BEMIDJI, Minn. - Tammy Schotzko, a professional organizer, remembers opening a cupboard in a client's bathroom and finding stacks of canned goods.
"She had put them there because she'd run out of space in her kitchen. And she completely spaced out that they were there."
Scenarios like that are not uncommon, said Schotzko, who owns and operates the business "We Love Messes" in Bemidji, Minn.
"Clutter becomes part of the landscape," she said. "We stop seeing it - until someone with 'fresh eyes' comes in."
Schotzko also does a lot of public speaking on home organization.
"We are all such individuals," she said. "No matter what book you read or what talk you hear, you're not going to agree with everything. I tell people, pick one nugget (from my talk); that's your happy place."
People respond well to the name of her business, she said. "They say things like, 'If you love messes, you're going to love my place.'"
She understands the situation they're dealing with and helps them figure out just how it got that way.
"We love our stuff," she said. "We don't want to give it up."
"(As Americans) we live in a 'throw-away' society," she said. "Why look for something when you can go out and buy it? We're so busy, and the busier we get, the harder it is to find stuff."
But she tries to be very clear about her role as professional organizer.
"It's not my job to tell you what to keep and what to not keep," she said. "My job is to ask questions and listen to the answers and clarify, but never provide answers."
"This is your decision; you are in control."
'Tell me a story'
Working with clients, one of the first tasks is to assess the space, Schotzko said.
"I'll ask, what do you want it to look like? How do you want it to function?" she said.
When she talks with clients about decluttering, she pays close attention to not only what they say, but their body language.
"When I meet with people and we're having a conversation about their things, they're usually touching the items and I'll say, 'Tell me a story.'"
Then she watches their face.
"They'll smile - or, if it's from someone they don't like, they'll grimace or roll their eyes. I'll ask, what does it mean to hold onto it? Why are you holding onto it? Is it serving a purpose?
The most important aspect of her work is listening to the client.
"Seventy-five percent of the job is listening and 25 percent is moving clutter," she said.
While some professional organizers recommend a "scorched earth" approach to decluttering, Schotzko doesn't necessarily endorse that tactic.
The treasured collections we may have built over the years, including those notes and books clustered around our workspace, are a form of "healthy clutter" in that they stimulate new ideas and inspire creativity.
"Clutter is individual to each person," she said. "You may look at a space and say, 'I couldn't live here.' But for someone else, it's comfortable."
Everyone has a different definition of clutter, "and I try to respect that," she said, noting that people can develop an emotional attachment to things that may become problematic.
"There are degrees of healthy and unhealthy attachments," she said.
"They might keep something that belonged to their great-grandparents because it's their link to the past. But if you have 500 egg cartons and you're saving them because someone can use them, and you can't eat at your dining table because you've piled the cartons there, that's different ... Hoarding is an actual mental illness."
"It's always a matter of degree, and it depends on the person and what they hope to achieve."
Personal history, identity
You can look at a dried bouquet and remember a romantic moment with someone you love or a matchbook from a restaurant and recall the evening he proposed.
Be selective about pruning down those type of keepsakes - they are touchstones of your personal history. Throwing everything out can leave you feeling neutralized, at a loss for a sense of coziness and self-identity.
But if a collection has gotten out of control, cull items down to the ones that still retain a perfume of nostalgia - the ones that make you smile - and toss those you find puzzling, ugly or redundant.
"I look at life like a book - the chapters of a book," Schotzko said. "Things are a little different from one chapter to the next."
Some things that were important to people in past "chapters" of their lives may no longer have the same importance. Hanging on to those things may make it impossible to find space for the things that are important now.
Schotzko advises people to take a look at what they've brought into the home and think about "how these things came to live there," she said, "and what purpose they serve."
Her goal is to start conversations and make clients look at their space in a new light, she said.
But beware of trying to make your home look like an interior-design spread in an HGTV or Better Homes and Garden magazine or a post on Pinterest.
"If you're set on a 'Pinterest perfect' image, you're going to be frustrated because there are so many steps to go through before you get there," she said. "That's artwork - people don't live there ...
"I want people to enjoy their space, live in the space, and have it reflect who they are."