Organizing and Time Management From the Inside Out

A The Eminents interview with Julie Morgenstern

Posted Apr 27, 2016

Julie Morgenstern
Source: Julie Morgenstern

Most of us wish we were better organized and could manage our time better. To help, in today’s The Eminents interview, I talked with Julie Morgenstern.

Her classic books, Organizing From the Inside Out and Time Management From the Inside Out, have both been developed into PBS specials. She has appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. She has been a consultant to organizations from Microsoft to the NBC-Newsroom to the New York City Mayor’s office. She has been interviewed and quoted in the New York Times, TIME, Wall Street Journal, even Men's Health.

MN: Most of us choose our career in part because of a personal issue. Did you have an issue with organization?

JM: I did. Growing up, I was notoriously disorganized. I lived out of piles. There was no clear floor space in my bedroom. I loved stuff. I was a theatre person, so every object, down to a menu with a cute drawing that could inspire a play, would sit on my floor. I’d periodically be sent to my room for the weekend until my mom could see a clear path from my door to my bed. I’d spend the entire weekend doing the architectural dig and an hour before the weekend was over, my parents would knock on the door and say it looked worse than it had on Friday. So to meet the deadline, I’d just shove everything back into drawers and closets.

I had an aunt who was amazingly organized. I thought, “Doesn’t she have anything better to do with her life than to label everything?” But when I got to grad school, my disorganization caught up with me. I was in school during the day, at rehearsal at night and on weekends. With my lack of organization, I couldn’t get everything done that needed to get done.

MN: What helped you improve?

JM: I was very motivated to change because I loved theatre, and then after I married, I decided I couldn’t impose my disorganization on my husband.

I started very small. Believe it or not, the first thing I organized was the diaper bag. That’s because my baby had just awakened from a nap and it was a beautiful summer day, a perfect time for a first walk. But amid my place’s mess, by the time I found all the stuff that needed to go in the diaper bag, two hours had passed by which time my baby fallen back asleep and I had missed my moment. I decided right then that I didn’t want my disorganization to cause my daughter to miss opportunities.

MN: Your book, Organizing from the Inside Out, differed from previous such books because it focused on people’s internal barriers to being organized. Now, almost 20 years later, do you believe the internal warrants that much focus?

JM: Yes. It's a mistake to try to organize based on the superficial. You first need to look inward. Ask yourself why you want to be organized? What keeps you from being organized? How organized do you want to be? Are you so perfectionistic that you're overwhelmed at the thought of how much you'd have to do? Are you afraid that you'll fail at it, maybe succeeding for a while but inevitably falling back into your old ways? Do you fear that if you're organized, your creativity will decline?

MN: Since you first wrote that book, has your understanding of people’s internal barriers to organizing changed?

JM: The only thing that evolved is that I’ve come to understand the difference between organization and decluttering. Organizing is about your current life becoming more efficient. Decluttering is about lightening your load so you can move forward to life’s next stage. When kids leave for college, they’re in a decluttering stage—They need to release most of their childhood stuff. In your mid 20s through 40s, you’re in acquisition mode as you’re creating a home. After you become an empty nester, you start decluttering again.

MN: Have the behavioral tactics you recommend for getting organized changed?

JM: They’re proven to be timeless and they work. For example, start with one corner of the room you spend the most time in. That way, you'll both derive the benefit every day and that will increase your motivation to tackle other rooms.

MN: What’s another organizing tactic that’s important?

JM: Analyze/strategize/attack. When disorganization is at its peak, it’s not natural to stop and reflect--the impulse is to just dive in and attack. But if you first take a little time to analyze and strategize, you’ll more likely zero in on a solution that will work for you.

MN: Before you wrote your book, Time Management from the Inside Out, did you have an issue with time management?

JM: Totally. Every paper was late. I was always running late. Got my work done late. I had to work late. Time was slipping through my fingers. I was always chasing time.

MN: What helped you improve?

JM: Realizing that a disorganized day and a disorganized closet are the same: Both have a limited amount of space jammed with more than you can fit, so you shove everything in every pocket of space in no particular order. That haphazard arrangement makes it hard to live, let alone live efficiently. Once I realized the space and time management are the same, I simply adapted my space-organization principles. For example, you batch similar tasks, and estimate, in advance, how much time in your day is wise to allocate to each.

MN: Do you still have a problem with time management?

JM: I’m much better now but have to watch my tendency to lose track of time. I’m a hyperfocuser---I get into the flow state and then time disappears. So I use tactics to protect myself from that. For example, I have a clock on my desk and it's reminding me to keep this interview from taking too long!

MN: Since you first wrote that book, has your understanding of people’s internal barriers to well-managing time changed?

JM: Not much but I’ve discovered a new barrier to time management: the fear of decisionmaking. When people struggle to make decisions, they lose an enormous amount of time.

MN: Do you have a strategy that helps?

JM: Coming up with decision frameworks. For example, I have a client who’s an executive who, before making any decision, defines what success would look like and then goes with the first strategy that meets the criteria. He doesn’t develop and then pick among multiple strategies—that often takes more time than it’s worth. 

MN:  One of your time management recommendations is, “Never check email first thing.”  I couldn’t imagine not checking email first thing. It’s my window into what’s new, important, and urgent. And I find it fun. Sure, if responding to a particular email would take much time and isn’t important, I won’t answer it right then but I can’t imagine not checking my email first-thing in the morning. Am I missing something?

JM:  Maybe you’re unusual but most people find that email often derails them from what’s more important and more difficult, for example, studying something, writing, planning, problem solving. They should do those things first, when they’re freshest.

MN: What’s next for Julie Morgenstern?

JM: I’m enjoying helping companies be more productive and am working on a book for parents. (Info on that is at her website: JulieMorgenstern.com.)

MN: And personally?

JM: I’ve met the love of my life…and I’m learning to play the guitar.

Dr. Nemko's nine books are available.You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.