Did you know that organization is good for your health? An interview with professional organizer, Toni AhlgrenSunday, July 25th, 2010
Principles of Feng Shui talk about how organization of a home, office or any environment direclty impacts your health and well-being. In my acupuncture and Chinese herbal practice in Mill Valley, CA, I see the effects of disorganization in my patients’ lives daily. I recently had the amazing opportunity to interview professional organizer and author, Toni Algren, for her wisdom in this realm.
KR: What kinds of changes do you see in your clients once they organize their homes and lives?
TA: I definitely see positive mental changes. The physical effects are obvious; but when somebody’s life isn’t in control, his or her mind isn’t in control. They are distracted. Physical clutter creates psychic clutter. A lot of clutter indicates indecision.
KR: Who are your typical clients?
TA: I work for a lot of small business owners. By that I mean even people with large households. They’ve got animals and children and bills and really: life is a business.
Most are entrepreneurs who don’t have support staff like they have in a big corporation; so they must work efficiently. They need to get systems in place and simplify the mundane chores so there’s time for fun stuff!
KR: Can you give me an example of streamlining something?
Instead of writing 50 checks a month and spending an afternoon doing it, I set people up so they spend 7 minutes with paying their bills online. If people have a place for everything–and that usually includes the right filing system–they will save tons of time not looking for things.
Here’s a tip many of my clients have found invaluable: Get a spiral bound notebook and keep it on your desk. Write down literally everything that you need to do, notes to yourself, and calls to return as they come up during the day. The pages are bound together. The notebook is easy to transport with you and you can refer back to lists. I constantly refer back to my own notebooks—they are a wealth of information. People swear by that system.
The idea of having a clear place to work is really important. A cluttered desk or kitchen creates a cluttered mind. It’s bad for the soul. It’s distracting and people are negatively affected by visual clutter. Part of my job is to get beneath the disorganization to see what underlies the clutter. Most people don’t have a filing system. As a result their papers are all over the place.
KR: What types of things are underutilized in a typical office?
TA: Well, filing cabinets are actually over-utilized. People do not purge enough.
The 80/20 rule applies: 80% is garbage and 20% is actually important enough to keep. We live in an age where many documents are accessible online, so why keep copies of things you can easily get if you need them? We get unclear about what is actually important. This is particularly key because so much is available over the Internet today.
KR: What are the most typical things that you see clients keeping that could be purged?
TA: Old maps, college textbooks, old medical information, old real estate rules.
old tax manuals. You don’t need to be a librarian anymore or to keep your dog food receipts or telephone books from 2004.
But let me answer your original question: What is under-utilized?Professional organizers–we are under-utilized. We do not have the emotional attachment to things so we can help people let go. We give our clients permission to let go of things and gently encourage them to do so.
KR: Do you sometimes feel like you are doing psychotherapy?
TA: Absolutely. Professional organizers are great because they don’t have the emotional baggage that is attached to belongings. A professional organizer can coach a client about what is important to save—generally tax-related paper. Sentimental items are a whole other ball game! In 25 years I’ve had so many clients. It’s common to go through belongings from first marriages or newly ended marriages. People need to feel the emotion, express it and then let go.
We also often act as sounding boards for the story associated with the belonging. [Toni picks up a paper coffee cup, cradling it in both hands.] ” I got this in Paris when I was 14 and it means something to me.” OK, that’s the story. Now dump it. [Laughter]. No, seriously–if it’s important to you, then take a picture of it. Then get rid of it. Humor helps a lot.
KR: Do you find that once people have said the story out loud they are more likely to purge things?
TA: Oh yes. After letting things go they see that all that stuff was really weighing them down. Often clients get really into it all and say, “This feels so good!” or, “Let’s do one more closet or filing cabinet before you go.”
KR: What is the oddest thing that someone ever wanted to save?
TA: I have a client who is 89 years old and he has his all of his college textbooks, all of them….from the 1940’s.
KR: What are some of the biggest challenges in helping people to organize?
TA: Well, first of all they must be ready. The idea of giving someone two hours of an organizer’s time as a gift generally does not work because the recipient may not be ready. Once a wife gave her husband of gift of my time to help him organize his garage. He was not happy and insisted that he needed no help and didn’t want it… I wonder if they are still married.
I remember getting hired years ago by a woman for her husband. He hand wrote everything. He didn’town a computer at that point. His wife bought him a computer and said she just wanted to be able to “push a button” and everything would be taken care of. So she obviously had some unrealistic expectations, too. It has taken me years to organize these clients. Now they both use a computer, but he is still not quite sure how to turn it on!
I have to remind clients that it takes more than 4 hours to undo years and years of clutter and accumulated paper and belongings! It does take an investment of time and money to clear out and organize. I also urge people to hire an organizer before they move so they don’t end up schlepping unnecessary stuff to a new house.
There is a spiritual component to organizing, too. Someone out there needs your stuff. Put it out there in the universe and let it be used and appreciated. Let go of more stuff and more will come to you. That is the way it works. What good are things just sitting in your closet, garage or kitchen cabinet?
A really good personal organizer should be a referral service for their clients.
I want to help my clients’ lives to work better. If that means getting a plumber to fix a leaky faucet or calling an electrician to fix their office lighting that’s what I’ll get done. Whatever it takes to simplify a client’s life!
By the way: organizing is an ongoing process. Life changes and things change.
After people talk about their feelings around their stuff they say they feel 20 lbs lighter or love to go into heir office to work or love finding what they need. It is a feeling of completeness and empowerment when life is organized.
[Toni patting a stack of papers on my messy desk…]There will always be little messes. Can I help you with this pile? Life is messy!
KR: Is there a little mess somewhere even in your house?
TA: Of course!
Another useful tip is to have a pending folder. It holds things that are very short term, like the page from a catalogue with a confirmation number for something you ordered. What do you do with that piece of paper for a week until the item arrives? The pending folder is the perfect place to put something in a holding pattern. It is not for long-term items like your financial future; it’s for the mundane things, like directions to a party or what attire is required.
KR: What would you say are the problematic areas of a house?
TA: Well, paper is almost everyone’s big fear.
The paperless society is not here and never will be.
KR: Thank you, Toni, for your tips and wisdom around this ongoing part of life. I’m going to go home and purge some filing cabinets!
If anyone wants to find out more information on Toni’s services,
please contact her at 415 444 5596, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.clearlyorg.com.