Organizing is for Everyone: An interview with Professional Organizer Lucy Milligan Wahl
I recently talked with Professional Organizer, Lucy Milligan Wahl at her home in San Francisco (and met her sweet dog Petunia). After hearing Lucy give a talk a few months ago, I was interested in discussing the positive effects organizing can have on people's health. Read on to find out more about how Lucy works with her clients, and about the connection between getting organized and the Metal element in Chinese Medicine.
Can you tell us who you are and what you do?
Sure! My name is Lucy Milligan Wahl. I'm a professional organizer and the name of my business is LMW Edits, LLC. I help people organize their homes, optimize their space, put systems in place, put routines in place so they don’t have to think about life at home and then focus on things that really matter to them.
Tell me about the name of your company. I know that 'LMW' are your initials but why ‘edits’ instead of ‘ organizes’?
‘Edits’ because I look at organizing as a process of editing and curating. And it’s different for every person. There is no one organization scheme that I impose on people. I really work with people to edit their homes in a way that makes sense for them and feels like an extension of their personality.
So ‘edits’ isn’t another part of your job as an editor [of words]?
Correct. I like to write blog posts but that’s it.
How did you become a Professional Organizer?
Well, it was sort of my second career. My first one hadn't panned out in a way that I wanted it to. I was taking some time to think about what I wanted to do next. I thought 'What do I really love to do? What am I good at?' And conversations with friends and family fed back to me that when people thought of me, they thought of being organized. I thought 'Oh! I wonder if I can help people organize their homes?' I did some research and lo and behold there is an entire industry out there of people like me who organize homes. I thought 'This is great I think I can put my spin on this and this will be fun.'
What did you do before?
I worked in nonprofit fundraising, managed an annual fund at Stanford University for a couple years, and then I went to business school and after that, I started my own business.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is when something really clicks with a client and they go 'Oh my God!' They see how something I've talked about is working for them. Sometimes it comes at the very end of a project. We'll work, work, work, work, work and they're sort of just plugging along and they step back and look at the room and go 'Wow!'
Sometimes it's just a little thing. The other day I just pulled stuff out of a drawer and we went through it and put it back in and the client was like 'Whoa! I didn't know that would all fit in there and look like that.' It's bringing that satisfaction to people and the knowledge that they can have an organized space too, that's it's not some unattainable thing out there and that they can really have it for themselves in their own home.
Is getting organized something everybody can do? Or is it something that certain personality types, certain astrological signs, etc. are better at than others?
I think that people are more predisposed to prioritize organization or not prioritize it, but I think this possible for everyone, as long as the definition of organized is a home and space that works for whoever is living in it. That's my definition of organized. My definition of organized isn't that everything is color-coded and alphabetized and perfect. It's that people who live in this space can use it efficiently and happily. And I think that's possible for everyone for sure but certainly, certain kinds of people are more predisposed to enjoy the organizing process to take it farther in terms of aesthetic.
Are there certain events or times in peoples lives that are the most common for people to want to get organized?
Yes, it's definitely always moments of transition. I very rarely get people who are sort of plugging along and they decide to get organized for no apparent reason. I've gotten people where they are about to move, they are about to either get married or move in with a significant other. They are about to have a baby. I get a lot of those. Or just had a baby. It's either 'I'm about to have a baby. Oh no!' Or I've just had a baby and wow this is harder than I thought.
Those kinds of things trigger wanting to get organized to help everything move more smoothly at home. Also, empty nesting where people have kids who are going off to college. That's a time where it's really helpful because you're transitioning the entire function of your home from being a place where you're raising children to just a place for two people live and other people come to visit occasionally.
What is your first visit with somebody like? What can people expect?
So the first appointment is just all about sort of getting to know the person and what they need. I ask a lot of questions in that first visit, and to try to determine what someone's goals are and what's frustrating them in their current space. Like I said, the definition of organized is different for every person and so I try to find out what people are looking for and if I can make that happen for them.
I've learned over the past few years that there are some clients that I can't make happy because what they're asking for either isn't possible or doesn't work with the constraints of their space or doesn't work with the constraints of their time. And that's totally fine and they might be able to find someone else who does different kind of work who can help them get closer to their goal. I want to make sure that there's a fit there and that I can do what they want, basically. And also to sort of explain to them how I work, what the process is going to look like.
There are some people who feel like I just come in and wave a magic wand and suddenly everything is perfect and that's actually not the way I work. I am very hands-on with my clients and they are part of the process every step of the way because I'm organizing for them, so I can't do it without them present. I wanna make sure that the potential client is willing to invest the time and energy to work with me to really get the most out of the project.
It sounds like it's not like a reality show where you show up and everything is just done for you.
No. The before and after's look like that but the intervening time is certainly not magical waving of wands.
I think you have a blog post about what's in your bag for your first appointment, right?
Yeah, I do! That's also years of experience of what I reach for the most. It's everything from, of course, a label maker - people get so excited about that - to a box cutter because I end up breaking down a lot of boxes, especially if I'm working in a garage or an attic or maybe a home office. We're breaking down boxes and it's a lot easier to have a box cutter on hand. It's kind of a random mishmash.
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you, is that I think organization and clutter, can both affect people's health - both mental health and possibly their physical health too. there's also a difference between clutter and just garbage, right?
Yes, there is for sure. I personally tend to work with more the clutter side of the spectrum but I have worked with other organizers on homes that would be described as hoarding situations, where there is garbage involved.
The organization-mental health thing is very much a loop. You can spiral down in that loop and you can spiral back up and I've seen both. When you're working on a more extreme clutter situation you can often pinpoint the time that it started and what caused it just by going through the stuff without even talking the client because you start to see dates on papers and you see records of what happened. Maybe there are newspaper clippings everywhere, maybe there are medical records everywhere.
Obviously, [you] try not to look at identifying information but you can pick up some kind of traumatic event that precipitates that kind of situation. You can figure it out just by doing the organizing. So you can see how all the clutter and the mental health sort of combine to make the person feel worse.
On the flip side, you know when someone's really ready to make a change and you can help them start making that change, you can just see the relief on their face. With my personal clients who are who are certainly less extreme - they're busy people struggling with just trying to keep it all together in our fast-paced world and when you sort of give them permission to let go of things and to not feel guilty about what they have or haven't done before and just help them streamline what's important to them, they just feel so much more positive.
I can see it working with people at the first appointment I'll come in and someone is super stressed out. There is kind of a little bit of a dark humor and 'I can't believe I let this happen' and then over the course of our appointments, you know, I'll come to the front door and they're smiling and they start joking around during the session.
As they start to see the end of the project, they get really excited. You can see that it's freeing up some energy for them that they can then direct in more positive ways instead of all of this sort of negative self-talk and slightly depressive-leaning tendency. I'm certainly not a mental health professional but I can tell when people are in a good mood and the good mood increases throughout the duration of the job for sure.
In Chinese Medicine terms, getting organized reminds me of the Metal element. The virtue is appreciating preciousness in our lives. And then the lesson is letting go of things that no longer serve you and making space for stuff to come into your life.
There may be an imbalance like 'I want to hold onto these things because that memory is so precious and if I get rid of it, that memory is going to go away.'
I run into a lot of that for sure. And you know, if everything is precious and there are a lot of things, then nothing is precious because you can't differentiate. I'm trying to help my clients figure out how or what really is important versus what maybe it's just a habit or a feeling of guilt from a family member or wanting to not disappoint someone, or feeling like you've missed out on something. Those are sort of negative feelings and keeping objects around that remind you of those negative feelings just kind of brings you down, honestly.
The other thing too is, appreciating precious: appreciation is an active verb. You need to actively appreciate something. You can't appreciate it if it's in a box somewhere. A lot of what I talk about with my clients is OK, this is really important and this memory is super important to you and this object reminds you of this memory. How can we keep this object in your life on a daily basis so that preciousness is available to you, right?
If it's a little tchotchke that your grandmother gave you, let's put in on a shelf. If it's photos, let's make a nice album that you can display and look at. If it's a newspaper clipping, let's frame it. And if it's something that you want to remember and the object itself doesn't mean much to you, maybe let's take a photo and then we can donate object and you still have the memory available.
So there are lots of strategies I use to help people identify what truly is important and then make that importance real in their day to day life.
And the idea of creating space, once you've gotten rid of stuff you don't need anymore, you don't necessarily have to fill that space back up.
Right. I was talking to Kate Jones [Body-Centered Life Coach] about this when I met with her and something that I said struck her as very revelatory. It was that I have empty closet space in my house. I do not want to fill all the closet space in the house. It's just not necessary. No human being needs that amount of stuff.
I have this lovely home with plenty of storage space. It's just the two of us who live here and a dog. We do not need to fill the space. And Kate was saying that's a revolutionary concept for a lot of people because people tend to fill whatever available space there is, no matter in how big or small the home. If you leave some free space, it gives you a little mental space.
There's a lot I talk to people about seeing yourself as a person who does 'X' or a person who thinks 'X' versus Do you actually do that thing and do you actually think that thing? If it's a think you used to do, being OK with leaving that in the past. If it's a thing you want to do, making space for that to come into your life. For example, if you are used to scuba dive and you really enjoyed it but you really don't want to do that anymore, you have other priorities, let's not keep the scuba diving gear. Let's maybe frame your certificate. Let's get some pictures in an album but I the scuba diving gear is just going to mold in the corner of your basement.
Every element in Chinese Medicine has a season associated with it and the Metal element is associated with the Fall. (Think of the leaves falling off the trees and letting go of stuff.) so that is a good time of year to get rid of things but that's not necessarily the time of year when people do get rid of things. (People always think of Spring Cleaning.)
According to what you've seen in your work, is there a specific time of year that you think is a good time for people to get rid of stuff? Or are there patterns that you see with people?
I do see people coming in during the Fall. I see a pre-holiday season rush of requests for getting organized and I don't know whether it has to do with that or whether people to see the holidays coming up and know that 'I've got to get it together before this crazy time of year.' I think any time of year that a person can devote some focus to the project is a good time of year to get rid of things.
And for different people that's different. For families, sometimes that's the summer because the school year is not happening and the kids are off at camp and they don't have that daily routine that's taking over and they can detach a little bit from that. Some people like to do the New Year's resolution thing. I find that's not particularly effective because people are trying to change a million habits all at once in that super productive way that we humans like to do.
I think that any time a person can say this right now, for these few days or weeks is gonna be my priority. It takes energy to do this process. It's quite draining. I do three-hour sessions for a reason. There are some organizers who work an eight hour day with one client. I just find it the client gets exhausted and it's overwhelming, it's draining, and after a while, you're not making the best decisions. I wanna make sure that my clients are happy with every decision they made. We have to maximize their energy in order to do that.
I know everybody is different but Is there a typical number of sessions you'll do with somebody?
It really depends on the amount of space we're dealing with. For one room it could be as little as two sessions depending on how much stuff is in the room already and whether not we're doing space planning and buying anything or we're just working with what we have there. To do a whole home can be eight, 10, 12 session and up from there. It just depends. The work I do is very hands-on. It's just me with the client. I don't have a crew of people running around in the background so it's a little bit slower but it's very precise and there will be no feeling of 'We missed something.' or something got lost or something got overlooked because I make sure that we've completed everything.
Tell us about your Instagram feed. It's not specifically about organizing.
Yeah, I do post a little bit about some organizing jobs. When I write a blog post, I try and post something relevant to that on my Instagram. Most of the posts are what I wear on a daily basis. I have a little tripod I put my phone on and I take a picture of myself against a mostly neutral background. The reason I do that is that I came to organizing through wanting to organize closets because I love fashion and I love style. I have certainly in the past (probably less so now) been a materialistic person. I want to show people that you can have a sense of style and love for fashion and an even enjoy shopping but not take it to an extreme.
So when I post an outfit, I will say where each piece was from and how long I've had it. And the reason I do that is I want people to know that you don't have to have everything all new to be stylish or to express yourself or to have an on-trend outfit. There are things that I bought six months ago and there are things I've literally had for 15 years and that's kind of the fun part of it. It also acts like a check for me too. If I find myself posting too many in a row where everything is new, 'Hey, Self. Are we buying too much? Is this really important?'
Part of my organizing philosophy is that quality is so much more important than quantity when it comes to objects, basically anything from interior design up to clothes, jewelry, whatever. The things that truly bring joy are the things that last and that you really, really love. And when you come right down to that, why would you have anything that you don't really, really love?
It's so much more fulfilling to live with just things that mean something to you rather than a lot of things that don't mean very much. My Instagram feed is trying to lead by example, to show that you can totally care about fashion, you can love to shop but you can do it carefully and with some thoughtfulness.
It also makes people like me think, 'Oh good! I don't have to keep buying all the latest fashions.'
No, no! As I get older, and I see this among fashion bloggers I follow too - people decreasingly wear trends and increasingly start to look very individual. Like this is that person's style. Every piece in that outfit may not be perfectly on-trend but that whole ensemble is just that person personified. And that is really interesting. I think that is so much more fun than just trying to be draped in all of the latest trends.
In our culture, a lot of things are made with the idea of 'planned obsolescence', right? You know, you're only going to use that thing for a certain amount of time and then it's going to go away. If you do buy things that will last longer it's going to be good not only for you but also for the environment.
I talk about this a lot with my clients. People get stressed about the amount of stuff they're throwing away and I don't blame them. It is discomfiting to be like 'Wow I'm putting a lot of stuff in the landfill right now and I didn't have to. None of this was necessary. I didn't have to buy all of this stuff.' Sometimes it's things that you needed and they wore out or they broke and that happens. But a lot of people when they're working with me are confronted very immediately with the fact that they bought things they didn't need and don't want anymore and that's hard. That's really hard to come to terms with because it's not how you think on a daily basis. You don't think 'I'm going to order this thing on Amazon that I'm going to throw away in six months.' You're thinking, 'I need to do this and I just need this thing is going to make it happen for me.' Bam!
First of all, I try to get people to donate or consign as much as possible. I have a pretty good idea of what things will sell and where. Unfortunately, the market for resale furniture is really soft. It's very hard to resell. You can donate and it goes to people in need but that's really hard when you spend a lot of money on something and you can't really sell it.
For clothes and accessories and jewelry - that stuff can usually be resold. I try to trash as little as possible for sure and then also having that hard conversation with my clients, like 'I know this is making you uncomfortable. Let's get you to the place where you are not going to repeat this pattern, where you have everything you need, you know where it is and you know how to use it so that there's no emergency buying of cheap stuff to just get you through in a pinch.'
I was working on a kitchen in the other day and we open the drawer and I start sorting as I do and I said, 'All right, you have 10 Chapstick's.' And she said 'Oh yeah. I just always need to have them in that drawer because I can never find one.' Let's reframe. When I'm done here, the Chapstick lives in this spot and you know that there's always a Chapstick there so you go to that place and you get the Chapstick and you use it and put it back, which is a very different way of thinking about something but it's simpler and requires fewer Chapsticks.
In my house, the first thing you have to find a place for is your keys. We have the key rack right next to the door. It's nice to know that I don't always have to go 'Oh my gosh! Where are my keys?' And You can pretty much guarantee that your toothbrush is in the bathroom next to the sink. even with other things, it sounds like it's . . . comforting to be able to know where your stuff is.
Yeah. I was raised this way. My dad is extremely organized, so my entire life the idea of everything having a specific place is just second nature and it took me until I moved out and met other people and had my own home, and saw other people's homes, to realize that's actually very uncommon for people to have a specific place for each item that they own. But it brings you such security to have that.
I see a lot of stress in people, especially my clients that result from not knowing where things are and digging through things and throwing things around, which is a classic move that we think of all humans doing but it doesn't have to be that way. You can just eliminate that layer of laying low grades stress.
Are there one or two quick tips you have for organizing?
The first thing I would say is if you find yourself running out of space, it's not that you don't have enough space, it's that you have too much stuff, whatever size space you live in. One of the first questions I ask some of me clients during our first meeting is 'Do you plan to move anytime soon?' and the reason I ask that is because we live in the space we live in. You have to accept where you are in this moment and be present. There's a lot of talk about being present in the world right now. And the Wellness, sort of trendy thing, is to is to really try and be present. It's very hard to be present if in your head you're always thinking 'What if I have a bigger house? What if I get a storage space? What if I remodel?' What if I, what if I, what if I? But you live here in this space, right now, so unless you have immediate plans to move and you can tell me about with that space looks like, we're working with this space.
I really recommend that people accept and live fully within the confines of the space that they have. If you have a studio apartment, that's your space. If you have a five bedroom house, that's your space. I find that there's no correlation between the size of your home and whether or not you think you need more space. Everyone thinks they need more space. So it's my job to say 'Let's not talk about your space; let's talk about your stuff.' It's always about stuff. It's never about the space.
You have a booklet that people can download from your website, right?
Yup, "How to organize your closet" It has some fun tips!
Is there anything else you want to add?
Organizing is for everyone. It's for men, it's for women. It's for rich, it's for poor. It's for everyone. Maybe not everyone can hire me but everyone can get organized. I see a lot of aspirational organizing out there in the market and yeah, that's certainly attractive. It's nice to see what could be done with unlimited funds and unlimited space but I have clients who literally live in studio apartments and getting organized really helps them so I really firmly believe that organizing is for everyone. Everyone deserves it and everyone can achieve it. Sometimes they need a little help is all.
What's the best way for people to contact you?
Great. Thank you!
You are welcome.