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O, The Oprah Magazine

Case Study:

Moving, but no time to pack properly

Don’t mess with professional organizer Linda Rothschild. She’s passionate about rescuing her clients from chaos.

Rothschild prepping a move

Here’s chaos: A half dozen men lugging boxes and furniture, with a daughter, a son, three nephews, and three dogs all milling around as Gayle King, O’s editor at large, moves ten years’ worth of furniture and the usual accumulation of stuff into a new six-bedroom house in Connecticut. She seems slightly stunned as she tries to arrange cable service from a cell phone she keeps losing amidst the frenzy.

But things could be worse; King could be doing this without the help of Linda Rothschild, a professional organizer she called in with a week’s notice.

Today Rothschild is pared down for action in a tank top, slim pants, and close-cropped hair. She is wearing a carpenter’s apron with pockets for her cell phone, Post-it notes, and a Swiss army knife. Pointing the men and their boxes this way and that, she is a center of calm efficiency. “Starting a week ago was pretty late,” she says. “See that box marked ‘stuff from under the bed’? There’d be no such thing if we had begun earlier. It would be sorted into other boxes with more specific labels.”

PLAN OF ACTION Rothschild, left, takes charge of Gayle King’s move to a new home.

Rothschild moving box
“I have a lot of energy,” says Rothschild. In addition to working closely with her clients, she occasionally puts on seminars and workshops on how to get yourself organized.

Rothschild started this project in King’s old house by taking Polaroids of the furniture, bathrooms, and dresser tops; the photos are now spread out for quick reference. “The idea is to put everything back the way it was before. So when a kid is looking for a Band-Aid, he still finds it in the bottom drawer.” Meanwhile, Rothschild’s assistant is unpacking King’s clothes, grouping them by function on 600 (yeah 600) identical new hangers. “It makes a huge difference to hang everything at the same level,” Rothschild says. “It looks more organized.”

At first Rothschild was surprised that King keeps two desks at home: one for work and one for household matters. “I don’t recommend that because you’re more likely to lose things,” she says. “But it works for Gayle, so we’ll stick with it – for now.”

Rothschild’s company, Cross It Off Your List, charges $75 an hour and up for tasks that fall into three categories – organizations, relocation, and concierge services like travel planning and making restaurant reservations. Occasionally, she supplies native goods to expatriates: She once sent Rice-A-Roni to an American in Australia. When she helps a family move, Rothschild often serves as a mediator between, say, the pack-rat husband and the wife who insists on tossing things out. Her Manhattan office houses four full-time staffers, including one who makes phone calls all day to coordinate errands.

The youngest child of a maniacally neat family, Rothschild learned organization in her parents’ “incredibly organized home.” And she herself started young: “I recently gave a friend a box of my old 45s. Inside she found this detailed index that I’d made when I was around 12.” After high school, Rothschild briefly studied buying and merchandising, then took a job as a receptionist in a Brooklyn beauty shop. There she discovered a passion for juggling appointments and matching customers with staff. She went on to manage several salons and co-owned one with a friend. But she yearned for something more challenging. “I didn’t want to tie myself down. One of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you just do stuff for people?’ I had business cards made and began with my acquaintances. One of my first clients was a jewelry designer who would rather be creative than organized. I devoloped a record keeping system for her. And my own business just took off,” Rothschild says. Her private life fits into a studio apartment with “very organized closets.” Rothschild, who is single and has no children, gets up each morning at 5:30 to answer e-mail and arrange computerized to-do lists. “There are about 100 lists broken down in different ways,” she says. “Things to do by the day, week, and month. People to call, errands to run, books to read.” But every once in a while she designates one day as totally decision-free. “I do no thinking.”

At work, on the other hand, she makes rapid-fire decisions and spends much of her time asking clients a litany of questions about themselves. “To do this you need a real curiosity about how people use things and live with things,” she says. “But, you can’t be nosy. There’s a big element of confidentiality.” Over the years, she has learned a lot about why people keep their homes and offices the way they do.

Marking moving boxesPlanning relocation

Labeling moving box

“The main reason people are disorganized is time – they’re just too busy to keep up,” says Rothschild, who is the president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “And then there’s chronic disorganization, which could be caused by not being able to let go of things.”

Back at King’s home, the family is finding Band-Aids and trying to keep the new system going. Having a stranger help with a move does mean relinquishing some privacy – “I’m in people’s underwear,” as Rothschild puts it. But King says, “All I feel is gratitude for the extra hands.” Rothschild, though, is not entirely satisfied with this project. “I’m dying to get back there,” she says, “to get my hands on that office.”

Louise Lague is a freelance writer living in Greenwich, Connecticut