Friday, March 18, 2016

What I Learned By Hiring a Professional Organizer for a Day

I stared at the empty Google search bar.

"organizing . . ."

It started to autofill: "Organizing tips." "Organizing books." "Organizing utility totes." All reasonable guesses, Google, but I was in too deep. 

I had read all the "tips" I could handle. There are no amount of pretty Pinterest pins or Life Hacks posts that are going to get me out of this one. As for books, I'd Marie Kondoed the whole place and was left with decidedly (and marginally satisfactorily) less stuff but no more order. And at this point another organizing "tote" or "bag" or "basket" or "miracle device" would just be one more thing I had to find a place for, and I couldn't do it. 

"organizing services st. louis" 

I completed the query and read through the results. They were all cheery and full of before and after pictures designed to make me feel like even my mess was manageable. I browsed for a few minutes, looked over price estimates where available, and then closed the computer. 

"This is ridiculous," I muttered to myself. "I can clean my own damned house." 

But the truth is, I can't.

In the strictest of senses, that's not entirely true. I have cleaned my own damned house. I do it every day. I do it in big ways (tearing everything out of a closet, sorting it into piles of trash, donate, and keep, and putting what's left back in) and I do it in small ways (all those mundane tasks of domesticity). But it was always temporary, and not just in the sense that it would, inevitably, get dirty again (although, yes. That, too). It was temporary in the sense that the things I had put up were perched on the edges of imbalance and seemed absolutely poised to spring back into chaos at the slightest provocation. 

Exhibit A: My daughter is a voracious crafter. She creates approximately two million drawings a day, and they have taken over multiple rooms in our house. After Pinterest told me to hang up ribbons to display them, I thought I had a solution, and I gladly gave over some wall space to support her burgeoning interests. 

But that did nothing to tame the supplies. Pencils, markers, crayons, paper, scissors, glue sticks with lids we'd never see again, glitter that would invade every crevice in the hardwood floors, feathers, sequins, and beads would not be contained by bins or reduced by willpower. So I reorganized, with what I thought was intention and planning, a hutch in the dining room until it contained all of the craft supplies. I stepped back from gorgeously organized drawers (one for each type of item) and clean shelves of neatly stacked materials. 

It stayed that way for hours. Of course, they were hours that my daughter was not home. Once she got home, it stayed that way for about thirty-two seconds. 

I have similar tales of woe from other such organizational attempts. I'd read online about how to keep socks matched or Tupperware containers forever linked to their lids, and I'd implement system after system to have it last less than a day. It's demoralizing. 

And the fact that I am about to bring an entire extra human being into this two-bedroom, one-bathroom space had me in more than a bit of a panic. So I opened the computer up and went back to the list of organizing services. 

I called and made an appointment. I talked to a very nice lady, and we made plans to use one of the days of my spring break to "put some systems in place" that would help. I was . . . skeptical. I was also mildly ashamed and frustrated with myself. It felt like a waste of money we didn't really have to spare. It felt like an unnecessary luxury that someone living a life that isn't at all like mine pampers herself with. It felt, also, like defeat. 

I almost canceled three times. 

In the weeks leading up to our meeting, I continued to declutter in some bizarre anti-nesting nesting. I  threw away and donated without a second thought. Shelves cleared, drawers emptied, and spaces opened, but I refused to put anything in them. It is obvious to me at this point that I can't be trusted with empty spaces. I don't know how to treat them well. I would wait until someone who could justify charging me money for her advice came in to fill them. 

When she arrived at my house, I was nervous. I felt like I didn't have the kind of house professional organizers came to, and I worried she would sense my undeserving qualities. If she felt that way, it did not show. A professional. 

The moment she walked in, I greeted her and then said, "I'm going for function, not form. I don't care if it's pretty. I don't need a single thing in my house to look like it could go in a magazine photo shoot. I just want things to work." 

She asked for a wish list of what we would accomplish over our four and a half hours together. I could tell by her face that my list was too long, but I gave it all anyway: I wanted the craft area I had built in the dining room to function without my daughter having to get everything she owned out to find one pink crayon, I wanted the "bonus room" we'd used for nothing but storage to have some functionality as a nursery or at least a space that makes me feel like bringing a baby home from the hospital is not an insane idea, I wanted a kitchen with cabinets that look like they were not filled haphazardly by a malfunctioning robot using some sort of color coding system designed by three different people who had never spoken to each other and who each suffered from a separate color blindness condition, and I wanted to be able to put dirty laundry somewhere other than the middle of my bedroom floor. 

I've always dreamed big. 

It was clear she knew this was too much, so she asked me to just pick a room. I chose the "bonus room," and that's where we began. But we were in there about two minutes before it became obvious to me that in order to move things out of that room, we'd have to tackle the bedroom closet, and in order to tackle the bedroom closet, we'd have to tackle the closet in my daughter's room, and in order to tackle that, we would have to tackle her toy boxes on the floor. This is the point I had gotten to on my own several times. Everything was connected in some microcosmic web that I could never untangle. My mind always shorted out when I could see more than two major moves necessary to get a task accomplished. Maybe this is why I suck at chess. 

Maybe she could see the sparks of terror flying behind my eyes, or maybe I just looked like a squirrel that was about to get creamed by a truck even though it should have been fully capable of jumping out of the way, but she grabbed her giant trash and recycle canisters, moved them into the other room, and said cheerily, "Let's go." I obeyed. 

A portrait of the author, mid project. 
Over the next four and a half hours, we tackled every single thing on my wish list. Sure, we left a path of debris in our wake. In the interest of time, I told her to pile up things we needed to toss out or sort. Once I could see the bones of the system she was building, it was good enough for me, and I asked to move on. I needed a lot of bones. 

When she left, my house was not yet clean, but there were fully four entire rooms that I could walk into and feel calm. That has never happened. Not ever. 

I definitely felt that the investment was worth the money and time, and I will consider it again in the future. In the meantime, I've been reflecting on the experience and have pulled out a couple of lessons that I hope I can put into use. 

There are Different Types of Clutter

One thing that was obvious was that the organizer is used to having to coax people into getting rid of their junk. She had tons of bags that she anticipated filling with trash and items to donate, but we only filled a few of them. This is because hanging onto things that I don't need is not my problem. My house is not too cluttered because I can't throw away a broken baby toy or part with old dishes when I get new ones. If anything, I might be on the other side of that divide, getting rid of some things a little too quickly (as the need to buy all of the baby stuff all over again is illustrating to me right now). 

But my house was still cluttered. Why? Because we had let things collect in spaces that didn't make sense, and it's all because of the way we moved into this house. When we came here, there were rooms we didn't even need to use. We had moved as newlyweds from a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen too small to hold both of us (not hold both of us comfortably, just hold both of us at all). We had no children. We didn't even have a dog yet. We had spent the last six years as students who had no money, so we had very few permanent things. Our couch was a futon. Our bed was two decades old. 

We put a bunch of stuff in the "spare" rooms because it was easier than really sorting it and making it work in the rooms we did use. Then those rooms became needed. We bought real furniture and needed someplace to put the futon. We got a dog and needed a place to put the dog crate. We had a baby, and she needed a place to sleep. That baby grew into a toddler, and she needed a place to put her one little box of toys. That toddler became a preschooler and she took over our entire house with glitter, dolls, and rocks like the inverse of a plague of a locusts. I took up roller derby and had a box of gear. My husband took up boxing and had a box of gear. We both got too busy for these hobbies and had boxes of gear we weren't even using. 

With each new round of stuff, we found corners to stack them and closets to cram them, and we never stopped to think about the logic of the locations. We were still working from the base we had built years ago when we first moved in, a base that had made sense for two newlyweds with no things and barely any responsibilities, a base that made no sense for our current lives. 

This is a lot of what the organizer spent her time doing. There were a lot of raised eyebrows as she held up a wayward item. "Is this the room you use this in?" she'd ask, holding my husband's shoes she'd found in my daughter's closet, knowing full well the answer was no. "No," I'd respond sheepishly. "And what about this?" she'd ask as she held up a bag of dish towels she'd found in the bedroom. "No," I'd whisper. 

The clutter wasn't because we had too much stuff. It was because the stuff was not in a logical home. That was the reason why it stayed cluttered no matter how many times I purged and sorted. I was only purging and sorting one place at a time, and so the root problem remained rooted. 

Shelves Don't Have to Be Full 

This is probably the most valuable lesson. Because I've spent so long feeling cluttered and overwhelmed by my spaces, I've always seen storage space as prime real estate that must be built up to its greatest potential. I was like an urban developer who could only envision sky scrapers and maximizing the amount of office space I could rent out. 

I filled every shelf, cabinet, closet rack, etc. to its absolute carrying capacity. Anything less felt like a waste. This was particularly true of hidden spaces that would only be seen by the family. These seemed like treasures that had to be completely packed in order to make room for the spaces on the outside. 

This was flawed logic, as the organizer showed me. The more crammed the space was, the more likely it was that whoever needed to get something out of it (especially if that "someone" was five years old) would throw every single thing in the drawer or shelf on the floor. This is why my new craft section wasn't working. If my daughter wanted a pink sparkly sheet of paper (and of course she did), she had to dig until she found it. That meant that she left a trail of crayons, scraps of paper, and knick knacks behind her. For the shelves to work, they needed to appear to my untrained eyes completely wasted. 

But that's the way they need to be if they're going to actually be useful. I just have to let go and accept it. 

Embrace the Domino Effect

Another useful part of this experience was having someone who wasn't afraid to tackle it all at once. I would have never been willing to destroy the "order" in four entire rooms in one day without someone else taking the reins. It is too overwhelming to me, and I would have been a hyperventilating mess sitting cross-legged in a pile of old clothes with no idea what to do next. The fact that the things needed to be rearranged so significantly that each room's solution was dependent on the other was something I had to accept. In the past, I had always tried to fight it, and in the past, it had always failed. 

As we were working, I kept thinking about that scene in The Hunger Games where they're making over Katniss and scrub her clean and bare to get her to "beauty base zero." I needed "clean base zero" before I could do anything else. It is an exhausting thought, but it is crucial. 

Don't Underestimate an Hour

This one is going to sound like it contradicts the last point, but it really doesn't. In the past, I'd always thought that I needed big, full-day cleaning spurts in order to make any progress. If I only had a couple of hours to spare (which is just about the most I ever get), then it didn't seem worth the effort. Why start cleaning if you can't finish, I'd reason. 

But now that something close to clean base zero has been established, smaller projects are definitely worth an hour or even thirty minutes. I can clean out an entire junk drawer in an hour. I can sort through a pile of papers in thirty minutes. 

My mindset has shifted in that I'm not feeling so all-or-nothing about the endeavor, and that gives me some hope that the results might actually last. 

Accept the Kind of Person I Am (And Hire Help Sooner)

I am a very organized person . . . as long as what I'm organizing is ideas in a paper, lesson plans for a class, or some other text-based, project-focused result. 

I am not a person who is good at spatial reasoning and figuring out where things best belong to make a house function. It's not a skill set I have. It's perhaps something I could get better at, but only marginally. 

I can't stand in a doorway and imagine how to rearrange a room. The only way I can rearrange a room is to physically move all of the pieces of furniture and then decide if I like them. If I don't, the only way I can fix it is to physically move them all some other way. It is the most exhausting slide puzzle of all time. 

I also don't have the kind of mind that thinks of food or clothes in "stations." The organizer did. She started separating my canned goods by the likelihood of their use. She sectioned off the grains and the rice. She arranged the clothes by the order you grab them in the morning. She was like a magic fairy. 

It made me think about how great it would have been if she'd been there with me when we first moved into the house. She could have set up those systems when the house was truly at clean base zero: empty. 

If I ever get the opportunity to move again, I think I'm going to calculate this cost into the moving expenses. It seems like a much smarter way to get off to the right start. 

What about you? Have you ever used an organizing service? Do you have one of those magical brains that can just make things work? What lessons have you learned from trying to manage a house and the stuff that goes in it? 

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