Getting It Together

Why the obsession with organizing is growing and what we’re looking for under all that mess

September 20, 2022 | | Features

Have you ever felt “stuffocated”? It’s what happens when you contemplate a room overflowing with boxes and junk, and you suddenly feel, well, paralyzed. You know you must do something about it – sell it, give it away, make it miraculously disappear somehow. But how? And who has the time and energy to organize All That Stuff?

And what a lot of stuff it is! We live in an era of fast fashion, bulk and big-box buying, online shopping, and a never-ending supply of cheap goods that make it easy to buy more and more – to pile on top of family items we’ve inherited. We have garages packed to the rafters, with no space to park a car. Basements double as junk rooms, and kids’ rooms overflow with toys. We have so many possessions that we end up paying to store them and renting garbage bins to dump them in. Many of us would admit we simply have too much stuff – and not enough time to deal with it.

In this era of accumulation, there has been a concurrent rise in the number of decluttering gurus, including authors and TV stars such as Japan’s Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), with her does-it-spark-joy approach, and American stars Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin (The Home Edit), known for filing pantry and closet items by colour, in rainbow succession, in clear plastic bins and lazy Susans (for sale at big-box stores … but I digress).

Yet no matter how many experts we follow, for many of us, gazing in horror at a dreaded room full of boxes touches off our fight-or-flight mechanism. We simply turn away, close the door and leave it for that magical time called “later.” But those who have had enough or who don’t have the luxury of “later” are increasingly calling in local professionals to lighten the load.

Feeling a bit ‘stuffocated’? It might be time to reach out to the professionals.

Professional organizing is a growing industry in Canada, so much so that there is now a national association, Professional Organizers in Canada, which provides training and certification – and boasts more than 600 members across the country.

In Headwaters, organizers typically start with a consultation, either over the phone or in-home, to assess a client’s situation, and charge fees that usually range upward from $50 an hour. And whether the job is something small like clearing out a garage or a major task like selling off an entire estate, these professionals have the resources, tools and knowledge to make it happen.

While the Big Ds – divorce, death, dislocation and downsizing – are often the major life events that lead someone to hire an organizer, local professionals such as Ida Tetlock of Orangeville-based SMART Organizing, suggest many clients are trying to get ahead of the curve to spare themselves or their loved ones the work – or to lead a more minimalist life.

“People are starting to focus more on experiences rather than things,” says Tetlock. “You’ll hear more and more people talking about doing a closet purge or a clearout. There’s a minimalist culture out there that says people can benefit from having fewer material things in their lives.”

Many people describe the process of reducing clutter as lifting a weight from their shoulders, a sentiment with a basis in science. Writing for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, psychologist Donna Ferguson noted that decluttering improves emotional well-being. “If our surroundings stress us out, we feel the impact,” Ferguson wrote. “Clutter can annoy us, distract us or take away much-needed energy … Clutter can also cause feelings of stress, fatigue and depression. If it makes us feel bad, it’s clutter, and even though it might seem like a daunting task – it can be tackled.”

Still, not everyone is ready to give up their things so easily, sometimes for mental health reasons. Tetlock says she’s working with clients who have experienced forced dislocation, which led them to try to hold on to their possessions as long as they could, even if they didn’t need them. “Everyone has a different story,” she says. “Some of the people I work with have been through trauma. So I meet people where they are and go from there.”

Downsizing decades of your life

When Judith and her husband decided to sell the Mono home where they had lived for 29 years and move up north, they looked around at a lifetime of possessions and were so overwhelmed, they didn’t know where to start.

“We had all the normal things that you have to get rid of – furniture, old clothes, books, the usual stuff. But I also had a lot of art. And my husband is a collector,” Judith chuckles as she shares her story. Her husband’s den was a treasure trove of family heirlooms that dated back more than a hundred years, historical items, photo albums and scrapbooks.

They also owned tons of seasonal decor, especially for Christmas, and she had no idea what to do with it. “The thought of dealing with it all by ourselves was completely overwhelming,” admits Judith, who preferred to use only her first name. “I was honestly ready to drop the price of the house if the buyer was willing to keep all of our stuff!”

Assuring them that wasn’t possible, the couple’s real estate agent referred them to Diane Woodworth of Worth Organizing, based in Erin. Woodworth went through the house with Judith, and helped her get rid of everything that needed to go, whether it was through donating it to charity, sending it for recycling or selling it to an antique dealer.

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a professional organizer,” says Judith. “And it was difficult at first, the idea of a stranger coming into your home and going through all your stuff. But Diane has the right personality to do this kind of work. She knew when to give you time to think about it and when to push you to part with something. We couldn’t have done it without her.”

Woodworth knows just how hard it is to be in this situation. As an only child, she dealt by herself with the deaths of her own parents and the inheritance of their possessions. Having walked in clients’ shoes, she approaches every situation with empathy.

“I feel privileged when I work in a client’s home,” she explains. “They don’t know me, and they open their door to let me in. I’m touching their belongings. I’m hearing their stories. And they make the decisions.”

To help clients come to those decisions, says Woodworth, she asks questions about an item. Though her specific questions depend on the item and the client, they may include: What is this item’s history? What does it mean to you? Do you like it? Would you use it? Do you have space for it? Can it be displayed? Does another family member want it?

“Who am I to say, ‘You should get rid of your mother’s dishes’?” Woodworth asks. “Instead, we talk about it and find out which ones are the most difficult to deal with. And we figure it out.”

Other People’s Stuff

Demographics are adding to the bulge of belongings on the move. Many families are dealing with the death of elderly “greatest generation” matriarchs and patriarchs, known for hanging on to heirlooms and treasured mementoes. And baby boomers are a generation whose unprecedented prosperity and buying power has resulted in homes full of furniture and belongings, as well as items inherited from the greatest generation.

As boomers start to downsize, they’re unleashing what some observers have called “the great junk transfer.” And when Gen Xers, millennials and Gen Zers stare down what’s coming to them, many are resisting inheriting home goods and furniture they don’t need or have space for.

“My generation – people who are around 50 – are all facing the same issues, and they’re compounding every day,” says Lisa Jackson, owner of Downsizing Diva Dufferin-Caledon. “The previous generations collected, bought and saved. Nothing was thrown away in case it could be used one day. Some of them lived through wars and depressions, so they held on to their possessions.

“When the time comes to inherit these items, it can be overwhelming. They don’t fit into today’s décor. Styles and tastes change. We have modern, open-concept houses where you see long islands to dine at, not dining room suites. Today’s furniture is modern and sleek, not big and bulky. Our homes and lifestyles are very different from those of our parents.”

When Jackson and her team start working with a client, they understand that nobody wants to see their parents’ prized possessions simply thrown away or end up in landfill. One particularly challenging job in Hockley valley involved helping a client prepare his mother’s house for sale after she died.

That client was Paul, who asked to be identified only by his first name. “My mom was a longtime widow and had lived in the same home since 1964. Mom had managed to fill, and I mean fill, the house with ‘memories,’” he says. “She kept all the Franklin Mint collectible items Dad purchased for her every month when he was alive, candy dishes, teapots and teacups from garage sales, religious articles … If there was space in the home, Mom somehow found a way to fill it!”

In a process that took three full weeks, Jackson and her team went to work with Paul. They organized it all into groups for sale or auction. Unique items such as a pinball machine, an early 20th-century pump organ, and an antique wartime radio and record player were listed online on Kijiji. Whatever didn’t sell was then auctioned off. And bit by bit, as if by magic, all the items began to disappear, and Paul was able to list the house for sale.

“Essentially the house was emptied for free,” Paul says, because the money he earned from the auctions paid for Downsizing Diva’s services. “I felt very comfortable letting Lisa manage the entire situation. She is put into very difficult and emotional situations, because for most people, including me, there is a big difference between a house and a home. This was not a house full of chattels; it was a home full of memories.”

And lest organizers give the impression they push clients to get rid of every last treasure, Woodworth says she and her colleagues in the profession can also help clients zero in on the special items they do, indeed, want to keep.

When her own mother passed away, Woodworth decided to keep her mom’s set of china. She uses the dishes daily, even though they are antiques. “If a dish breaks, I know it’s okay,” Woodworth says. “I’m no longer the designated ‘keeper of the items.’ I know my kids won’t want them, so I’ll use them. I’m happy to use them.” And in this way, a little piece of her mom is always with her.

A cluttered time

In addition to downsizing and dealing with a previous generation’s belongings, some decluttering hopefuls are simply trying to manage in the here and now. As more and more homes are made of blended families, possessions pile up. And as real estate has become more expensive, empty nests are being nested in again as adult children move back home and bring all their stuff.

“During the Covid lockdowns, when everyone was home, people relied more heavily on family members for support,” says Tetlock, adding that some decluttering is about consideration for living in shared spaces. “People don’t want to be a burden.”

At the same time, others are realizing that they need help not only to bust clutter, but also to prevent the chaos from taking over in the first place. Tish Hansen of The Concierge, based in Caledon, helps busy professionals keep their homes – and minds – clear by, in addition to decluttering, tackling everything from arranging a handyman to organizing a pantry or tidying a home office. As Sera Weatherall, one of Hansen’s longtime clients, puts it, “If the choice is to work and earn money or spend all my time cleaning up … well, the business is going to take priority.”

Hansen, who regularly helps Weatherall keep clutter to a minimum, sprang into action when her client needed to clear out some items to accommodate the home office required to run her virtual assistant business. Hansen identified places in the local community that would take her donations, and Weatherall found it a lot easier to let things go when she knew they were going to a new home.

“When I did have trouble letting go, Tish told me someone else is going to use this,” said Weatherall. “And she’s right. There’s no point in having 10 frying pans! I’ll never use them. If someone else can use it, I’m happy to part with it.”

Similarly, Kelly Kamstra-Lloyd, who runs Mono-based Purging Spaces & Co., says that she has several clients who have needed help to repurpose a room or clear out old boxes from a basement. “If the space you have becomes too stressful to be in or to work in, people get to a point where they aren’t productive anymore,” Kamstra-Lloyd says. “But once you get it all cleared out and reorganized, you can be productive again.”

One of Kamstra-Lloyd’s clients had collected more than 200 pairs of shoes over the decades and couldn’t handle whittling them down by herself. Kamstra-Lloyd was happy to help, and says dealing with a single category like this can be a rewarding starting place for clients who think a job is too big. 

“You don’t have to do everything at one time,” she says. “You can pick one area to tackle. Then you can take stock of what you want to keep and reorganize it.”

This aspect is key, no matter how large or small the donation or garbage bags are. Decluttering is not simply about removing stuff, says Kamstra-Lloyd, adding she aims to set up systems for clients. 

“You have to really understand how the client is going to use that space. And what’s good for me isn’t good for someone else. It has to be sustainable for your client or else it will just go back to how it used to be.”

But where does it all go?

The process of actually letting go – or successfully completing the “last mile,” to use supply-chain jargon – is no doubt one of the biggest hurdles. How many of us leave boxes by the door or garbage bags full of clothes in the trunk of our car, waiting for a free moment to finish the task? This syndrome was exacerbated during the pandemic when many donation centres and thrift shops were closed.

When it comes to letting go, people feel better knowing their possessions are not ending up as landfill. They want to know their things are going to a new home, where someone else can use and enjoy them. Regardless of what kind of items you need to get rid of, local experts know exactly where to take it.

Tetlock even started her own Give & Take group on Facebook, saying the rise of interest in decluttering coincides with an increase in the number of people who want to buy eco-friendly, affordable secondhand items in the first place. She adds that if she doesn’t know where to take something, she contacts industry colleagues for ideas. “It’s amazing. We have so many resources to support one another,” she says. “It’s a very collaborative field. We call each other all the time to get information and advice; we refer clients to each other.”

Clothing in good condition can go to one of the many local thrift stores, charities or shelters. There are shops that will trade cash for old video games, consoles and vinyl records. Other charities accept stuffed toys or used bicycles and fix them before donating them back to the community. Facebook is full of “freebie” groups for people who just want something gone. And organizers are at ease using auction sites such as MaxSold and eBay. Even retailers like IKEA and H+M are creating programs and divisions for resale.

“There’s a place for everything if you know where to look,” says Tetlock. 

About the Author More by Emily Dickson

Emily Dickson is a writer and editor living in Orangeville.

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