Interview with organizing legend Julie Morgenstern

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.

12 Comments for “Interview with organizing legend Julie Morgenstern”

  1. posted by Lori on

    Good interview, Erin. It sounds like a great book, beyond the usual how-to-organize genre. I’ll be sure to check it out.

  2. posted by Peter on

    That’s a very interesting concept about ‘shedding’ when we are in transition. However, I think the deeper issue is the fact that we need to feel in control. The expectation that you will be able to control your life is a heavy burden I do not wish on anyone. Life is about adaptability, not control.

    I think we should all ‘shed’ a little more often. It is these attachments to materials that holds many of us back.

  3. posted by Shanel Yang on

    Great interview! For those who suffer from inordinate commitment clutter, I have a free ebook “Cuckoo in Your Nest!” Just contact me for a free copy if you’re interested. : )

  4. posted by EMM on

    Sounds like a fascinating book. My only real problem is that it’s not available as a kindle edition. One of my major decluttering things lately is to decide to only purchase general purpose books in kindle format so I don’t build up so many physical books. A few reference books are only available in paper but I am trying to reduce that number to only critical scientific books.

    If she had her stuff out in kindle versions I’d buy them in an instant!

  5. posted by [email protected] Awareness * Connection on

    I’ve got this book on my To Get list. I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere. Nice to have this brief, readable interview.

  6. posted by Michele on

    Thanks for a great interview. I am excited to check the book out.

  7. posted by Cubicle Hacker on

    Coming from a family of hoarders I can see why transitioning is difficult for the person who wants to un-clutter his/her life. Allow yourself and anticipate some crying time while un-cluttering. It is better to be prepared.

    This seems to be a great book that addresses the emotional side of un-cluttering with a refreshing approach

  8. posted by mrstjshelby on

    I’ve read tons of information on organizing as well as dejunking. But, in the piles of junk to read, there is very little on the more ephemeral versions. I believe, and am fascinated with psychological/emotional clutter and the physical manifestations of it.

    I found this interview interesting and insightful. Thank you.

  9. posted by Michelle on

    In the interview it was stated that clutter comes from the past and not from the future but I also think that lots of people will keep things because they think they need them for the future or think if they chuck the things, soon after they will need the items and wonder why they got rid of them.

    Just my idea, but the book sounds heaps interesting.
    Wonder if I can get it here in Australia.


  10. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    It’s so encouraging to see the trend in professional organizing away from the “buy color-coded file folders and a label-maker” to a focus on the emotional side of clutter.

    I started my blog as a way to explore (and hopefully) remedy) my issues with physical and behavior clutter, and I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  11. posted by Andre Kibbe on

    This is a great interview. I just posted a two-part podcast interview with Julie this week. SHED is so much more than a means to a prettier space. It’s about disembedding your identity from your stuff. I had hundreds of books that I threw out recently while going through this process, and it was clear that I had wrapped a large part of my self-image around that “knowledge stock.”

    @EMM. The physical book is worth buying and reselling or giving to someone else afterwards. You might even rethink the idea that ebooks constitute less clutter than the physical version, since clutter is largely about something’s use, or lack thereof. Having unread books in your Kindle might be more convenient than having them on a bookshelf, but the implicit reading obligation those books represent would still make them clutter.

    The goal in each dimension of SHED (physical clutter, schedule clutter and habit clutter) is to keep 10-20 percent of what you have — the objects, schedule commitments and behaviors that support your current theme. One book that facilitates the transition to a more functional state is hard to think of as clutter.

  12. posted by Myra Rios on

    Julie is an amazing conceptualizer who has helped millions around the world take control of their lives and enhance their lives. I would recommend to EMM who would only read her book if it was on kindle that he/she request it be published in that format. It’s a great idea and really practices the decluttering concept HOWEVER…. I’d still suggest he/she buy the book and keep it as a reference.

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