Clutter Crisis

Men laying new hardwood flooring
Dena Bass sees herself as an organized person. She uses a PDA to keep track of the details of her nonstop life as a mother of three and a nurse anesthetist. But since the birth of her youngest child, Dena feels she has steadily lost control of the state of her home.

It typically takes a few months for a woman to fully recover from giving birth, but its been a year since Camille was born, and I havent been able to bounce back, Dena says. Thats mainly because the circumstances surrounding Camilles birth were anything but typical. She suffered a seizure a week after she was born and now faces a host of developmental challenges. Combine that with the demands of caring for two other children, Derrick, 6, and Courtney, 4, and the move almost two years ago into a new 6,000-square-foot house in Cherokee County, and its easy to understand why Dena feels overwhelmed.

Piles of Christmas decorations, papers, toys and office supplies were cleared away to allow for the setup of two computer work/play stations for 6-year-old Derrick and
4 year-old Courtney.

I had planned to use my maternity leave to get organized. And then Camille was born, and she had all these problems, Dena says. So, instead of using my maternity leave to get organized, I spent it taking her to the doctor and doing all the things that went along with that. The entire last year of my life has been total chaos.

For Dena, who works three 12-hour shifts a week at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, the moment of clarity came when the water to her home was shut off because she had lost track of the bills. I just decided Im not living my life in chaos, she says. She learned about professional organizer Allison Carter through a parenting Web site, and she gave her a call.

Dena decided to focus on her office in the basement first, since thats where she pays bills, works on the medical paperwork necessary for Camilles care, synchronizes the data in her PDA and communicates by e-mail. Derrick and Courtney often join her in the office, which is equipped with a computer for each of them. Denas husband, Jim, who is an attorney, also has an office in the basement–a space Dena says is among the familys future organization projects.

Professional organizer Allison Carter (left) enjoys the product of her guidance with Jim and Dena Bass and their three children (from left), Derrick, Camille
and Courtney.

When Allison first saw the office, it was far from functional. Piles of papers, toys, unopened mail and office supplies covered every surface. Allison and Dena worked for an hour and a half just sorting through the scattered papers. When they finished that step, they had three huge bags of trash. Current, relevant paperwork was set aside for filing.

Next, the two moved on to the array of objects strewn around the room. Allison set up boxes marked goes elsewhere and keep to separate the things that needed to be moved to another place in the house from the things that could stay in the office. Were only keeping things in here that are appropriate to the space, she says.

Most of the useful or meaningful things Allison and Dena purged from the room went into storage (Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, candles and decor items). The rest was relocated upstairs to the main rooms or the toy area.

Paper, pens, stickers and other supplies were sorted using a rolling cart moved from the Basses toy room. The cart has colorful slide-out drawers easily accessible to the whole family. A couple of drawers were left empty for future use.

Dena says forming an action plan was a key step in the process for her. Allison helped her write down the tasks she needed to take on in the order they needed to be done to organize the office. When I would get overwhelmed, I would think, What did Allison put at the top of my list? Dena says. Allison says many people get overwhelmed because they dont know how to prioritize tasks. They see everything with the same amount of importance, and they dont know how to distribute their time because of it, she says.

Another common roadblock on the path to order is the tendency many have to zigzag when they try to organize a space. One of the problems I have is when I organize Ill take something to where it goes and then get stuck in that room, Dena says. Allison calls that zigzag organizing. You get distracted by your clutter in another room, and you forget to come back to the original room, she explains.

For those who dont want to or cant afford to hire a professional organizer, Allison says to just ask a friend whos organized for help. The friend often wont even need to lift a finger. Just knowing someone is watching commits you to do it, she says.

When organizing on your own, Allison says, remember to start with a general focus and gradually work toward the specific. Sort things into piles, then sift through each pile, keeping what you need, use and love and getting rid of the rest. Thats where many people get into trouble, Allison says. Objects often are associated with memories, and it can be hard not to confuse the physical object with the memory its linked to. Dena, for example, had been keeping every piece of art her kids had drawn, rather than choosing their favorites and putting them on display.

Office supplies were arranged in and on Denas desk in sectional trays to keep them in order. Previously scattered discs were moved into CD binders, and books were put on shelves to give Dena a clear surface
to work on.

After about a month of weekly sessions, the organization of the office was complete. Dena says finishing the project was a huge relief. I really like the fact that we got rid of a lot of items I had for years just taking up space and adding to the clutter, she says. Also, Allison really made me pay attention to grouping like things together, making things more user friendly. Dena says the familys next project is organizing the kids toy room.

The kids were surprised and amazed to see the office again, though they checked to make sure I didnt throw away their stuff, Allison adds. Denas husband was a bit concerned about that, as well, and is a little hesitant to let me into his office.

Allison armed the Basses with instructions for keeping things in order. Systems are in place now so that even if the paper piles up, it will be processed before the piles become mountains, Allison says.

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