There they were. Cupboards and cabinets and closets full of papers; a virtual blizzard of old letters, personal items and business correspondence.
"It snows in this house with papers," admits Joan Jacobs, who found herself "surrounded, overwhelmed and humiliated" by the accumulation of papers in her Baltimore-area home.
To solve the problem, Jacobs recently called on Bonnie Blas, owner of the Organizer and a self-professed expert in clearing clutter, managing time and building efficiency into the most disorganized of systems.
What Blas did for Jacobs was to create a filing system and force her client to confront what needed to be thrown away.
"My problem was that I didn't know how to throw anything out," Jacobs says. "Maybe I just didn't want to face throwing it out. Maybe you have to be a very surgical person."
Jacobs says the Blas system worked for her and has reduced the clutter in her home. Blas says it was just a matter of doing what people don't have time, don't like or are too disorganized to do.
"My clients can almost be anybody," says Blas, who is one of several hundred professional organizers nationwide. Blas' job assignments have ranged from balancing a personal checkbook to developing a staff reorganization plan.
"I'll get the person who's totally disorganized on one end of the spectrum, to the person who's too busy on the other end," says Blas, who works out of her home near Mount Washington. "So the person can be very organized but not have time to do it."
Time-management consultants estimate that the typical manager has up to 42 hours of organizational work to do within a normal week, but only 10 hours to do it. Having a better organized system can alleviate stress and increase profits, the experts say.
When one is working with corporate clients, Blas says, the job can be as simple as offering a few consulting tips to acting as a special assistant to the chief executive. Occasionally, she says, she has been asked to improve communication among employees, a job that can demand considerable political skills.
"Sometimes my job involves getting through to the secretary because she's not doing her job properly," Blas says. "At other times, the secretaries appreciate my role because they can tell me what they feel is wrong with their boss without feeling threatened."
If the job calls for better filing, Blas follows the four-basket system, marking each basket with To Do, To Pay, To File and To Read. The To Do and To Pay baskets get top priority, while To File and To Read can be stored away for later.
Pending baskets are occasionally used, she says. But overuse can lead to procrastination.
Frank Storch, who heads the M. Leo Storch Management Corp., a Prince George's County commercial real estate company, has called on Blas to help with the firm's paperwork, as well as time and organizational management.
"A good management corporation is always looking to improve its way of doing business," says Storch. "Hiring someone who is an expert in their field of organization, like Bonnie is, helps you become more productive with your time."
Storch won't say what specific advise Blas has given the company. But he says that after several years, many of Blas' ideas are still being used.
"A person would be amazed at how many little ideas can help an office run more efficiently," he says. "She's come up with a lot of little, great ideas."
But most of Blas' clients are individuals who need help straightening out their lives. Her clients have included divorced or widowed people who need help with their personal finances, busy housewives with a cluttered pantry, elderly people with multiple medical claim forms, home-based business people and traveling salespeople.
These days she also is targeting the clients of real estate and insurance brokers. Often the task involves filling out complicated forms or preparing a home to be placed on the market.
Blas, who gave up speech therapy to start her business six years ago, says her most awarding experiences have come from helping an individual find something valuable, usually a long-lost receipt or missing jewelry piece.
Her worst experience came while helping a client sort through hundreds of books. The books were piled and organized onto a couple of ping-pong tables and then Blas took a two-week break. When she returned the tables had collapsed.
But it's the mystery in her work that keeps her going.
Tips for getting organized:
1. Write a list of business and personal goals.
2. Adopt a time-management system to help you track and prioritize details, deadlines and demands.
3. Develop a company-wide paper work system and well organized filing system.
4. Regularly clean out and organize your computer files.
5. Redesign your work space to make it more comfortable.
6. Buy equipment designed to make your work life easier, including a telephone headset if you are on the phone more than one hour a day.