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Organizing: Get it Together

Decluttering becomes its own niche

By Cindy Sutter
Scripps Howard News Service

The mailbox is jammed. Several bills. Yikes, the insurance company denied a claim for that urgent care visit. Hmm, the car dealership has a good deal on oil changes, which the SUV needs. It's the deadline for that magazine subscription. Maybe it's time to join that environmental group. Time to make an appointment for the child's annual checkup.

The backpacks are jammed. Science fair. Time to send a check for lunch money. This week's spelling words. There's a bake sale next week.

The closet is jammed. You can barely squeeze in the coats. Why do left-hand gloves always get lost?

Sound familiar? In many American homes, there's plenty flowing in and not much flowing out. The result: People feel increasingly overwhelmed.

Patty McGill of Lafayette, Colo., a mother with four young children and a husband who frequently travels overseas on business, was one of them. She decided to call in help in the form of professional organizer, Teri Lynn Mabbitt, who runs Chaos 2 Calm in Louisville, Colo.

"I called her and said, 'I'm in chaos. I need some serious help,"' Patty says. Six months later, she says friends commented on how much calmer she seems.

Teri Lynn began by doing a walk-through of the house and discussing the problem areas.

The first thing they tackled was the home's paperwork, which Teri Lynn says is typically a starting point.

"It would take me hours to find the insurance or the taxes on the house," Patty says. "I didn't have a taxes file."

They moved on to the pantry, the garage, closets and toys. Teri Lynn enlisted the older children, then elementary aged, in making a plan for toys.

Teri Lynn spent about 30 hours with Patty, giving her about six hours of homework a week and then spending time helping Patty on the most difficult projects.

"Once one area is done, you crave the next area and the next, because you see the difference you can make," Patty says.

A big innovation was a landing zone in the mudroom where children's school papers are sorted into work to be done or a memento box for art or other items they want to keep. Now much of the daily load of paper never makes it into the house. Tasks to be done are entered on Patty's PDA and the necessary bill or paper is filed in the appropriate place.

Patty was a bit nervous about entering the world of electronic calendar-keeping, but Teri Lynn convinced her.

"A lot of times (clients) are afraid of (electronic planners)," says Teri Lynn, who has been an organizer since 2003. "In their mind, they think it's going to be too regimented. In actuality, it brings a tremendous amount of peace. When they don't have their day planned out, there's a tremendous amount of stress being in defensive mode. (With the planner), you're running your life instead of your life running you."

Mary Anne Lessley, who owns Creative Organizing in Boulder, Colo., agrees that paper is often the biggest problem in a home.

In 1996, Mary Anne, who has been a professional organizer for since 1985, co-authored a book File Anything in Your Home... and Find It Again.

She advocates a system in which paper is piled according to simple categories, such as transportation or health care, labeled and filed. Organizing, she says, is "creating homes for paper and creating homes for possessions."

Mary Anne also has worked extensively with people with traumatic brain injuries, including her sister, who was in a coma for a month after having been kicked by a horse. For people like her sister, an organized planning system is essential, since memory and other problems may make managing everyday life difficult.

"I helped her put an organizer together," Mary Anne says. "That was her brain (for a while)."

Lisa Sarasohn, a professional organizer who owns Hire Order, also stresses managing the information flow. Maintaining a complete family calendar is key, she says.

When she works with a client, she does an assessment of problem areas and comes up with a road map of what needs to be done. Typically, they start with whatever thing is irritating the client most.

"If the whole house is a disaster, I encourage them to start in the bedroom," she says. "Don't sleep with the stress, and don't wake up with the stress."

(Contact Cindy Sutter originally wrote this article for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Co., at

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