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A clutter-free new year

If stuff is bogging down your life, take a few tips from organizer Michelle Passoff, who is coming to Tampa for workshops and consultations.

Right up there with going on diets to lose the weight we gained over the holidays is the resolution, "This year I'm going to get organized."

Responding to this seasonal need, organizer Michelle Passoff, author of Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter (HarperCollins, $13), will be in Tampa on Jan. 22 and 23 to present two organizing workshops and private decluttering consultations. Her workshops last year at Baywinds alternative learning center drew overflow crowds. See the box on Page 5D for details.

Typically, Passoff said, her audiences "want to know what to do with the two most common forms of clutter: papers and clothes."

Her book and workshops explain how to develop systems that work for each person "to let go of what you don't need, use and love."

Said Passoff: "The quality of your life does not depend on your stuff. What you have should enhance your life, not detract from it."

Getting rid of clutter opens up space for self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment, Passoff says. Sometimes we use clutter as a barricade against new experiences or new relationships. Getting rid of it opens a path toward personal fulfillment. Clutter can be a pile of papers, the laundry or a difficult issue or relationship we haven't come to terms with.

To those who are clutter-challenged, she suggests approaching a "clutter hot spot" that's challenging but not overwhelming: a closet, a desktop, a file drawer. Experiment with her principles, she urges: "Go 100 percent in that small area, see what works and what doesn't. Then go on to the next area."

Her advice is based on "teaching you everything I've learned from seeing more than the average amount of clutter, and integrating into your lifestyle what works. A lot of the things I talk about are going to work for most people, things I've seen thousands of times."

Case in point: "I like all-white, same-style sport socks. If they get eaten up in a dryer or they disappear, you're going to have a match somewhere." But some people like to make a fashion statement through their socks with lots of different colors and patterns. The organizational system that works for a drawer full of white socks will be different from what works for a drawer of mixed socks. The goal of her workshops is to help participants create systems that work for them, not to force themselves into a system that doesn't.

Passoff just got back from five weeks in Australia and has also taught clutter-reducing in England. Of her foreign assignments, she reports: "They ask the same questions there. It's not just you, your city or our country. It's a human phenomenon."

But that made her aware of the global village's clutter and how our clutter affects other people _ and vice versa _ every day. Voice mail hell is clutter. Repeated phone calls that are necessary to get people to send out the information they promised are clutter. Unwanted direct mail is clutter.

Passoff cited examples from her own recent life. She just moved into a home in rural upstate New York and was having trouble activating the security system. When she called the company, they couldn't explain over the phone how to work the system and wanted to send out a technician _ for which she would pay a service charge. She was bounced to several different departments. "When I finally got back to the original person I talked to, they said, "I don't know why you had to talk to all those other people in the first place.' " Clutter!

She could have simply given up and not used the security system, "but that would have made it clutter: something I was paying for and couldn't use." Eventually she was able to sort out, over the phone, how to use the system.

She had trouble with the telephone company, too. She wanted to know how to de-activate her telephone's call-forwarding feature from a remote location. "One person I talked to said, "We don't offer that service,' while another person I talked to was signing me up for it." Hello? More clutter.

Passoff is facing a burden lots of baby boomers have: what to do with items from Mom and Dad's big house. Her mother died recently, and Passoff and her brothers and sisters are clearing out her big house in New Jersey. "I plucked from my mother's estate," she said, that is, she chose carefully the items she wanted to keep. She selected a china service for 24, because she likes to entertain large groups and has the space to store the china.

But other items she passed by. "I loved that lion's-foot antique table that you can't replace for four times what she paid, but I have nowhere to put it. So it's going. I loved those antique breakfronts in the living room, but you need a huge house for that. We're going to sell them. I didn't feel like, "Oh, it was my mother's!' " and therefore something she had to keep. The things she did select are "something that makes me feel good, it's a style I would use."

Memories of a beloved relative "may be in some special stuff, in which case you keep that. But not everything is special, and not everything is appropriate to keep. That person isn't their stuff. Who they were and what they contributed will be really important, not their stuff."