Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Review: When Organizing Isn’t Enough

by Andre · 3 Comments

When Organizing Isn’t Enough CoverOrganizing tools and systems have allowed people to take on more obligations and projects without the old concern of losing track of things. In the physical realm, an entire industry of container stores and professional organizers have emerged to bring our possessions under control. We’re only beginning to acknowledge the surfeit of information, obligations and commodities that keep us constantly preoccupied. Not surprisingly, elimination is all the rage.

Julie Morgenstern’s When Organizing Isn’t Enough is a new slant on eliminating clutter, one that’s implied in other organizing books but rarely explored in depth. The author defines clutter as “any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you or depletes your energy.” This comprehensive definition allows people to identify aspects of “stuff” in their lives that might not qualify as clutter by conventional standards.

For instance, I realized that more than a third of the files in my filing cabinet were obsolete and therefore clutter, despite being very well organized and out of sight. Excessive television viewing and internet surfing would also qualify as clutter. Is this scope of definition valid, and what does the author propose in its stead? Let’s find out.

Chapter 1: What is SHED? Morgenstern uses the mnemonic SHED to represent her four-step process for eliminating legacy issues and possessions. SHED stands for: Separate the treasures, Heave the trash, Embrace your identity and Drive yourself forward. This is clearly a more thematic approach to decluttering that what’s usually offered by professional organizers. This runs the risk of overindulging in pop psychology, as I felt the author’s Organizing from the Inside Out did to a fault. But in SHED, the entire point of the program is to release obstructions to new experiences and life transitions. It’s inherently more psychological as a letting-go process, and less logistical in nature than simply organizing.

Chapter 2: Name Your Theme. SHED starts with the premise that the present moment in our lives is a transition point between our old life theme and a new one, both of which must be explicitly defined. A person might have discerned his old theme to be “professional achievement,” then determined that his new theme should be “building relationships.” Naming one’s theme provides a compass to evaluate which aspects of a person’s life support that theme, and those aspects are the “treasures.” The rest can go. Morgenstern provides case studies and exercises for readers to assess and name their themes.

Chapter 3: Pick Your Point of Entry. This chapter opens with a Zen parable of a man in the midst of a flood. He uses a knife to fashion a raft out of branches from a nearby tree. The raft carries him to safety, and as a result, he resolves to carry the raft with him for the rest of his life, in case it’s needed again. Similarly, we often hang onto things that have outlived their originally valid purpose. Morgenstern calls these things “points of entry,” opportunities to let go of deadwood. Points of entry can be physical items, scheduled items or habits.

Chapter 4: Finding Physical Treasures. The author uses the metaphor of packing for a journey to illustrate the transition to a new life theme. When taking a trip, people naturally leave most of their possessions behind. The first phase of SHED, Separate the treasures, is the art of determining which possessions need to be carried into the current (new) theme, and which ones are excess baggage. Here and in other points of entry, the benchmark is to keep no more then 10-20% of the original load.

Writing a list of “treasure guidelines” provides criteria for what to keep when working through the separation process. Though case studies, Morgenstern discusses the possible psychological factors that turn people into relative packrats, such as filling a void that opened with the death of a parent. This may sound overly speculative, but it’s instructive to trace back to the point in time before the accumulation habit began or accelerated, and consider the possible reasons.

Chapter 5: Finding Schedule Treasures. Treasure guidelines are created again, this time to distinguish time commitments of real value from schedule clutter. Schedule clutter results from three factors: obsolete needs, choosing the wrong activity for the right impulse (scheduling meetings for minor status updates instead of distributing memos or using email), or insecurity (doing other people’s work or maintaining an open door policy).

Chapter 6: Finding Habit Treasures. The treasure hunt continues, but the emphasis here is on extracting the positive need that a bad habit is serving. Habit attachments take five forms: mindless escapes, procrastination, perfectionism, chronic lateness and workaholism. Once the real need is identified, it becomes easier to find a more direct route to fulfilling that need. A series of diagnostic questions is provided for determining the origin, function and severity of each habit.

Chapter 7: Heaving Physical Attachments. We move into the “Heave the treasures” phase for each category of clutter, starting with the physical. If heaving sounds like a ruthless purge, it’s actually not the “toss first, ask questions later” decluttering crusade usually advocated. Remember, this phase follows finding the treasures, so in a sense the heavy lifting has already been done. Still, there’s a difference between preparing for the heave and actually doing it. Morgenstern warns of three potential stumbling blocks to letting go of physical treasures: mechanics, momentum and emotions.

Mechanics are the logistical concerns, like where to take things, or whether to donate or sell them. Momentum deals with scheduling heave sessions to pace yourself sustainably. Since heaving involves detaching one’s identity from representations of the past, emotions are the hardest attachment issue to deal with. A good worksheet is provided for working out the logistics of the purge, strategies are given for maintaining momentum, and a couple of grounding questions are used to assess the emotional weight of a physical attachment. I especially liked the question, “Is this the best and most significant reminder of that time in my life or that person I knew?” By selecting one key reminder, it’s possible to let go of a dozen less significant ones.

Chapter 8: Heaving Schedule Attachments. Many people can appreciate that most of the physical possessions they’ve accumulated could be designated as clutter. But applying the same standard to their schedules may seem rather far-fetched. We’re still holding to the guideline of keeping no more than 10-20% of our current time commitments.

Schedule attachments have three points of entry: unfinished tasks and projects, specific scheduled meetings and appointments, and burdensome roles and responsibilities. For each of these there are three heaving options: delete it, delegate it, or “do it (but diminish the task).” The latter involves either reducing the scale of the task, or finding a more strategic and expeditious way of completing it — like handling an errand by phone instead of by car. The goal of heaving these attachments is to eliminate backlogged tasks permanently rather than replace them with a new backlog. Most of the advice on heaving appointments and burdensome roles boils down to becoming more assertive when setting boundaries. Case studies and scripts illustrated methods of addressing fears and role attachments that can turn people into doormats.

Chapter 9: Heaving Habit Attachments. Both schedule and habit attachments and time clutter, but habits and not calendar or to-do items. Habits are behaviors and routines that relieve pressure in the moment but exert pressure on one’s sense of available time. We all know people who insist that they don’t have time to do something, yet watch several hours of television. Heaving habit attachments is a two-part process: raising awareness of the habit’s “trigger point” — the moment the habit kicks in, and finding a more direct and constructive way to fill the need the habit was serving.

Morgenstern offers strategies for addressing each habit attachment (e.g. procrastination, chronic lateness). One example is her “concentration threshold theory” of procrastination. If you give yourself too little time to complete a task, you’ll resist starting on it because you unconsciously know that it can’t be completed. If you give yourself too much time, you’ll resist starting because you feel like you have all the time in the world.

Chapter 10: Trust Yourself. This begins the “Embrace your identity” phase. Going through a SHED can throw a person into an identity crisis. In the absence of familiar props, the new landscape can be disorienting. This chapter contains exercises for grounding the reader by recovering reference points of skill and resourcefulness demonstrated in the past. Some of these involve searching one’s memory for previous challenges that were overcome, like a first job or a first solo trip. We look through each phase in our lives for evidence of the capabilities required to transition to our current theme.

Chapter 11: Discipline to Deliver. This chapter looks at five disciplines required to deliver on the key set of skills used to realize one’s current theme: drive and determination, organization, self-confidence, health habits and attention. Advice is given for each of these skills, most of which is familiar enough to avoid detailing here (like “avoid obsessing over negative emotions”), but still a worthwhile read.

Chapter 12: Live in the Moment. Since SHED is a letting go of the past, living in the moment takes on a new significance. After a description of “the moment,” the reader is asked to consider what percentage of each day is spent “in the moment,” and to recall occasions or events containing these present-focused qualities. The author argues that living in the moment is usually a faculty that has to be cultivated or recovered through conscious effort, and offers tips for doing so, such as meditation, proclaiming a period of heightened observation, starting every day brand new, and creating checklists of “moment stealers” and “moment grabbers.”

Chapter 13: Break Your Mold. The reader is encouraged to engage in activities unrelated to his or her current theme. The author uses a personal example of taking up gymnastics in her forties, at her daughter’s insistence. Though she initially thought the sport was out of the question at her age, she quickly discovered that it was not only possible, but that it increased her fitness, concentration and adaptability to engage in activities out of her comfort zone. Expanding one’s comfort zone is the primary carryover effect of taking on off-track activities. Lists in three categories are given for the reader’s consideration. If you’re a knowledge worker, for instance, try to develop an athletic skill.

Chapter 14: Experiment with Your Theme. Here we fill the void opened by the heaving process, exploring the themes, skills, projects and values that express the new theme. This is essential to avoid dwelling on what we’ve left behind. Three guiding questions are used to design a lifestyle around the new theme. What activities do I love to do? What topics capture my imagination? What qualities do I cherish? The object is to look for projects and activities that most successfully address and fulfill these questions.

Chapter 15: Beware of the 30 Percent Slip. The SHED is largely complete when a person spends roughly 80% of her time and energy toward realizing her vision of the future, unencumbered by the dead weight of physical and emotional artifacts. The 30 Percent Slip refers to the stalls in progress that are likely to happen during the SHED, and the chapter includes a “Back on Track” diagnostic test to help catch and correct that slip. Some slips are simply recognitions of new themes on the horizon, rather than reversions to old ones. SHED is a continuous, cyclical process, and themes change as life goes on.

Is less enough?

Having only read the author’s first book, Organizing from the Inside Out, I can’t say that When Organizing Isn’t Enough is her best book, but it is by far the better of the two, and I recommend it highly. It’s more focused, and the implications and applications of SHED are more far-reaching than an organizing methodology. If you’re looking for an effective method to experience more life with less stuff, this book makes a great starting point. While much of today’s talk around elimination has an undercurrent of nihilism, SHED is a comprehensive system for letting go of things after giving them due consideration.

Tags: Books


  • TimNo Gravatar // Jul 9, 2008 at 5:19 am

    I have had a lot of benefit from a similar-themed book: Ït’s All Too Much, by Peter Walsh. He also starts with the “vision of where you want to be”. It does seem motivating, but I have always had difficulty with putting any part of my life into a box with a label ;-)

  • Doug ToftNo Gravatar // Jul 9, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Andre, thanks for a wonderful summary. I feel like I’ve just read the book. You saved me at least four hours of reading time.

  • DarleenNo Gravatar // May 21, 2010 at 7:09 am

    I am floored at the intensity of the break down with each of these chapters. I do not currently have the book titled, “When Organizing
    isn’t enough.” I would love to purchase the book and start applying
    these simple rules to my decluttering. I lost my home to foreclosure
    in the year 1998 and have tried desperately to organize and let go of
    what I do not need since then. I have lived with my parents for a
    number of years and it just seems to me almost impossible for me
    to get ahead or overcome this hurdle in my life. I own a small storage
    shed and it is ironic that Ms. Morgenstern uses the word shed on the front cover of the book. I jokingly called my storage shed my little house
    and my 20 year old son said….mom, it’s our little grotto! Haaa… day I hope to overcome so that my (theme can be called OTHERS)! To have energy and time for others. I am a home health care provider and that would be a milestone for me! I’m off to Barnes & Noble to obtain a copy for myself today! Thanks Ms. Morgenstern for all your help!