Is a professional organizer a worthwhile investment?
October 11, 2020 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I live in a two bedroom, main floor suite in an old character house with my partner and nine year old. I think it’s roughly 900 square feet. We have a baby on the way, and we love our home and don’t want to move. We have more stuff than space. Thinking of engaging a professional organizer to help us figure out how we can all fit in here; wondering if it’s worth the expense. Snowflakes under the cut.

+ My partner generates clutter at an astronomical rate. They described themselves as a “spreader” before we moved in together, and I didn’t fully understand then what that meant, but it means that if they’ve been in a space, there will be evidence ranging from teacups to sweaters to many loose papers, to keys and wallet, to stacks of books. I tease them that they aren’t messy, just enthusiastic about the aesthetics of heaps.

+ They brought to the relationship many quirky housewares, a cuckoo clock, a taxidermy deer head and jackalope, a plastic case to keep bananas from getting banged up in your backpack, a fish tank, an office chair that does not sit at a desk but floats around the house, a filing cabinet we use as an end table etc. etc.

+ I am pretty fastidious and minimal in my decorating style. I have few possessions except for books, basic kitchenware, and clothes. I get stressed out when people give me gifts because I don’t like having too many “things” in my house. I have grown to like the fish tank and deer head and to appreciate my partner’s decorating style because I love them and stuff that reminds me of them makes me smile, but I would like our house to be clean and decorated in a mutually acceptable style.

+ In terms of decorating we have agreed the bedroom is my domain (I need it super clean and visually “quiet” to be restful) and the living room is theirs

+ We already have a housecleaner, and the house is not, like, grimy. I am just bothered by the stacks of stuff that accumulate. I try to declutter before the cleaner comes so she doesn’t have to clean around the heaps. I’m annoyed by this task on a weekly basis.

+ My child, for his part, doesn’t generate much clutter. He will return books or magic cards to his room when asked. When he was a baby I had systems to keep his stuff from getting chaotic that mostly worked. I found it very easy to keep the house clean when we had few things.

+ I often feel that our apartment doesn’t quite fit us and our stuff, even though it theoretically should. I feel emotionally overwhelmed by the visual chaos, although I don’t hate my partner’s taste.

+ I am not sure how we’re going to all fit in our current space. Baby’s crib will be in our room, but I don’t have any idea where baby’s things can possibly go. Because it’s an old house there are less closets than in most apartments, and no floor space for a dresser or change table. I don’t know where we’ll put a baby bath tub or park a stroller. I was extremely minimal is buying baby items for my first baby, but even the basics take up space.

+ The closets and storage we do have are jammed with stuff and not used effectively at present.

Can an organizer help us find systems to reduce the chaos? Is it an organizer or some other professional we should engage? Have you used an organizer? Was it helpful?

There is obviously a relational component to this problem as well as the spatial problem itself. Will an organizer be sensitive to that and help us find solutions that recognize our different ways of being, or do they just literally figure out how to fit your stuff in your house?
posted by unstrungharp to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can't speak to a using a professional organizer b/c we've not done that, but we did hire an interior designer a couple years ago and it was well worth the money. I know that sounds quite a bit different than what you are asking about but hear me out - we were just ....stuck trying to move forward on making our space nicer. What stays? What goes? What do we need to actually buy? We weren't looking for a big change just needed help figuring out the solution w/out doing what we had done in the past which was just to spin around and not do anything.

She helped us a lot in a short period of time (couple consults of an hour each and some follow up/research), the benefit was a) a 3rd party who could address some of the emotionally charged components in a unemotional way, i.e. "the reason this chair isn't working here is because a,b,c", "2 of those 3 things will fit here, you need to decide which are most important", and b) her expertise meant she could find a solution quickly, from little things to recommending a general contractor. Like we needed to paint the walls and her 1st color choice was perfect vs. my spending hours looking at colors online and in the store. Same with the tile we ultimately chose for the kitchen backsplash, my husband had some he had purchased w/out me but it wasn't going to work in my opinion, she moved us from a standoff to a solution just by adding an accent tile to help.

I found her on houzz and selected her b/c her vibe was 'real people/real living spaces' and she said she did jobs of all size, from just a consult to very large things. In your situation I think it would be well worth it to do a consult with a pro or two. Good luck - 900sf with 2 kids sounds challenging!
posted by snowymorninblues at 10:46 AM on October 11, 2020 [4 favorites]


I can recommend a professional organizer in the NYC area.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:03 AM on October 11, 2020

A good organizer can help both of you understand your relationship to stuff and develop a system for you, but:

1) Not all organizers are good organizers. Some of them are just people with label makers and a great love for the container store.
2) You have to both be on board with the process and willing to engage. It's not something the organizer can do to you or your spouse or even for your or your spouse, it's something they have to do with you.
3) Getting organized is not the same as being organized.

I used an organizer and it was helpful at the time, and she helped me understand something about how I need to live my life in order to be organized. Eventually that fell by the wayside because I am so massively lazy about housekeeping in general but I still have the knowledge she taught me, I'm just not practicing it. It's not a process that's guaranteed to work, or to work long term, but with a baby on the way, even taking the first step and making some room now might help and even if it degenerates back into clutter over the next few years, at least during that first period of new baby chaos, you'll have some space to fill.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:03 AM on October 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

A 2 bedroom without closets sounds a little precarious for a baby, toddler, etc. And on a rough count above you mentioned several times that you feel on a weekly basis that your space is inadequate already.

So before you invest a lot further in your space, I would really sit down with your partner and discuss the idea of moving into a place with more space, both in terms of rooms, and closets.*

This is not just because what you've described isn't working for you now, but because really -- that is the level of decision you are about to have to make here. Things vs. space. And it will be important to have your partner on board.

So...neither my husband nor I are minimalist but he is the spreader in our relationship. And we've done rounds of decluttering with a professional and without. I do think a professional is good for the following reasons:

1. They give you a deadline, and momentum.
2. They do frame things in a new way which is helpful; we still use some of the language we were given.
3. They can help you fit things in or come up with solutions you didn't think of before.

What they can't help with is the sort of long-term annoyance you're talking about.

*I will share that my husband and I lived in a small house I loved that had no closets, and some other issues. We moved, while I was pregnant with my oldest son, to a much more traditional 1960s bungalow with closets (although no walk-in closets which honestly, is the one thing I would wave my magic wand about), and with enough rooms that my husband has his own office and we have more space in which he...spreads.

This was one piece of saving our marriage and my sanity. I too had the mindset that "we shouldn't NEED more space than this" and on a scale of world problems, absolutely it was fine. But the visual chaos of having no closets and either having large pieces of furniture with doors on them for storage or having things out was really stressful for me, and the constant negotiation with him for everything he wanted to own was stressful for him. So I just wanted to share that.

We've been here 15 years and have added another child and a MIL, and we still have space, so we didn't run out or anything. Our old house really was just not right for us.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:36 AM on October 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm sure MeFi's Own Organizer™ will be along shortly but as a person who is tidy who is partnered (but not living with) someone who is more like your partner, I just wanted to say that it's important that they be down with the process, even if it doesn't fit their usual style. Which is not the say that the goal is "Make the house all tidy like YOU Like it" but to find something you can both live with, which will mean that you both have to give a little. So they need to be on board with that and that's some conversation that you can have beforehand.

And in terms of your own mindset, I hear teasing and annoyed and overwhelmed and I am wondering if some of this is work you may need to do on yourself also? And I say this as someone who has had a lot fewer "I can't stand this mess!!!" feelings when my anxiety was better managed. This doesn't have to be counseling, it can just be reading some books on acceptance and commitment therapy and etc. It took me a while to get to a place where I really accepted that my partner's style was different from mine and found ways to set new boundaries with him (and his stuff!) that weren't just "He does what he wants and I have to suck it up all the time" and I've been happier for it.

So yes, a good organizer will also work with the reality of the situation in the house and not just give you both some unreasonable goals and expectations.
posted by jessamyn at 11:36 AM on October 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: We hired an organizer who was fantastic. My wife and organizer worked side by side, going through clothing and artifacts that had left us immobilized. Organizer patiently helped determine what to keep, what to release. The process was supportive and not confronting in any way. In our case it took about a day and a half. At the end stuff that "didn't evoke joy" (that terminology wasn't used, it was pre-Marie Kondo) was donated, and closets / storage areas were calm and pleasant. It felt easier to look in closets and storage areas and breathe, as opposed to feeling you wanted to hold your breath due to the chaos. The whole thing, to us, was so worth the money.
posted by elf27 at 11:42 AM on October 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

The evoking joy concept was around in professional organizing pre-Marie Kondo. I saw it in a free pile book about organizing that was published circa the 1990s.

Yes, it depends on the organizer, and yes, it TOTALLY requires that your husband be on board.

Another thing an organizer might be able to help with is figuring out what clutter is in the range of safety hazard. For example, when my partner's clutter gets so bad it starts to develop sentience and think about encroaching on pathways, I ask him to please take a specific amount of time to organize his space today. I am able to use safety as a metric rather than my own personal comfort levels.
posted by aniola at 11:55 AM on October 11, 2020

Best answer: Jessamyn (hee, thanks!) gave me a heads-up about this thread because I'm a professional organizer, but IANYPO. Additionally, I'm basing all my answers off a post, not an interactive phone consultation where I'd ask a prospective client a LOT more questions.

Obviously, I'm not going to say the investment in working with a professional organizer isn't worth it, but as alluded to by some wise people above, it's not going to work for everyone, depending on one's mindset and what kind of PO you pick. (We have over 40 sub-specialties in our field; on top of that, some POs focus on the tangible and behavioral aspects, while others, like myself, invest heavily in the mental and emotional approaches, as well. Beyond that, as a client you have to be open to the advice you're given, both for making changes to the "what" and "where" but maintaining the "how" of behavioral changes to keep things orderly.)

A professional organizer will help you confidently make decisions regarding what to keep and how to keep it to maximize space, help you design physical systems for keeping items logically and efficiently, and supportively teach you behavioral changes, but as much as you love your current home, the solution for everyone in an expanding family to be happy may not just be letting go of items and changing how you keep them, but may be to move to a larger home. (I know, I know, but stick with me here.)

For almost two decades, I have been telling clients that "tidying" is about the stuff but that professional organizing is about the person who owns (and uses) the stuff. I spend 70% of my time helping people make wise decisions on letting go (or not), 25% on organizing/arranging what remains to create physical and behavioral systems, and 5% on working magic with resources they didn't know existed. If you had stopped describing your situation after the first bullet point, my answer would be much like the organizing-related answers I've often given on AskMe, and I would automatically assume that having more stuff than space was accurate, and that purging and reorganizing would be the only thing at play. However, I don't think that's necessarily the case.

In my professional experience, it's almost never about the size or availability of storage space, but about prioritizing what is important to keep (and what is used, needed, and/or loved). Most people keep way too many things (often buried in closets and cabinets or piled up under the things they've more recently used), and letting go of things they don't use or value reveals a lot of storage and usable space for moving on to better arranging things to make them useful and accessible.

That said, 900 square feet is pretty small for three -- and soon four -- people and the accoutrements of their lives, especially if each item doesn't have a home where it supposed to live, rather than where it's been plopped down, anew, each time it's used, and if things are placed such that they are in the way of other things, making it difficult to clean and/or keep orderly.

You describe yourself as a "minimalist" and your spouse as a "spreader" with "quirky" tastes. In typical circumstances where there is ample space (and usually people do have ample space but are using it inefficiently and for too much stuff), each of the individuals gets their own rooms/spaces over which to decide what is kept, and how it is kept, and for shared space, the person with the most emotional investment in how things look/work gets a bit more to say.

This way, the ideal situation is one in which everything that's important to each person is accessible, and that things that aren't, well...aren't. [And sometimes, facing whether something is really valuable to someone or they just assumed it was can be a complicated and cathartic process.] The smaller your space is, the more you have to put function before form. Professional organizers have great tricks and solutions, like using vertical space, but we aren't miracle workers. I often joke that you can live in a phone booth, but you can't have a baby grand piano.

A professional organizer has training in assessments, psychology, space design, and so many of the elements that help clients not only with the stuff, but with the way they interact with that stuff. We also spend a fair bit of time helping people interact with one another about making decisions and maintaining systems. That said, how you interact one one another (or how you feel about one another as a result, as Jessamyn referenced) is definitely more of an issue for self-work/mindfulness/therapy/whatever. While a small percentage of professional organizers do have backgrounds as therapists, social workers, and whatnot, we are generally not mental health professionals; I say we're more like marriage counselors in the relationship between you and your stuff.

Without any in-depth consultation, I see the following issues:

— a small space that already lacks storage *and* floor space for items acquired for a human who has already not arrived, [A PO in your space may identify great ways to move furniture, eliminate unnecessary items or move them elsewhere, use vertical space, etc. But when your current child and your soon-to-be child get even a little bigger, fitting all four of you into the home you love will likely be untenable anyway.]

— too many items that have been spread out by one partner to make it possible for the cleaner to maintain household hygiene without the other partner doing labor in advance. [A PO can help your partner create new behavioral strategies so they can feel comfortable in their own space without impinging on your need to see so much "spreading."]

— one partner with a strong preference for a minimalist space and one who prefers nesting with beloved items [Again, a PO may be able to identify ways to accommodate both of you, with significant compromises on both sides in terms of what is kept, what is kept where, and what is accepted.]

— possibly too much cool, quirky, but unnecessary stuff given the ostensible collective goals for the home. [A fish tank with fish represents a pet, and requires less space and support items than a dog; animal heads on the wall may represent visual clutter for one or add delight for the other. A PO can help you have a meeting of the minds regarding whether an item is an organizational problem for the space, or a perceptual problem for an individual; how you move from there may be an organizational or a self-care approach, depending.]

— an emotional weight causing resentment due to the differing approaches to the physical environment. Leaving cleanliness aside, you say you need visual quiet to feel restful, which is a strongly held personal preference based in your psychological underpinnings. But your partner's "spreading" isn't a mere behavioral preference that can just be stopped like remembering to put the toilet seat down. Your partner will likely feel stymied and claustrophobic having to always hew to putting things in one place. [You've only spoken for yourself in this regard, but an unbiased third party might wonder how your partner feels about the "teasing" you mention. Some of the emotional heft of such situations are resolved by the organizing process, but internal and interpersonal emotional situations should be addressed by the right professionals.]

Finally, a professional organizer can help you with physical changes, intellectual- and emotion-based decision making, and motivation. But in the end, success depends on the client. Letting go of things and moving things is a one-time task with PO support; however, one partner having to change their natural behaviors to accommodate the comfort levels of another partner is an ongoing behavioral and mental process, the success of which may be based not only on the willingness of the "spreading" partner but also their neurological/perceptual and psychological needs. You may all have to way how much you "love" your house (especially in light of the fact that the tiny humans will, in a matter of a few years, take up more space and have more stuff) vs. how much you would love having everyone feel accommodated by their space. Yes, we POs are there to declutter and organize, but a good PO will encourage you to look beyond the stuff.

Assuming you are in the US, please visit the NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) website and use the "How to Hire a Professional" option from the "Find a Pro" tab, and feel free to share what you wrote in this post, as it will help a PO determine if they are the right fit for your needs. Ours is a close-knit industry, any I know many of my colleagues. I'd be happy to help you narrow down any options you have, if you'd like to MeMail me with your zip code and any questions. (I've done this for a LOT of MeFites.) Based on your spelling of organizer, you probably are in the US, but if not, I can help point you in the right direction for POs in other countries.

Good luck, and mazel tov on the future tiny human!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 5:22 PM on October 11, 2020 [81 favorites]

We hired one a few years ago after reading a thread that The Wrong Kind of Cheese participated in. They were on the list from the professional organization. It was definitely worth it!
posted by matildaben at 9:08 AM on October 12, 2020

An elaboration on jacquilynne's comments plus others. Yes, hire someone with expertise to help you make choices/changes in your living space. BUT you and your SO will need to change yourselves as well as your space for the economies to stick.
posted by tmdonahue at 10:04 AM on October 12, 2020

As the "spreader" in the relationship, I cannot emphasize enough that your partner needs to be on board for whatever path you take whether interior designer (an awesome idea that I may snag) or a professional organizer. But in all honesty, I would find 900 square feet and 4 people with two being children being very hard. I went from over 3000 sq feet to much smaller with 5 people. I noticed that the stress and clutter issue became more intense. If you bring in a professional to help and it devolves back to a stressful situation then really consider going for more space. As children grow, you will want more space and hyper organizaton can only go so far.

It is great that you actually like your spouse's taste. That is a good foundation. Remember this, being a "spreader" with a minimalist partner does not mean that the spreader's spread is a sign of not caring so be patient as they try to hold back the sea.
posted by jadepearl at 3:11 PM on October 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can hire an organizer to change your partner. This isn't exactly what you want to do, but ... it sort of is. Also, I hear you saying that you really love your home, but I also wonder if you'd love even more a larger home where your partner could have their own cluttered space that wasn't a shared space. Giving over the living room to that kind of clutter would be super stressful for me.

I lived for years with a partner who had what I called "piles." His desk was also in the dining room, and I hated that his version of tidying meant... stacking the piles more neatly. He moved out years ago and I feel like I'm still de-cluttering.

This isn't speaking to the specific question that you are asking, but I really wonder if this isn't more of a relationship issue. Like, if you need your partner to change in order to be happy and comfortable in this space... that's a tall order.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:17 PM on October 12, 2020

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