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Battling for Time? Win War on Clutter

Time-management gurus focus on clean desks as well as to-do lists.

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1998


Judy Stern loves paper trash.

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"The more big, black bags I can fill in a session, the happier I am," she says.

Ruthless but gentle, Ms. Stern is a professional organizer in Great Neck, N.Y., a one-woman trash commando, battling one of humankind's greatest challenges: how to organize the disorganized in their offices and homes.

By trashing paper one piece at a time, or dumping files and establishing priorities, Stern and other professional organizers squeeze order out of chaos.

Their promise: You can gain control, with offices and homes running with greater efficiency and reduced stress.

Organizers say that today's electronically delivered information accelerates decisions and deadlines in many offices. Unless management adds updated skills and tools, the efficiency, morale, and profits of a business can suffer.

At home too, the long working hours of two adults, or a single working parent, often mean less time for the interchanges that enhance family life.

To master messiness, professional organizers charge $50 to $350 an hour, and more if for workshops at businesses.

"The most difficult issue people have today is managing paper in offices," Stern says. "People are overwhelmed because there is an overabundance of paper. In many ways the computer has added paper."

Stern sat down at the cluttered desk of a recent bewildered client who runs several small businesses. "Tell me about each piece of paper," she told him. Together they decided what to do with each piece as Stern, playing the role of neutral observer, gently forced decisions. Most paper went into a trash bag.

The process helps establish a list of priorities. "I sometimes ask, what would relieve the most stress?" she says. "But first comes the paper control, then managing time."

For Barbara Fields, founder of Paperchasers in New York City, and president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers, nothing replaces the old-fashioned list at the beginning of a day.

"A daily list is a necessity," she says, "and long-range goals are put on a separate list. Take any project and divide it into smaller components so you won't be overwhelmed."

One of her recent clients had a home office she described as "frightening" in its clutter. "He saves everything," she says, "and we are eliminating the junk piece by piece to give him productivity space and storage space.

"I can teach him how to manage time from now until doomsday, but if he can't find anything ... time skills are useless."

Another client, Bob Worth, had retired after 40 years in New York publishing and wanted help with two rooms of files. He was considering writing a company history.

"I always had secretaries keep files for me," he says, "and the result is I'm not very organized if left to my own devices. You start reading the old letters, and they are so interesting, but you have to throw most of them away. Barbara is very thoughtful and a strong presence and got me to do it."

In Chicago, Jeffrey Mayer, author of the bestseller "Time Management For Dummies" (IDG Books) says an inventory of the messy desk is a must and should be done simultaneously with a list of things to do.

"We sit down at the desk and go through each sheet," he says, "and make an inventory and another list of things to do. Sixty percent of the paper on most people's desks can be tossed. Open their file drawers, and 80 percent of that stuff can go."