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SHOPPING: Has anyone seen my pants?

Your house is crammed and cluttered and out of control. What you need is a plan of attack.
November 7, 2004

BY GEORGEA KOVANIS
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Every once in awhile, something happens that makes a person take stock of his or her life. For me, it involved losing my pants.

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That's when I realized my house was a dysfunctional mess.

Not the sort of mess that requires calling in a Hazmat crew, but a cluttered mess with countless issues of the New Yorker stacked on tables, a small mountain of shoes near the front door, a box of empty Pellegrino bottles in the kitchen waiting to be returned for deposit, junk mail all over my desk, and antique botanical prints I'd chosen and framed with care piled on another table, waiting to be hung on the wall.

The jumble had bothered me for ages. No matter how often I dusted or mopped or vacuumed, things always looked messy. And even though I like my tiny house, the disarray meant that coming home at night wasn't always as relaxing or as restful as it could be, in part because I spent half of my time at home looking for items -- lipsticks, bills, recipes, my pager -- misplaced amid the clutter.

Now things were a whole lot worse.

One of my favorite pairs of trousers -- camel-colored wool bought on sale at Banana Republic -- had gone missing. I knew they had to be inside one of my small closets, but which one? And where? All three are packed with skirts, blouses, jackets and dresses, including many items I hadn't worn in years.

Right then and there, I snapped.

I couldn't take it anymore. I had to do something about my clutter.

Later, I learned that this is high season for getting organized.

Experts say it's because of the weather. We're trying to store tables and chairs and patio umbrellas in the garage and realizing there's barely enough room for the car. We're trying to put empty flowerpots in the already packed basement. We're spending more time inside now, and more time inside means more time spent looking at messy dining room tables and cluttered TV rooms.

Plus, the holidays are upon us -- and that means company. No more hiding when the doorbell rings.

Searching Organized Living, Target, Home Depot and Meijer for boxes and bins and shelves seemed like a smart way to start. (Another organizing chain store called Hold Everything opens Monday at the Somerset Collection --the first one in Michigan!) All the magazines about decorating and home improvement are full of pictures of happy people showing off organizing systems; it seemed to be the secret to combating clutter.

I found a pop can dispenser. And a grocery bag organizer, which made me feel dumb because I just wad up plastic bags and stick them in a drawer; I fold up the paper ones and put them in a cupboard.

But I couldn't make a decision.

Were shelves the answer to my problems? A hamper system? Garment bags? Under-the-bed storage boxes to compete with my dustballs?

There were too many choices.

Pendaflex company, which makes office supplies, says that 65 percent of Americans admit to being organizationally challenged. No wonder organizing items are so popular.

I now understood why Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, says getting organized is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. How many billion? He didn't know. But he said that at this time last year, his organization had 2,000 professional organizers on its membership rolls. (Yes, there are people who charge $25 and $75 an hour to teach you how to get rid of your clutter.) Now it has 2,850.

Locally, the growth has been similarly dramatic. "Three years ago when I started my company, there were six organizers registered in Michigan," said Betty Huotari, vice president of the Michigan NAPO chapter and owner of Logical Placement in Fenton.

She says her industry's popularity is a result of our busy lives; we need help organizing because we don't have time to do it. Also, many of us are pack rats who collect everything from Internet data to garden gnomes. She quotes a Wall Street Journal story that reported the average American executive spends 6 weeks a year looking for paperwork misplaced on messy desks and in messy files.

Eventually, clutter will take control of your life.

You'll be late to work because you can't find your clothes. Your bills will always be always late because they got lost in the debris on the dining room table. You'll start pretending you're not home because your living room is too messy for company.

I didn't want that to happen to me; it was bad enough I couldn't find my pants.

After hours in the stores, I forced myself to buy something: a huge basket for $12.

I figured it would be perfect for storing magazines. Except when I got home, I realized I already have big baskets full of magazines.

It turned out I'd made a common mistake: I'd tried to get organized without getting organized to get organized.

I hadn't figured out where to start.

I hadn't taken inventory of what I had. I hadn't decided what to keep and what to ditch, which I knew would be difficult because not only am I attached to my stuff, it represents me.

My stuff is part of my identity. My friends know me as someone who has too many books and too many magazines. They know that I have a tendency to frame things but not hang them on the wall. That I buy too many toys for my cats. That I can't pass up a good deal on Calphalon pans.

Some experts recommend taking a photograph of something you love but no longer need. That way you have the memory of your varsity sweater or your kid's macaroni sculpture, without the clutter of the object itself.

Some experts say it's easiest to make decisions on clothing if you don't touch the clothing. They suggest getting a friend to hold up a dress or point to a jacket because touching clothing stimulates emotional attachment. Others suggest getting a friend involved for moral support.

" One of the first things we tackled was the closet," said Lee Ann King, a 56-year-old teacher from Swartz Creek, who ended up hiring Huotari. "I remember the point where we had taken the boxes out of this room and put it in my spare room. I just looked at this pile of stuff and said, 'We're never going to get through this.' With somebody standing there, it's a lot easier to make decisions."

Joan Raubar, a 60-year-old psychologist from Fenton, hired Huotari because her clutter was making her late to work and keeping her from having company over.

" We did every closet I own," said Raubar. The process of paring down was difficult. "I would get short of breath and have to leave the room. She made me pick a finite number, say three winter purses ... collected bags, those Lancome bags and Chanel. I had dozens."

But deciding where your castoffs go requires making more decisions and, in some cases, confronting your past.

What do you do with that sweater you no longer wear? Do you return it to its rightful owner -- your now-married ex-boyfriend who loaned it to you when you were dating?

Do you donate it to the Salvation Army?

I knew I wouldn't be able to make decisions like that about my clothes; that would require more thought and time.

But I wanted to do something productive, something I could accomplish in an hour or so, something where I could see the results right away.

I attacked my kitchen pantry.

I threw away cans of soup long past their sell-by date. I threw away a can of crushed pineapple that had expired in 2000. I discovered shish kebab skewers in two sizes, long-forgotten paper plates, and several boxes of lime Jell-O, even though I didn't recall buying them or ever eating lime Jell-O.

I scrubbed down the shelves and organized spices on a tray I already had. I put paper napkins and plates on another tray that I slid onto the top shelf. (It's always smart to use things you already have around the house. That way you save money, and don't clutter up with more purchases.) Getting rid of the old stuff made room for oversized pots and pans that don't fit in the regular cupboards.

By the time I finished, I was proud of my accomplishment.

Huotari told me I'd been right to start small -- "What happens is if you look at the whole big picture, usually you feel overwhelmed" -- and that I'd also been smart to limit my task, otherwise organizing can become tiring and you can get resentful of the time it's taking, even though it'll save you time in the end. She also said I'd been correct to start in a room where I enjoy spending time, so the project would be even more meaningful.

A couple days later, I threw out a bunch of old magazines.

My closets are next.

I still have to find my pants.

still have to find my pants.

Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.