When it comes to organizing, some people are filers, and some people are pilers, and some are a little of both.
One isn't better than the other, say the professional organizers who free their clients from clutter without passing judgment. Instead, it's a matter of simply learning how to place your belongings so you can find them again when you need them.
Tackle organizing tasks one small step at a time.
If you haven’t worn it in two years, get rid of it.
Remove articles or recipes you want to save from periodicals and put them in a binder.
Set up a space to open and sort the mail every day with a recycle bin nearby. Glance at it enough to know what it is, but don’t read it. Toss, file or take action.
Keep communication clear on what everyone else is doing, and when, by tracking schedules on a family calendar.
At the end of each day, have everyone go around the house and collect all their “strays” and put their stuff back. Doesn’t have a home? Create one or get rid of it.
"There's a big misconception out there that being organized is an inherited trait. It's really not," said Barry Izsak, who is so organized that he's president of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) and author of an organizing how-to book.
"It's a learned behavior," said Izsak, who lives in Austin, Texas. "It's an acquired skill, but the problem is most people were never taught."
Business is great these days for organizing professionals, as well as the suppliers of organizing tools like clear plastic boxes, automobile-visor CD holders, and drawer partitions.
One reason is that we have a lot to organize.
More than ever, "we're consumers," said Audrey Robertson, public relations director at the Container Store, which carries 10,000 organizing products and made $505 million last year. The company has 39 stores across the country and is opening two more this year.
"There's a lot out there right now about simplifying your life and streamlining your possessions, but when it comes down to it, it's hard to get rid of your things," Robertson said.
With slower days of summer here, why not use a little bit of the down time to clear out the clutter?
Professional organizers use a few different tactics for helping their customers with the paper piles, stuffed closets and mountains of periodicals that often trigger the first call for help.
Sally Goff, a professional organizer in Meridian, Idaho, offers a free consultation.
"You tell me and show me where the problem is, and you get a chance to see if you feel comfortable around me," Goff said. "Because it's very personal."
Goff's clients often need help with things like letters and cards; children's schoolwork; jewelry they will never wear but can't bear to part with because it was a gift from someone they loved; toys, and kitchen equipment they rarely or never use.
Goff helps her clients throw out or give away what they don't have room for. With items like children's artwork, "they feel almost like they don't care enough if they get rid of that," she said.
"Really it's the opposite," Goff said. "It is teaching your children that what's most important is the relationship you have on a day-to-day basis. Those material things — they could go up in flames in a fire or something, but the relationship is still going to be there."
As for closets, a big trouble spot, Goff said many people hang on to clothing that no longer fits in the hope that it will again someday.
"I can't say I never do that," she noted.
Organizing sometimes seems like counseling, said Malia Hall of Boise, Idaho, who has been in the organizing business 19 years.
"I have had people that cried because they're so embarrassed and emotional and very frustrated about where they have gotten to in their disorganization," Hall said. "I have been referred by many counselors and psychiatrists."
For the couple with different organizing styles, Izsak recommends the same approach couples use to figure out how many children they want to have, or where they want to live.
"You have to compromise, talk it through, and figure out something that's going to work for the two of you," Izsak said. "When it comes to a point where one or the other can't take it, enter the organizer."
Before they call a professional, people often go out and buy containers, often the big plastic kind available now at any home store. Don't, said Izsak. You'll just add to the clutter. First, assess what you need and get that.
"It can be as simple as a Rubbermaid turntable for your spices because the cabinet is deep and you can't figure out which ones you've got," Izsak said.
In an effort to help future generations avoid the mistakes this one has made in an age of abundance, Izsak's association sends professionals into the schools to teach kids organizing skills.
"We teach the kids the concept of sorting," said Deborah Kawashima, an organizer who volunteers through the NAPO program in the Los Angeles public schools.
"Ninety-six percent of organizing is decision-making," Kawashima said.
Organization is about finding what you need when you need it, said Izsak. And it's about getting rid of what you don't need.
"We're not telling people you can't save these things," said Izsak. "But be realistic. You can't save every single one of them."