Barbara Reich's decluttering sessions typically follow a certain trajectory. First, the New York–based professional organizer peppers her client with questions. How do you use this room? Which area makes you craziest? Then, she takes a deep breath and tunnels into the decades' worth of clutter, whisking ancient phone bills and mystery kitchen gadgets into trash bag after trash bag. Her clients, who range from harried mothers to CEOs, may grumble at first. As the clutter recedes, though, they usually give in.
But not always. When clients keep on grumbling, she asks about their lives — work, illnesses, significant events — until she hits on a convincing reason for them to toss the clutter. "In each case," says Reich, whose services are sometimes given as a gift from adult children to pack rat parents, "my job is to find a motivator."
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Her nuclear option? "Imagine the future," she tells the client. "You are gone, and your children are dealing with the enormous mess you left behind. How does that make you feel?"
That usually does the trick.
Reich has just used this tactic on her latest client, a genial widower in his 70s named Fred. "You're right," he concedes, as they survey the chaotic home office of his apartment. "My kids are the ones who are going to have to throw everything out. My son-in-law, everyone, is after me to clean up. It's overwhelming."
That's where Reich comes in. A trim brunette in jeans, boots and a black sweater, she plants her hands on her hips and looks around with narrowed eyes. Piles of paper teeter on a desk. Old magazines spill from bookshelves. A dozen boxes claim most of the floor space. "OK," she announces. "We've got work to do."
Reich, 46, a self-described type A personality powered by six to eight daily cups of green tea, has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA in management from NYU. A lifelong neatnik, she had already launched a consulting firm when, in 2004, she found herself rearranging the toys on her children's playdates. It occurred to her: Why not transform her neurosis into a business? (It's a growing one, too: The National Association of Professional Organizers now has 4,000 members.)
Reich has since served about 300 clients through her firm, Resourceful Consultants; she's booked for appointments a month in advance. For most clutterers, 10 two- to three-hour sessions do the trick; some clients ask for occasional tune-ups. (A few have a standing weekly date.)
She doesn't work with compulsive hoarders, whose homes can fill from floor to ceiling with trash. Such people have a complex disorder best treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of both. "True hoarding is more about anxiety," she says. "Just thinking about throwing something out creates so much anxiety that the person keeps it to avoid that feeling." Some specialists say there is a biological basis to hoarding disorder, and Reich believes it: "If you think of the animal kingdom, many species need to hoard to survive the winter."