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Before Marie Kondo, There Was (and Is) Julie Morgenstern

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Confession: I could not get through The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The author, Marie Kondo, just seemed so extreme... No listening to music allowed? Asking each item in my wardrobe how it wants to be stored? All on top of the promise that I would "never" have to de-clutter my household again.

That’s a nice promise and all, but considering I’ve spent a full twenty eight years struggling with organization, it just seemed like quite a bit for Marie to fix in one fell swoop—a little impractical and implausible.

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Photo by L.A. Closet Design

So after abandoning the KonMari method, I turned to my good friend Gretchen Rubin for advice. (Ok, Gretchen Rubin is a well-known self-improvement author and while not actually being my good friend outside of my fantasy life, I truly did send her an email asking if she had any book recommendations on the subject of organization.) She's a known genius at breaking down life’s enigmas into digestible advice; I knew she would have a great suggestion.

Here is the actual email that the actual Gretchen Rubin wrote in response:

From this email, I gathered: a) Gretchen wanted to be best friends just as much as I did, and b) I needed to get Morgenstern’s book, Organizing From the Inside Out. I had a feeling her recommendation wouldn’t disappoint and I was right—I became an instant convert and fan of Morgenstern’s organizational philosophy.

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What's the key difference between Morgenstern and Kondo, you ask? It’s the whole “from the inside out” bit. Morgenstern is your personal organizational therapist; she wants you to delve into the deeper issues at hand to figure out what is behind the self-defeating set-up you’ve created.

Julie Morgenstern knows what’s up. Photos by Visual Therapy

The book outlines ten internal road blocks that might be thwarting your ability to organize. If you’ve had trouble getting and staying organized throughout your life, chances are at least one of these applies to you:

  1. A subconscious need for abundance
  2. A conquistador of chaos (“thrive on solving challenging problems, but get bored with maintaining the solutions”)
  3. Unclear goals and priorities
  4. Fear of success or fear of failure
  5. Need to retreat
  6. Fear of losing creativity
  7. Need for distraction
  8. Dislike the space
  9. Sentimental attachment
  10. Need for perfection

Upon reading this list, I quickly diagnosed myself as (mostly) a number 3: unclear goals and priorities. As Morgenstern puts it, "Given that organizing is about defining what is important to you and setting up a system to reflect that, it is logical that if your goals and priorities aren’t clear, it will be very hard to set up a workable system.

Francis Bacon’s studio. Creative types aren’t necessarily bound to their unkempt ways.
Francis Bacon’s studio. Creative types aren’t necessarily bound to their unkempt ways. Photo by Art Sheep

I am someone who wants everything at once: On any particular day, I want to learn about oceanography or lucid dreaming or how to draw flowers—but I also want to keep up with my friends and family and still have time to be creative. What I have a hard time grasping, however, is that the nature of a priority means that other items must be de-prioritized.

This is where Morgenstern truly sets herself apart from other organizational gurus. Her method is not merely about finding a system and getting the right storage containers—it’s about defining the life you want and setting out to reflect it in your home. Per the book’s suggestion, I spent time listing out everything I wanted my life to be and then choosing the most important priorities (I came up with learning, inspiration, and relaxation).

I think I would feel very relaxed and inspired in these rooms. Photos by Verdigris Vie, Abduzeedo

Morgenstern is emphatic that you cannot skip this self-reflection part of the process and expect to be successful: “By taking the time to articulate what’s driving you to get organized before you start, when you’re at the peak of your motivation, you create your own coaching tool to turn to for inspiration with the going gets tough,” she explains.

This is why you can’t just jump in, as Kondo suggests: You're better off figuring out what’s been hindering you thus far, and then defining what it is you really want out of life and your space—before a single shelf gets re-organized.

After the hard self-reflection work is done, Morgenstern’s organizational principles are quite straightforward. She suggests the same three-step process for any project, no matter how big or small:

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Analyze

What’s working about your current system? What’s not working? The analyze stage includes all the previously mentioned self-analysis. What subconscious motives are at work? And most importantly, what do you really want?

Strategize

You can’t get anywhere without a map. Part of your organizing strategy should include a specific schedule of when you’re going to work. Morgenstern suggests realistic timeframes for each kind of space, such as the living room, kitchen, etc.

Attack

Do the hard work. From the beginning to the end of the process, arrange your items with your goals in mind. Keep your eye on the prize. Make sure your efforts are immediately visible to give you a sense of progress.

It’s not that Morgenstern doesn’t offer helpful tactics and methodologies for organizing (she has more than you can keep track of, but a lot of organizational experts offer that)—it's that she goes deeper, so that you can get to the root of the issue and kick those bad habits for good. Gretchen and I both highly recommend.

Tags: tidying, cleaning, spring cleaning, storage, julie morgenstern