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What Professional Organizing Is (And Isn’t!)

When you envision sitting down with organizing a client, what images come to mind? Cleaning out a overstuffed garage? Guiding an executive through scheduling his day? Alphabetizing and color-coding file folders? Labeling storage bins? That doesn’t even scratch the surface! You may not realize it yet, but ours is a much more broad and sweeping discipline—one which involves seeing the big picture, understanding how the pieces interlock, and bringing seemingly disparate elements together in a natural and logical way.

A Couple Of Definitions

Before we start talking about what our work entails, let’s begin by discussing the idea of organizing in the abstract. My buddy Noah Webster defined it as:

  • “to cause to develop an organic structure,”
  • “to integrate into a functioning whole,” and
  • “to set up an administrative process for.”

Not bad, but I think there’s more to it. Let’s turn to the internet for a robust and complete understanding of this concept—Dictionary.com say that organizing is:

  • “to put together in a functional and orderly way,”
  • “to arrange in a coherent form,”
  • “to create a desired pattern,” or
  • “to systematize for harmonious or united action.”

Ooh, I like that! You’ll notice that these descriptions don’t specifically mention paper, space, or time. They deal with concepts and principles that can be applied to any area of a person’s life—physical items as well as intangible responsibilities, at home or on the job, dealing with children or seniors, and addressing any organizational challenge you can think of. But these definitions still don’t explain how you (as a hired consultant) will create order in a client’s life. NAPO defines a professional organizer as:

  • “a person who provides ideas, information, structure, solutions, and systems to increase productivity, reduce stress, save time and energy, and lead to more control over space and activities,”

while suggesting that POs (and I’m sort of paraphrasing here):

  • “use tested principles and expertise to enhance the lives of clients” by “designing custom organizing systems and teaching organizing skills.”

That and so much more! We guide overwhelmed individuals toward the best solutions for their distinct needs. We listen without judgment, and are capable of effective problem-solving in the most challenging situations. We encourage and motivate—offering support, focus, and direction. We’re decisive and goal-oriented, working toward whatever end results our clients want to accomplish. We’re happy to roll up our sleeves and get the old hands dirty—but more than anything, we want to educate. As you’ll see again and again (…in Chapters X to XIV), organizing is about the transfer of skills. Whatever the level of service, we work toward teaching folks to maintain those changes long after we’re gone.

Drawing A Professional Line In The Sand

Now that you know what organizing is, you should also understand what it’s not. First off, it’s not housekeeping. You’ll run across the odd client who presumes that because her cleaning woman stacks all the loose papers neatly on the desk or puts all the toys into bins, she’s “organizing”—and this babe wants to pay you the same $10 an hour that she’s shelling out for the scrubbing of toilets and vacuuming of floors! She doesn’t realize that our job involves education and training far beyond what’s required of your average domestic help—that’s why it’s called professional organizing! The skill-set is more akin to counseling or coaching, but it’s up to you to educate clients on this matter.

On the other hand, what we do is not therapy. While it’s vitally important that you have at least some clue how to handle an individual who’s experiencing a meltdown in the middle of a session (…more on this in Chapters VIII to XI)—that doesn’t give you permission to take on the role of psychiatrist with anyone. Your client may tell you that your services are more valuable than analysis (and during the course of your career, you’ll undoubtedly help at least a few people through some serious rough patches in their lives)—but keep in mind that you are not a shrink. You aren’t trained to diagnose, licensed to treat, or covered by medical malpractice insurance! Find someone to whom you can refer your clients for the right kind of help, and stick to what you know best.

Organizing also isn’t being an attorney or a financial planner, it isn’t real estate sales or tax preparation, it isn’t insurance or pediatrics, it isn’t architecture or construction. You should only be providing a service if you’re actually trained in that field—this means properly licensed, certified, and bonded. As the expert, your words carry a lot of weight. Clients will ask your “professional opinion” about everything under the sun—but that doesn’t mean you have to give it. I know you like being the “go-to gal” (or guy), the “old reliable,” the one folks can turn to for help with any problem. But when you’re involved in so many aspects of a person’s life or business, it’s easy to get a bit of a “God complex”—thinking that you can (and should) advise them on everything from fixing a leak in the bathroom to drawing up office blueprints, from diagnosing a child as having ADD to filing for bankruptcy. You can get both yourself and your charges into a lot of trouble when you give them uninformed recommendations.

Frankly, the best advice you can offer anyone who has needs outside your jurisdiction is a referral to another experienced professional who knows what the heck she is talking about! Being a Jack (or Jill) of all trades is a tremendous asset in this business—but so is recognizing your limitations. In the same way that you wouldn’t appreciate a handyman, housekeeper, or virtual assistant giving your clients erroneous organizing advice, you want to avoid stepping on another industry’s toes in your own work. However, if you’re ASID-certified, or a licensed clinical social worker, or have spent 20 years as a CPA—feel free to incorporate this expertise into your professional practice. Knock thyself out!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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