An Interview with Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer

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Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer (Photo by BrandIt Images)

Since January is National Get Organized Month (GOMonth), we thought this was a great time to find out a little bit more about the field of professional organizing, and what professional organizers really do. We are delighted that Nettie Owens, founder of Sappari Solutions, who recently celebrated 10 years in the field, accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

How did you decide to become a professional organizer? What was the path that led you to this work?

When I began my business in 2004 the industry was still fairly young. There were a few organizers who had already been around for 15 years of more, but just a few. Organizing TV shows were just coming out on HGTV and TLC.  Those were really my first introduction to professional organizing. Seeing the lead organizers on those shows sparked an interest for me. I thought, “Wow!  That person is just like me! I want to help people in the same way.”  Prior to starting my company I had worked in administrative and project management roles. When I found professional organizing I realized I found what I was meant to do.  It was a great feeling!

What do you think is the most important quality for a professional organizer to have?

Compassion.  Being neat and organized is almost secondary. You have to work well with people.  You have to be able to see the person amidst the clutter. When hiring new organizers I ask a question before they ever set foot in a client’s home. “You walk into a client’s home for the first time, what do you see?” Many people answer they see piles of laundry, books, clutter, mail, etc. The people I hire say they see an overwhelmed person.

You recently earned the Level III Certificate of Study in Chronic Disorganization, ADD and Hoarding from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD)–and you’re one of only 81 people in the world to have done so, right? You also have a Level I Certificate in Aging from ICD. What is important for people to know about these conditions and how they affect people when it comes to getting organized? And what are some of the special issues connected with aging? 

Chronic Disorganization is isolating and is not a diagnosis of a condition. It is a description of symptoms that could have any wide range of causes. It means that a person has been challenged with organization for a long time, that they have tried organizing solutions and not been successful, that their disorder causes problems in their daily living and that they don’t see a change coming in the future. It is such a frustrating place to be. I want people to know that I have yet to meet a lazy, chronically disorganized person. There is always more to the situation than meets the eye. Often a person is chronically disorganized when conditions such as ADHD, hoarding, depression, anxiety and even PTSD exist. For an aging client, especially one for who organizing has been a lifelong challenge, you meet with additional hurdles such as a loss of structure and support, dwindling finances, possible onset of dementia and other neurological conditions, and possible physical limitations. But there is always a person there–someone with great memories, goals for the future and valid emotions that need to be considered. I will often recommend the book Digging Out, by Michael Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl. The authors describe how a family can help and how to use the “Harm Reduction Method” to support their loved one.

What are some of the most important questions to ask a professional organizer before hiring her to work with you?

An organizer should be a member of a professional community, such as NAPO or ICD in the US. There are other organizations internationally. You should ask how long he or she has been in business and what his or her specialties are. There is a wide range of talents in this community, and you should find the person that fits your needs. I would also ask for referrals. The organizer’s clients can tell you more about their work style.

What are some of the most common misperceptions about professional organizers?

People often think we come in with trash bags ready to throw out all their stuff. While letting go of the excess can be part of the process, it isn’t the focus of organizing. Organizing is about giving people access to that which is important to them. Plus, we don’t make decisions for our clients about what to keep and what to part with. Another misperception is that we can wave a magic wand and solve the challenges a person is facing. We work with our clients to craft solutions, but it is definitely a process and it takes time.

What is your most important piece of advice for someone who struggles to become organized, but really wants to do it?

I am not sure there is one most important piece of advice but I will give three, if that’s okay. First, recognize your strengths and tie your organizing solutions to these strengths. For instance, if you have a set morning routine, add one step to it that will work towards your organizing goals. Second, and closely related to the first, work in small increments. Consistency over time builds habits that make big changes when added together. Small, consistent steps outweigh weekend clean-outs every time. Third, be mindful of what is coming in and what is going out. If more is coming in than is going out, you are trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon, and it just won’t work.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the ‘ah-ha!’ moments that people have. I love making a real difference in the quality of life for the people I work with. It is so rewarding.

Thank you, Nettie!

Nettie Owens, CPO-CD is a professional organizer and owner of Sappari Solutions, founded in 2004. Prior to starting her own company she worked in variety of positions for companies large and small, and honed her skills in management, project management, customer service, instruction, and office administration. Nettie graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a BA in Computer Science and a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management.  She lives in Maryland with her husband and three rambunctious kids. She is active in her community, supporting non-profit groups such as The Havre de Grace Green Team, Habitat for Humanity, and many others. She was interviewed for this post by Janet Hulstrand, coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and of this blog.

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