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Professional Organizers

by Cristina Sorrentino Schmalisch, PhD, LICSW 

People with hoarding may seek the services of a professional organizer if they understand their problem as being primarily one of disorganization. Also, working with a professional organizer may be more acceptable to some people than seeking mental health treatment. Professional organizers work to improve the quality of their clients’ homes or work places through organization. They provide knowledge about:
  • organizing skills – for example, sorting, categorizing and organizing possessions; setting regular routines like recycling and sorting mail and bills
  • tools - storage containers and file folders are typical examples
  • systems - for filing paper, for managing appointments and so forth
Professional organizers can also help clients to prioritize their activities (for example, running errands or doing housework on Saturday morning leaves the rest of the weekend free).

Professional organizers not only transfer skills and help create organizational systems, they also help motivate their clients to carry out the de-clutter work. Many individuals who hoard have severe motivational problems. As a result of working with a professional organizer and becoming more organized, clients can experience a range of benefits, such as being more timely as they are better able to find needed possessions and feeling less stress in their day-to-day lives.

Professional organizers working with those who hoard can use a range of organizing strategies. One standard strategy is O.H.I.O. (Only Handle it Once) for those who churn items. This happens because difficulty making decisions is a common problem in hoarding and many clients lack organizational systems. As a result, a client may start to work on a pile of items, become frustrated by various items (what to do with it; where to put it) and then put the object down in the same or different pile. O.H.I.O. raises awareness of churning behavior and encourages clients to make a final decision about the item.

Related to this, a key sorting strategy is to encourage clients to sort into a small number of categories. Typical first categories are “keep,” “discard,” and “unsure” (this last one allows for discussion about decisions – see below). Other important strategies are to identify a “home inside the home” for each item and to encourage the development of maintenance skills, like reading and sorting mail daily, regularly removing items, recycling, and putting items away shortly after use.

Professional organizers can provide important help for clients who are getting mental health treatment for hoarding. Very few mental health providers make home visits and even those who do can usually only provide limited visits (for example, once per month). Working with a professional organizer can give clients critical hands-on help with their hoarded items. Ideally, the professional organizer would contact the therapist and work with them to help the client's hoarding symptoms.

Some professional organizers have specialized training in working with hoarding or related problems, such as chronic disorganization (CD). This specialized Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) provides information about CD and trains professionals to work effectively with this problem. However, CD is not the same as hoarding because a person may be chronically disorganized without having hoarding (for example, because of current depression or attention deficit disorder).  In contrast, most people who hoard do have CD. The ICD provides contact information for professional organizers with different levels of expertise in working with CD (www.challengingdisorganization.org). The National Association of Professional Organizers (www.napo.net) provides contact information for the broader group of professional organizers and also provides training opportunities.
International OCD Foundation Hoarding Center