Cleaning

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

April 19, 2016

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.

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.

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“That said, I came across Julie Morgenstern early on and via her books, I learned that yes, there were NUMEROUS emotional blocks getting in the way of me not discarding clothes I hadn't worn in years, or a desk that looked like the strip malls outside Skokie. For me at least, going deep is worth more than bullet points. But that's just me, and I'm certainly not everybody. But I do credit Morgenstern with pretty much launching this industry and continuing to do it with great intelligence, emotional insight and style. ”
— Peter S.
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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.

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. Photo 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. 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. Photo 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.

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12 Comments

Sue B. April 21, 2016
I'm a huge fan of Julie Morgenstern's methods for many reasons, but most importantly, because they work. I've been helping people get organized with her process for 16 years, and the inside-out philosophy has been life-altering for many of my clients. Marie Kondo certainly deserves acknowledgement for the commercial success she's achieved, but as the "new kid in town" it will be interesting to see if she and her clients achieve long-term success. Congratulations to both ladies.
 
Peter S. April 21, 2016
I am a fan of both women, so it's not either-or. Kondo has hit a nerve for many reasons, not the least of which is the amount of stuff accruing in our lives and storage bins - and our confusion about what to digitize and what to save. Good timing, and she is smart and I wish her well, as I wish well anyone who achieves success in his/her field. That said, I came across Julie Morgenstern early on and via her books, I learned that yes, there were NUMEROUS emotional blocks getting in the way of me not discarding clothes I hadn't worn in years, or a desk that looked like the strip malls outside Skokie. For me at least, going deep is worth more than bullet points. But that's just me, and I'm certainly not everybody. But I do credit Morgenstern with pretty much launching this industry and continuing to do it with great intelligence, emotional insight and style.
 
Laura B. April 21, 2016
I feel the need to chime in say that there are 'different strokes for different folks'. Use what works for you! I will add, however, as a 25-year veteran of the life coaching field that often recommends professional organizers to their clients, getting to the emotional core of why we clutter or even hoard goes a lot further to 'curing' the issue than just 'tyding up'. Without the emotional work, the clutter comes back. On a personal note, I am working with my father to clear his paper hoard. I emptied an office of 22 construction bags of paper that dated back to 1985. Every week, I have to clear the new garbage he brings in. THAT is the result of not addressing the core issues. Morgenstern knows her stuff. She would not have lasted this long if she wasn't effective. Congratulations to Kondo for her smash hit. Simple sells. It just doesn't always last.
 
Kim April 21, 2016
See, that's really odd, because Morganstern failed me with the psychobabble. Oh I was organized, but it never hit at the core issue: Too much stuff! Her techniques never lasted, and I was left feeling like a failure with every rebound.<br /><br />You do emotional work with Marie Kondo's method, but her genius is that she hides it from you. If you follow the method, kookiness and all, you end up facing yourself in a very clarifying way. Our family was very nearly hoarders, all of us, and using MK's method we are now able to have guests at the drop of a hat without anxiety and our home is truly organized and tidy. It's been over a year, so so far it's lasted longer than any of Morganstern's advice.
 
Laura B. April 21, 2016
Like I said, "different strokes for different folks". I'm glad you found something that worked for you. <br />
 
cranberry April 20, 2016
I agree with Kim that for me, KM is all about decluttering, and less about organizing. Plus, having a lot less stuff makes the organizing a lot easier - such that I don't need the organizing books anymore. Additionally, Kondo works exactly because I don't have to do all sorts of [sometimes painful] self-analysis to start. Kondo's simple "does this spark joy" criteria makes it faster and easier to part with things and get on with the rest of life, unencumbered by stuff.
 
Kim April 19, 2016
KM helps you let go of stuff you don't need. Morganstern helps you have neatly organized clutter. If you had read the book you would realize this, but you only mention KM as click bait.
 
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Janice B. April 20, 2016
Kim - Kondo and Morgenstern obviously have many differences; I'm only making the point that Morgenstern's tactic of starting with yourself, and not your stuff, worked better for me.
 
Kim April 20, 2016
But having not read the book, you don't really have any idea of which is better. Which makes the entire article pretty pointless.<br /><br />- Someone who did Morganstern before KM and has read both books
 
Amanda S. April 21, 2016
Kim, welcome to Food52! I'm sorry if this headline misled you, but to me it does get at the author's underlying message: If a popular solution doesn't work for you (as Kondo turned her off from the outset), there might still be hope yet.
 
Jena Y. April 19, 2016
It's clear you didn't read Kondo's book, as she does require Reader's to visualize their ideal space and does NOT tell you to "just jump in". A bit of fact checking would have done you some good.
 
AntoniaJames April 19, 2016
Nicely done. I hope you'll do a follow-on piece in six months or a year, to report on how this all worked out for you.<br /><br />I hope everyone reading this will take to heart this lead-in to the solid project management fundamentals summarized at the very end: "the same three-step process [can be applied to] any project, no matter how big or small." <br /><br />I encourage readers to copy and paste (for personal use only, of course) those 3 steps and to use the framework to solve whatever problems -- in the kitchen, at the office, around the house -- they tackle next. ;o)