The chaos theory

Professional organizer Cheryl Vargas helps clients get their mess under control

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Life is messy, but your home doesn't have to be. At least not according to Cheryl Vargas, who's making it her business to help people get their chaos under control.

Vargas runs OrganizeChicago from her Oak Park condo. In four-hour sessions, she visits clients' homes or offices to "sort, categorize and create [places] for their possessions," a process that often leads to "repurposing their living spaces for what they actually do," she says.

It's a multi-step process. Since a call from a client often begins with a general plea of "Oh my god, it's a mess here," there's a certain amount of digging out that's necessary. But Vargas is as interested in providing long-term solutions as she is in quick clean-ups.

"You have to teach new habits to control mess," she explains. "That means helping people make use of their living spaces for what they do." If you don't have convenient, workable places to keep what you need to keep (more about that later), you'll end up back where you started.

Vargas' approach is personal. The four-hour session ("usually as much as people can handle at one time," she notes) is very hands-on. Papers are sorted, decisions are made, closets are attackedâ€"all while Vargas keeps a purposeful conversation running.

"I need to watch their behavior, how they handle paper. I learn by asking questionsâ€"how their mind retrieves documents," says Vargas. "People will use the same system differently." And if a system won't work long-term, it's worthless.

Vargas came to her profession through a personality traitâ€""People always told me I was really organized," she saysâ€"and a line of previous jobs that she believes led her here. Starting in her early 20s, she sold Mary Kay cosmetics, was an administrative assistant and taught Microsoft Office software to users. But her most relevant experience came from meeting and convention planning, work that involves much detail and organization.

When Vargas got the idea to be a professional organizer, she thought she would be the first and only one. A little research told her, on the contrary, that this was a growing business with its own association, the National Association of Professional Organizers.

"So it wasn't my own invention. That was sobering. But I knew I could succeed at it," she recalls.

And it's been going well; along with a steady stream of customers, Vargas is one of only two area organizers being considered for an appearance on Mission: Organization, the HGTV program that pairs organizers with desperately messy homeowners.

She's also branched out into "home staging," or getting a house ready for sale. It's a natural extension, since "creating a sense of neutrality that allows buyers to imagine themselves and their things in your home" involves "cutting down personal possessions by 50 percent in every room," Vargas explains.

We can all use a system for getting and staying organized. Vargas offers these guidelines and suggestions for keeping chaos at bay. There's a lot more information and advice on her website,

Control the paper

Getting paperâ€"junk mail, bills, magazines, important documents, coupons, etc.â€"under control is the first step in getting organized, says Vargas.

Most of us aren't as bad as one of her clients, who hadn't opened his mail in three years. But not dealing with paper, even for a few weeks, can "affect finances, credit, time management," she suggests.

The first step, she says, is to stop most paper at the door. Vargas recommends placing a letter opener, trash can (or recycling bag), shredder, and mail holder as near to the front door as possible.

"Go to the mailbox, stop and open the mail," she advises. A moment spent examining and sorting now will save lots of headaches, and mess, later.

Ads, direct-mail brochures, magazines you're not going to read go right into the trash. "People usually look at these things for a total of three seconds," she says. Look and toss.

Credit card offers and other personally-identifiable junk should go into the shredder.

Get a slanted file sorter with room for multiple files. Label one file "to do" and another "to buy." Inside the "to do" folder, place a deposit envelope for checks that need to go to the bank. Depending on when your bills are due, make two smaller, dated folders for bills that need to be paidâ€"for example, one labeled "pay by the 15th," and another labeled "pay by the 30th." Those also go inside the "to do" folder.

A more permanent solutionâ€"one Vargas will set up for clientsâ€"is to convert to electronic bill payment. She does all of her own bill paying electronically, although she understands "it will take another generation for everyone to get comfortable with that."

The "to buy" folder holds offers you might want to consider. A "wish list," Vargas calls it. Coupons go here, too.

Magazines you intend to read should go in the place you actually read themâ€"bedroom, bathroom, living room, wherever. Vargas keeps a few in her car, for times when she's stuck waiting.

Packages should also be dealt with at the door. Recycle or toss boxes and packing material. Vargas is critical of most packagingâ€"even in the kitchen, she replaces boxes with zip-lock bags, saving valuable storage space.

For important papers and documents you must keep, the next step is to create usable storage. Vargas insists that every home should have at least a two-drawer filing cabinet close to where the paperwork gets done.

"If you don't have a place for your paper to live, it will end up on the counter or on the dining room table," says Vargas, who adds that a box in the closet won't cut itâ€"it's too hard to access. And don't stick the cabinet in the attic; papers will never make it up there.

The only other supplies you need are hanging file folders, manila folders to go inside those, and tabs for labeling. (For a list of suggested file names for a home filing system, see the sidebar on page 58.)

The other necessities, of course, are the sense to recognize what's important and the will to throw out what isn't. Vargas suggests consulting an accountant or attorney to determine how long you should keep tax documents and other important papers, and use a one-year rule of thumb for everything else.

"Do you really need those old ComEd bills from places you don't even live anymore? I don't think so," she says.

Attack clutter where it lives

If you want to increase your storage space and reduce your clutter, look to your bookshelves, suggests Vargas.

"People have a really weird attachment to books. I read a lot and have books I love, but I don't keep them," she says. If you want to read a book againâ€"and how many of us actually do that?â€"get it out of the library.

Seniors' homes and hospitals love to get books. "Let your books go back out into the universe," says Vargas. "I've never missed a book I've given away."

Closets are another easy fix. The "prime real estate" of your closet, which Vargas defines as "the easiest spaces to get to," should hold the clothes you currently wear, and that's it. Store out-of-season stuff, and get rid of the rest.

A self-confessed yo-yo dieter, Vargas understands the impulse to keep clothing that no longer fits, but believes it's a mistake. "Keep a few classic things, or a few nostalgia outfits, but don't keep anything else more than a couple of years," she advises. "If you lose weight, you're going to want new clothes anyway."

If your home is filled with collectibles, get a grip. "If you have a hobby center, that's great. Otherwise display the finest of your collection," says Vargas. If the stuff is scattered all over the house, no one will see it anyway.

In the kitchen, the "prime real estate" rule also applies. Keep your favorite pots, pans and utensils close to where you use them, and put the rest back in the pantry. Vargas is a big believer in weeding out items here as well.

"No one needs that many plastic containers. You don't need six slotted spoons. Keep your favorite and a backup, and pitch the rest. Sharpen your dull knives or get rid of them," she says.

Maximize storage space with shelf dividers. For supplies, Vargas sends her clients to the dollar store instead of more expensive container stores. And use the vertical space (advice that Vargas extends to every room in the house). In a kitchen, that means putting pegboard on the walls and inside cabinet doors.

Create zones

It's easier to keep a household organized if the space we live in reflects what we do. Vargas points to the wasted space of a living room used only for guests, or a dining room no one eats in.

Vargas asks clients to "think about what you do and if there's a place to do it." For example, if the kids do their homework in the dining room, there should be places there to keep school supplies neat and out of sight.

In her own home, she divided off half of the living room and converted it to a home office, complete with lots of see-through storage containers, all neatly labeled. And more books than are actually necessary, notes Vargas with a sheepish grin.

Cheryl Vargas has two organizing workshops scheduled at Dole Center, 255 Augusta St. Tonight is "Getting Your Home Ready to Sell," from 6 to 8 p.m. "Eliminate Paper Clutter in the Home/Office" is Saturday, July 23, from 9 a.m. to noon. Contact the Park District of Oak Park, 383-0002, for registration information, or Vargas at 312/371-9526 .

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