Tuesday 23 October 2018

Pro tidier Sarah Reynolds: The secrets of being organised

Do you look at other people's efficiently organised lives and sleek, minimalist closets with envy, thinking, "That could never be me"? Well, you would be wrong. Pro tidier Sarah Reynolds tells Leslie Ann Horgan how anyone can clean up their act

Pro tidier Sarah Reynolds. Photo: Darren Fitzpatrick
Pro tidier Sarah Reynolds. Photo: Darren Fitzpatrick
You should throw away certain unwanted items on a regular basis
'Clutter is caused by deferred decision making'

Leslie Ann Horgan

Usually, when you're doing an interview, you start with some gentle queries to ease your subject in. Today, however, I'm skipping the pleasantries and going straight to the big question: can being organised really change your life?

Sarah Reynolds (pictured) gives a good-natured laugh. As Ireland's only professional organiser, she is well placed to answer my burning question. "We never know what's around the corner; life is constantly changing," she says. "Whether a big change is good or bad, it can bring up a lot of unexpected emotions - we feel anxious and overwhelmed.

"That change can be seen in our space and in our time, so having a level of organisation in our home space, and understanding how we use our time, can help us to cope with big stress. For example, if a parent or a child is sick, you don't want to be wondering where your keys are - you want to remove those little frustrations. Your home should be a haven where you can rest and recuperate.

"So, yes, I do believe that being organised can help your brain's capability to cope with this big mountain that's in front of you."

OK, since it's not just a 'grass is greener' fantasy, then how do I get organised? "To begin, we should be saying, 'I need to become organised,' not, 'I need to get organised'," Sarah says. "It's not something that's out there in the ether waiting for you to get it. It's a series of lifestyle changes. Being organised always starts with looking at your time. When you can identify pockets of time that you didn't realise you had, then you can use them to organise everything else."

The specific method for organising, first your time, and then every other area of your life - from the laundry room to those flat surfaces filled with flotsam - can be found in Sarah's new book, Organised, Simple ways to Declutter Your House, Your Schedule and Your Mind. Unlike some of the more airy-fairy guides that have filled bookshelves since Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo scored a hit with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Sarah's tome is a practical book detailing where to store everything from receipts to light bulbs. And there are lists. Lots of lists. Exactly how many does she have on the go at any one time?

"I split my lists into 'home' and 'work'," Sarah laughs. "I have a few on the go at the moment. For home, there's just one, with things like 'mop floors' on it. For work, I have one huge overall list and then smaller to-do lists for individual projects."

Sarah works with domestic clients and, increasingly, with companies looking to improve workplace wellness through organisation. Typically, her domestic clients are women, who fall into one of two categories: in their late 30s/early 40s with a young family and a house drowning in toys, or recently retired and looking to reorganise an empty nest or to downsize.

"Every client I meet asks if they're the worst I have ever seen, if their house is the most difficult. They are embarrassed to show me their houses. But everyone has clutter and everyone gets too busy and their place turns into a mess. I remove all judgement."

So is it a hands-on service? "Oh, I go do the work - I get stuck in! I see clients in blocks of three hours. The number of sessions they need depends on the amount of stuff they have and what they want to achieve. A big factor is the time it takes to make decisions on what to keep. Some people get so upset letting items go; others are fed up and just want change, so they'll throw everything out."

As I know from tearful experience, for overly sentimental types like me, throwing anything out can be an emotional event. Does Sarah sometimes feel that she's more counsellor than declutterer?

"Absolutely! I don't have any training, but there's a huge amount of psychology that goes into it. There are lots of reasons why people want to declutter and you're dealing with all of those reasons before you even start the job, and then the work itself is physically tiring - and I have to get the client to trust me that it gets worse before it gets better."

Being overwhelmed by emotion often leads people to give up before they've started. "The emotional side is in making all of these decisions. People think, 'Oh my God! What will I keep? Where will I put it? What interiors will I buy?' Trying to make these decisions causes a big emotional block because we're saying to ourselves that the results will have to be perfect. So we end up not doing it at all."

Another common reason for raising the white flag is not allocating proper time and energy to tackle your clutter, Sarah says. "It's really difficult to whittle things down slowly. If you pick at it on a Saturday morning and get no results, then you'll lose momentum, leave it for the next week and never go back. You need to do it more often so that your brain gets used to it. If you get your head down and stick at it long enough, and do it in quick succession, you form a habit and then your brain doesn't see it as a big deal. Organising can actually be a lot of fun!"

From Killester in Dublin, Sarah was organised even as a child. "I always tidied my schoolbag and my bedroom. Looking back, it was a meditative thing that helped me to feel a bit better. As a teenager I sorted out the family home. If my parents went out for the night, I'd have cleared out a kitchen cabinet or under the stairs by the time they got back. They loved it!

"I have a younger brother and sister, who I used to share a room with. My side was always tidy and hers was always messy, which led to fights, but these days she's nearly as organised as I am. My brother is a lot better too, but only in the things he really cares about - which is the key to success."

The idea of clearing as a career was sparked by watching Oprah. "I was 16, and [professional organiser] Julie Morgenstern came on to talk about her business and her book. I thought: 'Oh my God, that's brilliant.' My mum agreed that it was something I could do after school. It was always in the back of my head from then on."

However, life first took her down a different path. Having studied Irish and geography at UCD, followed by business studies at the Smurfit School, Sarah wound her way to a job as a production department assistant at RTÉ. "I started out working on Den AM with Geri Maye and Socky, and worked on everything from Off the Rails to Fair City." Though, on the surface, the role might seem very different to her decluttering dream, on top of creative tasks Sarah had responsibility for administrative jobs such as processing payments, meeting guests, and booking location shoots... in other words, organising.

Through the years, she had kept up with articles and research on organising from bodies such as the National Associations of Professional Organisers in the US, UK and Australia. So, in 2009, when she took a year's leave of absence from RTÉ to do some travelling, Sarah booked a New York course with Julie Morgenstern as one of her stops. "It was a great foundation. Julie taught us about starting a business and approaching clients. She actually offered me a job but it coincided with my return to RTÉ… and the pensionable job at RTÉ won."

She didn't let go of the organising, however, and after building a website, she would spend the next three years double-jobbing - decluttering for clients in the evenings, weekends and during holidays. Was she exhausted? "Yes - I still am!" she laughs. In 2014, at age 34, Sarah left RTÉ completely to concentrate on her new business.

It was at that point that a big, emotional change happened in her own life. "I had been in a relationship for six years and we were engaged, and that came to an end. I was devastated, absolutely, at the time. I was a year into my own business, with no RTÉ cushion, so he was my security blanket. And then he was gone.

"I went into complete lockdown. I thought: 'This business needs to work.' So, for months on end I threw myself into work. I would be on to clients, and then not want to get out of bed. I'd knock on their door, all smiles because the job was supposed to be fun, then come home and just lie in front of the TV. I've only really come out of that haze in the last six months."

With her new book out, part of the reason that Sarah is sharing the personal side of her story is to show that she's not perfect.

"Quite possibly, other people see me as a bit holier than thou. That's why I wanted to show in the book that what I value is comfort, not perfection. Perfection doesn't exist: it can never be achieved. People expect that my house has the CDs alphabetised and the books colour-coded… well, they were, but not any more, but I'm a big fan of colour- coding your books if you have the time!

"Often, my clients want to go from cluttered to the other extreme. They want their house to look like some room in a magazine. They don't realise that those photos are staged. Everyone is chasing a perfect life that other people seem to have - but, in reality, no one has it.

"Comparison on every level should be avoided. It just makes you feel like crap. That's what social media is: just constantly comparing yourself to everyone else. Getting a professional organiser in or reading this book is not about feeling judged, it's just another service to make your life better. Like a personal trainer at the gym, I'm there to see what I can do for you."

Well, then, personal trainer, what one exercise should I do today? "Clear a flat surface, like a bedside locker or kitchen table, or even just consolidate the clutter to one corner so you have a free section somewhere. Flat surfaces are in your direct eyeline so when you clear it, you'll feel better. It's like decluttering your brain. But be careful -just because space opens up does not mean you have to fill it, unless it's with something sensible for your family's lifestyle."


How becoming organised helps

by Sarah Reynolds

When you think about it, anything to do with our wellbeing starts with getting organised. I want to introduce you to the benefits of decluttering and the enjoyment that organisation can bring. I’ve worked with clients suffering from exhaustion, back pain, asthma and many other health issues. They are surrounded by so much stuff that just looking at it causes a lot of anxiety. Living in a home where you can’t find anything, where every surface has something on it, where drawers are broken and the contents of cupboards fall out on top of you, where everyone is chasing their tails and there are constant arguments around possessions, cannot be good for your health.

Organisation is not going to take all your problems away. It’s not going to make a child better, or ease the stress of minding an elderly parent, or make you feel less lonely when your heart is breaking. What it will do, though, is give you some breathing space; a little order in a world where you feel there is none. It reduces the amount of cleaning you have to do; it saves you money; it means that you don’t have to nag so much; it enables you to find what you need when you need it; it means that you know where you’re going and when, and what you’re doing. There’s just space. Physical, emotional, mental space.

Incorporating some organisation into your lifestyle will help return you to a state of comfort. The level of organisation you need or wish to achieve depends on your goals and your time. It’s all in your hands.

Decluttering is the necessary evil you have to go through in order to create space. After that there is the art of organisation. This is the fun part if you can stick with the process. This is the part where you get to design new systems and new ways to use your time and space, create new habits, adopt a new lifestyle. It’s the part where you can go shopping again (wisely!). Stick with it long enough and it’ll truly get under your skin; it will simply become something you do, and then you’ll love it.


What is clutter?

Declutter 1.jpg
'Clutter is caused by deferred decision making'

Clutter is anything you no longer use, need or love. Clutter is caused by deferreddecision-making which usually happens when there are other urgent things going on in your life. Clutter is merely the symptom, not the cause. Clutter is not just a load of stuff, not just physical things we can touch. It can also be:









Which of those do you no longer use, need or love having in your life?

Every client I work with has some clutter to deal with. After an hour or so, I’m asked the same question: ‘Am I the worst you’ve worked with?’ Everyone is mortified by their clutter. We feel shame, feel we are not on top of things the way we ‘should’ be, embarrassed because we feel we ‘should’ be able to tidy our home without hired help.

Clutter leads us down the path of comparison. We feel inadequate because we think everyone else has life all figured out. A cluttered home makes us feel we’re not coping, we’re not a good partner or parent. We compare ourselves to others and think they are better at tidying, more productive and generally more equipped to cope. No one has as much clutter in their lives as you. There’s embarrassment too. You give up inviting friends over and, worse, you won’t allow the kids to bring friends home.

You get embarrassed at the thought of an organiser going through your delicates or parking outside your home with a sign on their car advertising to the neighbourhood that you have clutter.



Decluttering flows from one room to another. The kitchen will flow into the utility room, which may flow into your hallway or under the stairs. The bedroom wardrobe may flow into the spare room wardrobe, which will flow into the spare room itself and then perhaps the attic.

Getting ahead of the clutter is key. The way to do that is to declutter in regular blocks of time. If you’re going to declutter, declutter efficiently. There’s no point sorting through your wardrobe on Saturday, then leaving it for a few weeks and coming back to sort out the rest of the bedroom three weeks later.

Like following a fitness plan, once you decide to do it, you need to do it regularly. Regular sessions in quick succession will get you a result and get it over with a lot more quickly than dragging it out over a long period.

The method

In my book I explain that every job, task, project you need to so can be broken down into a beginning, middle and end. I imagine each task as a circle that has to be closed to complete the task. To complete the circle, you break down tasks into Preparation —Task — Clear-up. Now, your task is decluttering and there will be work to do beforehand and afterwards so that you get the job done and the result you want. Whether you tackle a small bathroom cupboard or a large garage, the method before, during and after is the same.


No matter what you decide to organise — paper, a wardrobe, kitchen cupboards, cables, photos — you need to prepare first. Preparation is broken into three parts:






When you’re cooking, you line up your ingredients before you start. In the same way, you can’t organise without some aids. Think of what you will need to get the work done and get them prepared first before you start anything. It will only take five minutes to grab the things you need, but it will save you a lot of time, effort and frustration.

For every organising session, you will need:










For paperwork, you might need to add the following:







For a wardrobe, you might need to add:




No matter what area you’re organising, you’ll also need at least four bags/bins/boxes, labelled:






If you’re prepared in advance, and have everything to hand, you can focus and get down to the job without getting distracted.


And it’s outta here!

Declutter 2.jpg
You should throw away certain unwanted items on a regular basis

The following list of items are easy to throw away and should be done on a regular basis. Don’t even give these items your precious time.

Anything broken that can’t be repaired


Anything dirty that is beyond use even if cleaned


Anything without its match — shoes, socks, gloves, swimming armbands, discoloured plastic containers, containers without their lids and lids without their containers


Old tights, pop socks and underwear


Old make-up and toiletries


Clothes that are too old, beyond repair or too small/big for you


Toys or any thing belonging to the children that you know they won’t miss


Children’s drawings — you may like to keep ones they drew themselves,

but do you need every cartoon or picture they coloured in?


Financial records older than seven years — most financial records can be discarded after seven years, but if you are unsure, check with your bank or solicitor


Junk mail — leaflets on workshops, evening courses, takeaways, cleaners, gardeners, handymen — take note of the contact details if you think you’re interested, but get rid of the piece of paper!


Business cards — unless you’re going to get a business card holder, or file the name and contact information somewhere safe, having it floating around the house is of no use to you or to the person whose card it is. Let it go


Empty, out-of-date diaries


Old newspapers and magazines — rip out the article(s) you’re interested in if you wish, but get rid of the rest of the paper


Research articles that are out of date


Empty envelopes — when you open your post, put the envelope in your recycling bin


Cardboard boxes — especially boxes from purchases of technology — you need the cables, the guarantee and the instruction manual, so take them out, file them away and get rid of the box


Paper shopping bags and plastic bags — having a handful is handy when you need a spare bag. But you don’t need a collection of them. Reuse them or recycle them


Broken pens, staplers, scissors, folders or any stationery that doesn’t work


Old and battered plastic folders, poly pockets or document wallets


Pen lids without the corresponding pen


Empty CD cases


Old batteries, broken light bulbs, old phones, old phone chargers, ripped wiring

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