A lot of people think that if they hire a professional organizer, he/she will just come and tell them to get rid of everything. This fear is unfounded. In fact, I don’t tell clients to get rid of things, for multiple reasons.
#1 It’s not my stuff
Like all people, I am responsible for making decisions regarding my own possessions, not someone else’s. Aside from parents of small children or people caring for others who lack mental acuity, it is rarely appropriate for one person to decide what another person should keep and/or shed. Instead, each person has both the right and the duty to determine which belongings to acquire, maintain, and release.
#2 I don’t always know why an object is being kept
Quite often, I will come across an item when I am pre-sorting an area that appears to me to be unnecessary. For instance, I’ve had this thought about broken rubber bands, a mop handle (with no mop) in a random closet, and tiny plastic toys in an office. However, I never pitch anything, because when I ask clients, there is frequently a very good reason why these items are where they are. For the examples above:
- The rubber bands were being collected by a child, who didn’t care at all that they were broken.
- The mop handle was used every year at Christmas to push a string of lights through a tight spot.
- The toys were part of an art project that was halfway completed.
Even people who struggle with clutter often have sound reasons for owning particular objects.
#3 I might be unaware of the emotional backstory
The relationships we have with our possessions are surprisingly complex. After 12+ years of working with people in their spaces, I have deepened my understanding of this truth. What appears to me to be “an old, torn shirt” may be a treasured garment previously owned by a deceased parent. An old cold cream jar of pins may have lived on the shelf in a grandmother’s bathroom. A mug may represent a hard-earned accomplishment.
On the surface, objects are simply objects. However, the story behind the object is typically what makes pieces special and important to us.
#4 I don’t want clients to have regrets
If I were to push clients to dispose of things before they are ready, there is an increased risk that they will experience regret in the future. Regret makes us feel bad about past choices, which makes it harder to make choices going forward. When we regret shedding an item, it can be painful (“I wish I still had that”), inconvenient, (“I need that and now I don’t have it), and potentially costly (“Now I have to buy another one”).
Of course, no one should expect to make perfect decisions all the time. Every now and then, we may wish we had made a different choice about an item. Fortunately, this is relatively rare. Nevertheless, I don’t pressure people because I don’t want a client’s regret to be my fault. Instead, I always say, “when in doubt, keep it.” We can always loop back later if they feel more confident about letting it go in the future.
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Some of you might be reading this and thinking, “If you don’t tell clients to get rid of things, how do you help your clients who need to declutter?” Good question! The way I engage clients is to ask questions.
Here are some of the questions you are likely to hear me ask:
“Can you talk to me about this?”
This is what I ask when I am perplexed as to what an item is. I love this question because I learn so much when I hear the response. Sometimes, neither the client nor I know the answer to this question, which usually means we need to do a little research to figure out if this item needs to stay.
“Why is this item here, in this location?”
This one is very helpful because it gives clients a chance to let me peek “behind the curtain” of a belonging. We might both realize that an object is in the wrong place, or I might learn that it has a job to do where it is currently living. Either way, it helps us figure out what to do next.
“Tell me what you are thinking right now.”
This is a way for me to dig deeper when I see a client is having an emotional reaction so I can understand the “story behind the story” of any given object. I ask this one all the time when working with clients to sort memorabilia and photos. In many cases, simply sharing a memory or story one last time is enough for a client to decide they are ready to let go. Hearing the answer to this question also gives me the chance to encourage them to keep what I can see holds significance.
“Why are you keeping this?”
This is a question I ask when people can’t figure out what to do with an item. Often, we can clearly articulate what an object is, or how we acquired it, but find we are fuzzy when it comes to knowing why we are keeping it. Knowing the “why” is so helpful. The same object may be a daily tool for one person (in which case it should be stored in a convenient location), a decorative item for another (so it should potentially be stored on a shelf or hanging on a wall), an investment piece for a yet another person (in which case I’m recommending we keep it in a secure and clean location), or a piece of memorabilia for another (which might be best stored in a memorabilia box or bin).
“Why are you hesitating?”
This is a question I ask when I can see people are struggling to make a decision. One answer I commonly receive to this question is, “I don’t want it, but I don’t want to just throw it out.” This is a generous and environmentally friendly answer, and one we can address with options. We can consider appropriate locations to donate or sell pieces so they can continue in their useful life.
“What are the odds?”
Frequently we keep things because we think, “Well, I could use it for x, y, or z purpose,” or because we plan to “fix it and use it someday.” I’m not opposed to holding onto things that will be useful in the future, but we can fall into the trap of keeping everything for which there might be a remote chance of future meanings.
This question often leads to good conversation and gives clients a chance to seriously consider if they want to carry through with a vague plan they may have had in the past. In some cases, clients simply need “permission” to let go of things that they honestly no longer want to use, such as supplies for a baby book they never got around to assembling or plans for a project that they no longer have the will to complete.
“Would you like some suggestions from me?”
It’s very common for clients to just feel “stuck” about some belongings. They just don’t have any idea what to do. When this happens, and we’ve explored some other questions, I am happy to share if my client is seeking my opinion. Typically, I can share an objective opinion, or stories about what I have seen other people have chosen to do in similar situations.
Additionally, I have a list of contacts who can help solve a variety of challenges (refinishing furniture, hauling junk, shredding, digitizing analog media, retrofitting shelving, designing closets, etc.). When someone hires me, they get access to “my people,” and this can often help clients get over a hurdle with which they’ve been struggling.
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Organizing is more about identifying what to keep than it is about pressuring ourselves to shed. Why do you think decluttering can be challenging?