Julie Morgenstern: “America’s Organizing Queen” on how to organize your time (and your life)

Talk to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at work and they’ll most likely tell you some version of the same thing. They’re exhausted by all the tools they have to use. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of emails, meetings, and calls. And unable to disconnect and create a work-life balance that works for them.

In fact, when we spoke with hundreds of RescueTime users, only 10% said they felt “in control” of how they spend their days. There’s got to be a better way to work.

For more than 30 years, Julie Morgenstern has helped people and organizations of all sizes learn how to declutter their days (and their minds) so they can hit their long-term goals.

Dubbed “America’s organizing queen” Julie has authored six best-selling productivity books including Never Check Email in the Morning and Time Management from the Inside Out, and has worked with companies like American Express, Microsoft, and Hearst to help them switch from days of chaos to being organized and efficient.

In this interview, we spoke with Julie about how to declutter our hectic schedules, reduce the distraction and stress in our lives, and find more time for focus, productivity, and meaningful work.

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The Inside Out philosophy: Why one-size-fits-all productivity plans don’t work (and what to do instead)

Julie Morgenstern - Time Management From the Inside Out Cover

Whether you’re organizing your time or your social calendar, Julie’s approach is to look at it ‘from the Inside Out’.

What she means by this is that while we all love the idea of hacks and quick tips, there’s no single productivity system that works for everyone.

This might seem like an obvious statement. But how many articles have you seen explaining the detailed routines of famously productive people or the top habits of successful entrepreneurs?

We love this ‘routine porn’ because it offers an easy answer. Follow these steps and you will get similar results.

But, as Julie explains, if we want to bring order into our lives we need to first understand what that order looks like for us:

“There’s no such thing as organizing for organization’s sake. Any system that you want to use to organize your time or your information, whether it’s digital or tactile, has to be designed around each person’s unique goals and their natural working style.”

Organizing your life and your time from the Inside Out starts with understanding two critical factors:

  1. Your unique goal. This isn’t just ‘make money’ or ‘launch a business’. Understanding your unique goals means knowing what you want to do that you currently can’t. As Julie puts it: “What’s on the other side of the disorder and the distraction?”
  2. Your particular working style. This is the context of your goal. It’s your workplace culture, environment, and even the things outside of work that impact your day. If you want to stay committed and motivated to hit your goals, you need to be aware of and work with your style. Not just try to impose someone else’s style on your life.

3 questions that will help you organize your time like you organize your closet

So how does organizing from the Inside Out work in practice? Let’s use time management as an example.

Many of the choices we make about how we spend our time are emotional, not just practical. And because of this, any time management system needs to start with a deep understanding of our motivations.

To get there, Julie asks her clients 3 questions that dig into their unique goals and working style.

1. What do you want to achieve that you currently can’t?

In other words, what’s your goal?

Maybe it’s to hit your numbers if you’re in sales. Or make a deadline on a project instead of constantly missing them. Or maybe it’s that you want to succeed at work, but not if it means sacrificing your personal life.

“These are your concrete goals. I’ve never asked someone this and not gotten an answer. We all kind of know what we want and what motivates us, but we don’t always start there.”

2. What are you juggling your time between?

Next, you need to clarify what your current situation is.

What’s getting your time and where do you wish you could spend more of it? What are the large “buckets” of time that you’re juggling with during the workday?

You could be trying to balance time serving clients with business development. Or coding time with communication and documentation time. In your personal life, it might be wanting to be there for your family while also maintaining your health.

“My whole thing about organizing time is to think of it like a space. Your day is like a cluttered closet and can only fit so much. And if you shove things into any available pocket of time in no particular order, then you’re going to waste an enormous amount of time looking for things, figuring out what to do, and switching contexts.”

3. What are you spending too much/too little time on?

Finally, with clear goals and an understanding of your current system, it’s time to focus on what needs to be fixed.

Where are you spending too much time where you could be spending less? What’s getting missed that deserves your attention based on your goals?

With a list in place, you can start to organize your buckets of time in a way that works for you.

“First, we have to create the space in our schedules to do these things. And then we need to work on all kinds of skills to make sure that once we’ve created the time that we actually do the things we want to do.”

In three questions, you’ve gone from a disorganized life to knowing what you want to achieve, the ratios of what we need less/more of, and a schedule that maximizes our time for the things we actually want to do.

How we self-sabotage our work time (and what to do instead)

Julie post - unorganized

The hard part about all this isn’t figuring out where your time is going and making a plan. It’s executing on that plan. How many of us have grand visions of a different life but then give up and fall back to our usual habits?

I’m going to wake up at 5am and go to the gym every day before work.

I’m going to not book any meetings in the mornings.

These are hard changes to make. And we don’t do ourselves any favors when we’re trying to make them.

As we wrote in our Guide to Building Better Habits, the only way to hit these major goals is to work on them slowly and steadily, day after day. Unfortunately, even if we do set aside the time to work on these changes, we still end up self-sabotaging our schedules in a number of ways.

  • We don’t give ourselves enough time to truly plan and schedule our days. As Julie explains, “If you wait until the day is crashing down upon you, it’s too late to get out of the things that got shoved on your calendar and shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
  • You’re caught up in being reactive and not proactive. If you’re spending all your time reacting to other people and other events, you don’t even have the chance to organize or anticipate what’s going to happen. As Julie says, “80% of the surprises in our day could have been anticipated if we just asked ourselves ‘what could derail me tomorrow? What projects are heating up? Which colleague or boss is likely to come with a last-minute crisis?’ You can preemptively strike if you just proactively think about what could derail you.”
  • We use technology as “the world’s most convenient procrastination device.” We all face difficult tasks, conversations, and situations every day. And while email, Slack, and other technology tools are great at helping us do these, they can also get in the way. As Julie explains, “There’s always stuff on our to-do list that’s intimidating. And instead of facing it, we say ‘I don’t know what to write, so let me just check my email or Slack.’ We use technology as a procrastination device when we are intimidated by something on our list.”
Looking ahead is one of the greatest levers you can pull to mentally prepare for whatever the race is the next day. Click To Tweet

The worst time management mistakes large companies make

Of course, we aren’t the only ones to blame for our chaotic days. The modern workplace is a hotbed of distraction and inefficiencies, many of which we don’t even notice.

First, there’s an abundance of meetings without enough time for the associated prep and follow-ups to make them meaningful. Meetings aren’t just about what happens during that hour of talking. It’s everything that was decided upon and needs to get done after the fact.

Yet most companies don’t take a holistic approach and instead treat meetings like stacking bricks without any space for mortar in-between.

“Companies just see a hole in your schedule to fill and don’t account for the prep associated with every meeting. There’s the travel time to and from the meeting. And the prep time before and after to be prepared and document what needs to get done. It’s a blindspot in a lot of companies and creates a lot of pressure on employees.”

Next, there’s the unrealistic (yet inexplicit) expectation for turnaround. One of the worst things in our modern work culture is the expectation of an instant response.

In fact, when we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users, we found that 63.5% of people expect a response to a message within an hour, yet 75% of them had never had a single conversation about this expectation with a colleague or boss. Not only is this bad for our focus, it’s also bad for business.

“Everybody expects an instant response and it’s just bad hygiene on the company’s part. No one stopping to think about how if you’re relying on email for time sensitive matters then you’re really using the wrong tool. Because how do you know if someone’s on email or Slack? They could be in a meeting with their boss or a client, and then it doesn’t matter what your expectation is.”

Being transparent and explicit about expectations and time responses is one of the easiest ways to make your work culture better for everyone. Otherwise, people stay online late, work long hours, and ruin their work life balance simply because they’re afraid of not being around.

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Julie’s best tips for organizing your time and hitting your goals

Julie post - like a boss

So where do we go from here?

We have a plan for organizing our time. We understand our priorities and what we want to achieve. And we know the biggest issues getting in the way.

The next step is to bring in time management strategies and techniques that work for you based on what you already know.

Here are a few that Julie suggests everyone tries to include in their workday:

Batch process your emails

If your day is reactive and you’re stressed about trying to get through emails, set a boundary around them.

When we looked at data from 50,000 knowledge workers, we found that on average, people check their inboxes every 6 minutes during the day, leaving them with no real focused time to make progress on the work that matters most.

“Don’t continuously process emails. Instead, you need to figure out the appropriate cadence for yourself. Maybe that’s once an hour based on the nature of your role. So every 60 minutes, open your email once and respond to as many things as you can.

“If there’s anything bigger that’s going to derail your day, simply acknowledge receipt and tell the person you need to schedule time to work on it and will get back to them tomorrow or later.”

Attach every to-do to your calendar

Once you batch your email and communication, it opens up larger sections of focused time in your day. Yet you need to know how you’re going to spend this time if you actually want to stay organized and hit your goals.

That’s why Julie advocates for integrating your to-do list with your calendar, not keeping it somewhere separate.

“A to-do that isn’t connected to a ‘when’ rarely gets done. So don’t have a separate to-do list from your calendar. Schedule what needs to get done and when.”

As you start to integrate your tasks into your calendar, you need to think about a couple of things:

  • Is this a Staccato task or a Legato task? In music, Staccato refers to short detached notes being played versus Legato, which is a long, held note. Think of these as metaphors for your attention. Is the task you’re scheduling something quick like a call, email, or simple task? Or something that requires long periods of sustained attention?
  • When is the best time to do this task? We all have highs and lows of energy during the day (we like to call these your Productivity Curve). And you want to set blocks of time for these different types of tasks based on your energy levels. Choose sections for Legato tasks when your energy is high, while Staccato blocks can be when your energy is naturally lower (like during the afternoon slump).

“Do the thing that’s going to make the biggest difference to your job contribution and security in your highest energy time of the day. Whenever that is.”

Plan for tomorrow +2

We all make the mistake of getting caught up in the immediate. But, as Julie explains, staying organized means having a long view of your time.

“People are constantly throwing things at you. But if you spend time to plan and do the maintenance at the end of each day for tomorrow plus two, then you’re able to re-evaluate what’s on your plate. You can get out of meetings you don’t need to be part of. Or delegate tasks you really shouldn’t be doing.”

Planning for tomorrow plus two means you have time and space to not just be reactive. You’ve given yourself room to organize and move things around. But this only works if you maintain the practice.

Schedule weekly “overflow” blocks for tasks you keep putting off

Where many of us get overwhelmed with our time is with the small tasks that pile up. The little things that we keep pushing to tomorrow and eventually take up our energy and time.

To deal with these things, Julie suggests setting a weekly “overflow” block to get through them.

“Put in one or two overflow blocks in the week where all that little stuff gets knocked out in a few hours. So instead of doing a little bit every day, you say ‘every Friday morning is my overflow for any of these little things that I could not stand to get done during the week.’ Then, it’s over by Friday at noon and you’re caught up.”

Getting through these small, annoying tasks can take a ton of mental pressure off the rest of your workweek and is just another great example of the power of getting the small things right.

The power of PEP: Why you can’t be productive at work if you can’t disconnect

Finally, in our rush to be more productive at work, we often forget to answer why it’s so important. The point of being efficient at work isn’t just to do more work. It’s to open up time and energy for other tasks. Bigger ideas. Family. Friends. All of the things that give us a work-life balance and help us feel purposeful and happy.

As Julie discovered, the most productive people take more time off and spend more time finding a work-life balance that works for them.

“I always recommend that people proactively plan their time off in a way that restores and re-energizes them. And there are really just three kinds of activities that you need to do in order to get those benefits. I call it PEP.”

  • Physical health. This includes sleep, exercise, going to the doctor, eating healthy meals. Anything that helps restore the body.
  • Escapes. These are your hobbies and passions that instantly make you feel absorbed and relaxed. (If you don’t know what these activities are for you, Julie suggests thinking back to when you were a teenager. What did you love to do before all the responsibilities of life got in the way?)
  • People. Who are the people that you love to spend time with? Who reminds you of what a cool, smart, funny person you are?

“Whether it is a CEO or a senior executive or a salesperson or a secretary, the people who really perform the best have a balanced life and put as much thought into how they spend their time off as they do into their time working without exception.”

It’s easy to get taken away by the day. But by putting in the energy to organize your time, understand what’s getting in the way of achieving your goals, and customizing your plan for your personal working style, you’ll be able to be more productive and have more time for the things that make life worth living.

Want to learn more about Julie? Check out her blog and her latest book, Time to Parent.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.