How do you find a really good professional organizer?
May 2, 2016 12:16 AM   Subscribe

I am a messy, clutter-loving packrat and my partner is a minimalist. And we live in a one-bedroom apartment. Can a professional organizer help me/us? If so, how can I find a good one? (Does anyone have Seattle-area recommendations?) If you've done something like this, how has it worked out for you?

I am better than I used to be about putting things away and getting rid of old junk, but still far from perfect. My partner has learned to tolerate my excesses but still finds the clutter very stressful. Problem is, de-cluttering stresses me out. I use visual/spatial cues to remember where things are, so putting them in drawers means I can't find them. I get emotionally attached to objects at the drop of a hat (there are so many happy memories associated with that hat!) I'm always afraid to throw things away lest I need them later.

Ideally I could find someone who could help me get rid of some stuff, find better places to put the rest of it, teach me the beginnings of some better habits, and maybe even give a few tips on navigating the clutterbug/neatnik conflict. What's involved in that? How much does it cost and how long is it likely to take? How do I find someone who's good at what they do--and, perhaps more importantly, who I can get along with while engaged in this emotionally fraught task? Is it important to get someone who's professionally certified?

I've read some previous questions on professional organizers, but I am still unclear on the best way to actually choose one and the details of the process. I live in the Seattle area, if anyone has a recommendation for a specific organizer who is especially awesome.
posted by fermion to Home & Garden (5 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I can give you a basic answer: The National Association of Professional Organizers. Interview some and see who clicks.

In my opinion, you will want someone who knows each day what must be done and presents it to you for you to rubber-stamp, or make minor modifications. If you're fighting your organizer every day it won't work.

I know a super organizer I'd wholeheartedly recommend, but we're in NYC.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:42 AM on May 2, 2016

I found one I really liked by searching Yelp and reading reviews to see which one sounded like a good fit. Searching Yelp for "home organization " seems to return some promising leads.
posted by JenMarie at 7:26 AM on May 2, 2016

Best answer: I am a professional organizer, but IANYPO.

Starting at NAPO, as you've been advised, makes the most sense. NAPO is the main industry association, and you can get referrals based on your geographic location and specific needs. NAPO does not allow provisional members (those who have only been professional organizers for less than a year) to show up in the directory, so you know you won't get an absolute newbie, and you'll be able to click through to each organizer's own web site, to get a feel for each of their philosophies and approaches.

There are three types of disorganization: situational disorganization (literally, caused by the situation, and external forces, like an illness, a move, a new baby, or a change in circumstances -- thus an external cause), chronic (also called challenging) disorganization (generally associated with more internal things, like ADHD, and a difficulty with getting organized via self-care measures over a lengthy period of time), and hoarding (which is actual a medical condition). The first two are lifestyle issues, and while I'd need to speak with you at greater length, it's likely from the following phrases:

de-cluttering stresses me out.
I get emotionally attached to objects at the drop of a hat

that you have some chronic disorganization tendencies. That's not a bad thing; it just means that you need to make sure you pick a professional organizer who focuses on you, and the emotional and cognitive causes of your disorganization, so that you can learn new skills and create new systems that will not feel foreign to you (so that you can maintain your new organization longer-term). Because of that, when you search NAPO, you might also want to look at POs who are also in the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. ICD focuses on education.

Finally, there is certification. I sit on the board of directors for the Board of Certification for Professional Organizers, which is allied with NAPO. There is a separate search function to find a CPO® at this link. (Of which, more later.)

So, now you know where to look, let's examine your questions.

1) What's involved in that?

Every professional organizer works differently. I do lengthy (gratis) phone consultations where I explain my process and ask in-depth questions of prospective clients, to get a sense of what they're looking for, what kinds of insight they have regarding the background of their disorganization tendencies, what kind of locus of control they have, what their goals are, etc.

If this sounds more like psychology than household stuff, then it should. I tell everyone that the difference between housekeeping and professional organizing is that housekeeping/cleaning is about the stuff, and professional organizing is about the person who owns the stuff. You want someone who wants to get to know you, to make sure you're a good match for one another, and that you are willing to make behavioral changes and are not just expecting a magic wand. Mine are probably the longest phone consultations in the industry -- I'm a talker and an asker (no guesser, here) -- at 45 minutes or longer. 20-30 minutes is probably more standard. If someone makes you feel rushed, that's not the PO for you.

Some organizers do in-person consultations and that's fine. But you don't need, and don't want, to work with someone who doesn't want to find out a lot about you and your needs before you have to pay them.

I should note, professional organizers are not mental health professionals (except, as is sometimes the case, when one IS also a mental health professional -- some of my colleagues are also psychologists and LCSWs and such); but we do take a lot of classes in psychology so that we can recognize underlying issues and make recommendations related to the decluttering organizing process. My approach is very visibly research-based; I tend to tell clients about the research behind why I'm taking a particular approach with them. Others tend to just do the work and figure out you don't need to know about studies on willpower or procrastination or whatnot.

2) How much does it cost and how long is it likely to take?

This is a more complicated question, because it depends on a variety of factors. Some organizers charge by the hour; some by the session, some by the project. Some have package rates. I work in four-hour sessions and only schedule one session at a time. The rates vary by location and the socioeconomic issues in a community. By and large, someone in a large city in the northeast or west will probably charge more than someone in a small town in the middle of the country. (One colleague I knew in a very rural community bartered for chickens and produce. You probably can't do that in Seattle.)

Rates vary (and should) by experience levels and credentials. Rates for an experienced professional organizer can fall between about $60 - $200/hour, but outside of NYC and LA (and those serving the fancyschmancy people), it's going to be on the lower side of the continuum. The key is that the cost should be reflective of the value the professional organizer brings you.

Given that you need to make behavioral and system changes -- rather than just need a one-time spruce-up -- you should expect to have appointments over time. Rather than a few in one week, you might want one session and then periodic follow-ups. If you were my client, I might work with you in sessions 3-6 weeks apart. Short enough in between so I'm monitoring your progress at homework and maintenance, long enough for you to know whether the changes are working for you or if tweaks are needed.

How long it takes depends on you -- how willing and able you are to make decisions and changes, how much support you need, how much clutter you have. A one-bedroom apartment and the other things you describe would lead me to believe the clutter (tangible) part might be conquered a few sessions but the cluttering part (that is, your skills and behaviors) might need more support, ongoing.

But, again, you're not my client, so I don't know you, and this is all general.

3) How do I find someone who's good at what they do--and, perhaps more importantly, who I can get along with while engaged in this emotionally fraught task?

Start with the searches, as I suggested. You absolutely want someone in NAPO, and may want someone who is also an ICD subscriber.

Narrow your approach to two or three POs whose web sites and blogs reflect a personality and approach that makes you feel comfortable. Send an email, set up a phone consultation, and let them start by asking you questions and leading then way. But have a list of questions for them about whatever matters to you. How long they've been organizing, what's their typical approach with someone with your characteristics as described, etc.

My own site is linked in my profile. Feel free to look at the articles and various blog posts, and see how you can get a sense of my approach (particularly from the much-shorter articles). If someone's blog makes you itch with discomfort, you don't want to consider them.

We professional organizers work in people's checkbooks and underwear drawers; we talk about emotional stuff and cooking styles, family histories and wardrobe preferences. You have a right to work with someone who puts you at ease.

4) Is it important to get someone who's professionally certified?

Certification is complex. It requires 1500 paid client work hours in the 3 years prior to sitting for a comprehensive certification exam, and requires continuing education units over ever three-year period of recertification. Again, I'm on the board, and it's an important part of our industry, but there are many reasons why someone who is intelligent, compassionate, and qualified might not get certified, such as if they are raising a family and not working enough client hours in that period of time to sit for the exam. (Client hours are a small sub-set of any given week; administration, continuing education, bookkeeping, and marketing -- plus travel to and from clients -- means that for most specialties, the actual client hours are relatively small compared to the number of hours in a week.)

I hope that helps. And you said, I am better than I used to be about putting things away and getting rid of old junk, but still far from perfect. Nobody is perfect. Not even professional organizers. There's just "good enough so that my life is functional and I am happy." Perfect is unrealistic. Who wants to live in a magazine cover? :-)

I just did a search of a random Seattle zip code, and am happy to recognize a number of names, especially of CPOs I've known over the years. You have a number of good choices. Check out their sites, pick a few, and schedule some calls. And remember, this is what we do for a living, every day. There is nothing you can say or do that will surprise us. Think of this like any other thing in your life that you want to improve, but know it will take motivation and support -- it's like healthy eating, exercise, good relationships, etc.

Finally, I've been working in the profession for 15 years, so please MeMail me if there are any questions/concerns you would prefer not to raise here.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:28 AM on May 2, 2016 [78 favorites]

Response by poster: The Wrong Kind of Cheese, I have flagged your answer as fantastic. Thank you so much for your expertise! I checked for providers on the ICD website, because my disorganization is definitely of lifelong standing, and ended up contacting Denise Allan (is she one of the names you recognize?) She's coming over for a consultation tomorrow. We'll see how it goes!
posted by fermion at 8:18 PM on May 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Had my first session today and Denise went away with 4 Ikea bags full of paper and two file boxes full of Goodwill donations, so I think it is going very well. Next week I am hoping to tackle some of my bad habits re: leaving things on all available flat surfaces "so I can find them when I need them."
posted by fermion at 10:06 PM on May 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

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