While exasperated, I knew these problems were not unique to our family. There are so many TV shows, magazines and retail stores dedicated to household organizing all of which are enormously successful I figured there had to be plenty of us scatterbrains out there.
In fact, according to a recent story about the trend in Newsweek, cable TV shows such as "Clean Sweep," "Mission: Organization" and "Clean House" attract about 10 million viewers each week.
Real Simple, a magazine dedicated to simplifying the lives of its readers, has quadrupled in circulation since first appearing in 2000, jumping from about 400,000 subscribers to 1.8 million today.
Retailers specializing in organizational products have seen their profits soar, too. Revenue at Dallas-based The Container Store, for example, grew from $225 million in 2001 to $310 million in 2003 and is expected to reach $425 million this year.
In Richmond, organizers like Katherine Lawrence, owner of Space Matters, has seen a definite jump in business. She opened her business four years ago, and now that her business has taken root, the national trend has given her a noticeable boost.
"It's really amazing to work in the industry before 'Clean Sweep.' Now people actually know what I do," Lawrence says. "It's really been cool for me to see that now there is a recognition."
Clearly, Americans are increasingly disheveled. But why? What happened to us?
In most cases, consultants say, the problem simply is one of mathematics: We accumulate too many things and get rid of too few.
"Back in the '50s and '60s, people had a lot less stuff because they had a lot less disposable income," says organizing expert Donna Smallin, a nationally recognized speaker on the subject, who also has written four books on how to get organized, the latest called "The One-Minute Organizer."
Today, with so many two-income families, people have a lot more money to spend, Smallin says. And the market is loaded with inexpensive products, making it easier for more people to buy more things. Sales are so frequent and advertised so heavily that they're often difficult to resist.
In other cases, some families might even have more than one house to keep. They give and get more gifts. There's junk mail, and there are few "paperless" offices. And this generation of homeowners, says Lawrence, of Space Matters, is facing inherited clutter. "They have clutter from their parents who have passed away, and then the leftovers from their children who have moved out. It's quite overwhelming."
Big houses with more space don't help. "Larger homes are really bad for accumulating clutter," Lawrence warns. "You kind of get the sense that you can keep everything. Eventually you have to confront it."
Digging Out of the Mess
For many, the clutter becomes overwhelming and, in some cases, even paralyzing. It's especially troublesome if you're a pack rat.
"If you keep everything then nothing is special," Lawrence says. "Better to keep a few special items and really honor them."
For the Harper household, moving to a bigger house or adding on were not options. Our only solution was to eliminate as much clutter as possible and create new space from what already existed in our 64-year-old home.
I started by immersing myself in the "get organized" movement. I bought a book and faithfully watched "Clean Sweep" and "Mission: Organization." I eagerly read Real Simple and poured through mounds of catalogs from retailers specializing in organizing products.
But I needed someone to nudge me along, to offer ideas and encouragement.
Finding an Organizer
I started by looking on the Internet and in the phone book and found several organizers in my area. One charged $20 an hour, but the rest cost between $40 and $70 per hour for residential projects.
Hourly rates charged by professional organizers can range from $40 to $200 an hour.
Some organizers offered a free, initial consultation. Some also suggested a one-time fee, which would pay for an organization plan that I could put into action myself.
To limit spending, I targeted the project to our biggest problem areas: the kitchen, the study and a bedroom shared by our two oldest children.
After interviewing a few organizers and learning about their experience and fees, I chose two teams.
Casey Moore, of Living Simply Consulting in Chesapeake, has been a professional organizer for five years. Her expertise is in office reorganizing. She agreed to take on our kitchen and study.
Robbie Branco and his wife, Karina Schwarz, had recently started Great Organization in Norfolk. They eagerly accepted the challenge of the kids' room, and agreed to design and install shelving systems in the kitchen and study as well.
The organizers began by interviewing me and touring the house. They wanted to know what problems we faced and what we hoped to accomplish.
To cut down on time wasted looking for things.
To give the house a calmer feel.
To set up a paperwork system so we could find papers when needed and to get them off the kitchen island.
To eliminate late fees because of missing books and videos returned after their due dates.
To provide a place for the children's things.
To make the study a more pleasant place to work.
Several days later, the organizers submitted plans along with time and cost estimates and the work began.
In the end, I was extremely pleased with how the entire project turned out and especially enjoyed working with Moore, Branco and Schwarz. They all have great vision and give lots of attention to details.
They taught me a lot of organizing skills, which I plan to use to get the rest of the house into shape.
Jack and Natalie love their new room, describing it as "cool" and "awesome." They spend a lot more time in there, building with Legos, reading, doing homework, playing with friends and listening to music. Jack especially loves having a shelf next to the top bunk, where he sleeps. He keeps books there and enjoys reading in bed. While it's a lot easier for the children to find their toys and books, we're still working on the putting away part.
The project took longer and cost a lot more than originally expected. But it definitely was a whole lot cheaper than buying a bigger house or adding on.
I also discovered the storage space in our house is not as scant as I thought. We just weren't using the space wisely. After getting rid of so much clutter, we actually have room left over.
But getting a system in place is just the first part of the battle, organizing experts say. You have to continue to work at it in order to maintain it. "Getting organized is like losing weight," Moore says. "Anyone can do it short-term, but maintaining it requires a lifestyle change."
Straighten Up by Amy Biegelsen
Receipts, direct mailings, permission slips, bills so many of us are drowning in paper! Home Style caught up with Susan Hayman, owner of In Your Business. Here are a few tips she gave us for managing paper clutter in your home.
Organize your files in a way that you'll remember them so you can retrieve them quickly. Be creative naming your files. Try using a color-code system to group files by category.
Keep your personal files separate from your professional files. It doesn't matter if it's with a separate filing cabinet, file drawer, or spot on your desk your personal and professional lives need to be physically separate.
Assign a home for everything. It's much easier to put something away when you have a specific place for it.
Open mail over the trash can. Sort it, throw away what you don't need and shred what needs shredding.
If you haven't referred to it in a year, you need to think twice about whether you need to keep it.
Make sure you develop a guide or keep all your important documents in an organized, tangible place, so that if something happens to you, your friends and family will know where to find them.
In Your Business
Jane Harper is a writer with the Virginian-Pilot. Home Style writer Amy Biegelsen also contributed to this story.
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