Review: Organizing From The Inside Out

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

Org From InsideA while back, I read and reviewed Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management From The Inside Out. I found it to be fairly interesting and a good complement to Getting Things Done, which is the basic framework for how I organize my time.

Almost immediately after I wrote the review, several readers wrote to me and strongly encouraged me to pick up Morgenstern’s earlier book, Organizing From The Inside Out, Morgenstern’s first book that uses essentially the same philosophy. I picked it up, gave it a read, and actually quite liked it.

To me, Organizing From The Inside Out is one of those books that’s so sensible that while you’re reading it, it seems almost like common sense, but when you sit down and actually apply it, it’s as smooth as a hot knife through butter. That’s a high compliment, in my opinion. This is an astounding book for organizing your home or workspace, well worth reading if you have clutter issues either at home or at work.

Peeking At Organizing From The Inside Out

Right off the bat, the book makes an interesting statement: sometimes quick solutions are the best ones. This book is all about framework, much like Getting Things Done works for task management. Once you’ve got the framework down, solving organization problems is quite simple because everything just falls into place.

Part One – Laying The Foundation
Morgenstern is a big believer in tackling any problem with a three piece approach: analyze, strategize, and attack. This philosophy works quite well for organization, too – look at a space, analyze what’s wrong with it, develop a strategy for what you would like it to be, and attack it head-on.

Most people stumble at this because of one of three things: technical limitations (like inadequate storage space), external limitations (like working conditions), and psychological obstacles (like anxiety over changing your routine). If your limitations are technical, the best approach is usually to minimize as much as possible – get rid of stuff you don’t use, for starters. If external elements are limiting things, look for options to reduce your workload for a bit so that you can get organized, as this will enable you to tackle more work efficiently. If the limitations are psychological, interestingly, the chief recommendation that Morgenstern offers is to throw yourself into focusing on something else and let organization just be something that’s an assistance, not a primary focus. I find that in various ways, all three of these are very helpful, basic tips – they all lead to a truly functional organization that matches you, not a generic system for everyone.

Part Two – Secrets of a Professional Organizer
This portion of the book focuses on the analyze/strategize/attack plan mentioned above.

Analyze Ask yourself these five questions about the area you wish to organize:

1. What’s working?
2. What’s not working?
3. What items are most essential to you?
4. Why do you want to get organized?
5. What’s causing the problems?

The first questions seek to identify the good and bad elements in the situation, while the third seeks to minimize. The fourth and fifth are more introspective, but they actually form an interesting cycle with the first three. Try answering all of the questions twice – I found that it helped quite a bit when trying to use Morgenstern’s philosophy for organizing my home office.

Strategize Julie really recommends evaluating what you actually do in the area you’re organizing and define “zones” that are focused on each activity. For example, I have a writing space, a GTD/paperwork space, and (soon) a reading space in my home office. Each of these spaces has different things that are easily available – for example, the writing space usually has the books I’m currently reviewing, my list of writing ideas, and my laptop, while my GTD space has an inbox and lots of files in it.

Attack Solving the problem boils down to five steps:

Assign a home

One key thing to take out of this is that you shouldn’t buy a single container or organization material until you reach the fourth step. Before you buy a bin or a filing cabinet or a box, instead first go through all of the stuff, get rid of the stuff that’s unnecessary, and figure out your general groupings and where they go. Once you have that done, you’ll have some idea of the containers you actually need and they’ll meet your functionality needs.

Part Three – Applying What You’ve Learned
Here, Morgenstern applies all of the information from the first two parts to specific situations: a traditional office, a home-based business, a cubicle workstation, a mobile office, a “household information center,” attics, basements, garages, bathrooms, bedrooms, closets, kids’ rooms, kitchens, and living rooms. Whew! Each one is addressed on a few pages in order to give an outline of a healthy plan of attack.

For example, I gave her information a shot in my home office, which is actually a mix of a traditional office, a home-based business, and a household information center. I read those three sections in detail before diving in and found that I also wound up using the closet information as well, as I began to utilize the closet in there.

The end result? Actually, the process is still ongoing, but I can already feel how much more organized and efficient it’s going to become.

Part Four – Tackling Time and Technology
This final section is very brief and is just a several-page summary of the material in Morgenstern’s Time Management From The Inside Out.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

Time Management From The Inside Out was a good book that I quite enjoyed, but Organizing From The Inside Out thoroughly supercedes it. The underlying philosophy is the same, but that philosophy applies so much better to organizing rooms than to organizing time.

If you have trouble organizing a room efficiently and effectively, take a serious look at Organizing From The Inside Out. My experience in our home office with the ideas in this book have been tremendous – I’m quite convinced that it works, it just takes some thinking and analysis instead of just diving in and “organizing” without a plan.

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