The best way to learn what a professional organizer does is to invite one home. That's what I did during Barbara Hemphill's recent swing through Boston.
Ms. Hemphill is a pioneer in the organizing field, with 20 years spent advising on how to bring order to home and office - and by extension, improve the quality of lives. She's the author of "Taming the Paper Tiger at Home" (Kiplinger Books) and developed a companion software program.
Today's trouble spot is the desk work area in the basement of this writer's suburban home. The space is a jumble of unfiled papers, scattered notes, and generally too much clutter for efficient operation.
I explain that I'm a neatnik at heart, albeit a frustrated one. Hemphill doesn't bat an eye. She's obviously seen and heard it all before.
She points out that organizing is a combination of science and art.
The science, she says, comes in recognizing certain facts: namely that clutter is postponed decisions and that all papers require one of three decisions - to file, act, or toss. And toss is the option most reluctantly chosen but most often needed. "The biggest stumbling block to organization," she emphasizes, "is an unwillingness to let go."
The art of organizing comes in choosing what to keep, she explains. "I don't tell clients what to keep and throw away," she says. "My job as an organizer is to facilitate your making a decision. Organizing in and of itself has no value. It's simply a tool to help you do what you want to do."
That said, she notices that the shelf above my desk holds numerous three-ring binders stuffed with financial and house records. Hemphill points out two drawbacks: When space is tight, pulling one binder out can cause an avalanche, and the process of hole-punching papers to go in the notebooks is time consuming.
Hemphill is a great believer in the speed and efficiency of cabinet-drawer hanging files, with tabs in the front. Ring binders, she says, are good when papers must be transported, to school or work, for example.
The good news, I tell Hemphill, is that the desk drawers contain a number of hanging files. A couple of portable filing boxes sit nearby, housing the overflow. One is devoted entirely to Cub Scouting materials - ideas for crafts, trips, etc.
Good idea, Hemphill acknowledges, before identifying two areas of potential improvements.
One is to place the random files in alphabetical order. "That way they'd be easier to find, both for you and anybody else who might use them," Hemphill says.
Second, she would keep only the most frequently used files handy, storing the others elsewhere.
In the hierarchy of filing, she says, there are three kinds of space: primary, secondary, and tertiary (off-site, say, in the laundry room).
Primary space can be on the desk. "You could get one of those portable filing boxes, the kind without lids, and put it on the desk," she says. "The files would be visible and you could access them quickly."
A file that's accessible, though, can be in the wrong place. Hemphill wonders why a file of clipped recipes is in the basement. "They should be in the kitchen," she says. "If you were in the kitchen and suddenly got motivated to cook, you'd have to come down here to get the recipes."
Other ideas she shares during an hour-long consultation are:
Make sure every container has a specific purpose, otherwise the dish used for loose change or keys can become a catchall.
Drawer organizers are often a poor use of valuable space. "Unless you're keeping just a few paper clips and one eraser, that's not a tool for you," says Hemphill, who prefers individual containers to hold pens, pencils, rubber bands, etc. What doesn't fit should be tossed or stored elsewhere.
Consider track lighting or clip-on lights over a workspace, rather than a desk light with a large base.
Shove bookshelf units together and flush into room corners to avoid trapped, unused wall space.
Don't let the in-box on your desk become a storage bin. (Remember, don't postpone decisions.)
Consider getting a rolling chair to take the place of two stationary ones.
While the job of a professional organizer may seem simple, common sense is not always so common, Hemphill says. Plus it takes time and commitment to master paper-management skills. "If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do," she says, quoting from "The Merchant of Venice."