Jewish News Summer Pleasures 2002

Conquering Clutter-Organizing tips that may save your life.

I have to admit, when the Jewish News called and asked if I'd cover a seminar on organization, I was sure someone had snitched. Having left the world of television, I'd moved my writing and production company into my home. Once a sanctuary away from hundreds of tapes, press kits and books that piled in weekly, now my dining room-all right, I'll be honest here-every room has a striking similarity to the cluttered office setting I left behind.

So while I laughed at the invitation, I was a willing student. If there was someone out there who could give me my sanctuary back, but still allow me to keep all the bits of information creative types need, I'd be the first to sign on.

The assignment was to show up at 9 a.m. at the Michigan Design Center in Troy and try to take in this new way of thinking. Given the locale, I wasn't really surprised to find myself surrounded by designers, but I couldn't help but wonder what they were doing at a seminar like this. Aren't designers the ones you hire to make your house a home? But Birmingham's Cleo Nike Bradley set me straight. "Oh please, we're creative, we don't want to spend the time putting our own things in place. We save everything, especially magazines-Architectural Digest, Elle Decor-we might want to go back and look at them; we're emotionally tied to them. And anyway, one look at the pile and I'm exhausted!" Suddenly I'm feeling right at home.

As we continue to talk, Debi Weinstein, the owner of "I've Got To Get Organized" is passing out neatly organized files. And while it's always good to have take-home information, I can't help but picture the 30 files I already have sitting on the floor and wonder whether I really need to add another. As she puts down the light pink, correctly labeled file in front of me, I introduce myself. She's charming, hardly the drill sergeant I'd imagined I was about to meet, someone I could actually see myself being friends with, until she utters those awful words. "Are you disorganized?"

There are no worse words one can utter to someone who makes her living being creative. Well, I suppose there are, but fortunately no one has said them to me yet. I calmly caught my breath and explained I knew exactly which pile everything was in. Seeing my sensitivity on this issue, she tried a new word. "Cluttered, maybe?" That much I was willing to concede.

The good news was, Debbie lights up in the presence of people like me. I watched her come alive as she asked the audience to raise their hands if they had a similar situation. The more hands that went up, the wider her grin. "My favorite kind of people! My goal today for all of you is that you'll all walk away with just one organizing tip that will change your life!" Having come with the hope of simply seeing my floor again, I was about to become a follower.

She started off slow, knowing that she was dealing with an audience that didn't frequent stores like Organized Living. "What is the one part of your life that is stressing you out the most?" she asked.

For me, the answer was obvious. The files and piles that now fill my home. But for others, like many of you at home, it's your closet or your kitchen cupboards. It doesn't matter what your quandary is, Debi's solutions apply across the board. "Take it slow, one shelf, one drawer, your files, but whatever you do, don't zig-zag!" Zig-zagging, she explained, was moving from room to room. Come on, you've all done it. You start cleaning out your closet and you come across something that belongs somewhere else. As you walk into another room, thinking you'll put it in it's rightful place, you're feeling ambitious, so you start straightening up that area. Lo and behold, you come across that book you were looking for and suddenly, you're on the couch reading.

"Tape the floor!" Debi says with a knowing smile. "Give yourself a 10-by-10 area and tape yourself in, then use black garbage bags." I'm guessing she specifies black, so you can't look in and change your mind. "Then tie one with a pretty bow and leave the other hanging. The one with the bow you'll be donating, the other goes in the trash!" I can sense the woman next to me shaking.

Next she introduces us to a game called Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers, and says we can play no matter what our clutter issues are. "You love your friends. They fit you; they have information you need. You can't live without them. Those are the things you keep." A sigh of relief can be heard across the room. "But acquaintances, they come and go. They're in good shape, but you really don't need them. Put them in the bag with the bow, they're going to your favorite charity. Strangers you simply don't have room for in your life. They're torn, they're tattered. Throw them out."

It all seems to make sense, as long as she's talking about someone else's problem. But when she looks my way and says, "Now let's talk about all that extra paper," I found myself feeling protective. My files, I thought, are crucial. And while my system may not look all that pretty, when a client calls, all they care about is that their work is at my fingertips. And as far as the trade journals and magazines, let's not even go there, they're like food for anyone else. But remaining calm, I try to concentrate on what she has to say. "You're not the library. You don't have to be the master of information."

She suggests a rip-and-read system. "Tear out the articles you want to read and put them in a file that's always with you. That way, when you're waiting for a client or in a doctor's waiting room, you can still be productive. And you've cleared all those magazines out of your work space."

All right, that I can handle, but the files are another story. While Debbie offered great information about colorcoding files and labeling them so you know where they belong, it was a little more than I could see myself putting to use, so I decided to call someone who could help me do the next best thing-camouflage.

Decorating Consultant Jeanine Matlow is known for her eclectic style, so much so she named her company, Conversation Pieces. But what drew me to her was the way she looks at furniture.

"I literally won't buy a piece unless it has at least two functions. Trunk tables, apothecary tables, tables with two levels. I found this great old piano bench at a flea market and I put it at the end of the bed. I use it for storage, but it's also great for extra seating." Known for using old roller skates to house CD's and the skateboard that holds books below her nightstand, I figured she was up to my filing challenge, and could empathize with my disdain for metal cabinets.

Smiling, as if she'd just won the lottery, she rattled off solutions that even I found fascinating. "Old luggage, wine crates, hat boxes, you can use them all for storage, and if you stack them in the right way, you've got an end table or a nightstand." What's that old saying? One person's trash is another one's treasure. While she's just as content to help her clients buy new things, Jeanine Matlow is clearly in heaven at someone else's garage sale.

But if you've got more conservative taste or simply want your ducks or, in this case, your clothes in a row, Cathi Lefton's Closet Designs could be your answer. "No matter what, no one ever has enough closet space. Architects think about the way a house is going to appear, so there are beautiful angles; the problem is they're creating those angles out of what might have been your bedroom closet."

So once you've played Debi's Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers game and parted with the clothes that really weren't your friends, Cathi can install different levels and cubby holes to relieve anyone's clutter and, most importantly, keep you from creating more. "When there's a place for everything, you can find what you have. You have a place for your sweaters, so you can see that you already own four great black ones."

Still not sure you're ready to become one of them? Rest assured, even the experts admit, it won't happen in one weekend. But Debi assured me that even a few minutes a day can make a difference. "I equate it to getting heavy. It took years to get there and you can't lose it all overnight."

With that information in hand, I placed a pile of magazines by the front door-the first step on my journey to losing the extra 10 pounds I haven't been able to get rid of. What Debi lovingly calls, "paper weight."

Article written by Lori Weiss and reprinted courtesy of the Jewish News (Summer Pleasures, 2002).