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Reclaiming Order:
Frustrated with her cluttered porch, a Webster woman turns to a pro for help

Democrat and Chronicle, 5/14/05
Lisa Hutchurson, Staff Writer

Clutter to OrganizedWhen MaryLee Bucci was in third grade, she lost everything she owned in a fire except her Bible.

Maybe God knew she'd need help later on. A loss of possessions early in life made it hard for her to part with and organize what she had. Other factors made the problem worse: her scattershot approach to keeping the house orderly, advice from others that didn't really help and a view that family time trumps endless straightening.

Help — or was it divine intervention? — brought Dorothy Madden to Bucci's Webster home. Madden, owner of Organize It! in Penfield, had read Bucci's letter to the Democrat and Chronicle and seen the shots of her messy enclosed porch. It was time for this organizing pro to move into action for our second installment of Operation Organization.

Cry for help
Bucci, 42, is a stay-at-home mom. She has two sons, 8-year-old Noah and 5-year-old Maxwell, and her husband, John, stays busy running his own business. She also cares for a disabled niece for about four hours a day, before and after school. "I can handle most of my duties at home with little trouble," Bucci wrote in her letter. "However, organization in the house is my biggest struggle and it's a struggle that has no end in sight."

Of particular concern: the enclosed porch off her kitchen. Part cupboard, part storage for countertop appliances, it has also become a purgatory of sorts. Boxes and bins fill the 9-by-15-foot space.

Organizing books: Been there. Advice from friends: Done that. Her sons try to help, and their help is age-appropriate, she says. But she blames herself for their shortfalls in this area: If she can't clean up, how can she teach them?

"As for my husband," wrote Bucci, "my biggest challenge with him is when I do organize something he, at times, feels it would make more sense to put it elsewhere. ... This 'organizational defect' of mine is the single, biggest issue in our marital arguments. John doesn't understand why it's so hard for me and I'm hurt he can't accept this is one thing I don't do well."

Bucci had considered help from professionals before, but she says it was a luxury the family couldn't afford.

"I have made a heroic effort to re-wire my brain and have failed," she wrote. "I knew that if someone could 'train' me, I would be a great student."

Organizing 101
In addition to a re-wired brain and a clean porch, Bucci needs a system customized for her. The problem with organization books and friends' advice, says Madden, is that they are not tailored to each person's thinking style or schedule.

Madden works to get to know the home — and Bucci. She starts by surveying the porch. Baking pans, stuffed any which way into doorless filing cabinets, create a dismal, gray scrap yard of metal. "They keep falling out," Bucci remarks.

Preventing Madden from crossing the room is the baby gate Bucci uses for her niece; trash and recycling bins; a rolling, tiered tray table; and about 17 boxes of kids' artwork, sewing stuff and other bric-a-brac. A cabinet on the far wall holds plastic storage containers, but Bucci doesn't use them because they're too much of a pain to wrestle from the jammed, thin shelves.

Madden then sits down with Bucci, getting to know her and the way she works. It becomes clear that Bucci works on several projects at once, reducing efficiency and thwarting completion. Madden suggests Bucci calm her racing mind by writing down other waiting chores as she thinks of them.

Bucci also reveals that she's extremely organized about some things. She has a calendar system that has enabled her to remember every appointment except one in the past several years, for instance, and important school and medical papers are filed in an easily accessible folder.

Madden capitalizes on this strength of making and keeping appointments, suggesting Bucci start making appointments with herself. She can schedule blocks of time to work on organizing. She can also set deadlines for getting things done.

Madden then takes her through an organizing crash course, modifying lessons to suit Bucci's needs. For instance, Madden advocates "filing, not piling."

But Bucci gets impatient with filing. "Once I walk in the door I'm already onto something else," she says. Yarn gets dropped into a bag with, well ... yarn-related stuff.

"OK, filing. ... We know that's not your thing," Madden concedes, "so we'll try to organize what you're piling."

In order to do that, however, Bucci must make a decision and prioritize when it comes to each and every item she touches.

"Stop it at the door," continues Madden. "Don't bring it into your life if you don't have a home for it." One way to decide an item's importance is to assign it a number corresponding with how much you use it (and therefore how accessible you want it to be). A skillet John uses daily ranks a 1, or high priority. A piece of Oriental fabric she plans to use for a project ranks a 3, or low priority. A "4" should probably be tossed or donated.

Madden also offers other tips.

One is setting up a "staging area," a space in which to sort like items into categories, so they can be put back in logical groupings. It can be in the room or next to it; it all depends on how much space you have.

Another is hanging up the phone and logging onto e-mail. Since Bucci has so many friends and is involved in church and school committees, time on the phone seems never-ending. Since the family was planning on getting a computer anyway, Madden sets a deadline (another trick) of Sept. 1 for Bucci to set up an account. Bucci writes it in her calendar.

Another must: Family involvement. Madden suggests a daily "family blitz," during which each member cleans up their share of that day's mess.

"Consistency is important. You do it every day," says Madden. "It's not a punishment. It's part of being a family."

Reprinted with the permission of the Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY