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

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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“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.

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“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:

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* 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.

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“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:

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* 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.

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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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The bedroom is one place where being organized is most important, Stoddard believes. “Set up systems that help you keep the bedroom neat,” she advises, “so that even when you are tired or rushed, you can keep this special place calm and uncluttered.”

For instance, Stoddard suggested:

* Have a place for everything in your bedroom, so you can automatically put things away without hassle.

* Keep ample hangers in the closet. It sounds simple, but hunting in vain for an empty hanger can cause stress at the very time you want to be winding down.

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* Organize your free time by letting the telephone answering machine pick up messages once you have settled into the bedroom for the night. Few of us need to be on duty 24 hours a day.

* Edit your possessions. Take some of your belongings--tired-out linens and towels, used-up perfume bottles, books you’ll never read, clothes you’ll never wear--and either give them away, put them away for safekeeping or, in many cases, throw them away.

But the minimalist route isn’t for everyone, said Ventura-based professional organizer Karen Rubin. And she has her snow globe collection, her rubber stamp collection and her wind-up toy collection to prove it. “I’m a collector,” Rubin, 43, admitted. “But it’s not cluttered.”

This gives Rubin an edge when counseling her clients: “I know how important even stupid things are.”

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In the past eight years, Rubin has counseled nearly 400 people, mostly professionals in the television and film business. She has natural talent for organizing, she said, because she comes from “an organized, pack-rat family.”

Those genes, along with her detail-oriented experiences as a television production assistant and associate producer, put Rubin in a good position to help busy performers such as actress Teri Garr, who works long hours, sometimes on location.

“I’m too busy,” Garr said in a harried phone interview. To help Garr, Rubin provided such unconventional services as organizing Garr’s kitchen, cleaning out her drawers and closets, and even helping her move into a new house.

For people who simply cannot get organized on their own, hiring a professional like Rubin, even for a few hours, may be a wise investment. “I thrive on making order out of chaos,” she said.

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Cheryle Matlock, who works out of Baldwin Hills, is a professional organizer with a background in real estate. Advertising herself as “The Organized Advantage,” Matlock helps people who are buying or selling a home to move through the process without heartburn.

“Buying a house should be a good feeling for you,” Matlock said. “But after it’s over, people are drained.”

And being disorganized just makes the trauma of buying a home that much worse. With all the papers and documents asked for by loan and title companies, potential buyers are snowed.

Matlock suggests the following strategy:

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* Keep all your home-buying papers in one place.

* Never set a document down thoughtlessly; it may not surface when you really need it.

* Write down on paper the tasks the bank, mortgage company, title company or real estate company ask you to do. And do them. Otherwise, you might end up with a horrible experience instead of a joyous one.

Don’t let your organizational problems get you down, Heloise urged.

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“There’s only so much time. Don’t try to do it all,” she said. “Look at your priorities and pick the most beneficial things. If your benchmark is a clean refrigerator, pick that and let the dust go.”

In Heloise’s estimation, it takes three weeks to establish a new habit--like putting the scissors back where you got them. People think they are saving time, she said, when they don’t spend the 10 seconds it takes to put something away.

“But a week from now it will take 10 minutes to find it,” she said. “Do it. When it becomes a habit, you won’t even have to think about it.”

Leslie Gershman--finally fed up with the state of her West Hollywood apartment after living there almost a decade--is ready to “do it.” She was inspired when a friend explained to her that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Another friend has a sign on her desk that says: “Do It Wrong.”

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“Just do it, that’s the essence,” said Gershman, who has formulated this plan of action for her life:

* Get the landlord to repaint the place.

* Hold a garage sale to get rid of surplus stuff.

* Ask an organized friend for help.

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* Head to Staples or Office Depot for some loose-leaf binders for errant papers.

Plus, Gershman’s kitchen is much neater since she started playing an organizing game when she puts the kettle on for tea.

“How much can I improve my kitchen,” she asks herself, “in the time it takes for this water to boil?”

Price is a Santa Barbara free - lance writer.

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