Chaos therapy

Confirmed pack rats hire a clutter expert. Zaniness ensues.

Illustration By Michael Klein

Every house has a place for the odds and ends of life. The place you put things you haven’t found a home for. It might be the basement, the attic, the storage room, the swamp.

That’s what we call the room once charmingly referred to as our home office. The transition was a slow, ugly journey into clutter mania. Like most clutter, it began with piles of paper and stuff.

Our House Beautiful friends who worship Martha Stewart would call us the antichrist, or, if you will, the anti-Martha—if we’d only let them in.

The piles moved from place to place and took over our desks. The mess grew and spilled to the ground, until the floor became a swamp of unopened student-loan notices, faded receipts, camera equipment, rocks, a severed car alarm, notebooks, the broken cheese cutter that needed to be returned and I don’t know what else. I stopped looking long ago.

We live in an arts-and-crafts bungalow built in Midtown in the pre-closet era, circa 1909. Back then, people had two changes of clothes. They didn’t have any stuff, because stuff hadn’t been invented.

Our clothes are crammed into three skinny armoires. There isn’t room for stuff. This causes problems when you run two businesses out of your home.

In the past, we always managed to dig our way out. Then the mess became scary. Luckily, my desk was next to the door. I could get in and out quickly, especially if the piles caught fire or something. I don’t think Eric even went in there anymore.

We couldn’t do this alone. We brought in Kathy Reynolds, a professional organizer with her own business, Clear the Decks. Her slogan: Healthy relationships with your material things.

“Clutter is stuck energy. It’s so cool to see what opportunities my clients start to grasp when their clutter is cleared. It’s like their stuff is holding them back,” she said.

People get so uncomfortable with clutter that they stop inviting friends home. Organizers call that CHAOS: Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

Reynolds came over on a Saturday morning. She carried a plastic toolbox containing the tools of her trade: a label maker, file tabs, furniture sliders, picture hooks for art that sits in closets, a hammer and a binder with local resources and information.

We gave her a tour. She saw the nomadic piles, the smoke and mirrors, the hot spots. She must have noticed our glazed eyes, the way we slumped as we approached the swamp.

Reynolds quickly administered triage. First, we talked about how we set up the office and what’s working. We felt proud. But that was a short conversation.

Then we turned to what’s not working: the paper-oozing desks and surrounding area we call the swamp.

No one could have used a softer touch. Still, it was hard letting a stranger see the wretched swamp. To someone who’s taken that long, dark road and given in to clutter, cleanliness is next to Nazi-ness.

When she zeroed in on her first pile of paper, she might as well have been Adolf himself. We tried to remember we had invited her.

“What’s this?” she asked, lifting a stack sprawled on my desk.

I shuffled through the files and handwritten notes and said, “Those are my story ideas.”

“What are they doing here?” she pressed.

“I’m trying to organize them,” I said.

“Wouldn’t they be better off in the file cabinet?” she asked, looking suspiciously at the small cabinet sitting next to my desk. I soon realized the real problem was with my filing system. I didn’t have one.

With that, she pushed me into the dreaded tasks: sorting and filing. I could have done this myself. But there’s never enough time in this work-hard, play-hard, relax-hard kind of lifestyle we lead.

I wondered to myself, “What is she? A professional organizer or an expensive whip?”

She moved on to Eric. He started his own business two months ago and knows the old drafting table he’s using for a desk just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t even have drawers. They talked about how he’d use a desk if he had one. She suggested the right desk for his needs and other purchases, like a paper shredder and recycling can.

She also taught him a process called verbing. With verbing, you file paper according to the next action you’ll take with each piece. You can eliminate piles of paper that need “immediate” attention by sorting them into hanging file folders set up on the desk with labels facing out like in a file cabinet.

Reynolds had him pick up paper stuffed into a metal filer and asked what he needed to do with each piece next. That’s when they came across a check for nearly $1,000 that had been sitting on his desk for a month and a half.

We could have done this without outside intervention. But we didn’t.

“It gets to that point you feel so overwhelmed, you just don’t want to start,” Reynolds said. “Even if you have the techniques, it looks so overwhelming you don’t even want to go there.”

She taught us the zone system, which advises setting up the home office and items in it based on how frequently items are used. For example, the computer, phone and bottle of tequila used daily go on the desk in the A Zone. Reference books and the dart board dedicated to a favorite government agency go in the B Zone a little farther away. The C Zone can be the company store—the place to house supplies like envelopes, printer paper and computer accessories. The D Zone holds stuff needed about once a year. The D Zone is usually in the basement, attic or garage.

Reynolds probed the underlying issues: inadequate storage, haphazard systems and casual filing habits. Then she helped us come up with solutions that might work for us. She left us with homework, a new hanging folder for her instructions, and three more pieces of paper. They’re sitting on my desk.