In spite of the incredible popularity of Marie Kondo’s organizational guidebook The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, America continues to struggle with mountains of belongings. Whether it’s items purchased and delivered through the magic of Amazon Prime, a household of inherited furniture or just ever-growing piles of stuff in closets and basements, it’s safe to say that many households are full of the runoff of busy lives.

Seven years ago, Oak Parker Patty Mullin decided that the state of most of our closets made a great career opportunity. Mentored by a neighbor who was a professional organizer, Mullin decided to become a professional organizer herself and started Organizing Unlimited. 

Training

While it might seem like being a professional organizer takes little more than the courage to tell people where to put things, the reality is that a lot of training goes into earning the label of professional organizer. Mullin, who is a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, says that it takes 1,500 hours of training to earn the NAPO seal of approval and a sequence of classes is required.

There is also an ethical requirement that Mullin says is strictly adhered to. “Whatever happens in a home, stays in a home. We don’t talk about it. There’s no condescension and no judging.”

Recognizing that there can be many emotions involved when it comes to organizing a space, Mullin says the personal component is key. “It’s gaining someone’s trust even before the project starts. Usually, we talk first on the phone to make sure they are comfortable with me before scheduling a complementary assessment. There are so many ways to make people feel comfortable.”

Types of organizing

Television can provide a one sided-view of the problems of too much stuff with shows dedicated to extreme problems. Mullin has appeared on the television show Hoarders and stresses that hoarding involves a unique dynamic. She works with hoarders only if they are in counseling and prefers to take on only one hoarding client at a time because the jobs tend to be time-consuming and quite involved.

The bulk of Mullin’s work falls into residential organizing or senior downsizing, which can also be stressful even if it doesn’t have the psychological component of hoarding. Clients are often attached to the memories associated with an item or overwhelmed about where to begin. Mullin says she implements umbrella categories of donate, dispose, consign or keep, and takes her cues for each project based on the individual needs of the client.

For senior clients who are downsizing, it can be challenging to whittle down a lifetime of belongings in a family-sized home into something appropriate for a smaller home. Many people are saddened by the prospect of giving up items, but Mullin tries to play into the positive. “I had one client who was moving from a three story home into a two bedroom condo. I played up the positive. The condo had great closets, even if the smaller kitchen had less cabinet space.”

Jane Rutherford and her husband Tim hired Mullin to help when they sold their family home in River Forest, and Rutherford sings Mullin’s praises, calling her “worth her weight in gold.”

“She was very helpful in keeping us focused and getting us to think about things in a nice way and do it quickly. For example, if we came across a box of photos, we could have sifted through them for hours, but she advised us to just put them in the keep pile and move on.”

Rutherford said that Mullin has a wealth of resources in terms of knowing which items would be worth consigning and which should be donated, as well as the types of businesses that would take both. She also notes that Mullin transformed their new, smaller space with the items they kept. 

“She is great in terms of figuring out what fits where in terms of which items we should keep and take to our new place. She was also incredibly good at helping us get organized in that smaller space and setting up an organizational system that we can actually maintain.”

Many people hire Mullin when they are preparing for a move. Mullin can help them go room by room to first decide if items should be moved to the new home. “We can start packing up what they won’t need until they get to their new place and thinning out everything before they even put the home on the market.”

On the flipside of the move, Mullin can also help unpack and organize the new home, wrapping up the project in day or two, so that clients aren’t left with boxes for months.

Mullin also works with families who have recently lost a loved one when they are emptying out the family house for sale. “There is a benefit to hiring an organizer who will take the time and do everything. Often a family will say that they’ve taken everything they want, but I almost always unearth items that the family wants to keep.”

Helping clients help themselves

For Mullin, a large part of her job is sparking the organizing spirit in her clients. “I never tell anybody what to get rid of. I just get them to think about it. In the kitchen, I might put all the frying pans or all of the wine glasses together. In a closet, we might find 14 pairs of black pants. It can be freeing to see everything grouped together and realize you don’t need it all.”

Once clutter and excess items have been reduced, Mullin’s job continues, and she works with clients to set up systems to keep the house organized. Rutherford says that after the initial downsizing help, they recognized how helpful Mullin could be in other areas, and hired her for other jobs. 

“We have her back once a year or so to fine tune things,” says Jane Rutherford. “It’s easy to continue to accumulate in a small space, and she helps us organize. She also organized the garage at our summer cottage. She has a keen sense of where to put stuff, so now we can get in our beach items, our winter items, and our two cars.”

A true calling

Although her career as an organizer is a second act for her professional life, Mullin recalls that there have always been signs that she could do this.  “When I was in fourth grade, I took everything out of my parents’ pantry and reorganized it. Wherever I worked as an adult, I loved to organize the storage room.”

Noting that she still has her grown children’s belongings in her basement, Mullin says the goal isn’t perfection, but to help people live better in the spaces they call home. Doing this keeps her excited for every new client.

“I truly love what I do, and every day is different. It’s helping people. People are grateful, and I never expected it would be that way. It’s so rewarding.”

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