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A Practical Method to
Get Superorganized

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By Lauren Barrack

Linda Vardone's life is in crisis. Business cards and torn slips of paper hang precariously on her bulletin board. A month's worth of letters lies crammed under a desk. And three calendars, one open to November 1997, sit on her kitchen table next to an automatic pencil that's out of lead.

"If the pencil doesn't work, it doesn't deserve to live there," Lynn Gross-Cerf says adamantly to her most recent client, as she surveys the chaos in the tiny kitchen in Vardone's Palo Alto apartment. "You have to ask yourself, 'How does it serve me? How often do I use it?' " Vardone is trying to jot down notes as quickly as she can. Gross-Cerf, a professional organizer, speaks with rapid-fire enthusiasm.

"Now that's up there screaming at you too," Gross-Cerf says, turning her attention to the bulletin board. Vardone glances at the board and at Gross-Cerf, whom she has paid $150 on this Monday morning to chastise her about the clutter in her kitchen. But she appears unconvinced that the bulletin board is a living threat. "It doesn't deserve to be screaming at you," the organizer says firmly. "You need to back it up in your book." She pats a 5-inch-thick maroon leather organizer planted firmly in her lap. "I always say, God has his Bible, and I have mine."

For the past four years, Gross-Cerf and her bible have traveled the valley preaching the deviltry of disarray and the salvation of order. She tools along the highway in her silver Cadillac, "professional organizer" framing her license plate, bringing her golden words to the South Bay's wealthy and harried.

Whether it's a pharmaceutical company vice president, like Vardone, or the arts editor of a newspaper, she transforms lives. Clutter is banished. Serenity is restored. She approaches each client differently--some ask her for advice; others ask her to dig right in. "I'll box things, throw them away. I'd grab those numbers off the bulletin board and type them into her computer," Gross-Cerf says of Vardone while her client answers her third call in 20 minutes. "But she just wants me to analyze her."

There are tricks or rules to getting organized, but Gross-Cerf is quick to insist that each client needs her own method. Whatever works is what works. "Everyone has something that works," she says. "But just one. Because you have just one life."

An initial consultation is akin to meeting a fairy organizer--though one wearing a fire-red blazer, dark, button-sized earrings, and French-manicured nails filed to a square. Her first question to clients is if they had a magic wand, or could wiggle their nose, what would they change first. Whatever they mention is what Gross-Cerf tackles.

For Vardone, it's the home office she shares with her 13-year-old son, Joe, his trophies, two exercise machines and some beanbag chairs. Gross-Cerf draws up a floor plan re-organize the room and yet "maintain Joe's autonomy." Loose papers will be filed, extra books boxed away and the treadmill moved from the window. The beanbags will probably go.

Tools of the Tirade

Critical tools for Gross-Cerf are file folders--which she asks her clients to bring during an initial consultation. She then helps them file loose papers according to need or importance. She likens this to the value of real estate. "It's the proximity of things," she says. "Do they have a right to live in your immediate area?"

On the first level, Gross-Cerf explains, are things needed every day, which can include photographs, flowers or what she calls "items that feed your soul." The second level is what can be reached without moving from a chair--usually items used weekly. The third level is what she calls "the skootch"--things reached by sliding the chair a few inches, like books or files in a bookcase. The fourth level includes temporary projects, items reachable within a couple of steps of a desk, and the fifth level, stuff rarely used at all--such as old tax returns or computer disks that hold backups of old files and notes.

A usual clutter suspect, unanswered mail, doesn't always require immediate attention. But there should be some organization to its deferment. Gross-Cerf suggests making it a weekly to-do item on a calendar.

Maintaining a calendar is without question. Gross-Cerf's is a collage of pink and yellow dots, magazine clippings, an address book and two calendars--one monthly and one daily. The pink dots are for birthdays, the yellow for anniversaries. "That reminds me," she says while explaining the system to Vardone. "I've got to send a sympathy card." Out pops the pencil and a quick scribble on the day calendar keeps the reminder.

Pencils are another favorite of Gross-Cerf's. "That way you can always erase things as you finish them," she says. "Like your grocery list." She flips swiftly to the marked page--of course completed and erased--in her book. "This way you can always keep it with you. And if you organize your cupboards, you can make shopping easier." Gross-Cerf is on a roll. She skootches the kitchen chair toward Vardone's pantry. "You can organize by canned goods or by the things you use the most," she explains. "Soups on one shelf, dry goods on another. Then if you normally keep pea, potato and tomato soup, you can look quickly, instead of searching, and if you're out put it on the shopping list."

Cerf says one client was so charged from organizing her desk, she organized her makeup. "It's holistic," she says. "It applies to your whole life."

It may be too much for Vardone. "Huh," she says, a slight frown creasing her face. "I never thought about it like that."

Gross-Cerf's a long-standing member of the National Association of Professional Organizers, a 13-year-old group with more than 850 members worldwide. She meets monthly with her local chapter in Millbrae, noted in her calendar. "They're very well-organized," she says. "Sometimes we help each other with our clients."

By 10:30am, though, Gross-Cerf's newest client is burned out. Plus Vardone has to get to work. She's in the process of switching companies--part of the reason she's hired Gross-Cerf. The two shake hands as they say good-bye--it's unclear if Vardone will call again for "tune-ups." But she seems pleased with the initial inspection.

Gross-Cerf's black heels click down the driveway as she walks to her Cadillac. She has three more appointments today, lasting until the early evening. The car starts immediately, and she pulls quickly on to the street--a silver flash in the winter rain toward the unorganized in need.

Lynn Gross-Cerf, Organization & More, can be reached at 408/266-3339.

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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