(Author's Note: This piece originally ran at The Huffington Post on May 29, 2008. We have since moved to a bigger apartment).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that major life changes tend to involve a lot of stuff. My husband Michael and my wedding four years ago increased the amount of glassware in our apartment exponentially. The birth of our son last spring - without trading up from our 1-bedroom apartment - necessitated putting our dining room table in storage and turning the dining "alcove" (read: hallway) into a nursery. Jasper's toys and clothes quickly filled the available space. Add in the constant barrage of newspapers, magazines, and review copies of books that arrive on the desk in my home office (read: a corner of the bedroom) and the whole house was starting to look like a "before" scene on TLC's Clean Sweep.
I suppose it's not surprising. I've always been a relatively messy person, albeit one with enough self-awareness to recognize that. When I went off to college, I requested neat roommates in order to keep my habits in check. Now, though, since I've been known to log 23 hours a day inside the apartment, I've been feeling the need to do something about the mess. I recently threw out two bags of trash from my desk when I couldn't find a document I thought I needed. I ordered a toy basket to give everything a home.
Still, the clutter seemed to be winning. So I did what any modern woman would do.
I called a professional organizer.
The field of professional organizing is relatively new - and is thoroughly a creation of the modern era. In the past, a home maker was simply expected to have these things under control. Standolyn Robertson, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers and owner of the organizing service Things in Place, told me that years ago, she described her vision of organizing closets to her high school guidance counselor. The counselor told her "You want to be a wife."
But that wasn't quite it. Organizing is a skill, just as composing advertising jingles is a skill. In theory anyone can do it, but some people do it much better than others. The hilarity of professional organizing is not that it exists, it's that in the past all women were expected to have this skill, just as the job description of "wife" roped in cooking, cleaning, laundering, home decorating, landscaping, birthday party planning and scheduling in addition to childcare.
Now, a growing number of women are focusing on their core competencies - nurturing their families and their paid work - and bringing in the professionals for the other stuff. Organizer Peter Walsh is a staple on Oprah. You can become certified in professional organizing. NAPO has about 4,000 members.
In my attempt to make my life run smoothly, I decided to try professional organizing services myself. My family has some experience with this, at least on the time management side. About a year and a half ago, my husband's employer contracted with organizational guru Julie Morgenstern. She met with Michael and tried to wrestle his schedule under control. First she made fun of him for having a 100-page "To Do" list (it isn't really 100 pages, he just keeps making new lists on top of the old ones, so the file is 100 pages, but there's only a limited number of active items at any given time). Then she gave him some tips: Don't check email all day long. Carve out blocks of time to work on projects. Enlist his assistant as a partner in managing his schedule (that is, establish priorities so she could check everything against those priorities before sticking anything on the calendar).
He didn't do well with following her advice. As he explained to me, in a lot of corporate environments these days, people expect immediate responses. That creates the risk that someone is sitting around, ineffectively waiting for the next piece of direction. In other words, like an arms race in which the first person to buckle loses, everyone is checking his Blackberry every two minutes, because he thinks everyone else is checking his Blackberry. It's hard to change habits.
That's something Janine Sarna-Jones, the New York-based owner of Organize Me, said when she showed up at my apartment last week. I'd given her a call to see if professional organizing might prove more effective on our closets than on my husband's schedule. Janine, a former protégé of Julie Morgenstern's, noted that people needed to be committed to making changes in order for them to actually stick. So for the next two hours, as I studied her methods, she studied my home office and kid space systems, and my commitment to actually doing things differently. She examined my teeming bookshelf warily. She opened the coat closet and asked if I had any idea what was in there. She noted the stack of Pampers boxes currently supporting a basket with diapers, wipes and a trash can at changing table level. She took notes.
Then she sat me down on the sofa.
"Here's the scoop," she said. "You guys have done an amazing job." I raised my eyebrows. She explained. We had managed to create a nursery in the former dining alcove of a 1-bedroom apartment that looked pretty good. We had proven ourselves able to go through stuff and dump it. Despite our chaotic schedule, we'd kept our kid well-fed (I guess the bar on organization is pretty low). We were not disorganized. We had a more specific problem: "You guys are lazy," she said. Quite simply, if our messiness actually bothered us, we would have done something about it long ago. As it is, we have the ability to walk daily past the car seat and bouncy seat our son has outgrown, know there is a storage space in Long Island City that's been leased to us, and yet we still haven't rented the Zipcar or hailed a cab and gone back out there. "You get 80% there," she said, "and then the last 20% you say screw it."
I've never been one for accepting 80%, and certainly a number of tweaks could make our lives smoother. We could corral the tub toys into a mesh basket so I wouldn't step on them when I showered. I could create a standing date with a house cleaning service, rather than scheduling it when we remembered. I should just order new sheets rather than hating the old, discolored ones stuffed into the linen closet. I should find spots for a few step ladders around the apartment ("you're not short; you have high ceilings") and hang brooms, mops and the umbrella stroller on the backs of closet doors. My son might benefit from an actual bedtime.
But as Janine pointed out, messiness and clutter don't necessarily mean you're dysfunctional. In fact, my life functions pretty well. My desk is a mess, but I know before any given week starts what my priorities will be, both professionally and personally. I know what my long-term goals are for any given year. When I identify a problem that bothers me, I fix it. Quick. When I realized that a jogging stroller would let my husband and me run together on weekends without having to find a sitter, a jogging stroller arrived in the apartment inside three days. The fact that I have a mail station in the house? Bonus points. "Most of the time when people call me, it's because they're in pain," Janine says. "You guys have a lot of clutter," but she didn't feel the hurt. Quite frankly, we didn't need a lot of ongoing organizational help.
So was the assessment worthwhile? I think so. It's always good to get an outside opinion on a situation. Thinking through the hot spots in my house has given me the motivation to start cleaning out the closet and getting rid of the clothes that I don't wear. But it's nice to know that, for all my messiness, I could be doing a lot worse. I mean, doesn't everyone store their pans on top of the stove?