Judy Stern loves paper trash.
"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."
Next comes an A-B-C list of priorities. "Do the A's today," Mr. Mayer says. Letting the B's and C's go until tomorrow is OK.
"Jeff educated me," says client Jim Paglia, president of In's & Out's, an advertising and marketing firm in Lisle, Ill., near Chicago. "I don't keep a paper calendar anymore," he says. "Everything I do now is committed to my laptop. My whole life is in there: correspondence, appointments, databases."
Mayer also freed him from paper. "I used to believe it was important to keep a lot of paper," Mr. Paglia says. "I thought I might need it for reference, or to validate a point of view. Now, the first time I touch of piece of paper might be the last."
"I either pass the paper on to someone who needs to deal with it, or I trash it in the recycling basket," he says.
On the home front, Meryl Starr, owner of Let's Get Organized, in LaGrange, N.Y., has seen plenty of chaos in the past five years.
"I once walked into a home where there was literally no place to sit," she says. "In a disaster like that, you start small, a bathroom or a closet. Take everything out, and then decide with the client what should go in there. The accomplishment gives them the energy to go on."
Another client was so disorganized, with piles of clothes in rooms, that failure to find a blue sweater or earrings she wanted meant a shopping trip to buy more.
What often leads to clutter is the owner's emotional or sentimental attachment to things. "You can't tell somebody they have to get rid of something," says Starr. "If they want to keep their children's clothes or all their towels from college, that's OK. If they have room for it, and it's neat and labeled, then you've done what you can do."
10 tips to a more productive work or home life from Jeffrey Mayer, author of "Time Management for Dummies" (IDG Books):
1. Take an hour and get rid of the clutter on your desk. Most people leave things out as reminders of things to do. Go through the piles one piece at a time. If there is work to do with the paper, note it on a master list. If you need to keep it, put it in a file. If not, recycle it.
2. Use a master list (things to do on a big piece of paper) to gain control. Scan the list throughout the day and ask yourself, "what is the most important task I have to do?" Then do it.
3. Schedule an appointment with yourself. If you want to get something done, you have to block out time for yourself to work on the project.
4. Reduce interruptions. Close the door if you have one, or put up a do-not-disturb sign, or go to a conference room for some quiet work time.
5. Use "prime time," such as morning hours, to tackle the most meaningful work.
6. Some days give the first two hours to yourself. No meetings, no interruptions, no calls. (This should be office policy if it's going to work for everyone.)
7. Before you go home, review the master list to determine the most important task for tomorrow. Block it out on the calendar, and tackle it first thing in the morning.
8. Consider using a software program, such as ACT!, to handle all tasks and lists electronically. It means you don't have to rewrite anything ever again. The software does that for you.
9. Help others save time, too. Always give your name and phone number twice when you're leaving voice mail. And speak slowly, as if giving dictation.
10. Priority pay-off formula: For those big projects on the master list that have a deadline, start early with lots of lead time. Give yourself time to think about a project. The goal is to have a great finished product.