Four Stumbling Blocks a Home Organizer Can Help You Overcome

(originally posted December 6, 2009)

I get you.

Now, you might be wondering why the heck I’m showing you a photo of my cluttered, chaotic studio when I want home organizing jobs. Good point. The answer is I’m not that kind of a home organizer.

Anyone who has shared a dorm room, house, or desk with me knows that I am not a type-A neatnik.  I come with a fair amount of “stuff” that I like to collect and hold onto. Examples:

  • I’m very visually-oriented so I need to keep important things in sight, not hidden away in the middle of a tidily stacked pile.
  • I document things on little slips of paper and leave them in places that are relevant to me, a habit that can be irritating or bewildering to others.
  • I like to keep my options open as long as possible. Therefore I hang onto flyers for meetings and sales that I might attend, until they are out of date and can safely be recycled.

So again, why am I telling this to you, my potential client??  Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Your hangups + my attitude = 4 good pairings

Last week I had a thought-provoking organizing gig. Not only was it delightful working and chatting with this client, but we were calmly productive and finished in about half of the time we had allotted for the job:  an organizational tune-up for her home office. Talking with her about her stuff led to these four thoughts:

One: It takes courage to expose the messy parts of your life.

Several people have told me that they want to hire me, but they need to clean up and get more organized first. (Um, hey, that’s what you hire me for!)

My recent client, whom I’ll call “Emily,” mentioned in an email prior to my visit that she was resisting the urge to tidy up, in an effort to show me an authentic glimpse of her office, and therefore of her organizing “issues.”

She was facing down organizerphobes' greatest fear:  the fear of being exposed as messy. And folks, she survived it!

Plus, because her authentic mess was present when I got there, we were able to sort through and deal with the real thing. That paves the way for more lasting results.

Two: Our stuff tells stories. Let's hear 'em!

I am fascinated by what things people choose to keep, and why. But here's the riddle:

Often we keep our most important and interesting possessions—the things that truly reflect our interests and personality—shoved away in the deepest corner of our closets, giving the prime real estate to the blander, more “acceptable” objects. My question: Why?

Quick story here: I read in the paper a while back about a columnist’s experience hiring an interior decorator to help deal with his small space. The author had descended from literary stock and owned an antique oak writer’s desk that had been in his family for years. You could tell it was his prized possession by the way he wrote about it. And you could also hear the sadness in his tone when he reported getting rid of it on the decorator’s suggestion, in favor of a more modern piece that she thought went better with the decor.

I was horrified! So much so that I sent the columnist an email telling him that if he’d hired me, we would have started with the writer’s desk and worked the rest of the “decor” around it.

People, the Pottery Barn catalog is pretty, but it’s been done already. The world could use a shot of YOUR history and goofy quirks, whether it’s your awesome Pez dispenser collection (you know who you are!), your stash of Giants’ scorecards dating back to the ’80’s, or whatever. Bring them front and center! Let your living or work space reflect that part of you. No one else can tell your story. Why spend money and energy trying to tell someone else's??

Three: You just need someone to ask the right questions.

Ok, so you’ve got your pet rocks displayed out on the coffee table now, freeing up those bottom drawers. (I’m going to hear it from the spouses and housemates pretty soon.) Now it’s time to deal with all that other stuff.

Why do you have it? When do you use it? Is it every day? Every month? Once a year? Not yet, but maybe someday...?

Sometimes just saying it out loud: “I’ve never liked this thing, but my Aunt Millie gave it to me, and she died last year, and...” helps to clarify what can stay or go. I’m not going to judge you, because I go through the same processes with my own stuff (plus, now you’ve seen my garage), but I can give you that magical permission to chuck or keep certain things, which will be based on listening to how you talk about it.

We hold on to things for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we don't know what they are until we hear ourselves speak.

Four: A fresh pair of eyes can often break through the roadblock.

Emily asked me, when I arrived for our appointment, if I’d brought my magic wand. Well, almost.

What I’d brought were eyes that had never seen her clutter or her office space, and that weren’t attached to her stuff or to her current organizing systems.

When you look at your own stuff day after day, it becomes “the way it is” and it can be hard to see other options. That’s what a fresh pair of eyes can do. It only feels like magic.

So, back to my own clutter.

The funny thing about all of this is that I'm pretty sure Emily hired me because of my messy studio. That’s where we were standing when she brought up her organizing needs. She knew I knew where she was coming from. I wasn't going to judge her ways. I was not one of those prim and hyper-tidy people who might not relate to her struggles.

At the end of our uber-productive session in her home office, she loaned me a book about organizing, right before thanking me for a job well done. Go figure.