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Getting rid of the stuff that clutters our lives

It's April, and our New Year's resolutions to clean up our desks, clear out our closets and bring order into our lives are still just that, resolutions, but along comes Michelle Passoff with a book that might give us that extra push to get rid of the clutter that threatens to smother us.

Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter (HarperPerennial, $13 paperback) is a holistic approach to helping people identify the direction they want their lives to go and take the steps to reach that destination.

While most of us view clutter as "stuff" we can't throw away or organize, Passoff sees it as a hindrance to living life fully.

"Unconfrontable areas of life are clutter . . . hanging onto or dishonoring the past is clutter . . . indecision turns into clutter," Passoff maintains. Freeing ourselves from everyday clutter can be a management tool for navigating a course of productivity, creativity, vitality and peace of mind, she believes, and clutter knows no boundaries _ age, economic, geographic or otherwise.

Passoff shares tips for dealing with your clutter now:

+ Take inventory of every drawer, closet and cabinet. Note what's on top of tables and dressers, on the floor and in piles.

+ Keep a journal of your inventory from the start to the finish of the clutter-cleaning process.

+ Photograph your mess to get a true picture of how bad it is. Take "before" shots at the outset of cleaning a closet and "after" shots once you're done.

+ Schedule clutter-cleaning sessions. "Things cannot change and stay the same at the same time," Passoff warns. "Setting aside standard appointments with yourself from the start of the process will be an opportunity to exercise a new behavioral muscle that I hope will become a good habit."

A public relations consultant for 20 years, Passoff, 44, said she got into the clutter business quite by accident.

"I thought I was trying to catch up with everyone else with all this mail, all this information," she said by telephone from her home in New York City, "but I found that, when I cleaned out my financial files one day, I got more business the next. I played it like a game."

In 1991, after two friends asked her to help them clean up their clutter, Passoff hung this sign in her neighborhood coffee shop: "Create the Space for Miracles by Freeing Yourself from Too Much Stuff" _ a phrase that would become the subtitle of "Lighten Up!" a few years later.

It took nine months of helping people organize their possessions before Passoff could call it a business. Besides residential clients, Passoff has helped professionals of all kinds, including huge corporations.

Microsoft recruited her to show its executives how to sort through their mental and physical accumulations to increase both their creativity and productivity. She also conducts workshops and seminars around the country.

Getting rid of clutter in our lives can be scary, but the book tells how to do it in a businesslike way through goal-setting, strategy-building and planning techniques.

"You can't wait for the right weather or the right mood to get rid of clutter," said Passoff, who charges $60 an hour with a four-hour minimum. "The technological age has more information coming at us in more ways than ever before, and we get it at home, too. Cleaning clutter is no longer getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It's a way to find and have what you are really looking for in life."