To professional organizer Barbara Ricketts, clutter represents postponed decisions.
When people don't know what to do with an item, they set it down somewhere.
Ricketts said clutter is magnetic. Soon that single item will become a disorganized pile of stuff.
"Organizing is about learning to make decisions about stuff," said Ricketts, an Ashland resident who also is known as The Mess Doctor.
Many people started 2013 with resolutions to get organized.
But after an initial flurry of cleaning up, their homes, home offices and businesses are already in disarray.
Ricketts said organizing is not the same thing as cleaning.
"The difference between cleaning up and being organized is having the stuff you need and use stored in an appropriate, ergonomic way," she said.
If people create storage spots for often-used items in inconvenient areas, they will end up leaving their things out.
"They won't put it away. They'll leave it in a handy spot," she said.
Rickets recommended storing items where they are used. For example, if you like tea, keep your mugs and tea in a cabinet near the sink, where you'll have easy access to water, she said.
Think about where you use an item and how often and that will guide your decision-making for where to keep it, she said.
Ricketts said people often postpone contacting her for months because they're afraid she will tell them to just throw out their possessions.
"That's a very, very common misconception. It will almost always come up. People will say, 'I've been so afraid you'll tell me to get rid of my stuff,' " she said.
Ricketts said she helps people create and maintain systems for organizing their possessions.
But most people do need some help in getting rid of things, whether they want to clean out a jam-packed closet in the guest bedroom or deal with the belongings of a deceased loved one, she said.
"There are a whole bunch of emotional decisions that need to be made," she said.
Ricketts often has people describe to her whether they have positive, neutral or negative emotions about a particular item.
A chair owned by a client's deceased mother may engender neutral feelings, while a particular end table or the mother's favorite gardening shirt may be special, she said.
Rickets encourages clients to find new homes for things that carry little emotional significance. She also has them take photos of items they give away to help preserve memories associated with the objects.
When it comes to home offices, Ricketts advises separating personal and work belongings.
That could mean dedicating two drawers in a file cabinet to personal papers, and two drawers to work papers, for example, she said.
She also helps on-the-go people organize mobile offices in containers they can take with them. The trunk of a car can also be a mobile office.
As for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses, Ricketts said the number-one need business owners usually have is for better time management skills.
Time isn't a concrete, tangible object, but Rickets encourages her business clients to think of it as a valuable commodity.
She recommends setting a timer for tasks, such as answering emails.
"Set the timer for 10 minutes. When it goes off, stop. People sit down at the computer and totally lose track of time," Ricketts said.
Timers can work for tasks around the house as well, such as picking things up and putting them away.
"If I give myself 30 minutes and try to beat the clock, I'm much more likely to get it done. People will use whatever time is available," she said.
Ricketts warns that multi-tasking is actually inefficient because a person must spend mental time shifting back and forth between tasks.
She said spending 15 minutes of uninterrupted time on a task can be more efficient than spending two hours at it with constant interruptions.
A certified professional organizer who belongs to the National Association of Professional Organizers, Rickets said professionals can provide the nonjudgmental help that clients need.
She said well-meaning family and friends are often too critical.
A former speech pathologist who has long had a strong sense of organization, Ricketts said many people come to professional organizing out of the helping professions, such as teaching and nursing.
The job requires compassion and empathy, she said.
Ricketts is also both cheerleader and coach for people who are feeling overwhelmed.
"You don't have to be ruled by your stuff. You can take control," she said.
For more information, visit Rickett's website at http://themessdoctor.com or call her at 1-661-433-7263.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.