10 Questions for . . . Katherine Steiger, Professional Organizer

Consumer Reports News: July 22, 2008 12:09 AM

In this installment of 10 Questions for . . . , Senior Editor Daniel DiClerico talks to Katherine Steiger, a professional organizer whose company, Right Stuff Organizing, helps households in the Boston area combat clutter. Steiger shares her tricks of the trade and favorite sources and explains how to keep things organized with kids in the house.

What are the most common sources of clutter in the home?
Mail is one of the biggest causes of clutter. It's relentless, and people just don't know how to deal with it. The first thing is to get your name off the mailing lists by visiting the Direct Marketing Association Web site. That will put an end to unwanted catalogues. Also, don't subscribe to things that you don't read.

I encourage clients to deposit unwanted mail directly in the recycling bin. It can take some time to get off the mailing lists and cancel subscriptions, so this is a good stopgap. If the mail comes through a slot in the front door, keep the recycling bin right there. That might not be the most elegant solution, but if you're entertaining you can always move the bin temporarily. The important thing is to stop the pile up of papers.

In general, what does it take to live an organized life?
I often say to my clients, "Be ruthless." The general rule is if you haven't used something in a year, you're probably not going to ever use it. Maybe there's that one roasting pan you use for Thanksgiving that you do need—you don't want to spend $100 every year to buy a new one. But if you haven't touched the thing in 10 years, you're probably not the one hosting Thanksgiving. So you really need to be honest with yourself. It's the same with clothing. If you haven't worn an outfit for a whole cycle of seasons, get rid of it. Here's where charities help. People always feel better donating clothing than tossing it in the garbage. There's a charity called Dress for Success that prepares out-of-work women for job interviews, including giving them an outfit. Charities are one of the organizer's greatest tools. OnlineOrganizing.com has clearinghouse of organizations that makes it easy to donate just about anything.

There are so many products out there geared toward organization. Are they useful?
People often think if they just buy the right stuff their lives will be perfect. You can spend $200 at the Container Store or Target, but if the products don't get used they haven't helped you. So first you have to figure out what you're going to be left with. Professional organizers use the acronym SPACE:

  • Sort the stuff.
  • Purge those items you no longer use.
  • Assign the keepers a place.
  • Pick a Container.
  • Equalize—if one comes in, one goes out.

So you see, products are far along in the process. When the time comes, containers should be sized relative to what you have—little things in little containers and big things in bigger containers. And it's always better to use clear containers so that you can see what's inside.

How has the green movement affected home organization?
A big challenge I find is older homes that weren't designed to cope with modern recycling needs. Just figuring out a place where clients can keep a bin or basket is tricky. But there are a lot of retractable trashcans and recycling systems that can be tucked into a cabinet, solving the spatial problem. Sometimes products are the answer.

Another great green organizing resource is Freecycle. This community-based Web site allows you to give away items to or get them from other people in the network. Often you have something that you just don't need anymore and that isn't valuable enough to sell but may not fit within your local charity's donation guidelines. For instance, most charities don't take Legos and other toys for safety reasons. Freecycle is a way to keep them out of the landfill.

The kitchen is command central in many households. What are some tips for keeping one orderly?
The biggest step is getting rid of the stuff you don't use. We all have items crammed in the back of cabinets, the ice-cream or bread maker or the special late-night-TV slicer that we got as a gift 10 years ago. These items should not be taking cabinets space away from things you use every day. If you really do make ice cream once a year for the Labor Day picnic, that's fine. But move the maker to a shelf in the basement.

Once you've purged, you need to create centers of activity. That's a concept organizers use a lot, not just in kitchens. The goal is to create zones where you do the same kinds of activities. That might mean putting all your baking stuff together in a cabinet by the oven and keeping the things that you need for food prep by an island countertop. It's also important to create a landing pad in the kitchen, since it's usually the first and last point of entry for families. A dedicated spot for keys and cell phones will keep you from hunting around for them when you leave. It will also keep the counters clear. You can't let this prime real estate get cluttered with unnecessary stuff.

How did you become a professional organizer?
I had a long career as a banker, but there came a point when I decided I didn't want to be on planes and in boardrooms all the time. So I left the corporate world to spend more time with my family. Around that time we moved into a new house. I set up every room exactly how I wanted it, redid all the closets, organized the kitchen just so, and outfitted the laundry room the way you see in magazines. When friends came to visit, they would say, "My gosh, will you come over to my house?"

I didn't know there was such a thing as a professional organizer, but then I discovered the National Association of Professional Organizers. So I took some classes, joined NAPO and NAPO New England. I apprenticed with someone who's been organizing for a very long time before going out on my own about two and a half years ago.

Can you describe your typical client?
My focus is residential. I like to work with families because that's what I know best and where my strengths lie.

Can kids be taught the value of organization?
Not only can they be taught organization but they also crave it. Ask a child if he wants to live in chaos or in an organized environment, and he'll choose order every time. The secret is creating kid friendly solutions. I tell the story of the 9-year boy who was always leaving dirty clothes on the floor. His mom said to me, "There's a hamper in the bathroom, but I just can't get him to carry his clothes down the hall." I said to her, "He's nine. You're never going to get him to do that." The solution was to hang the hamper on the back of his bedroom closet door. He started using it right away.

A lot of parents don't implement systems to help kids keep their stuff in order. If you go into a nursery school or kindergarten, the toys are all in clear, labeled bins and the kids actually pick up after themselves. Compare that with the toy boxes I see in some homes. A toy box is a big black hole full of stuff that kids are constantly hunting through, breaking toys and getting frustrated. (Editor's note: Toy chests can be dangerous, as this recent post from our Safety Blog shows.) I prefer open shelves or cubbies, with clearly written labels. I think every home should have a labeler. If you don't want to go out and buy one, you can always use tape and markers. And if the kids are very young, use pictures to indicate what goes where. Start them early, and being organized is all they'll know.

How does your organizing process work?
I start with a phone interview to be sure their needs align with my strengths. Then I set up a complimentary half-hour appointment. This gives the client and me a chance to see if we want to work together. If we do, I'll propose an action plan. The first session goes for a minimum of three hours but no more than five. Organizing can be exhausting, especially if there's an emotional component, for example organizing a child's room in which every object has a story behind it or some sentimental value. We usually can't accomplish every step together, so I'll leave a list of things to get through before the next session. This empowers people to realize that they can do it on their own.

Are women more or less organized than men?
I don't know if I want to touch that one! But I will say that when I work with single clients, as opposed to families, it's the men who tend to be much more disorganized. They seem to wait to go way off the deep end before asking for help. It's like refusing to ask for directions until you're totally lost. I had a guy call me who hadn't opened his mail in two years! He'd been paying his bills online but the rest of it had piled up.

Essential information: Read our review of closet and garage organizers. And use our Home Improvement Guide interactive for buying advice on appliances, tools, and building materials for the kitchen and other areas of your home.

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