What Professional Organisers Really Do, And How They Can Help

What Professional Organisers Really Do, and How They Can Help

When you hear "professional organiser", your favourite reality TV shows about pack rats and hoarders may pop to mind. Professional organisers definitely help those people, but there's much more to the profession than that. Organisers can help those of us too busy, too confused, too tired or too stressed to deal with our own clutter. Here's what professional organisers really do and how they may be able to help you.

Pictures: Tina Mailhot-Roberge, Tom Page, Uwe Hermann, Jeff Golden, George Pauwels

A while ago, I asked my Twitter followers — jokingly — if professional organisers were a real thing. There were plenty of jokes to go around, but there were more than a few people who spoke highly of them. One of my friends mentioned that he has anxiety issues with organisation, and a helping hand is just what he needed. Another friend (and Lifehacker reader) noted that he and his wife work with an organiser because she's much messier than he is, and having someone objective in the middle means they don't strain their relationship over it.

All this got us thinking — if we didn't understand this profession, how many other people have their idea of organisers dictated to them by reality TV shows? We reached out to a number of professional organisers to find out what they really do, how they can help, and how you can choose a good one.

What Professional Organisers Really Do

What Professional Organisers Really Do, and How They Can Help

There's more to being a professional organiser than just tossing down three bins marked "keep", "toss" and "donate", and there's more to the job than making IKEA shopping trips with your credit card in tow. Julie Bestry, a Certified Professional Organiser (CPO) with the National Association of Professional Organisers, explained that getting help from an organiser is no different than getting help with any other thing you may not be able to do on your own:

Some people might think what we do is helping people who are too "lazy" to do things for themselves. I'm sure such people cut their own hair, make their own clothes, and tutor their own children in calculus without any difficulty, but I'm afraid the rest of the world is a little more interdependent.

Professional organisers are trained, skilled specialists who help people create order where it is lacking in their lives, so that they can make long-term improvements and keep disorder at bay. A good analogy would be someone who is not naturally good at staying fit and eating healthily. You could say, "just read a book on sensible eating and exercise" but if that were true, would there be so many millions of books on the topic? Would so many people be unhealthy?

In short, you sometimes need an objective, experienced opinion to help you move forward. Professional organisers can offer that opinion or help you discover options you wouldn't have known on your own. Decluttering is rarely as easy as "just throw it out" or "anything you haven't used should go". Jeffrey Phillip, another professional organiser I spoke to, echoed that point:

Many people think organising is something everyone should be capable of doing, like boiling water. The truth is it's just not. Just as there are those professionals who help in other areas of our lives (such as taxes, real estate, legal matters, investments, retirement accounts), there are those whose profession it is to help others clean out their homes and help them run better.

At the end of the day, a professional organiser is like any other specialist. They can help you when you need their specific skills. For example, when I spoke to Jodie Campbell Jacobs, another Professional Organiser and member of NAPO, I explained one of my own challenges: I have plenty of wall space but no idea where to find good shelving to make the best use of it. Trips to Target and IKEA turn up few choices that would work in my apartment. She explained that most professional organisers have books full of options that could help me, so I wouldn't waste my time (or money) at department stores:

We work with more resources than the average person. We know of closet companies, movers, art appraisers, garage companies, painters, auction houses, organising products and stores, junk companies, shredding companies, consignment stores, photo and paper scanning companies, contractors, etc. We know who is reliable and appropriate for each budget. We have developed relationships with a lot of these companies to be able to offer discounts for our clients.

For example, I have a partnership with a group of women's clothing consignment stores that take out of season clothing from me, which they would never do for their average customer. My clients don't have to hold on to the summer clothing they want to sell all winter long. Professional Organisers know where to donate almost anything, and which charities will pick up from your house. We also know what is worth selling and what is worth donating. There is a big difference between the value and worth of an item, and we can talk to you about having reasonable expectations of the money you can make by selling your belongings. I tell my clients I know where to sell, trade, donate, or recycle anything, so the excuse of "I don't need it anymore but I don't want to just throw it out" doesn't work. I will not throw away a single thing without my client's permission, however I present them with every alternative to keeping or trashing the item that will benefit them and possibly someone else.

Beyond helping you get organised, professional organisers can also make sure you get the most possible money for your old items and biggest bang for your organising buck.

Who Can Benefit from a Professional Organiser

What Professional Organisers Really Do, and How They Can Help

Professional organisers can help with clutter, sure, but setting up a system so you won't wind up where you started is the biggest benefit of working with one. All of the professional organisers I spoke with explained that much of their work isn't so much with someone's stuff as it is with the person. Organising can bring up anxiety or emotional issues, whether it's finding the right way to display mementos from military service, or a client who suffers from ADHD or OCD. Julie explained:

People tend to think of POs as working just with people who are already "disorganised" — and that's often true — but many of us are also brought in before any disorganisation or dysfunction occurs to create systems that work. Think: expectant parents who want to create a nursery that's safe and where everything is easily accessible, entrepreneurs wanting to set up smart digital, paper and operational systems before they even work with the first client, or companies organising new offices, warehouses or stores for maximum flow and efficiency. In this way, professional organisers (and their clients) are proactive, and not just reactive.

But of course, that's not what most people are thinking about when they discuss what professional organisers do. They're thinking about clutter — piles of stuff. I always tell my clients that whether the "stuff" is tangible (kitchen items, laundry, paperwork), temporal (to-do items, projects for work or home, appointments, lessons) or cognitive (worries and fears, hopes, plans), organising isn't about the stuff. It's about the person who owns or interacts with the stuff. That's why your friends' replies to your tweet, about "paying someone to pick up your stuff" is so inaccurate. That's what a housekeeper or maid does. Organising is more complex.

Julie mentioned that you may be surprised at the services many organisers offer. Some professional organisers, for example, work best with families on genealogy research. Others are best at helping people go paperless. Others are also interior designers, while others are experts at kitchen organisation and helping you get into cooking and eating healthy. There are some who specialise in emergency preparedness and cataloguing collections. You can find someone with skills as narrow or as broad as you need.

Of course, not everyone needs the help of a professional organiser. If organisation comes naturally to you, you have the time to energy to handle your organisational issues yourself, or you're good at putting the kinds of systems in place to minimise clutter (many of which we discuss here at Lifehacker), you're probably in good shape. However, a helping hand can't hurt, assuming you have the time and the budget for a second opinion.

Why People Seek the Help of Professional Organisers

What Professional Organisers Really Do, and How They Can Help

It's worth pointing out that "getting organised" or seeking the help of a professional organiser isn't supposed to make your home look like a design catalogue. All of the professional organisers I spoke with said design plays a role, but the best spaces are the ones that give you room to work and get messy. The key is that when it's time to clean up, you'll be able to do it quickly because you have a system in place. Jodie explained, using herself as an example:

I run my business and have two young kids, a busy husband and a dog. By Friday, my house can be quite messy, but it doesn't take me very long to clean it up, because I know where everything should go.

There are three basic reasons why my clients call me for help:

  1. They don't know how to get organised or where to start on their own. Some people get overwhelmed and too anxious to even begin. A Professional Organiser can help find a good starting point and create a plan to follow. Knowing the steps to take (usually starting with cleaning out the storage spaces first, then going through everything needs to be stored to decide what to keep, then figure out how to best fit it in that space) and knowing someone is going to keep you focused and productive can make it a whole lot easier to accomplish your goals.
  2. They don't have the time to do it on their own. They have busy families or jobs and need an extra set of hands to complete a space quicker. You know that you have too much stuff in your garage because you can't fit your car in it, but you don't want to spend an entire weekend sorting through everything, trying to figure out how to store the things you want to keep, and then driving around to various places to sell, donate or throw out what you don't. A Professional Organiser can work with you and make it all happen in a fraction of the time.
  3. They don't want to do it themselves at all. Just like accountants, tailors and housekeepers, there are certain activities that people are capable of doing themselves, but they just don't want to spend their time on it. I have plenty of clients that aren't even home when I am in their house. They tell me they want all of their Christmas supplies organised so that they know how to pack them at the end of the season this year and unpack them easier for next year, or they leave me a stack of paperwork and mail to sort, shred and file.

A lot of people fall into those categories, and it's not difficult to imagine that all of us have at some point. For many of us, we just power through by sheer will, but when money can buy happiness, spend it. Sometimes, it's worth paying someone to help you set up a system that eliminates your frustration instead of hoping you'll eventually have the time to handle it yourself.

For those who want an organiser to help them with the psychological or emotional issues around their clutter, a relationship with an organiser may be a long-term thing or someone you meet with every few months after an initial project. For others looking to organise a home office, for example, their work with an organiser may be to the point. Either way, you don't work with a professional organiser remotely — they work with you, in person, where you need their help. It's not like TV where you leave, they do the work and you come back to a big reveal.

How to Choose a Reliable, Helpful Professional Organiser

What Professional Organisers Really Do, and How They Can Help

Choosing a great professional organiser is a bit like choosing a therapist or a contractor. You need to find someone who has the right skills and also resonates with you on a personal level.

Luckily, there are organisations responsible for the certification and training of professional organisers. The Australasian Association of Professional Organisers (AAPO) maintains a a code of ethics and provides information for people who are interested in becoming professional organisers. If you're looking for one to help you, you should look for someone who is accredited by the AAPO and trained through the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, or any of its global sibling organisations.

Erin Doland, Editor-in-Chief of Unclutterer, explained how important the client/organiser relationship is, and how you can make sure you have a good one:

It is always OK to ask a PO for his/her credentials, training and experience when considering hiring one. It's also OK to ask for references. I recommend that people identify two or three POs in their region who appear to meet their needs and then to set up phone interviews or in-person interviews to identify which one best meshes with your personality. You are trusting a PO with your personal possessions and inviting this person into your home or office, and you should feel comfortable with that close relationship.

Erin went on to explain how important it is to search for professional organisers through the NAPO site, since the selection tool will help you find people who are in your area and have the right skills for your project. This is important, because costs will vary by project. How much you can expect to spend depends highly on the level of attention you want, the skills you're looking for and the work you need done. Don't be afraid to ask for references or estimates, and let an organiser know what your budget looks like.

Jeffrey reiterated the importance of referrals and suggested you remember that you're doing something good for yourself here, so don't feel bad about it:

When looking for an organiser the best place to start is with the people you know. Referrals tend to be the lion share of any organiser's clientele. Chances are pretty high that your friends share a similar taste in the things you do, so a good referral can go a long way. Working with an organiser is nothing to be embarrassed about and it doesn't necessarily mean you are a clinical hoarder — so don't be shy about it, a good friend won't judge you (and neither will the organiser you choose). Since the process is very personal, you want to find someone the same way you would find a good doctor, financial advisor or therapist. Have a phone call and/or consultation to make sure you jive and mesh well, and that the organiser has experience with the specific type of project you are looking to have done. Like any professional relationship, be sure you feel comfortable and confident that you'll work well together.

He concluded on a note that I heard echoed in some form or fashion from every organiser that I spoke with for this piece: that being organised and helping people get organised isn't just about putting things in boxes, it's about getting to know people, helping them move past their own mental blocks and trip-ups, forgive themselves, and make progress not just with their stuff but with their lives. Everyone we spoke to said that's also important to look for in an organiser. With luck, you'll find someone who won't just help you get your life in order but who will also be a friend that understands you and will help you find the best solutions for you over the long haul.

Julie Bestry is a Certified Professional Organiser, member of NAPO and founder of Best Results Organizing. You can follow her on Twitter @ProfOrganizer or on her Facebook page.

Jodie Campbell Jacobs is a professional organiser, member of NAPO and founder of SOUPerior Organizing. You can follow her on Twitter @SOUPOrganizing or on her Facebook page.

Jeffrey Phillip is a Certified Professional Organiser, member of NAPO and designer who has offered his tips to Katie Couric and in O Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @JeffreyPhillip, on on his Facebook page.

Erin Doland is the Editor-in-Chief of Unclutterer, and she has contributed guest pieces on the topic of clutter. She's a member of NAPO, the author of Unclutter Your Life in One Week, and has contributed her insight to the New York Times and Real Simple magazine, among other outlets. You can follow her on Twitter as @Unclutterer or @erdoland.

Colette Robicheau ASP, CRSS, CPO-CD is a Certified Professional Organiser and member of POC, organising consultant and the woman behind Organize Anything. You can keep up with her on Twitter @OrganizeNow or on Organize Anything's Facebook page.

All of them (and more!) volunteered their expertise for this feature, and we thank them.


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