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Clutter Busters : Tips on how people with 'pack-rat syndrome' can put their homes in order and organize their lives


" You can't have everything. Where would you put it? "

--Comic Steve Wright

When Leslie Gershman is on the road selling movies to video stores, her life seems to be in good working order. But when she returns home to her two-bedroom West Hollywood apartment, that sense of order has disappeared.

Along with the scissors.

"I was sitting here trying to find something," said Gershman, 32, admitting that her home office "is so cluttered, such a mess, that I can't even sit in there. When I have work to do, I have to pull the papers I need out and sit in the living room."

Still, she is defensive about her disorganization.

"I always find something I want. So what if once in a while I can't find a pair of scissors," she asked. "I can't remember the last time I couldn't find something. Oh yeah, it was a belt for New Year's Eve. I finally found it in February."

Even so, it's not just in her office where Gershman is overcome by stuff. Her whole apartment suffers from disarray. And so does she.

"I couldn't with ease go out to dinner with friends and say 'Let's go back to my place for drinks,' " she said. "No way. I'd be too embarrassed."

Gershman is not alone in her troubles. In this age of abundance, a person can get lost in the bounty. Many are seeking help. The California-based National Assn. of Professional Organizers has 350 members, up from a handful five years ago. The "pack-rat syndrome" is a hot topic among psychotherapists. And for those who like 12-step support groups, Messies Anonymous (MA) has sprung up in Florida.

"I know what you want to happen," said MA founder Sandra Fenton. "You want the house to change, to be orderly and beautiful, and you want it to happen easily and immediately."

The bad news from Fenton is that the change will not come easily. And it will not happen immediately. But you can make a beginning. She offers a few tips:

* Do one job at a time. Set the timer on your stove or, better still, put on a tape. Plan to work for only two or three songs. You may find that once you start, you'll go on for a while longer.

* Separate the clothes in your closet into skirts, blouses, slacks, etc. Then separate the sections into colors. That will make getting dressed easier.

* Handle pieces of paper only once. For instance, the introductory newsletter Fenton sends out is designed to be stored in a three-ring notebook or to be thrown away. "Don't put it in that pile!" she scolds in her newsletter.

But scolding may not be in order here. Let's face it: June Cleaver is history.

"Our lives are different from our mothers," explained Heloise, whose "Hints From Heloise" column runs in Good Housekeeping magazine and in newspapers all over the world.

Keeping a clean, organized house "was our mothers' job. That was their primary job description," Heloise said from her home in Westmore, Tex. "And they had time to do it. Now that job has fallen down in the priority list."

This is true even for Heloise, who receives 2,000 to 3,000 letters a week from people desperately seeking household solutions. "I can't even do it all," she confessed. "I looked at my desk the other day and I thought: 'I wish I'd have a small fire so I wouldn't have to file all this.' "

But Heloise does offer some advice about organizing your life:

* When you are overwhelmed by the thought of straightening out the garage or clearing off the counters, "Tell yourself, 'I'm going to do it.' Ten minutes, nothing more. You can get a lot done in 10 minutes. Even if it's only half done."

* Use calendars, notebooks, bulletin boards, whatever works to keep track of the things you need to do. Writing it down leaves your brain cells free for more creative things.

* Keep a 3-by-5-inch memo pad in your purse or pocket and write down whatever you need to remember.

* Closet cleaning may be a chore, but sometimes organizing one part of your life (in this case, your wardrobe) can lead to getting organized in other parts of your life.

Indeed, with so much tumult in the world today, finding a way to organize the chaos in the home may be more important than ever. After all, how many were able to find their flashlights in the dark terror that followed the Northridge earthquake?

"The big picture sometimes looks quite grim. The outside world can seem troublesome, dangerous, uncertain," writes Alexandra Stoddard in her book, "Living a Beautiful Life." "One's home is a personal refuge. Home, especially, is one area of existence where you can have control."

Stoddard suggests decorative storage boxes for maintaining order in the home:

"I've learned always to have three or four empty (boxes) around in which to house the next projects. . . . They are so flexible. You can work on several projects at once, and by keeping them in separate boxes, you don't feel overwhelmed."

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