The minute I hung up the phone, I broke out in hives. One hive, actually, right on my face, which was already bright red with shame and embarrassment. How could I have forgotten an important appointment—again? This was the third time in as many months that I had completely overlooked an event, and this was by far the worst: I’d been invited, along with the publisher of the Herald-Tribune and another major media peer, as a special guest at an intimate luncheon for a not-for-profit.
I looked around my office—no wonder I had forgotten to show up! I was living in a total mess. My desk was practically seething with papers, magazines, coffee cups, the empty salad container from my hurried lunch and personal mementos, from photographs and Michigan rocks to a little wrought-iron pink flamingo. The bookshelves didn’t look any better, crammed with unread books sent by publicists, old magazines, and boxes full of ancient resumes, contest entries and stuff I’d stored here during my recent home renovation.
On the other side of the room, senior editor Bob Plunket’s desk was also piled high. Some of his papers had even migrated to our little conference table, which was also the site of our new favorite possession: a 1970s vintage plastic yellow-and-orange dollhouse, made in Japan and equipped with everything from period hi-fi and speakers to a mid-century modern red sectional sofa.
“I think I’ve just reached bottom,” I told Bob. “I’m calling a professional organizer.”
“Fine,” he said. “Just keep her away from my desk—and the dollhouse.”
Two days later, Cynthia Warner walked into our office. A cheery blond women with the efficiency of a top legal secretary and the tact of a diplomat’s wife—both of which she was, before she moved to Sarasota and started her Better Organized business—Cynthia scanned the room. Her eyes lingered on the bulletin board above my desk, which was crowded with years of pictures our party photographer has taken of me and George at various social events. Then she saw the little house.
“Is that—a dollhouse?” she asked.
“Yes—and it’s staying,” Bob said.
I’d bought the dollhouse as a jokey gift for Bob, who is fascinated with homes and design and recently created a designer as the main character in his new mystery series, “Decorating Can Be Murder,” which we’re serializing in the magazine. But all of us had soon succumbed to its enchantment. The day I’d brought the dollhouse in, the production manager had come in to discuss an impending printing crisis; after 10 fruitless minutes of trying to figure out what to do, she and I looked at each other, closed the door and began happily unpacking all the miniature furniture and arranging it in the house. Bob and I had found it equally therapeutic; we were even considering inviting designers we feature in the magazine to take their turn at decorating it.
“Well, of course it can stay,” Cynthia said soothingly. “I’m sure we can work around it.” Bob appeased, she turned to me.
“I certainly feel comfortable in this space,” she said gently. “But it isn’t really representative of who you are. Your magazine is so sophisticated and professional, and I see you and your office in the same way.”
That comforting, non-judgmental attitude, I was to learn, is the hallmark of a successful professional organizer, who must win her clients’ trust and help them relax their defenses. “I’m never confrontational,” she explained. “I’m here to help.”
Those she helps range from executives who hire her on an ongoing basis to housewives who want their entire homes reorganized. Cynthia shows ADD teens how to focus on schoolwork and “seasonizes” some of Sarasota’s most stylish closets. She was recently asked to unpack and set up the entire apartment—in a single day—for a major international executive and his wife who were moving into the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.
She also is hired by family members to deal with “hoarders,” those unfortunate people who can’t control their addiction to possessions. “We call them ‘pathway’ homes,” she explained. “All that’s left are little pathways through the clutter, with just a sliver of bed left to sleep on.” She’ll bring in a dumpster and clear out those places from top to bottom—although she now makes sure the dumpster is taken away as soon as she’s finished, after one woman spent the entire night taking everything out of the dumpster and putting it back in the house. Cynthia has even worked with a compulsive Sarasota shopper whose three-car garage was stacked to the ceiling with unopened boxes from QVC and HSN.
After clients like that, my little problem didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and Cynthia quickly spelled out the basic rules of office organization.
Clear out all the clutter, throwing away everything you don’t need. This was easy, even exhilarating, because I soon discovered that almost every single thing on the shelves and floor was something we didn’t need. Out went all the old magazines, resumes and other outdated material, along with the unread books. Now every item on my shelves is important—and I know exactly where to find each one, since they’re no longer buried beneath mountains of junk.
Keep only the essentials on your desk. For me, Cynthia decided, that meant a few reference books, my Rolodex, a designated spot for my appointment book, a year’s worth of back issues in neat little boxes, and a basket that holds about a dozen files (more about this later). And my perpetual frenzied search for my keys is over, now that I drop them and my purse into a designated drawer.
Process every piece of paper as soon as it hits your desk. Before, my inbox was overflowing, not only with incoming mail but with materials I needed to keep for a while or hadn’t decided what to do with yet. I was constantly going through the whole pile searching for what I needed. Now everything finds a temporary home in the proper file (“Bills to Pay,” “Story Ideas”) in my desktop file basket, then moves on to the wastebasket or my permanent files once I’ve dealt with it.
Separate your work and personal files. Because I handle all my household affairs, including a family estate, from my desk, I now have four file drawers—two for business, one for household and one for estate matters—with updated folders and labels. I dreaded going through all the files and throwing out outdated material, but it took only half a day, and there was an unexpected bonus: I found important papers I never would have been able to locate under my old system.
Ask for help. Like many other executives in these budget-conscious days, I don’t have an assistant, so I often neglected filing and paperwork—which probably isn’t the best use of my time, anyway. Now with a system that anyone can understand, I can ask one of the junior editors to spend half an hour every Friday helping me keep things in order.
Idiot-proof your calendar. I now write down every date in my new appointment book—which is bigger, so it won’t get lost in my purse—and on a desktop calendar as well. And I’ve finally learned how to use the calendar in Outlook on my computer, which reminds me on the morning of the appointment as well as the day ahead.
Create visual calm. It took tremendous resolve, but I’ve edited down my Wall of Shame to a few business documents and favorite pictures. So far, I haven’t missed the old ones; and as Bob points out, I can always backslide and fill it with new party pictures as the year progresses.
Keep something living on your desk. In the past, this principle was fulfilled by a few moldy coffee cups, but on her last visit, Cynthia presented me with a pretty little plant that’s thriving in the sunlight that streams in from my window.
On her way out that day, she looked around and sighed with satisfaction. True, we hadn’t sprung for the tasteful shelves she had suggested, nor had we hung up an artistic print. But she was leaving things much, much better than she’d found them, and we all knew that.
Then her eyes fell upon the dollhouse, which Bob and I had arranged that very morning, straightening up the living room and moving the tiny black cat to one of the upstairs beds. I expected to see her shudder, but she didn’t. Instead, she smiled approvingly at the new arrangement. “You know, I often come across the strangest things in my work,” she said. “I’ll keep my eye out for some dollhouse furniture. You could use some nice new things.”
I keep thinking about that, as I survey my acres of bare desktop and tidy files. The professional organizer made us a little saner—but in the process, did we manage to drive her crazy?
Organizational Tips from the Pros
Purchase more than one like item
- Toiletries, pens, tape, scissors
- Eliminate running all over the house to obtain a basic item
Plan on doing more than one thing at a time
- Talk on a cordless phone while tidying
- Carry note cards to write friends while waiting
- Read on the treadmill
Group shopping trips together
- Keep a list in your planner of items needed (books, videos, cosmetics, linens, etc.)
- Buy these items when they go on sale to save time and money
Use your body clock
- Do chores when you have the most energy and when your mind is the sharpest
Store keys, glasses, etc. in one location—near the door, for example
- Make it a habit to eliminate searching
Take advantage of pick-up or delivery services to save time
- Look for free shipping offers
Become a list-maker
- Use a daily planner
- Save lists for events you plan, then reuse plans for next event
- Plan the order of your stops along a straight route
- Break the habit using baby steps
- Work for 15 minute blocks of time
It doesn’t have to be perfect
- No one else will know if your dinner party isn’t perfect
- If things had to be perfect, no one would ever get anything done
Shop for your greeting cards all at once
Keep a gift drawer
- Store appropriate gifts for friends and children; they’ll always be ready to wrap and give
Keep a gift wrap drawer
- Store tape, scissors, mailing labels, boxes, etc.
- Use silver paper; it works for every occasion