Interview with Alison Lush, Professional Organizer

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Alison Lush
 is a certified professional organizer CPO-CD®, CPO® in Montreal, Canada. She recently took the time to discuss the challenges of dealing with clutter; how “spring clearing” can offer an opportunity for people to redefine their relationship with stuff; her approach with her clients; and what all those letters mean after her name. Here is her interview, conducted via e-mail with Janet Hulstrand.

Janet: First of all, I’d like to ask how you came to be a professional organizer. What motivated you? Was there a specific life event, or moment of awareness, that made you realize this was a good profession for you?

Alison: I had a career in catering–was very successful, loved it, was at the top of my game–when I realized at age 45 that the food industry did not offer much for my future growth and advancement. When I told my best friend I was looking for a new career in April 2010, she said “professional organizer,” and I literally replied, “What’s that?”

I jumped right in, joining the Professional Organizers in Canada, and becoming a subscriber to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. I started volunteering right away, which was a great move in hindsight: I started building my professional network, developing my own reputation, and learning from others.

During the classes I was taking, while learning how to work successfully as an organizer, I was personally affected. My understanding of the power of my possessions, and my relationship with my possessions started to change. I realized that I had a lot to gain by becoming my own first client.

Janet: You asked me to change my use of the term “spring cleaning” in the intro to this interview, to “spring clearing.” Why is that?

Alison: I’m not a fan of spring cleaning: too much guilt! I prefer to say “spring clearing,” which is an opportunity to create new awareness of our relationships with our stuff and our space.

Janet: What do you love most about your work? What do you find the hardest?

Alison: I LOVE being called in when someone is

  • discouraged about their stuff;
  • curious about how they ended up where they are;
  • and ready for change.

Through discussion, while we’re working through their stuff, we can shed light on the various elements of these things, develop an understanding of the causes and consequences, and develop alternative strategies. I love to empower the individual while breaking through the backlog!

What I find the most difficult is when my clients have decided that a thing may leave their home, but conditionally, that is, they are only willing to let a thing go if they either get a certain amount of money for it, or if they find someone who will cherish it. I certainly respect this need, but I find it difficult. I would so prefer that we invest our energies inside their homes!

Janet: You recently were interviewed for an article in New York magazine with the tag line “When You Love Clutter and Your Partner is a Minimalist.” First of all, I’m curious: do you think anyone really loves clutter? 

Alison: Perception is everything here.

I’m looking at a pile of stuff to deal with at the side of my office.  Aesthetically, it can be called clutter because those things do not belong together,and none of those things belong there.

But that pile also represents other things.

  • Time: it will take me time to deal with each of those things.
  • Decisions: each of those things will need to be considered, which is work.

I suspect that most people live with clutter because it is WORK to deal with it.

Some people surround themselves with great volumes of possessions and truly want to keep it all, but in my experience, those are in the minority.

 Janet: It says in that article that you are “a born clutterbug” who comes from a “chronically disorganized background.” What does that mean? And how has this helped (or maybe hindered?) you in your work?

Alison:It has helped me in my work because I have successfully reprogrammed myself and changed my environment quite dramatically. I am therefore truly convinced that many other people are capable of this as well. I am very enthusiastic for them!

 Janet: Many times the people we call “keepers” in our book need and want help in decluttering, but they don’t want to be shamed, scolded, or bossed around. What is the best way for professional organizers–or friends and family, for that matter–to work with people who theoretically want to declutter their lives, but find it extremely difficult to do so in practice?What do you think are the most important qualities for professional organizers to have?

Alison: Empathy, humility, and respect. This is not primarily about the stuff. It is about individuals and how they feel in their lives. They are the experts in their lives. Their values are the ones that matter. Their emotional readiness needs to define the speed of progress. A professional organizer is there to encourage, to support, to help, to make jokes, to offer alternatives, and to work.

Helping move stuff around is easy, and anyone can do it. But helping an individual who has a backlog and some emotional attachment is challenging and sensitivework, and many people are neither skilled nor emotionally prepared for this role.

Choose your helpers with care. My primary goal is “Do no harm.”

Janet: What should people be able to expect of someone who is in the business of helping others declutter their lives?

Alison: Professional organizing is still an unregulated industry. Organizers who are members of their professional association, who have achieved industry education, who volunteer for the industry, and who are insured demonstrate the highest standards of professionalism and engagement.

After all those benchmarks, pay attention to how you feel when you are with the organizer. The goal is to develop a partnership. You should feel encouraged, supported, and not judged at all.

Janet: What do the people looking to declutter need to bring to the process? 

Alison: People looking to declutter will get the most out of it if they are willing to be curious about their relationship with stuff, and to consider change.

For example:

  • Every spring and fall, the person has a big job to swap out all their seasonal clothing;
  • The person feels burdened by these tasks, resulting in procrastination and guilt…twice every year!
  • Questioning one’s clothes systematically helps to identify whether that work is necessary;
  • Start by examining the cut, colour, and condition of each item. Raise the bar!
  • Reducing the overall volume of clothes (through higher standards) will render the seasonal task more manageable, and may even reduce it to just outerwear and footwear (as in my home).

Janet: Finally, can you tell our readers what the letters CPO-CD® mean after your name? What kind of training is involved in earning this professional credential, and what additional knowledge or expertise does someone who has had this training have to offer that other organizers may not?

Alison: CPO-CD®means Certified Professional Organizer specializing in Chronic Disorganzation, and represents several years of specialized education from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, plus mentoring. It culminates in an examination by a panel of peers.

The CPO-CD® program was the best professional and business decision I made. We learn best practices for helping people living with the most complex challenges concerning their belongings. We study multiple underlying causes that may be contributing to chronic disorganization. We demonstrate the philosophy, language, and behaviors that are respectful and humanistic. Curiosity, empathy, and professionalism are nurtured.

If I needed to hire a professional organizer, I would look for a CPO-CD®!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Alison Lush is a professional organizer in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her here.

 

 

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Living by Design, Not by Default

When I read the introduction to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, a book about best business practices, I immediately thought that what the author was writing about could also apply to downsizing and decluttering.

And then in the first chapter McKeown does, in fact, make the analogy: Just as our closets get cluttered with clothes we never wear, so do our lives get cluttered with well-intended commitments and activities.

Yes, this is an author from whom I want to learn more.

McKeown goes on to show how an Essentialist, his word for someone who practices essentialism or living by design, not by default, would approach that closet.

  1. Explore and evaluate. “Do I love this? Do I look great in it?”
  2. To deal with the ‘maybe’ pile, he suggests asking: “If I didn’t already own this, how much would I spend to buy it?”
  3. To keep your closet tidy, you need a regular routine for organizing it.

His approach sounds so similar to what we’ve suggested over the years as best practices for downsizing and decluttering.

McKeown begins each chapter of his book with a quote and many of these relate to decluttering, too.

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. ≈ Madeleine L’Engle

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten. We cannot forget that we can make choices, that we must make choices.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. ≈ John Maxwell

Very few things in our lives are exceptionally valuable. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you are downsizing the family home and want to save every precious-to-you item left by your parents.

Without great solitude no serious work is possible. ≈ Pablo Picasso

Take your time. “Take a breath, look around, think,” says the CEO of a marketing company. Good advice for downsizing, too.

No is a complete sentence. ≈ Anne Lamott

The freedom of setting boundaries is so important, with our possessions as well as our commitments. We can identify what doesn’t work for us, but we also have to eliminate it. McKeown reminds us that the Latin root for the word decisioncis or cid—literally means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill.’

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. ≈ Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Have a plan.

Every day do something that will inch you closer to a better tomorrow. ≈ Doug Firebaugh

Mark your progress. Start small and get big results. What I say in my talks is: Work for 20 minutes a day three times a week. Set a timer. Do what you can in 20 minutes: empty one drawer, one bookshelf, sort through one category of clothing, shoes or scarves, for instance.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. ≈ W.H. Auden

Having a routine, the right routine, one that “enshrines what is essential, making execution almost effortless,” is a powerful tool. It’s what McKeown calls “the genius of routine.”

Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. ≈ Thick Nhat Hanh

Staying in the present moment, not thinking about what happened before or what may happen in the future, helps us keep our focus. What’s important now?

Greg McKeown concludes the book by saying, “As these ideas become emotionally true, they take on the power to change you.” We can become a different, better version of ourselves.

We can certainly endorse working towards a better version of ourselves, of our closets, and of our lives.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Getting Organized in January

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It’s a natural time to want to get organized, isn’t it?

January, the month right after you got all that new stuff that needs to be organized, the month right before many of us have to start buckling down on organizing for preparing taxes. The month when it’s often, in many parts of the world, a good time to stay home, where you are safe, warm and dry. But where you also can’t help but notice the need to organize. 😦

January is such a naturally good time for organizing that NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, has designated it as #GetOrganized Month.

I thought it would be fun, in honor of Get Organized Month, to feature links to a few posts by professional organizers I particularly admire.

But then something interesting happened this morning when I opened up my computer and saw a new post by a friend who has recently started a blog. The title of her latest post is “Stuff.” Naturally, I had to read that one!

In it, she talks about how she came to the realization that she’s got too much stuff; how it came to be that way; and what she plans to do about in the future. (She also shares a wonderful video clip of George Carlin talking about “Stuff.”)

So, although Sara is not a professional organizer, I thought sharing her post would be a good place to start. You can read her post about “Stuff” here.)

Next I decided to visit the website of Alison Lush, a professional organizer who lives in Montreal. I enjoy following Alison on Twitter, and she often makes insightful and appreciative remarks about the posts on our Facebook page. So I figured that her blog would have a good post to share, and I was right! Here’s a post she wrote last year, about her family’s “new normal.” I think this is a nice companion piece to Sara’s, since it is written several years after the decision to somehow get in control of “all that stuff” was made, and it gives a good sense of how good it can feel to have made those changes.

Another favorite professional organizer of mine is Nettie Owens. Nettie lives in Havre de Grace, Maryland. I really like her philosophy and approach to organizing, so much so that I interviewed her for this blog.  Recently I asked Nettie to share some of her favorite posts with me, so I could in turn share them with our readers. Here’s one, appropriately posted in January (last year).

Next  on my list was a visit to the Marcie Lovett’s blog. We recently shared this post by Marcie, a professional organizer based in Olney, Maryland, in which she shares her favorite tip about “how to begin” decluttering, on our Facebook page. (No, I am NOT going to tell you what the tip is: just visit her blog! It’s easy. 🙂 )

I have often also enjoyed and appreciated  posts by “Erin the Organizer,”  a Chicago-based professional organizer.  Here’s a nice one she did this month, with suggestions for good projects to tackle in January.

I hope you’ll enjoy learning from these experts! Wishing you all a productive, happy January, and all the best in your organizing efforts!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Getting Organized, with Wisdom from the Ages

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January is always a good time for fresh beginnings, updated goals, and a more put-together you. Fittingly, the National Association of Professional Organizers has designated January as “Get Organized Month.”

So how can we focus on getting organized, help make our lives run more smoothly, and stay the course until the work is done?

Let’s take a look at some wisdom from the ages.

Get started

All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action. – James Russell Lowell

It’s most likely that Lowell meant “a single lovely action” to be kindness towards others but this quote applies to getting organized, too. No matter how many thoughts we have about being organized, it’s action that counts. Do one thing. Toss one item, give something away, organize one shelf.

Make time

You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it. – Charles Buxton

What a great quote for our busy lives! We can always use the excuse that we don’t have time to organize or downsize – so we have to make it a priority, put it in our schedule.

Don’t procrastinate

“Now is the time. Needs are great, but your possibilities are greater.” – Bill Blackman

Yes, now is the time to get organized. Start small, start with the easy stuff, but do start. The results will be worth it: what great possibilities await.

Stay the course

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

Rather than looking at getting organized as one big project, try seeing it as a series of many small projects. Some of the small decluttering plans may be quick, some may take time; some may be easy, some may be a struggle. But all are worth doing.

Toss the object, keep the memory

Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go. – Herman Hesse

Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff – the mantra of our book – says it all. You are not letting go of your life, or your memories, you are just getting rid of stuff that clutters your life.

Action is better than perfection

“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” – Dr. Robert Schuller

Simply said, done is better than perfect.

Wishing everyone a less cluttered, more organized month.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

January is Get Organized Month!

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After the hectic activity of the holiday season, I always find January offers a welcome change of pace. Yes, it’s sad to see the Christmas tree go, and take the holiday cards down. But then there’s all that white space opened up again, and there’s something kind of nice about that.

January is the month for getting back to work, and it’s also been designated “Get Organized Month” by the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Here are a few of our past posts that may help you in this sleeve-rolling-up, back-to-work mode of January.

For those of you who are still “de-Christmas-ing” https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2012/01/05/a-few-tips-for-a-green-post-christmas/

Tips for recycling holiday decorations https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/recycling-christmas-trees-lights-cards-and-wrapping-paper/

In many parts of the world it’s cold outside, and it’s warm inside. Also, tax time is coming soon. What a great time for those who are determined to attack those piles of PAPER this month to get started with it. And here is some help for that task: https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/the-paper-chase-decluttering/

Finally, in recognition of Get Organized Month, there’s this post from last year: https://downsizingthehome.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/get-organized-month-helps-jumpstart-the-new-year/

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and less cluttered New Year!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

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.

Reaching Beyond The Clutter

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We are so pleased to have Marcia Muskat (marciany@me.com), a personal organizer and founder and owner of ‘section by section,’ a home organizing business, as our guest blogger this week. Marcia shares with us lessons she’s learned from working with older people.

As a personal organizer who has worked mainly with older people, I have found that seniors have a particularly hard time separating themselves from their belongings. But cleaning out does not have to mean losing what they value most. And while satisfaction with life, especially in our golden years, is very much about looking back with pride, it is also about living well now. Seniors I have worked with, who have embraced the process of separating the essentials from the expendables, find that they can accomplish more with less.

Excessive accumulations that threaten health, safety and quality of life add an extra urgency to my role as a personal organizer. Case in point is a client of mine. A reporter for a big city newspaper, she tackled challenges in domains usually reserved, in her day, for driven men with strong resumes. Today, a young 80-something, she easily navigates the stairs in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment (kudos to her muscle memory) while carrying groceries in a sturdy knapsack. An ardent literary and art fan, she makes her way downtown to the renowned Strand Book Store or uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But at home, she has lost her bearings.

She has outlived family and friends, neighbors and doctors. She sits captive in her only available chair among a dusty, toxic avalanche of professional news clippings, art books, brochures and the like.  And while she will be the first to tell you that she would love to live in a comfortable, safe and productive home, she agonizes over even more loss, especially the things that are so critical to her personal identity and integrity: the loss of her papers and books. Each bit of memorabilia feels like a piece of herself.

But my client, always a high achiever, is not to be underestimated. The more she trusts that our organizing process protects her valuables, the more she is able to part with what’s not important, and the more apartment space she gets back to do more of the things she has wanted to do. With her newly cleaned off desktop and more walkable floor space, she can now entertain her dreams of critiquing a local art exhibit, adopting a cat and staying relevant to her life today.

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