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SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life

A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck
By Julie Morgenstern

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
What Is SHED?


Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.

—Henry David Thoreau

As an organizing and time management guru, my work over the past twenty years has been dedicated to delivering practical and insightful solutions that transform the way people and companies function. My “inside-out” philosophy lies at the heart of my mission—building systems around the unique personality, style, and goals of each individual and company so that they can make their greatest contributions to the world.

Organizing is the process of arranging your home, office, and schedule so that it reflects and encourages who you are, what you want, and where you are going. Simply put, organizing is about designing systems that improve your efficiency and enable you to achieve your goals.

But what happens when organizing isn’t enough?

Dear Julie,

I am stuck, paralyzed, before my own future. I’ve been opening doors and closing them, unable to confront the task that awaits me—getting my so-called empty nest ready to sell.

Brooke, 53, public relations consultant

I’m unhappy in my job, but am stumped whether to stay or go. I’ve been spinning my wheels for years and I have no idea where to go from here.

Greg, 36, financial analyst

On the outside, my life looks good—nice house, great family, good job. I look so accomplished. But it’s an empty shell. I’ve felt my whole life that there is something unexpressed in me.

Olivia, 47, real estate agent

I read your organizing books, and they make utter sense, but change is hard. I can’t seem to part with my old ways.

Adam, 62, architect

Organizing works when you know where you are going but don’t know how to get there. But when you are feeling stuck in your life, when you are in transition and unsure of where you’re going next . . . organizing is not enough.

Here’s a little more from Brooke’s letter to me:

Before spring vacation I had made a list of things to do based on putting the house on the market this spring. It included shopping for improvements—French doors to separate the front hall from my computer room—and lots of sorting tasks to pare down the nineteen years’ worth of stuff that is stored all over this big house.

But at the end of spring break the only task I had accomplished was loading and using Turbo Tax! I still can’t believe that with nothing to do I was unable to face that list. Spring vacation is my get-it-done time. I clean, I sort, I organize. What is wrong with me?!

Brooke

When I read Brooke’s note it seemed clear to me that the issue she was struggling with was not how to get organized. She sounded like a “get-it-done” person who was good at making lists and tackling her to-dos (“I clean, I sort, I organize”). Our follow-up conversation confirmed my hunches:

A public relations professional and a divorced single mom, Brooke, 53, woke up one morning to find herself an empty nester. “With no actual kids under my roof, everyone—including me—thinks I ought to consider moving on,” she said. “Plus, it is ridiculous. I have over 2,600 square feet of house, and I spend most of it camped out on my bed, surrounded by novels, magazines, and crossword puzzles, happily munching on my dinner like a kid in a tent.” Brooke was wrestling with a major change.

Brooke’s house was not messy or disorganized—it was a lovingly designed and arranged work of art, a symbol of love and family. She felt attached to it, although she knew that attachment was weighing her down. She had always known her children would grow up, go to college, find jobs, and live on their own, but the moment had arrived all too soon, and she felt unprepared. She was not quite sure where she would go from here. She didn’t need a better system; she needed something more. In Brooke’s state of paralysis, simply getting organized wasn’t the solution.

In my experience, people who are ready to get organized always have a clear vision of their destination—they have their eyes on a bigger goal. They want to save their job or start a business, strengthen their marriage or take better care of their children. In other words, no matter how high the piles, or packed the schedule, breakthrough comes when someone sees something that they desperately want on the other side of the clutter. By the time a client calls for my services, he or she already knows where they are going, is clear on their goals, and just needs help laying out a path to get there.

But when you don’t know exactly where you are going or what you want (even though where you are isn’t working), organizing isn’t enough.

When you need or want to change something about your life, when you are going through a transition and are struggling to relinquish something that represents the past, you don’t need to get organized—you need to SHED.

What Is SHED?

SHED is a transformative process for letting go of things that represent the past so you can grow and move forward. The four steps of SHED (Separate the Treasures, Heave the Trash, Embrace Your Identity, Drive Yourself Forward) provide a framework for proactively managing change, transition, and the feeling of being stuck and unsure. By releasing the defunct, extraneous, and burdensome objects and obligations that are weighing you down, you create the space to discover what’s next and gather the energy and courage to move forward. By understanding and releasing your emotional attachments to tangible areas (like your space and time), SHED enables you to release intangible burdens including unhealthy beliefs and limiting thoughts.

SHED is not only about throwing things away (though that is a piece). SHEDing converts the process of letting go into an opportunity for self-discovery and healthy growth. It is a catalyst and companion on the journey to living a richer, more connected life. The ultimate payoff ? Clarity, lightness of being, authenticity, and living as your most genuine, fully engaged self.

Is SHED for You?

SHED can be used by anyone who is feeling stuck in their lives. This book helps people gracefully and optimistically manage all kinds of change, including those prompted by:

  • Natural life transitions: moving, retiring, graduating, marriage, promotion, new baby, empty nest, new business

  • Sudden shift in life circumstances: job loss, company merger/management change, health crisis, divorce, threat of eviction, unexpected gain (financial windfall, new relationship)

  • Internal drive for self-fulfillment and improvement: a desire for improved relationships with others, oneself, and the world

This book treats all change as an opportunity to grow. It provides a framework to positively manage change and converts the transition process— usually considered the most intolerable part of change—into a vital, vibrant adventure. SHED can be used to help you gain clarity no matter what stage of a transition you are in, although there are typically three points along the change continuum that trigger the process. You could be feeling ready to SHED if:

  • You’re on the brink of change—having thought about it for years—and now you’re ready to take action

  • You’ve already made a change but are still feeling stuck in the past

  • You’re being forced to make a change, whether you like it or not, and are feeling resistant

Let me give you a few examples.

I’ve been brewing about making a change for years

Caroline, 41, had worked in investment banking for years and did not want for money, comfort, or prestige. Yet, despite her outward success, something wasn’t quite right; she was unhappy. On the fast track to becoming a senior managing partner, Caroline was extremely organized, productive, and efficient in her behind-the-scenes job crunching numbers, prepping deals, and crafting mergers. But something about the work had always felt hollow and mechanical; there was a social part of her personality that craved deeper, more sustainable relationships with clients and peers. Caroline’s unhappiness intensified over eighteen months and she finally decided to make a change. She stepped off the fast track and accepted a new position in training and development, a more visible role within the company. Leaving the comfort and safety of her behind-the-scenes role was scary, but she felt incomplete and knew she couldn’t stay where she was a moment longer.

I’ve already made a change but am still feeling stuck in the past

Jay, 32, grew up in the foster care system, and had battled physical chaos in his life for as long as he could remember. Having switched homes many times throughout his childhood, he never successfully set up a space for himself. He’d gone on to college (where he lived in the dorms) and then postcollege to a house share with some friends. No place ever really felt like home. In every abode, his room was cluttered and stifling. He moved into his first real, grown-up apartment four years ago—a contemporary one-bedroom flat with a brand-new kitchen, beautiful wood floors, and renovated bath. Yet he’d never fully unpacked, and when I first met him, he was still living out of boxes and bags. “The one thing every single living thing on this earth has is a home,” Jay told me. “A place it calls its nest, its cave, its hole. These little animals go through the hassle of moving rocks and clearing out the dirt to make a space their own. When you don’t have that element in your life, you feel lost.”

Jay had a dog-eared copy of my book Organizing from the Inside Out, spine broken, facedown on his coffee table, peeking out from under a mountain of clutter. He’d been studying the book for years, and loved everything it said, but was unable to sustain any order he created or to make any progress. The stifling state of his home kept him feeling isolated and lonely; unable to fully engage in life. He wasn’t able to invite friends or dates over, and his creativity was stalled.

In finally finding his own place, Jay had hoped to put down roots and create a nurturing place of his own. But some old belief system was holding him back. “As I compromised with this problem and learned to live with it, it’s gotten worse and worse,” Jay said.

I wasn’t ready for this change

Max, 60, was a devoted department head and beloved faculty member for more than thirty years, when the health care crisis forced him to consider an early retirement. One afternoon, the university suddenly announced that, for faculty fifty-five and over, the only way to save their health care coverage was to take an early retirement the following year. His first reaction was outrage. How could the employer he’d been so loyal to act with such callous indifference? Yet after the initial rage subsided, in quiet moments of reflection he could detect the tiniest impulse of excitement from deep within himself. His whole career he’d had the persistent feeling that there was something else he was meant to do. He hadn’t known what, nor had he ever taken the time to determine what that might be. He’d simply waited for a sign. He’d always maintained a love-hate relationship with the bureaucracy of education. Years had passed. Max felt that perhaps this forced retirement was the sign he needed.

Everyone going through any sort of transition is encountering an opportunity to SHED. The impulse to leave the obsolete or broken or irrelevant behind in order to pursue something new is universal. If your current situation sounds similar to one of the above, or if you are going through any kind of career, relationship, or lifestyle change, it’s likely that you, too, are a candidate for SHED.

SHED Is Not a De-cluttering Crusade

Readers of my earlier books—Organizing from the Inside Out, Time Management from the Inside Out, and Never Check E-Mail in the Morning—are familiar with my belief that organizing is not about getting rid of things. Organizing is about identifying what’s important to you and giving yourself access to it. While streamlining your belongings can sometimes be a by-product of getting organized, it’s certainly not required. No matter how much you own, if you can find what you need when you need it, and are comfortable in your space, then you are organized. Similarly, no matter how full your schedule, if your days feel efficient and productive; if you are able to keep track of everything you need to do and accomplish what you’d planned, then you are organized.

Yet conventional wisdom constantly confuses “organizing” and “decluttering.” Most people believe organizing = throwing things out. Decluttering is a very different process, with a very different purpose. Getting rid of things will not get you organized. But it will get you unstuck when you are feeling stagnant in your life and craving a positive change. Organizing is what you do to settle down. Decluttering is what you do to grow. Each process is important, and it’s essential to know the difference—because we need different things at different times in our lives.

Our popular culture feeds into our misperceptions—with a large portion of the organizing makeovers on television and in print focused on how to get rid of things. Equally misleading is the common belief that decluttering is something you need to be “forced” to do through some sort of tough love. You know the crusade-like messages I’m talking about—available in full supply from genuinely well-meaning friends, family, professionals, and even from inside your own head: “Don’t think, don’t hesitate, put it in the garbage! Just say no! It’s time to move on! What good is it doing you?! Throw it all away!” People who are coerced into throwing things away will comply in the moment, but they will feel sick to their stomach the entire time and will quickly refill their barren spaces, ending up right back where they started. Cavalierly tossing things from your home, office, or schedule (due to shame or pressure) never provides a lasting solution.

The unique promise of this book is that it will help you clear the clutter for good, by taking a very different approach to the process. SHED goes far beyond just “throwing things away” and helps you avoid the most common pitfalls of decluttering. How?

  1. By ensuring you are doing it for the right reason—“to get unstuck” rather than to get organized

  2. By teaching you what you do before and after getting rid of things to make sure your efforts last

  3. By changing your view of clutter from “just junk” to what I call a Point of Entry—an opportunity for real transformation

SHED takes an activity usually approached like ripping off a Band-Aid and converts it into a positive, nurturing experience that you will savor. The objects or activities in your life (however stagnant or obsolete they may be today) served you at some point . . . or you wouldn’t have them in the first place. And they still have some meaning . . . or you wouldn’t be holding on to them. Studying the clutter and understanding its value to you before you toss it creates an opportunity for self-discovery, transformation, and a more meaningful and liberating change. And in this sense SHED is a uniquely personal process.

So, do you need to get organized or to SHED? There are times we clearly need one or the other, but it’s altogether feasible that someone may require a bit of both. For example, when you are working through a major transition (new job, new relationship, new city, retirement, etc.), you will benefit from SHEDing the stagnant areas in your home or office. At the same time, however, there might be a few areas (your briefcase, linen closet, kitchen cabinets) that don’t necessarily feel stagnant—they just need to be organized. Which do you need? Log on to the free community at www.juliemorgenstern.com and take the online assessment called Do You Need to Organize or Do You Need to SHED? The shaded box below also summarizes the differences to help you figure out what you need.
Note
The Difference between SHEDing and Organizing

Think of it this way: if organizing is dropping anchor once you know what you want, SHEDing is lifting anchor so you can go someplace new. Here are the differences in a nutshell:

  1. You organize to become more efficient. You SHED to get unstuck.

  2. Organizing involves designing systems for your space and time so you can function better where you are. SHED involves eliminating the obsolete so you have room to grow.

  3. Organizing gives you access to what’s most important to you. SHEDing is a process for discovering what’s most important to you.

  4. Something that’s entirely organized but no longer relevant can be a candidate for SHEDing. For example, a perfectly organized closet filled with items you never use can be SHED.

  5. It’s possible to get organized without throwing anything away— purging is the one step you can skip. It’s impossible, however, to SHED without letting things go.

  6. While organizing has a clearly defined finish point (i.e., you can organize your garage or home office in a weekend), SHED is an ongoing process that generates movement and fuels transformation, which means the finish line is harder to define. You measure success by the feeling of being settled in a new place, as well as the subsequent energy, authenticity, and excitement about your life that ensue.

How SHED Works

SHED involves four steps for methodically releasing the objects and activities that represent the past so you can mobilize in the face of change. By breaking the process down into practical, nameable steps, you can move forward at a pace that is most comfortable for you; kind of like driving a car, you can speed up or slow down whenever you want.

This book is organized into five parts. This first section, called Getting Unstuck, helps you prepare to SHED by defining the process, and then walking you through two important steps, Name Your Theme and Inventory What’s Weighing You Down, which help you prepare for a successful SHED. Name Your Theme will help you articulate your vision for the future, no matter how vague it feels right now, and Inventory What’s Weighing You Down will help you find the best opportunities to begin.

The next four parts of the book are designed to take you through each step of the process:

  • Step 1:Separate the treasures. Slow down and take time to understand the emotional attachment you have to the clutter. Then identify and unearth the gems that energize you and have true value for the next chapter of your life.

  • Step 2:Heave the trash. Once you have selected the items worth saving, completely relinquish that which represents the past by letting go of everything that is no longer relevant. This includes a radical release of any activity or object that depletes you rather than energizes you, and creates a large opening of time and energy.

  • Step 3:Embrace your identity. Recognize that you are who you are without your stuff. This is your opportunity to reconnect to your most authentic self and pull your identity from within.

  • Step 4:Drive yourself forward. Experiment with filling your space and schedule with activities, experiences, and items related to your theme for the future, until you settle on the ones that feel right for you.

The four steps of SHED enable you to manage your way through change optimistically so that your transition is mindful, complete, and rewarding. In my experience helping clients through change, I’ve found that most of us blindly find our way through transitions, as we are driven by fear, confusion, and guesswork. Working without a framework, people often default to one or two parts of the process, while skipping other steps entirely. When you miss a step, or go through them out of order, you miss the opportunity to use each transition as a way to grow and nurture your most authentic self.

Take Your Online SHED Profile

Log on to the free juliemorgenstern.com community and get your personalized SHED profile. The diagnostic should take you approximately ten minutes to complete. The results will be a personalized SHED profile report, which is an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses in regard to each SHED step and a personalized guide to how to make the most of this book.

Your personalized report will tell you exactly which parts of the SHED process will come easily to you and which ones will be more challenging. And it will provide advice on which chapters you should make sure to pay special attention to in order to ensure your success.

When you SHED, it’s natural to stumble along the way, losing steam or speeding through steps you find particularly challenging. If you fast-forward steps or go out of order, you will shortchange the decluttering process and your transition won’t be nearly as transformative or fulfilling.

For example, if you think of every object or activity as a “treasure” and can’t bring yourself to “heave,” you won’t free any space for growth. If you value nothing from the past and always jump straight to “heave,” you’ll end up leaving some wonderful gems behind and always feel empty. When you don’t “embrace your identity,” it’s easy to get caught up in someone else’s vision of who you are. And if you’re afraid to “drive yourself forward,” you’ll stagnate in the present, limiting your ability (and opportunity) to achieve the change you seek.

SHED is a holistic process that works best when you give equal weight to each step along the path. Use your SHED profile to guide your reading, avoiding any of your own personal pitfalls and keeping yourself on track.

From Theater Director to Professional Organizer

I fell in love with the theater sometime in the third grade and never looked back. I dedicated myself to community theater growing up, majored in theater in college, and moved to Chicago to pursue graduate studies in theater direction. My life, from age eight on, was about honing my creativity. After grad school, I landed in New York City and made steady progress for the first few years, with footholds in off-Broadway theater companies, television, and film. I was realizing my dream to beat the odds and “make it.”

Then I got divorced. I was 29 at the time and suddenly a single mom (my daughter Jessi was three). The late-night casting calls and marathon rehearsal weekends didn’t fit my new circumstances; and the nominal pay I received for the work I loved didn’t provide enough income to support myself, let alone raise my daughter.

For the first six months after my divorce, I did a little bit of everything just to keep things together. I waitressed at a ’50s-themed diner (where my nametag read “Trixie”); I tried temping and read scripts. My rousing (if half-hearted) rendition of “Shout” (by the Isley Brothers) one February afternoon atop a sea of empty tables in my Trixie outfit only cemented my hunch that these were strange and uncertain times.

When I was in graduate school, I’d always wished there was a “rent-a-mom” service available for frazzled people like myself—you know, someone to organize your closets and make sure you weren’t subsisting on a diet of Dr. Pepper and ramen noodles. The idea came back to me one night over a plate of lasagna with my old theater friend Walt (who, at the time, looked like he’d been living on a stage manager’s diet of cigarettes and Diet Coke himself). Walt agreed that a rent-a-mom service was a great business idea. He desperately needed the service himself and thought I should go for it. But I didn’t know the first thing about business, plus there was no way I could ever imagine trading in my peasant skirts for pinstripe suits, or my playbills for The Wall Street Journal.

As the months rolled on, I realized I had to do something because clearly life as Trixie wasn’t the answer. So I called Ric, my old friend and mentor, to ask for his advice. I told him about my divorce and single motherhood, about Trixie and the failed temp assignments, and my rent-a-mom business idea. I confessed to being excited about the idea and told him that I might actually be able to pull it off—but I was afraid to pursue it for fear of what it said about me: that I was just another hapless theater dreamer that couldn’t cut it, a failure, a slouch.

In his soothing, insightful way, Ric gave me permission to relinquish that identity. He said there was nothing wrong with wanting a more stable life for my family—it was a valid sacrifice and a wonderful gift to Jessi. He pointed out that he’d made a similar choice when he became an administrator so that he could support his family and provide a stable life.

I felt an immediate sense of relief. With that burden of shame lifted from my shoulders, I barreled ahead. I was able to reconcile what I perceived as a noncreative profession with the idea that it would help me provide a better life for my daughter. I marched myself to SCORE (Counselors to America’s Small Business), bought books on working from home and picked friends’ brains for advice. I stopped thinking I knew nothing about business once I realized my lifelong experience as a consumer would guide me well. Pretty soon, my new rent-a-mom business, Task Masters, took off.

A More Thorough SHED

About three years later, Task Masters was doing well, but I could feel the business beginning to plateau. I could only make as much as the hours I worked and couldn’t figure out how to expand. At the time, Jessi and I were still living in a small Brooklyn apartment. Like most New York City apartment dwellers, we didn’t have enough storage space, so I was storing about six boxes of my old theater production books underneath my dining room table. I’d meant to go through those boxes for years but hadn’t had the heart. I knew letting go of those books would mean I was permanently out of the theater and never going back. One lazy Sunday afternoon, realizing how ridiculously unattractive it was to eyeball those boxes every time we sat down for a meal, I finally mustered the courage to go through them. I heaved everything but the books from my two best productions.

Within two months Task Masters soared to the next level. It was as if the chains holding the business back had been released. I hired people to work on my team, and we increased client billings and started to generate great publicity for the business. Suddenly there was no stopping me.

As committed as I thought I had been to start the business, it’s now clear to me that I hadn’t had both feet in the saddle for the first few years. I hadn’t fully SHED my theater identity. Half of me was still tied to the theater world I’d chosen to leave several years before. By releasing those production books, I sent a mental and physical signal to myself that my business was now my core focus, and it took off. The feeling of mobilization was palpable.

The fact that I held on to those production books for so long indicated that my original transition wasn’t complete, and that’s what I think makes my story universal. We’ve all felt lost struggling to make a change—afraid and hesitant to let go of the past. That transition was one of the most difficult of my life. But in order to move fully into the next phase of my life as a parent and provider, I had to SHED my old skin.

Throughout SHED you will follow the stories of many clients (whose identities have been changed to protect their privacy) to learn from their transformational experiences. In particular, four clients—Brooke, Jay, Caroline, and Max—have generously agreed to share their SHED stories, providing you with an intimate glimpse into a very personal process. I hope following their journeys will give you comfort, insight, and inspiration for your own:

Brooke, 53, divorced mother of two, public relations professional. Brooke was a reluctant empty nester. Once her children moved out, she grieved the end of her parenting years and was lost as to what the next chapter of her life would be about.

Jay, 32, single, professional musician/composer. Jay had been struggling to get his apartment and life together for years. Living in perpetual clutter, he was having trouble letting go of the deeply buried belief “I’ll never have a welcoming home.”

Max, 60, married, retired theater professor. Max worked in academia for more than thirty years before being forced to consider an early retirement due to the health care crisis. Faced with an unexpected blank slate, he bravely began an adventure to reinvent himself.

Caroline, 41, single, career investment banker. Caroline knew she looked powerful on paper, but in reality she felt hollow and mechanical. She was like a production machine, crunching numbers, cranking out reports, developing policies. Caroline craved human interaction, connections with others, and the opportunity to make a meaningful difference through her work.

Shedding is defined by the National Geographic Association as “a natural process that must occur in order for growth to be achieved.” Birds molt, snakes slough, and lobsters shed their exoskeletons. Shedding is an ongoing process that mammals, arthropods, reptiles, and birds are engaged in most, if not all, of the time. In each case, the animal emerges from its shed fresh, lighter, and renewed.

Transformation is as pervasive in our lives as it is in the animal kingdom, but the human shedding experience (at least the one we pay attention to) is more ethereal in nature. Yet by making it tangible, we put ourselves more in control. SHED is about experiencing a transition that transforms us in some way. And though this process is not always pleasant or easy, without it life gets stalled. Clinging to the old, the irrelevant and stagnant will bog you down, hold you back and make you feel stuck. It can confine you to a space that no longer fits, denying you the opportunity to be your truest best self.

So let’s go quietly through your old attachments, releasing the stagnant and creating the space for transformation. I promise it will be a vibrant and fulfilling journey toward your destination. Take your time. Enjoy the ride.

© 2008 Julie Morgenstern

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