I'm here today with Julie Morgenstern. Julie is an internationally recognized organizational consultant who has written six books including two New York Times best sellers, Organizing from the Inside Out and Time Management from the Inside Out. Her latest book is Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You. Julie has written columns for Redbook, O, The Oprah Magazine, and many other publications and has appeared on countless TV and radio outlets. Now I feel like I want to go try to count them for her. She hosts workshops, coaching clinics, and speaks around the world to help people find real solutions to their time management issues, which of course we all need. She also writes two blogs on juliemorgenstern.com called The Balanced Parent and Organizing You.
Welcome to Julie. Thanks, Julie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Julie Morgenstern: It’s so nice to be here with you, Zibby.
Zibby: I have a million things I want to ask you. I'm totally transforming my life based on this system that you presented in this book. I thought it was so helpful. Can you start by telling listeners what Time to Parent is about? What made you write this book now?
Julie: Time to Parent is basically a manual -- I think it’s the manual that's been missing from society for generations -- of how a parent can think about how to organize their time to cover everything that really needs to be done. We all want to be there for our kids but not lose ourselves in the process. We want to spend time in our relationships but also have time for ourselves. Parenting is the biggest, most challenging, most noble job in the world. There's never been a manual of how to manage your time. When my daughter was born, I was looking for a manual. Where's the manual? Why are they not handing out time management brochures with every baby that’s born in the maternity ward or in the waiting rooms at pediatrician’s offices? As a professional organizer and a time management coach, which is my profession -- I've been doing it for thirty years. It’s remarkable because I'm only twenty-eight. I don't know how I pulled that off.
Zibby: [laughs] I was thinking to myself, how has she been doing this so long?
Julie: No way. It keeps me young. I never really targeted parents. It was organizing and time management. As it turns out, eighty percent of my clients, male and female, are parents because they struggle with being time-stretched and trying to choose between priorities. I thought someone's got to write this book. I had to wait until my daughter was out of the house to do it. I never could've written this book while I was actively parenting because all you're doing is head down, making the best choices, and praying to god you're doing it right while you're in it. When she flew the nest, I started the process of thinking about this and reflecting on all these years with clients and the patterns and did research, which we can talk about. Should I talk a little bit about that?
Zibby: Talk about it, sure. Also, you started when your daughter was a baby. You were having trouble getting out of the house. Tell that story.
Julie: I was not always an organized person. It’s really important for everybody to know that.
Zibby: FYI, Julie was late getting here today, lest you think that her time management skills are that good. [laughs]
Julie: Eight minutes late, I was. Blame it on traffic. It was actually poor planning on my part.
Zibby: No one is perfect.
Julie: No one is perfect. Even when you get organized, the most important thing is getting organized does not mean your life is going to run perfectly smoothly. It just means that you have the tools to get back on track every time life throws you a curveball, when traffic goes bad or you're being a perfectionist about something and it takes too long. How did I get started here? I was notoriously disorganized growing up. I was a theater person, very right-brain, creative person. Every paper was late. I lost a gazillion things.
When my daughter was born, when she was three weeks old and she woke up from a nap, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to take her for her first walk. I sent my husband for the car. I went to get the baby. Right before I picked her up, I was like, “Wait a minute. You can't just take babies out. You need stuff. What do I need? Where's the diaper bag? Where's the stuff?” Every time I thought of something I needed, I had to go find it. Every time I thought I was ready, I thought of something else. Two and a half hours passed, my husband waiting in the car outside the whole time, as was his standard way. I was always leaving him like that. By the time I was ready, I had the diaper bag overstuffed with half the house.
Zibby: That baby was going to be prepared for that walk. There's nothing she could've needed.
Julie: Whatever she needed. I went to get her. She had fallen back asleep. My heart just broke. I looked at this innocent child in her crib sleeping. This child is never going to see the light of day if I don't get my act together. I’ll never get her to school on time. I won't fill out the forms on time. I was determined to get organized. I started with the diaper bag. I told my husband, “I blew it. Come on in. Park the car.” With this fit of determination, I dumped this bulging diaper bag on the floor. I grouped similar items. I had brought multiple sweaters, all the changes of clothes, the things to entertain her with. I grouped things. Then I paired down. She does not need three different sweater weights for a twenty-minute walk by the river. One medium-weight sweater will do. She doesn't need six changes of clothes.
I paired down each pile. Then I gave each category its own section in the divided bag. This is where her sweater will be. This is where her change of clothes, this is where the entertaining stuff. Then I wrote a little inventory of everything that belonged in the bag on a piece of paper. I put that in its own little pocket because I thought I never want to go through this thinking process again. I figured it out. I'm documenting this. Then every time I came home, I would restock the bag. We were always ready to go. I felt very victorious. Oh, my god, I organized something. I felt ready. Never again is my child going to miss an opportunity because I'm not ready. I really think that's what being organized is all about, especially for a parent.
Zibby: That's what’s so great. You figured it out and then decided to share it with everybody. You could've kept that little nugget to yourself. You've decided to dedicate your career to helping other people have those victorious moments as well, which is awesome.
Julie: I did because I had craved organization for years. I was always, “I wish I was organized.” I didn't know how to do it. I couldn't figure it out for myself. I was a little scared of being organized because I thought I would become less creative and spontaneous, as much as I craved it. It was a few years later, it was when I got divorced -- three years after that I got divorced --
Zibby: -- Too much waiting in the car. He was like, “I'm out.”
Julie: It was just a symptom of a much bigger... [laughs]
Zibby: If you had that diaper bag ready earlier...
Julie: Man, I would still be married. I don't think I want to be. [laughs] That was just not the right marriage. It was definitely not the right marriage. I feel like because I was so disorganized and I craved it and couldn't find my way, once I'd figured it out, I'm really good at walking people across the bridge, at meeting them where they are. My entire approach to organizing, I call it from the inside out. Every system has to be custom designed to the person who’s using it. No two people think alike. It has to be organic to the way you think and what your goals are, what your needs are, or what your family’s needs are. You can do it as a unit.
Zibby: I love how you took organization and time management and made it something that a parent could follow and that was something concrete. Now I'm being vague about it. Here, let me read this quote. You said, “The responsibilities of parenthood can feel simultaneously ambiguous and infinite, where it is hard to see the edges in order to manage the job with confidence. Lack of clarity often leads to time clutter with too many precious hours focused on low-value activities like worrying about whether you are spending your time well. Organizing the job and approaching it systematically will allow you take control and make confident time choices while being fully present in each thing you do,” which is amazing.
You also say later how what you've seen in many organizations is that failure can come from when people don't have clearly defined roles. When they don't have clear roles and responsibilities, things fall through the cracks. You took these two things and developed this PART, SELF system, which is genius. Do you want to quickly run through those PARTs and SELF? Do you not want to give it away? You want me to?
Julie: No, I'm happy to give it away. You want to share it? You could do it in your own words.
Zibby: In my own words, PART is division of time and energy you spend with the kids.
Julie: With or for.
Zibby: With or for the kids. It doesn't have to be in person.
Julie: Let's take it up one notch. I'm going to help Zibby. We’re going to do this together. The most important thing is I defined the edges of the job. What is it that a parent has to juggle their time between? It’s not eight thousand things. That's what it feels like.
Zibby: It’s four primary buckets.
Julie: It’s now two things that you have to juggle. First, divide the job in two. Part of it is raising a human and then being a human. Parents miss that. We all miss that. We think we just sacrifice ourselves. Everything's for our kids. That's not sustainable. It’s not a good role model for your kids. You can't be a good parent if you are not taking care of yourself at all, as we know intellectually. First, you divide the job into two parts. Then each of those has four components. Now Zibby, you're on. What's the raising a human? There's four activities that we have to divide our time between, four activities to raise a human.
Zibby: This is a quiz. This will prove I've read this book. P is for providing. That's everything relating to making sure kids have shelter, food, all of those basic needs met. A is for arranging, which I feel like is my life, logistics and forms and making sure everything is ready and that your kid doesn't forget special snack on special-snack day like my kid just did and all those things. R is for relating, the quality, one-on-one time where you're looking your kid in the eye. You're on the carpet. You're not on your phone. You're paying attention to your child. T is teaching, being a mentor, role modeling, and also actually teaching kids how to do things in the world. That's for or on behalf of the kids.
Julie: Right. They spell an acronym.
Zibby: They spell PART.
Julie: PART as in doing your part for another person, provide, arrange, relate, teach, four activities.
Zibby: Then there's the taking care of yourself aspect which makes you better at doing all the other things. I've heard these things. It’s SELF. S is for sleep, which is so important to everything including cognitive functioning and everything else, but easy to toss aside as important, which I often do. E is for exercise, also the first thing off my list usually, which is really bad. You spell out in great detail all the reasons why in a compelling way, not in a “I’ve heard this before” way. L is for love, which includes your relationships with your spouse and your loved ones and friends and the importance of being together and connecting with other people, not just your kids. F is for fun, which I thought was such a great thing to include, pursuing your own hobbies and your own things that you enjoy doing in life. You can't be just a one-dimensional parent. Like you’ve said in the book, if you were a writer before, you liked to knit before, pick those hobbies back up. That's still who you are. Don't let those go.
Taken altogether, you can allocate your time on all those different endeavors and then the interactions of those things. [laughs] I'm going to let you talk. In the book, you have things like if you're a parent that specializes in just the providing and just the arranging, maybe you need to work on the relating a little bit more. Maybe for you, you have to tell yourself to get down on the floor for ten minutes a day or things like that. You have a quiz. For someone type A like myself, having it in a grid spelled out is super helpful. Tell me how you came up with this. Thank you for this. How'd I do?
Julie: Good. It’s so funny. How I came up with this, I was originally going to write the book just about quality time with your kids, how to deliver it, how to make time for it, how to make space for it. Over the years, clients who would hire us or come to speeches or workshops for getting organized or managing their time had the universal goal. The reason they wanted to get organized was so they had more space for quality time with their kids and quality time for themselves. If I was only more organized, I could really be present with my kids. If I was only more organized, I'd have time for myself or to go for a walk with a friend. Those were the allusives. I knew from research that time and attention is the single greatest gift that we can give anybody, including ourselves, that you can give to kids. We all want it as kids. You just want somebody to give you undivided time and attention. It’s the greatest gift. It makes you feel valued and valuable.
Zibby: You said it doesn't even have to be that much time to have a really big impact.
Julie: Exactly. That was the greatest discovery I made. When I did the research for the book, I was like, I know parents want that, but how much time and attention do kids really need? How can I give parents a guide on how to divide their time if I don't know the answer to that? I'm not a parenting expert. I'm an organizing expert. I had to go to the experts. How much time and attention do kids need, the whole quality versus quantity debate? If we know the answer to that, we can organize around that. Here's what I found out -- I was shocked. I did not know this. I did not know this when I was raising my daughter.
Kids thrive on short bursts. When I say short bursts, I'm talking five to fifteen or twenty minutes tops at a time, short bursts of truly undivided attention, eyeball to eyeball, delivered consistently rather than big blocks of time delivered occasionally. The reason for that is that kids have short attention spans. Many experts say to calculate about a minute for each age of life. If you stop and think about that, it really makes sense. A one-year-old has a one-minute attention span before their eyes drift to the next shiny object. If you're going to have a one-on-one deep conversation with a five-year-old, it’s probably not going to last more than five minutes.
Zibby: I'm not sure I have a forty-two-minute attention span these days.
Julie: Forty-two? You do. It tops off.
Zibby: After age fifteen, forget it.
Julie: Fifteen, that's right. [laughs]
Zibby: I can't focus on anything that long anymore aside from a book.
Julie: The key to nurturing your kids is just think in terms of at each transition point in your kid’s day, at each reconnection point -- there's pivot points in a kid’s day. It’s when they first wake up, when they go off to school, when you get home together at the end of the day, dinner, and bedtime. If at the beginning of each reconnection point or transition you spend the first five or seven or three or ten minutes giving your kid undivided attention, then you can do the logistics. You can do the together-but-apart time. You can check, “Did you do your homework? I'm going to do dinner,” all of that. It’s about doing it at those transitions and doing it first. Then you can do together-but-apart time. It’s incredibly liberating to know that it’s just shortened bursts. We can all put our phones down for ten minutes, literally got to put your phone down. It doesn't count if you're half in your phone and listening to your kid’s story. Your kid knows. An adult knows. It’s just short bursts. You can do the same thing for self-care by the way.
Zibby: Ten minutes of sleep?
Julie: Other than sleep. You have to be a sleep ninja as a parent. It’s the first, as you said Zibby, to go. We overestimate our ability to function on very little sleep, on not exercising, and lack of self-care. We overestimate ourselves. Then we end up short-tempered, slow in our thinking process. We’re not as creative, even in dealing with our kids. You have to try to get a full night’s sleep. When you don't, because as a parent you often have interrupted sleep or shorter sleep, learn to take rest in ten-minute or twenty-minute doses. Don't just go all day. Become a master of just sitting still for ten minutes, physically. Drinking a cup of tea and eating your sandwich is a form of rest that actually can restore you when you did not get enough sleep at night. Don't just always operate -- it’s ten-minute, twenty-minute rest periods, twenty minutes or less of exercise. Learn to nurture your love relationship in short bursts. Fun, you talked about knitting. If you were a knitter or you were an actor, you're not going to get to be in a theater every night or you're not going to be able to knit for hours on end, but you could do twenty minutes a day. You can.
Zibby: Now I know all these different buckets. How do I then figure out how to spend the time? Let's say arranging, which takes me, not because I want to, not because I'm particularly good at it, but the demand of it is such a big time suck. What do you do then? I want to be on the floor relating more, but I have to take care of the other stuff first. I want to work out every day, but I have to do some of these other things. What do I do with that?
Julie: Arrange, that quadrant is without exception the single biggest time trap for parents, particularly moms. As much as today’s men and husbands participate way more in childcare and housework, still, the main emotional labor and mental labor and physical labor is mostly the woman’s. The very first thing is you have to rethink the entire approach and your sense of ownership around the range. I challenge everybody to stop thinking of it. It’s not your job. Those logistics are not yours. They are the family’s logistics. I see you're like --
Zibby: I'm divorced. I'm remarried. I'm not going to drag my husband into this. He’s the stepdad. Yes, I see what you're saying. You can offload onto other people in your family.
Julie: Share it. It’s not offloading. [laughs] It’s not offload.
Zibby: Honestly, recently I've started asking my babysitter to do a lot more of the logistic stuff and helping me with forms. If my babysitter could help me with the form, then I could be on the ground for those ten minutes while she does the form. She’s babysitting me.
Julie: Arrange is the one area, there's so much. It’s a much bigger job than anybody ever realizes. It’s so time-demanding, mentally demanding. There's so many different skills involved, organizational skills. It’s complicated to organize for a family, way more complicated that organizing for an individual. It’s PhD-level organizing. You have to create incredibly simple systems that anybody can follow. A teenager who you hire for just a day can understand how to stack the dishwasher and how to do the laundry and where things go. It has to be kindergarten simple. That way it’s much easier to share and delegate. You really have to streamline it. It is the one thing that is the most delegateable of everything.
You're irreplaceable in those short bursts of undivided attention. Your kid wants you to look at them like they are the sun and the moon and the stars and be interested in whatever story or dumb book or dumb game they want to play that you're not interested in. They want to share it with you. That is a part you're not replaceable on. You can have other people who do that. It’s not like you're the only one. Arrange and logistics, honestly, they're just mechanical tasks. It’s shopping. It’s figuring out the food. It’s putting the food together. It’s cleaning up the dishes. It’s picking up the clutter. It’s putting things back in their homes. Those are mechanical tasks. Those are shareable.
Studies say that kids who are responsible for chores growing up have the most successful careers in life. It’s not a burden to your kids, which we feel. Why do we not do it? I was a single parent. I felt so guilty about that. I was not going to push my kid. And a working single parent, I didn't want to take what little time I had with my daughter and get into battles about cleaning up or doing chores. I just did it. They want to participate. Your kid would rather share that work and have a job and have more time with you than have a perfectly organized house and perfectly orchestrated gorgeous meals and a perfectly running life that you are too busy arranging to spend time with them. They'd much rather have a plain sandwich than a fancy sandwich if that would mean they’d get five minutes with you. It’s a mind-set shift.
Zibby: Your other key takeaway, I thought, in the book was the way in which you invest energy in each of the buckets, MOD, MIN, MAX. Figure out first before you do a task, the best possible way ever, which is the goal, an achievable goal.
Julie: Which is a MAX.
Zibby: You said for a birthday party, this is like when you're hand-baking the cake in a shape and decorating it to look like Cinderella’s shoe or something like that.
Julie: Exactly, that actually slips off and then inside are all the little prizes for all the kids in the party.
Zibby: The minimum you could do on a birthday party, which is call the place and have them run the whole thing for you, or moderate, which is somewhere in the middle. Then at least you think about the boundaries and then arrive. Is the advice to do the moderate amount? No? Your advice is depends on the situation? Sometimes you want to do the MAX. Sometimes you don't need to, right?
Julie: Perfectionist mind-set is there's only two ways to do anything, exceptionally well or it’s such a disaster, you're embarrassed, and why bother? That black-and-white thinking is paralyzing, first of all, which leads to a lot of procrastination. You're like, “Oh, my god. I can't do this right. I don't have time, so I keep putting it off.” That puts a lot of time pressure on you. It also leads you to spend more time on certain things that then steals your ability to do the others. I've defined only eight things total that you have to divide your time between as a parent. You have to make time for each and contain the time. You can't let any one of those eight quadrants or any two of them monopolize your time at the expense of the rest.
We gravitate toward what we’re good at and away from what we’re not so confident. This road maps allows you to go, “There's eight things. How am I doing? I'm spending too much time here. I have to contain that. I have not been able to relate for a while. I got to go make time for it. I'm spending too much time teaching, not enough time relating. I have not done anything for fun. I'm not spending time at all with my significant other, even twenty minutes at the end of the day to say, ‘Hey, how was your day?’” It is an awareness thing. To make sure you contain the time, you have to watch your perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism will keep you in one quadrant ten times longer than you need to because you're trying to do that thing perfectly.
MAX, MOD, MIN, it changes you from black-and-white thinking to shades of gray. The skill is being able to define three levels for a task. It’s hard at first. What's the MAX? I can tell you what the MAX is. What's the MIN? It’s probably doing nothing. That's not actually what MIN is. MIN is, it’s a clever way to get the job done. Moderate, somewhere in between. By identifying those so concretely, it gives you choices. It gives you options. As a parent, every day expands and contracts. You had plans for the day. Then a kid gets upset about something and you lose half an hour to a tantrum. Work calls. Things go wrong. MAX, MOD, MIN, it’s like an accordion to a right-size task for the moment, for the situation, for everything else going on. Nothing gets neglected. It keeps you very fluid and agile and gives you options, which is so liberating.
Zibby: It is. I love that. That's really helpful for me. There's a choice. Some things don't have to be perfect. As a mom of four, I've come to realize this because I can't do everything perfectly. I just can't. I'm always messing up. I love having it like, “I'm choosing this one.”
Julie: Sometimes MIN and MOD is actually smarter. Even if you had all the time in the world, I don't need to do that. That MAX, no one’s even paying attention to it other than me. It is not worth that time under any circumstances.
Zibby: It’s actively taking time away from something else. I'm seeing this as it’s like a bar graph like in the olden days and all the different colors for your different things. The more I spend on this, the smaller I'm going to have for something else.
Julie: That's exactly right. That’s what the framework really helps with. It gives you the perspective of this is the full playing board. There's nothing in your peripheral vision that you're missing, but you're also not going down a rabbit hole and thinking the whole job is this. It gives you that flexibility and agility and give in a system without giving anything up. You don't have to give anything up.
Zibby: Now you're developing this system for teenagers as well? You have something coming with your teenage daughter?
Julie: That book is out.
Zibby: The book is out? Amazing. I'm sorry. I should've known that.
Julie: That’s all right. I wrote a book with my daughter when she was in high school, Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens. It’s great book. She coauthored it. It’s about how to organize for teens, space and time, at home, at school, in your locker, all of that. It’s a wonderful book. It’s very helpful in two ways. One, the teenage years are really the time when we as humans really need organizing systems. Those skills become extra important both developmentally, what's going on in the brain, that's when you're supposed to be developing those skills, and also your life gets more complicated. You're not just in one classroom all day. It’s also the hardest time for a parent to be able to guide their kids because teenagers are like, “I can do this myself. Leave me alone.” That's the years when kids are fighting to have some identity of their own and blend, unfortunately, with their friends.
The book is really helpful where kids can read it themselves. Parents can read it. There's a whole section on how to actually support your kids in getting organized and being more of their coach than their teacher or their doer. I have a little section in there, that organizing with your kids, if it’s done with no judgement, is one of the best ways to get to know your kid in the world. You have to go in with no judgement, to do it from the inside out. I coach you to be the coach and ask your kid, “What is this? How would you group these things?” You learn how their brains work and what's important to them. It can be one of the greatest ways to get to know your kid. It can be a wonderful experience. It can't be you feeling bad that you don't know how to teach your kid to get organized. That really ruins your ability to be present because you just feel guilty. It can't be organizing your way. You have to help them organize the way they think and shape. It’s really wonderful.
Zibby: I'm definitely getting that next. I have twins who are about to be twelve.
Julie: Perfect time.
Zibby: Julie, thank you for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” This has been so life-changing, really. I'm staying in touch with you and letting you know how this all goes for me.
Julie: I want you to. The thing about the book is to keep in mind that for moms who don't have time to read, you don't actually have to read the book cover to cover. You can read the first two parts, which is the principles, in under an hour, probably under forty-five minutes. Then the rest of the book, it’s organized around the quadrants. Each chapter, if you feel I'm spending too much time in a range, go into that chapter. You go pull tips. Tips are either general -- there are general, conceptual. Then it’s also age by age. How do I apply this? What can I ask a twelve-year-old to do around the house that's reasonable? Everything is both age by age. You don't have to do it all. MAX, MOD, MIN on the book too.
Zibby: [laughs] That's awesome. Love it. Thanks so much.
Julie: My pleasure.