5 things I learned when The Organizer paid a visit

The Organizer takes stock

My friend Heidi is a professional organizer, and when she heard that this month’s Life Experiment is all about Creating Order, she offered to get me started.

I jumped at the opportunity.

She arrived promptly at 8:15 am, full of reassurances. “I don’t make judgments,” she said, more than once. “It’s about you and how you live.  My work is very personal, and everything is confidential.”

I’d done little to prepare for the visit; Heidi wanted to see what things looked like when I hadn’t made a special effort. Before we got to work, I took her on a quick top-to-bottom tour—from my clothes- and book-strewn bedroom to my chaotic basement, a potter’s field for old electronics, work files, and memorabilia.

Over the next two hours, we made substantial inroads, far more than I would have thought possible for such a short session. We started out by going through piles on my dining room table, where I’d gathered some of my most challenging small organization projects.

For example: What do you do with that collection of random screws, nails, and other mysterious hardware items?

Answer: Your throw it out.

Now this might not be the case for someone who is handy and does lots of home improvement projects, but as soon as Heidi told me I could pitch this stuff, I felt instant relief.

And, as she explained it, that’s a big part of what a professional organizer does: Gives you permission to toss stuff that you can’t seem to toss on your own.  (Or, as she diplomatically put it, surveying my living room: “It’s my job to get you to think about things, so this sort of situation doesn’t ensue.”)

That being said, Heidi certainly didn’t pressure me; she mainly just asked questions.

“Why do you need the instructions to your blender?” she inquired.

I skimmed through the little booklet. “Look! There are recipes! I’m going to put this with my recipe books.”

She gave me a long look. “Really?” she said. Really?

After that she let it go, except for one final observation. “I’ll bet you never go to that blender thing to make a recipe out of it. (Chances are she’s entirely right, but for now, I’m still keeping it.)

This isn’t the first time I’ve made an effort to be more organized (over the years, as I recounted in Salon, I’ve spent thousands of dollars on storage), and some of Heidi’s tips—such as the adage to “put like with like”—were already familiar to me.

But other truths came as either novel insights or much-needed reminders. For the record, here they are:

1. No one wants your old cassette tapes.

No one. Absolutely no one.  After a rejection from Goodwill, I’d been planning to move on. Heidi told me not to bother.

2. You don’t have to be like your parents

“I’m sort of like my mother,” I explained, as I dithered over whether to discard some melted-down candle remnants.

Heidi’s matter-of-fact response: “You don’t have to be.”

3.  Just because something was once pretty doesn’t mean it still is.

“I loved this,” I said wistfully, gazing at my one-time favorite Vera Bradley tote bag, now torn and stained.

I wondered if I should keep it—until Heidi’s voice broke in. “You can’t donate that,” she said practically. “You have to throw it away.”

A scummy candle holder with a floral pattern elicited a similar response.

Me: “It’s sort of pretty.”

Heidi: “Not so much anymore.”

Bonus tip:  If something has sentimental value but no current use, think of taking a digital photo and discarding the object itself.

4.  Projects take less time than you think they will . . .

“It’s going to take me hours just to go through that,” I said gesturing to a pile of boxes on the stairway landing as we emerged from the basement.

Heidi stopped me right there. “Why?” she said.

“Oh, you know,” I said vaguely. “Lots of random things in various places, have to go through it all.”

“Well, let’s just see,” said Heidi.

And you know what? Most of those boxes were empty, except for packing materials. After five or 10 minutes, only a small stack of papers and binders remained to be sorted.

5.  Unless they take more

As she gathered up her things, preparing to leave, Heidi said: “You know you have a lot of work to do, right?”

The words brought me back to earth. I’d felt like we’d accomplished so much! And yet, this was just a beginning.

“How long do you think the whole house will take?”

“Well, it depends on how much time you spend but, maybe  . . . a month or so?”

Happily, one month is exactly the length of my Creating Order Life Experiment. Three days down, 27 to go. Yes, I’m just getting started.

Special offer: Heidi—whose full name is Heidi Robinson—is offering a two-hour organizing session for $50—that’s 50% off her usual rate—to the first five Northampton-area Plan B Nation readers to contact her. You can reach her by phone at 413-219-7433 or email her at heidilisa43@yahoo.com.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “5 things I learned when The Organizer paid a visit

  1. A friend of mine remarked yesterday that, when going through his grandmother’s things after she died, he found a small box labeled “string too small to use.”

    I think that some people still function under a direct or indirect (inherited) influence of the Great Depression, when folks had to use everything to its last viable degree. Are there analogies to Plan B Nation? Hard to say. For myself, I’m finding that simplifying (that is, getting rid of stuff, finding what is most important) has made a lot of sense in the past two years.

    • String too small too use! That’s one to remember–a poignant sweet metaphor for the determined holding on. I’ll remember this one.

      Thanks so much for reading & commenting. And yes! I love the feeling of simplifying–very much a work in progress for me, but I plan to keep going.

  2. Oh Amy, this is my issue! I fear that an organizer would simply pour gasoline on my things, strike a match, then come back when the embers had died and post a sign condemning the area for 100 years . . . ; ) (I’m tempted to say that I will jump right in and join you, but I’ve given up street drugs . . . : )

  3. From 1973 to 1988, just 15 years, I changed continents eight times! It was a terrific way to clutch only what was most valuable to me. (Mostly artwork, some music, antiques, mementos of people, places and childhood.) Since then, I’ve created one locus … South Florida … with forays from that point to my other favorite countries. But my challenge is that I keep “bringing things home.” So staying uncluttered is a matter of constantly choosing what I love best … and what I can let go of. Changing continents was easier!

    • Thanks, Sharon! And yes, reducing the “bringing in” seems to be an essential part of this effort. For me, the huge effort I’m now having to spend on sorting and winnowing is a bit incentive to be more mindful going forward. Hope it sticks!

  4. The secret is out! I’m working with Heidi too and I can’t tell you what a blessing she is to work with and the space she has created in my life. More from this mother blogging soon.

  5. Awesome Amy! I’m so proud of you. Keep sharing your 30 day experiment. Take us on your journey. Be sure to include pictures. Before and after shots please. Oh, and go throw out that blender pamphlet right this minute young lady. If you haven’t looked at it in a year – out it goes. Trust me.

  6. Remodels are great for forcing you to get rid of stuff. It was really freeing. Plus, having a huge dumpster in the driveway made it really easy to get rid of stuff. And once we threw something in, there was NO retrieving it.

  7. You made me laugh at loud because I have said those very same things! I have a closet that has been begging to be reamed. Thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Great post, Amy.

    My 2 tips?

    1) my mom, sister, and I sometimes go through each other’s closets, giving ourselves permission to get rid of outdated, stained, ill-fitting clothes.
    2) With really daunting projects, sometimes I set a timer for a tiny amount of time–5 or 10 minutes–and just do that much. When it rings, you can continue or quit. It’s up to you.

    Bon weekend.

    • Oh Anne, you’re so brave! I’d be way too happy to go through my sisters’ closets, but I don’t think that I’d be able bear them going through mine. As for my mother, well, she hasn’t been in my house for years — a peace we made about my complaining about her complaining about my housekeeping — and are much better for.

    • Thanks, Anne! Sadly, I’m with Anne J. though–if I went through a closet with my mother, I suspect it would be like the Biblical loaves & fishes–the junk would mysteriously multiply rather than depleting.

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