even considered, you go back to your theme, and ask where and how this would serve you moving forward. SHEDing goes very fast once you have established and written out your treasure guidelines.
Unclutterer: At the end of the book, you describe the “30 percent slip” to define the sliding that can take place back into old habits and routines. I like the advice you give to start over again and reassess themes. Would this process also work if someone gets stuck halfway through the SHED process? What might a mid-SHED adjustment look like and how would you recommend the do-over?
Julie: A Mid-SHED feeling of being stuck is really what I refer to as the WALL OF PANIC, where, once you have heaved a bunch of obsolete stuff—you get a little panicked—who am I without that stuff? (Or that role? Or that habit?) The impulse when facing this sudden openness is to either reach back from what you got rid of, or lurch forward to fill the empty space with anything to fill the space—without taking the time to see if it is a fit for you. The solution is to find the courage to stay empty-handed. You need to give yourself a “decision-free” zone, a period of observation where you don’t do anything but get centered with yourself. The best thing you can do right now is take advantage of this unhampered moment to reconnect with the things that you make you, “you,” no matter what—your unique character, experience, strengths, resourcefulness, intelligence, and contribution. In the book, I provide a series of practical and introspective ways to uncover and hold fast to who you are. Your period of observation can last a few days to a few months, and is an exciting opportunity to study and strengthen your confidence, discipline and receptivity to find the best opportunities for yourself as you move forward.
To learn more about the basics of the book, be sure to read my review of it on Real Simple’s website.