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Professional Organizing Becomes Booming US Business - 2004-01-01

When people make their New Year's resolutions, right up there next to losing weight or quitting smoking is the desire to get organized. But for many of us, uncluttering our lives is no easy matter. Fortunately, there's help. Leda Hartman takes a look at the growing field of professional organizing.

A year and a half ago, Carol McLaurin was at her wit's end. She had nursed her husband, North Carolina novelist Tim McLaurin, through a long, losing battle with cancer. After that, there was so much to do: she had to write thank-you notes to people who had helped her, open months of mail, and get her husband's last book to the publisher. Besides that, Ms. McLaurin was falling behind at her own job. It's no wonder she felt overwhelmed.

"It really started after my husband passed away. I was faced with all these estate issues," she recalls. "It was approaching time to file taxes, there was a mountain of medical bills and paperwork to sort through and I was in the throes of grieving."

Ms. McLaurin knew she couldn't handle all of that by herself, but she wasn't sure where to turn for help. "I had a lot of offers of help from friends. And in some way I felt it was just far too much of a burden to ask friends to volunteer their time," she says. "I mean, I knew I needed a lot of assistance, and the right kind of assistance."

Then one of Ms. McLaurin's friends referred her to Yvonne Trostli, of Whole Life Organizing Services. Ms. Trostli is a professional organizer. She makes house calls. And the tools of her trade are file folders, paper clips, magic markers and packing tape. Organizing is such a new field that when she tells people what she does, they think she works for a labor union.

"And then I tell them, 'Well, I help people clean up their messes.' And they say, 'Oh yeah, I could use somebody like you,'" she explains.

The first thing Ms. Trostli and Ms. McLaurin did was to write up a long list of unfinished business. Then the organizer sat in front of the filing cabinet, while the widow decided which papers to keep and which to throw out. They waded through bills and figured out what to pay first. When you come right down to it Ms. Trostli says, she was a helpmate.

"Basically, organizing can be boring and sort of distasteful. And if you really get into trouble with getting over your head, having somebody there makes a huge difference," says Ms. Trostli.

That's something more and more Americans are coming to realize. Professional organizing has become a burgeoning business throughout the United States. Organizers help their clients with a wide range of problems, anything from paying their back taxes, to cleaning out their attic, to streamlining their stamp collection.

'Would you like to find anything in your office or home in five seconds or less, guaranteed? Ask us how. Visit our web site, at And remember, at Arranging It All, no job is too tall or too small. We do it all," promises professional organizer Barry Izak in her voice mail recording.

Ms. Izakis also the president of the industry's trade association. Founded in 1985 by five women, it now has 2,100 members, with 500 joining in the last year alone. Mr. Izak points out that the field has grown in response to the complexities of modern life.

"Now, today, many wives are working moms. And they're juggling all the demands of motherhood, a job, running a home. Plus, kids are involved in a lot more activities," she explains. "We have more disposable income. So people have more money to get more stuff, more clutter, gadgets, things that are supposed to simplify and save us time, but in reality are just really placing more demands on our time."

Professional organizers charge anywhere from $35 to $200 an hour. Most sessions last several hours.

Although there's no national standard for who's qualified to be an organizer, training courses are available from an outfit called The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. It offers several levels of training, starting with basic principles such as 'Like goes with like' and 'Everything has a home.' There are also specialty classes, like how to deal with elderly people or folks with attention deficit disorder.

The key, notes Yvonne Trostli, is to help clients custom design an organizing system that works for them. Sometimes it's a numerical or alphabetical filing system. Sometimes it's orderly piles on a desk. "And that's part of what I really love about the work - to sort of help tease out what is it that they're already doing, that they're naturally doing that's working for them, whatever it is," she says.

Eighteen months on, many of the tasks on Carol McLaurin's big to-do list are done. In fact, Ms. McLaurin no longer has the list. "You know, I just went to look for it and then I remembered that I had this big purge weekend," she says.

Today, there are no stacks of unopened mail on the kitchen table. And no anxiety about them keeping her up at night. She says no one should be ashamed to ask for help with straightening out their lives.

"You call on specialists for all different other areas of your life and I think this is another important area," says Ms. McLaurin. "It's so freeing. You know, I've got this secret weapon, that in some ways I wish wasn't so secret, because I think so many people could benefit from this service."

One benefit for Carol McLaurin is that now, she has the time, the space, and the peace of mind to watch one of her favorite TV show, Clean Sweep. Each week, a different family gets help putting their house in order.