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A Conversation With Ramona Creel

Secrets Of Professional Organizers — The Domino Effect
A Conversation With Ramona Creel

After many years of conversing with and learning from other organizing experts, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to record and transcribe interviews with some of them. These people have dedicated their careers to helping others change their lives for the better through decluttering, organizing, and simplifying. While their approaches, personalities, and specialties vary widely, they share a common goal — to teach themselves out of a job. Please meet Ramona Creel — organizer, entrepreneur, fellow full-time RVer, author of ‘The Professional Organizer’s Bible,’ and all-around interesting person.

What’s your primary area of expertise in the organizing industry?

When it comes to hands-on work with my clients, I’ve always been a generalist — a little bit of this, a little bit of that, homes, offices, paper, time, storage, clutter, finances, moving, kids, seniors, you name it. If I did the same thing every single day, I would get bored to tears!

I‘m with you. But you must have a unifying thread in your work.

With everything I do, my overarching philosophy is simplicity. I‘m not into color-coding just so we can make your closet look pretty — or putting papers in a file just to get them off your desk. I want to go deeper. Why has your life gotten so complicated? What can you do to make it less stressful?

Now where does that come from?

My approach stems from the fact that I’ve gone in this odd direction in my own life and become a full-time RVer. Even though society’s always telling you bigger is better, it’s not that hard to choose a smaller, more satisfying life. I’ve done it myself — downsizing, simplifying, making things easier. I try to practice what I preach and spread the gospel of “have-the-life-you-want-not-the-one-you-were-handed” wherever I go.

When did you realize that you were a minimalist?

I’ve always been a minimalist. But when I decided to move into a 29-foot Airstream, I still got rid of a ton of stuff. I was amazed at how much I had accumulated even though I’m a Professional Organizer, a minimalist, and a simplifier. We all end up with so much (pardon the language) “crap” we don’t need. It’s insidious. It just sneaks up on you, and you don’t realize it’s there until you decide to clean out a space, and then you wonder where it all came from!

Tell me about the process of becoming a full-timer.

I was feeling quite discontent with the whole “owning a house” thing. I bought a home later in life than most people do, and had done a ton of work fixing it up. I joke that I became an RVer because I didn’t like doing yard work, but honestly — the whole home ownership scenario didn’t click with me on a lot of levels. I was paying for a mortgage, utilities, and property taxes when I was rarely home — while I was traveling, I was also paying travel and hotel expenses and all that. It sucked!

And how did you land on RVing as a solution?

Anyway, I was driving down the road one day thinking about how much it sucked, and I saw an Airstream coming toward me on the other side of the highway — I thought, “Oh, yeah!” It was immediate, that click! Being the jump-off-the-deep-end kind of girl that I am, I got all caught up in the idea that I was going to do this full-time RVer lifestyle. I had originally thought it would take three, four, maybe five years to get that point. But within six months, I had found the perfect Airstream and started downsizing started downsizing — you can’t take everything from an 1,800-square-foot house with you when you have less-than-200-square feet in your rig. And I simply refuse to put things in storage. I believe wholeheartedly that if you own it you need to use it and enjoy it — if you don’t, pass it on to someone who can.

What did you do with all of your stuff? Sell it? Donate it?

Craigslist was my best friend for about a year and a half. And even though I’ve done yard sales and consignment my whole life, I learned so much about the right and wrong way to make REAL money off my discards. When they’re cleaning out, a lot of folks assume that they have to give everything away for 25 cents at a yard sale — very much not the case! I made $16,000 selling everything I didn’t take with me in on the road. That’s what I did for a year and a half while fixing up the Airstream and getting all my full-timing ducks in a row.

What advice do you have for people who want to simplify?

My clients joke that they pay me to ask all those really annoying questions that they never want to ask themselves. “When did you last use this When will you use it again?” I love to probe about what purpose this thing serves in their lives and how it makes them feel. Is it standing in the way of something else that they would like to be doing? If it is, why are they letting it serve as a roadblock? I think that level of awareness is what we are lacking most in this society. Its the reason why the clutter shows up in our homes, and it’s the reason why the overwhelm shows up in our schedules. When people get to this point, they feel like they’re trapped — buried by their stuff, their house payment, or job, or anything that gets in the way of simplifying their life.

What’s your initial step look like with a client?

The very first thing you have to do before you start making major changes of any kind is to take a good, hard look at what you want your life to look like — and think about why it doesn’t look like that now. What needs to be removed or added to bring it into alignment? That kind of self-examination is scary. You suddenly have to look at all these dreams that you’ve shoved to the side for one reason or another. The trick to simplifying is deciding what is truly important, what’s truly a priority for you — and what you need to let go of to get what you want. That’s hard for most people to do without a little bit of help!

Can you talk about helping a client achieve success simplifying?

Oh, gosh. So many way folks have had an “Aha!” moment while we’ve been working together. I was going through one client’s house, talking about things she needed and things she didn’t. All of a sudden, she looked around and said, “Do you know why I have all of this stuff? Because I have all this space to fill.” She had this huge house, and you know how people are these days. They have these massive, million-square-foot houses that are just way bigger than anybody needs. It wasn’t that she got all of the stuff because she felt like she needed it, or was filling a hole in her life or anything like that. It’s just that she had empty space, and she couldn’t stand the space looking bare.

So what did you do?

We discussed the concept of her downsizing her life. She ultimately moved to a much smaller house, much closer to her job, which was pretty sweet, because she didn’t have that big commute every day. She saved a ton of money on her mortgage payments. She didn’t have to work as many hours and, of course, got rid of so much junk that she didn’t need. She really pared it down to just the things that she loved — the beautiful, useful, or loved items. That’s the William Morris Arts And Crafts Movement mantra that I love to teach my clients — is it beautiful, useful, or loved? If not, why are you keeping it?

Sounds like your work is about getting at the core of things?

People think organizing is about setting up a space, looking at your calendar, or doing something with your filing system. But if you’re doing it the right way, you get this massive domino effect going, and that’s what I love seeing with my clients. They think I’m just going to move the stuff around, and but what I do affects their entire existence in ways they could not have imagined. They really, truly end up with a better quality of life — and it starts with that one tiny action. Usually the stuff is the tangible signal that something ELSE is out of whack in your life. That’s what people see, and that’s what they want to tackle. But, if they’re really, really paying attention to all the underlying factors, it going to affect everything, and it’s wonderful to watch.

After economic downturn, is there a trend toward simplification?

It’s interesting because sometimes it happens after a downturn in the economy, and sometimes it happens after a really prosperous period. Thoreau sought simplicity in the woods as a direct response to the industrial revolution, and then the Arts And Crafts folks followed in his footsteps. Mechanization brought with it a big boost of prosperity — but when we have prosperity, risk giving up what’s really important in return for material goods. So we start trading more of our time for a job that pays us more money, but also requires more hours. We buy a bunch of stuff that we don’t need, and that we’re never at home to enjoy.

A vicious cycle?

Sure, but it always circles back around. The second time was thanks to the hippies — their “back-to-homesteading, back-to-the-earth” movement was in response to a period in the 1950s when we had big-time consumerism. People wanted the color TV, the car in the garage, and the home in the suburbs. Then, in the 1960s, folks bucked that trend and went in the other direction.

But what about the conspicuous consumption craze of the 80s?

In the 1980s there was a lot of prosperity again. That started another round of voluntary simplicity in the 90s and 2000s. That’s what I see. Every time we get a little too big for our britches, we start to recognize that the stuff, the money, the job status, and all of that are the most important things in the world. You’ll see similar trends in a difficult economy — folks looking for ways to trim budgets. But the motivation is different. It’s more out of necessity and desperation than a conscious choice to head in a more productive direction as a society.

And you see that as an important distinction?

I do. I love it when I see people embracing voluntary simplicity. I love it when bookstores are full of self-help guides on on simplifying your life, people are talking about it on TV, and it’s in magazines — because it’s all about awareness. And the more you have folks discussing these issues (rather than asking how big your house is and how many cars you have), that’s when we’re truly realigning our values.

What impact will millennials have on the simplicity movement?

Well first off, I don’t like making broad assumptions based on labels. I am Generation X. What the hell does that mean? Can you characterize me based on my birth year? Presume I’m like everyone else in my cohort group. Not hardly! But I will say that one thing that I find really disturbing about younger generations is this “plugged in from birth” trend. This is a huge destroyer of simplicity. I’m talking about people who can’t carry on a conversation without simultaneously texting, tweeting, and watching YouTube all at the same time. They can’t make eye contact. They don’t know how to finish a sentence, because they’re used to speaking in 140-character soundbites. I think you need to be able to walk away from that stuff to truly simplify your life. If you’re constantly plugged in and you’re feeling the pressure to always be connected, that’s not a simple life. That’s not even close.

So, you connect simplicity with being present in the moment?

Oh, very much so. Don’t get me wrong, I love my electronics. The thing that’s so joyous about the modern age is that we could not have lived an RV lifestyle without all of this gadgetry and connectivity. As long as I have an internet connection and a cell phone, I can help clients to simplify their lives, and it also allows me to stay in touch with friends that we’ve made all over the country. But we have lost any concept of moderation when it comes to technology these days. That’s going to be the next simplicity backlash — the backlash against how insanely connected everybody feels like they have to be all the time.

Why do we hear less about this trend from the media these days?

Because we’ve gotten used to it. We don’t notice that it’s a problem anymore. It’s commonplace, a way of life. It’s what we’re used to. That’s the most frightening thing is when we get used to things that are killing us, that are not good for our society, and not good for our continued growth and evolution. It’s like when you have chronic pain and then you don’t really pay attention to it as much, because it just always hurts — it’s become the norm. That’s what is going on with technology. We don’t see it as a problem anymore. It was only an issue when it was new. It’s not new anymore.

You mention helping people from the road. How does that work?

I have different ways I work with people while I am traveling. When I’m parked in one place for a long period, I’m more than happy to slip into traditional Professional Organizer mode where I take on long-term projects — whole houses and big offices that require follow-up appointments to really fine-tune systems, clean out all of the clutter, and do a lot of hand-holding with my clients the whole way through. I do love that. But when I’m traveling and only in town for a few days or weeks, I do what I call a “drive-by.” If you’re in an area that I’m passing through, and you want me to spend a day to get your garage in order, or set up a filing system, or organize your kitchen, or work through some time management issues, I’m more than happy to do that. What I can’t do is work with a chronically disorganized person, or someone who has a hoarding issue, because I’m just not there long enough.

That completely makes sense.

The other option I have is virtual organizing. Someone from another part of the country can send me their photos and descriptions of what is going on. Then we get on the phone or skype, and they can point the camera around and show me what is going on. We work out an action plan for tackling the clutter or the time and paper issues. That is exactly what would happen if I were physically with them. I tell them what steps to take and what tools to use, and they do the manual labor instead of paying me to do that. It’s more affordable, because they don’t have to foot the bill for quite so much of my in-person time. They can get expertise, the same results, because it’s all about knowing what to do and what tools to use. The nice thing about it is that I can work with anybody, anywhere and that’s pretty nice. I enjoy that.

What would you say to a potential full-time RVer?

I have run across so many people who say to me, “Man, I would love to be doing what you are doing, but…” and there’s always a big “but” in there somewhere. My first response to say (just like Pee-Wee Herman) “let’s talk about your bit but” — quite often, it is having a really hard time letting go of the bigger life. Most have been convinced somewhere along the way that they need the big screen TV, the pool table, four guest bedrooms, a room for the office, a room for this, and a room for that. Part of the process is re-examining whether those are wants or needs, and how important they are to you compared to what you would get in return for downsizing.

So you help folks decide what they can live without?

That’s the thing about downsizing and simplifying your life. It is not about living without. There is nothing in my life that I need or want that I don’t currently have in this lifestyle. If I want to play Guitar Hero, I’ve got it. If I want to pull out a djembe and participate in a drum circle, I can do it. When we dress up like fools, I’ve got the corset. And the pirate hat. And the body paint. There’s nothing I need that I don’t have — but I did let a bunch of other stuff that served no purpose in my life go (including the house) to have these things that are priorities in my life. It’s all about knowing what you want and how downsizing will allow you to get there. When you do that, cleaning out becomes the most enjoyable activity in the world — because you know you’re making room for the life you always wanted.

Then why don’t more people follow your example?

A lot of Americans don’t want to examine that side of things, because it’s scary when you start questioning a lifetime of misplaced priorities. It’s hard to admit that you traded your dreams for a flat screen and a dishwasher. It’s hard to walk away from all that “stuff” when you’ve built your identity on what you own.

What do you identify with?

I don’t collect things — I collect experiences. One of the books I am working on is a travel book my year-long trip from Key West to Nova Scotia. I cannot even begin to tell you all the amazing experiences I had — everything from getting to raft on the Shubenacadie River off the Bay Of Fundy (where the tide rises and falls by 40 feet twice a day), to taking a glider flight over Acadia National Park, to swimming with a sea lion, to eating a grub worm at the Ghanaian embassy. (I don’t recommend that one). These are all once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I would never have had if I had let stuff get in the way. I would much rather have all of that than a collection of Hummels or a Maserati or a closet full of Jimmy Choos. I’ve made it a priority to go, and see, and do. Each person has to figure out what their own priorities are — but I guarantee you that when folks look deep enough, they’ll find it’s not that shelf full of stuff.

Is there anything else you would like to add as we wrap up?

Large thumbs-up to the hitting-the-road lifestyle. I am trying to get a whole caravan of us together to simplify, travel, and enjoy the country.

Sounds good. See you on the road!

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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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