Over Your Head

Over Your Head

Getting organized is a snap when you get some professional help.

The interior of my mother’s old Dodge Dart was incessantly littered with books, papers, bags of bottles and cans for recycling, playful stickers and toys for her grandchildren and other detritus. At her writing desk was a bumper sticker that read, “A clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.” Featured prominently on my bookshelf, naturally, is one of my favorite tomes, entitled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. (I bought it for my husband, whose office resembles my mother’s car. So far it hasn’t worked.)

Those of us who admit to loving Martha Stewart or who are simply fastidious by nature understand the value of being organized. You can put your finger on anything when you need it; you can open any cupboard and immediately see what is there and what is lacking; ultimately, you can save time, energy and aggravation. But for a lot of people, the process of organizing one’s stuff can trigger tremendous amounts of anxiety.


Mind over Matter

According to Dr. Arlene Taylor, a brain function specialist and educator, our brain tends to “downshift” when we face an unpleasant task. Often, that downshifting results in simply ignoring the growing piles of paper or going to the refrigerator for a carton of Ben & Jerry’s. Because most of us are just better at some things than others, Taylor recommends that we spend less than 10 percent of our time on things we are not good at. That alone seems like a splendid reason to bring in someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Professional organizer Laura Hendry, owner of Elite Organizer and Co. and a kind of “clutter whisperer,” understands. “If you try to get a creative person to organize things, they can feel anxious and exhausted . . . it just trashes their mental state. Some of them feel so bad that they hide out and isolate themselves. Others actually down-regulate [relax] when surrounded by stuff. Everybody has a different palette of what works,” she says. Hendry says her job is to establish trust so that she can help clients make good decisions about sorting, tossing and organizing.

Professional organizers must be equal parts psychologist, parent, interior designer, life coach, efficiency expert and furniture mover. Their services run the gamut, from transforming a small workspace to assisting in a major move. Organizers will assess your learning style (are you a visual person who needs to see where everything is stored or a tactile person who likes softer containment systems?), observe your daily routines to determine where items are most used, monitor the dynamics within your family or business and learn your tolerance for change.

“It’s kind of like being an anthropologist—you dig into somebody’s life on a level that few people ever do,” says Rachel Siegel, owner of Spruce. “The client has to really want it.” She urges people not to hire organizers for somebody else because the task is very personal and shouldn’t be imposed. (The National Association of Professional Organizers can help you find a professional who specializes in what you need. See the Resource box on this page.)

Many professionals do a telephone intake survey to determine if the fit is right for the client. Others meet with clients at an office before stepping foot in their homes.

The first question an organizer will ask is “What kind of help do you need?”

For example, are you trying to organize one office or clear out an entire home after an elderly relative has passed away? Are you perpetually disorganized or an empty-nester wanting to use the kids’ rooms for a different purpose?

Depending upon your goals, the costs will vary. Some organizers charge an hourly rate (on average, about $100), and others charge by the project. Siegel, who works with a crew of two to four, depending upon the tasks involved, charges by the day, based on an estimate for how long she thinks it will take. “You really don’t know until you start unearthing, but I’m right more than I’m wrong,” she says. And like other organizers, Siegel is willing to re-negotiate as the project progresses.


The Right Sort

Even willing participants get a little nervous when the organizer first arrives, fearing the imposition of a rigid system of order.

Organizer Ami DeAvilla, who previously worked as an art therapist, begins by helping clients have a dialogue about their stuff and their relationship with things outside themselves.

“Some people like spaciousness; some like to be surrounded by stuff. We can clear up the major things but still let them have some clutter,” says DeAvilla. She sees the home or workspace as a dynamic place that can change and breathe, not one that remains organizationally static.

Frequently, the organizer’s job is to move materials to predictable places where they are most often used. Organizer Victoria Roberts calls it the “preschool model” where there’s a place for your lunchbox, coat, sleeping mat and toys. Establishing mutually agreed-upon locations for items the whole family uses, such as keys or office supplies, eliminates a lot of hunting, guessing and blame.

Roberts likes to use containment devices for the family’s games, supplies and tools that can be stored in an orderly way and accessed easily. “It’s a good model for a family when you have a number of different people with different styles, agendas or jobs,” says Roberts.

Sometimes the right kind of storage container can make a difference. If you prefer a softer look than the standard plastic or plastic-wrapped metal from office supply or container stores, you can check out home interior shops that carry woven baskets or decorative cabinets suitable for storing and displaying. Papillon Home on Solano in Berkeley carries a series of colorful Chinese lacquer chests with drawers sized for CDs or other small collectibles.

It’s not unusual for the organizer to find stacks of new, unused storage containers in a client’s garage. “Often, the first thing people want to do is get a better storage container, as if somehow that will make it all better. But we first need to assess what they have and what they need and then we’ll know whether a different container will solve the problem,” says DeAvilla.

Often, the solution has to do with purging. If you have been hauling boxes of papers with each move from house to house, you may finally have to ask yourself whether or not you really need all those papers. With so much information available on the Internet, old recipes or garden tips are just as likely to be published on the Web as in print. Besides, old paper invites dust mites and other allergens.

A question that plagues many people in our culture is just how much do we need to feel abundant? Rachel Siegel makes a practice of grouping multiples of similar items so the client can see the plethora of thier duplicates. She helps a client create a decorating vision, hone in on her theme and get rid of what doesn’t fit. “One of my clients wanted to create an environment that had a peaceful Asian feeling. As we went through her porcelain tchotchkes and vases I held up each one and asked, ‘How does this serve your Asian goal?’” says Siegel. Once a person sees the sheer magnitude of her belongings—especially with the help of an objective third party—she can save what she loves and let go of the rest.

Laura Hendry says a major reason people don’t get rid of stuff is that they just don’t know what to do with it. “One of my skill-sets is knowing every donation organization and what they will take,” Hendry says.

Children’s rooms are often a point of particular stress, which is why it’s important to make sure that all household members—including the kids—participate in the reorganization. The first step is to look at how a child uses his things and how he does or doesn’t put things away. “For kids, sometimes the closets are too high and out of reach, or the drawers stick, making it hard for kids to keep things organized,” says Roberts.


I’d Rather Do It Myself, Thank You

For those who need no outside motivation—or are too humiliated to allow anyone to see the mounds of clutter and levels of disorder—there are numerous do-it-yourself books and services. Kathy Waddill’s The Organizing Sourcebook: Nine Strategies for Simplifying Your Life offers a blueprint for tackling your mess, along with several case histories to remind you that you’re not alone. Organizer Eve Abbott, who works exclusively with businesses, wrote How to Do Space-Age Work with a Stone-Age Brain, full of information such as how to determine your learning style, alternative filing systems, proper ergonomics and optimal lighting.

The folks at Berkeley Outlet, a warehouse full of files, desks and office dividers, offer free consulting services for setting up your home or business office. Co-owner Kjersten Walker says to bring your office floor plan and dimensions and she’ll help map out your space, whether or not she has the right furniture for you.

Once you’ve organized your papers, established your old teddy bear in a place of honor and sold your matchbook collection on eBay, you may still be left with a garage full of junk. That’s the time to call 1-800-Got-Junk to haul away just about anything, almost all of it for recycling: “Point to it and we’ll take it,” says Chris Viebrock, the company’s operations manager.

And just how have Viebrock, a “tosser,” and his schoolteacher-girlfriend, a “saver,” managed their own stuff? They rented a storage space.


Andrea Pflaumer is a regular contributor to The Monthly and a wannabe slob.

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Eve Abbott, Organizer Extraordinaire, (510) 528-4950; www.organizer-extraordinaire.com

Ami DeAvilla, (510) 932-7500; www.organizingartists.com

Laura Hendry, Elite Organizer & Co., (925) 947-1818; www.eliteorganizer.com

Victoria Roberts Organizing, (415) 380-0751; www.victoriarobertsorganizing.com

Rachel Siegel, Spruce, www.sprucegirls.com

Francis Strassman, More Than Order, (510) 287-5583; www.morethanorder.com

Kathy Waddill, The Un-Tangled Web, (925) 254-4099; www.theuntangledweb.com

Berkeley Outlet, 711 Heinz Ave, Berkeley, (510) 549-2896; www.berkeleyoutlet.com

1-800-Got-Junk, 1-800-468-5865; www.1800gotjunk.com

The National Association of Professional Organizers, www.napo.net

Faces of the East Bay