When you hear “professional organizer,” your favorite reality TV shows about pack rats and hoarders may pop to mind. Professional organizers definitely help those people, but there’s much more to the profession than that. Organizers can help those of us too busy, too confused, too tired, or too stressed to deal with our clutter ourselves. Here’s what they really do, and how they may be able to help you.
A while back I asked my Twitter followers—jokingly—if professional organizers were a real thing. There were plenty of jokes to go around, but there were more than a few people who spoke highly of them. One of my friends mentioned that he has anxiety issues with organization, and a helping hand is just what he needed. Another friend (and Lifehacker reader) noted that he and his wife work with one because she’s much messier than he is, and having someone objective in the middle means they don’t strain their relationship over it.
All this got us thinking—if we didn’t understand this profession, how many other people have their idea of organizers dictated to them by reality TV shows and HGTV? We reached out to a number of professional organizers to find out what they really do, how they can help, and how you can choose a good one.
What Professional Organizers Really Do
There’s more to being a professional organizer than just tossing down three bins marked “keep,” “trash,” and “donate,” and there’s more to their job than making IKEA shopping trips with your credit card in tow. Julie Bestry, a Certified Professional Organizer (CPO) with the National Association of Professional Organizers, explained that getting help from an organizer is no different than getting help with any other thing you may not be able to do on your own:
Some people might think what we do is helping people who are too “lazy” to do things for themselves. I’m sure such people cut their own hair, make their own clothes, and tutor their own children in calculus without any difficulty, but I’m afraid the rest of the world is a little more interdependent.
Professional organizers are trained, skilled specialists who help people create order where it is lacking in their lives, so that they can make long-term improvements and keep disorder at bay. A good analogy would be someone who is not naturally good at staying fit and eating healthily. You could say, “just read a book on sensible eating and exercise” but if that were true, would there be so many millions of books on the topic? Would so many people be unhealthy?
In short, sometimes you need an objective, experienced opinion to help you move forward. Professional organizers can offer that opinion, or help you discover options you wouldn’t have known on your own. Decluttering is rarely as easy as “just throw it out” or “anything you haven’t used should go.” Jeffrey Phillip, another CPO I spoke to, echoed that point:
Many people think organizing is something everyone should be capable of doing, like boiling water. The truth is it’s just not. Just as there are those professionals who help in other areas of our lives (e.g. taxes, real estate, legal matters, investments, retirement accounts, etc.), there are those whose profession it is to help others clean out their homes and help them run better.
At the end of the day, a CPO is like any other professional or specialist. They have a specific set of skills, and can help when you need those skills but don’t have them yourself, or are having trouble with the job at hand.
For example, when I spoke to Jodie Campbell Jacobs, another Professional Organizer and member of NAPO, I explained one of my own challenges—I have plenty of wall space, but no idea where to find good shelving to make the best use of it. Trips to Target and IKEA turn up few choices that would work in my apartment. She explained that most CPOs have books full of options that could help me, so I wouldn’t waste my time (or money) at department stores:
We work with more resources than the average person. We know of closet companies, movers, art appraisers, garage companies, painters, auction houses, organizing products and stores, junk companies, shredding companies, consignment stores, photo and paper scanning companies, contractors, etc. We know who is reliable and appropriate for each budget. We have developed relationships with a lot of these companies to be able to offer discounts for our clients.
For example, I have a partnership with a group of women’s clothing consignment stores that take out of season clothing from me, which they would never do for their average customer. My clients don’t have to hold on to the summer clothing they want to sell all winter long. Professional Organizers know where to donate almost anything, and which charities will pick up from your house. We also know what is worth selling and what is worth donating. There is a big difference between the value and worth of an item, and we can talk to you about having reasonable expectations of the money you can make by selling your belongings. I tell my clients I know where to sell, trade, donate, or recycle anything, so the excuse of “I don’t need it anymore but I don’t want to just throw it out” doesn’t work. I will not throw away a single thing without my client’s permission, however I present them with every alternative to keeping or trashing the item that will benefit them and possibly someone else.
Beyond helping you get organized, declutter, focus on decluttering, and create a system where you won’t fall back into old bad habits, professional organizers can also make sure you get the most possible money for your old items and biggest bang for your organizing buck.
Who Can Benefit from a Professional Organizer
Professional organizers can help with clutter, sure, but setting up a system so you won’t wind up where you started is the biggest benefit of working with one. All of the CPOs I spoke with explained that much of their work isn’t so much with someone’s stuff, but with the person. Organizing can bring up anxiety or emotional issues, whether it’s finding the right way to keep or display mementos from military service or a recently-passed relative, or a client who suffers from ADHD or even OCD. Julie explained:
People tend to think of POs as working just with people who are already “disorganized”—and that’s often true—but many of us are also brought in before any disorganization or dysfunction occurs to create systems that work. Think: expectant parents who want to create a nursery that’s safe and where everything is easily accessible, entrepreneurs wanting to set up smart digital, paper and operational systems before they even work with the first client, or companies organizing new offices, warehouses or stores for maximum flow and efficiency. In this way, professional organizers (and their clients) are proactive, and not just reactive.
But of course, that’s not what most people are thinking about when they discuss what professional organizers do. They’re thinking about clutter—piles of stuff. I always tell my clients that whether the “stuff” is tangible (kitchen items, laundry, paperwork), temporal (to-do items, projects for work or home, appointments, lessons) or cognitive (worries and fears, hopes, plans), organizing isn’t about the stuff. It’s about the person who owns or interacts with the stuff. That’s why your friends’ replies to your tweet, about “paying someone to pick up your stuff” is so inaccurate. That’s what a housekeeper or maid does. Organizing is more complex.
Julie mentioned that you may be surprised at the services many organizers offer. Some CPOs, for example, work best with families on genealogy research. Others are best at helping people go paperless. Others are also interior designers, while others are experts at kitchen organization and helping you get into cooking and eating healthy. There are some who specialize in emergency preparedness and cataloguing collections. You can find someone with skills as narrow or as broad as you need.
Of course, not everyone needs the help of a professional organizer. If organization comes naturally to you, you have the time to energy to handle your organizational issues yourself, or you’re good at putting the kinds of systems in place to minimize clutter (many of which we discuss here at Lifehacker), you’re probably in good shape. However, a helping hand can’t hurt, assuming you have the time and the budget for a second opinion.
Why People Seek the Help of Professional Organizers
It’s worth pointing out that “getting organized” or seeking the help of a professional organizer isn’t supposed to make your home look like a design catalog. All of the CPOs I spoke with said design plays a role, but the best spaces are the ones that give you room to work and get messy. The key is that when it’s time to clean up, you’ll be able to do it quickly because you have a system in place to make it easy. Jodie explained, using herself as an example:
I run my business and have two young kids, a busy husband, and a dog. By Friday my house can be quite messy, but it doesn’t take me very long to clean it up because I know where everything should go.
There are three basic reasons why my clients call me for help:
- They don’t know how to get organized or where to start on their own. Some people get overwhelmed and too anxious to even begin. A Professional Organizer can help find a good starting point and create a plan to follow. Knowing the steps to take (usually starting with cleaning out the storage spaces first, then going through everything needs to be stored to decide what to keep, then figure out how to best fit it in that space) and knowing someone is going to keep you focused and productive can make it a whole lot easier to accomplish your goals.
- They don’t have the time to do it on their own. They have busy families or jobs and need an extra set of hands to complete a space quicker. You know that you have too much stuff in your garage because you can’t fit your car in it, but you don’t want to spend an entire weekend sorting through everything, trying to figure out how to store the things you want to keep, and then driving around to various places to sell, donate, or trash what you don’t. A Professional Organizer can work with you and make it all happen in a fraction of the time.
- They don’t want to do it themselves at all. Just like accountants and tailors and housekeepers, there are certain activities that people are capable of doing themselves, but that they just don’t want to spend their time on. I have plenty of clients that aren’t even home when I am in their house. They tell me they want all of their Christmas supplies organized so that they know how to pack them at the end of the season this year and unpack them easier for next year, or they leave me a stack of paperwork and mail to sort, shred, and file.
A lot of people fall into those categories, and it’s not difficult to imagine that all of us have at some time or another. For many of us, we just power through by sheer will, but like we’ve mentioned before, when money can buy happiness, spend it. Sometimes it’s worth paying someone to help you through a task and set up a system where you’re not frustrated by it anymore than to just stay frustrated forever, hoping eventually you’ll have the time or will to handle it yourself.
For some people, especially those crippled by a hoarding disorder or who want an organizer to help them with the psychological or emotional issues around their clutter, a relationship with an organizer may be a long-term thing, or someone you meet with every few months after an initial project. For others looking to, for example, organize a home office, relocate and downsize, or remodel a kitchen, their work with an organizer may be to-the-point, only a few weeks or months while the work is done. Either way, you don’t work with a CPO remotely—they work with you, in person, where you need their help. It’s not like TV where you leave, they do the work, and you come back to a big reveal.
How to Choose a Reliable, Helpful Professional Organizer
Choosing a great professional organizer is a bit like choosing a therapist or even a contractor or handyman. You need to find someone who has the skills to do what you need done, but that you also resonate with on a personal level and can trust to keep your best interests and the project in mind while they work.
In Canada, check out the Professional Organizers in Canada (POC), or the Australasian Association of Professional Organizers (AAPO) in Australia and southeast Asia. Germany has BOND, the Netherlands has NBPO, the UK has the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organizers (APDO), Japan has the Japan Association of Life Organizers (JALO), and in countries in Africa you can look to Professional Organiser Association Africa (POAA).
For those of us in the US, the NAPO lists specific skills you may need in an organizer on their public directory page to help you narrow your search. They even maintain a PDF list of questions to ask a professional organizer before you hire one.
Erin Doland, Editor-in-Chief of Unclutterer, explained how important the client/organizer relationship is, and how you can make sure you have a good one:
It is always okay to ask a PO for his/her credentials, training, and experience when considering hiring one. It’s also okay to ask for references. I recommend that people identify two or three POs in their region who appear to meet their needs and then to set up phone interviews or in-person interviews to identify which one best meshes with your personality. You are trusting a PO with your personal possessions and inviting this person into your home or office, and you should feel comfortable with that close relationship.
Erin went on to explain how important it is to search for CPOs through the NAPO site, since the selection tool will help you find people who are in your area, and have the right skills for your project. This is important, because costs will vary by project. How much you can expect to spend depends highly on the level of attention you want, the skills you’re looking for, and the work you need done. Don’t be afraid to ask for references or estimates, and let an organizer know what your budget looks like. Part of the NAPO code of ethics states that CPOs will be upfront and transparent about fees and costs, so you don’t have to be in the dark.
Jeffrey reiterated the importance of referrals, and suggested you remember that you’re doing something good for yourself here, so don’t feel bad about it:
When looking for an organizer the best place to start is with the people you know. Referrals tend to be the lion share of any organizer’s clientele. Chances are pretty high that your friends share a similar taste in the things you do, so a good referral can go a long way. Working with an organizer is nothing to be embarrassed about and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a clinical hoarder – so don’t be shy about it, a good friend won’t judge you (and neither will the organizer you choose). Since the process is very personal, you want to find someone the same way you would find a good doctor, financial advisor or therapist. Have a phone call and/or consultation to make sure you jive and mesh well, and that the organizer has experience with the specific type of project you are looking to have done. Like any professional relationship, be sure you feel comfortable and confident that you’ll work well together.
He concluded on a note that I heard echoed in some form or fashion from every organizer that I spoke with for this piece: That being organized and helping people get organized isn’t just about putting things in boxes, it’s about getting to know people, helping them move past their own mental blocks and trip-ups, forgive themselves, and make progress not just with their stuff, but with their lives. Everyone we spoke to said that’s also important to look for in an organizer. With luck, you’ll find someone who won’t just help you get your life in order, but also a friend that understands you and will help you find the best solutions for you over the long haul.