Expert Advice on How to Simplify the Stuff of Life

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Aside from her acting career, Aida Turturro helps those who are organizationally challenged. Michael Heller photo

No one can talk hangers quite like Aida Turturro.

Wire hangers of the 1970s remind Turturro of her childhood, when she organized her first closet on Central Park West — one that didn’t belong to her — at age 12.

Clunky plastic hangers dominated closets in the 1990s, when Turturro landed the role of Janice Soprano, sister of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, on the long-running HBO series, “The Sopranos” — forever life-changing, she said, both professionally and otherwise.

“When I was too busy with acting, I gave up organizing, and I was missing it,” she said. “Here I am, filming, and I was jealous of my friends who were organizing.”

Today, when Turturro isn’t auditioning, relaxing at home in Montauk, or stepping in as Heddie Hawkins on NBC’s “The Blacklist,” she is diving into every disorganized closet she can find — armed with fashionably thin hangers, she noted, that are ideal for smaller spaces.

“It’s my favorite thing to talk about, it’s my favorite thing to do — and I’m fast,” she said of organizing. “I love it. It’s something that I can’t stop. It’s something that’s inside of me, and always has been.”

Once directed, even small children can learn how to organize their belongings.

Turturro predates the recently trendy “KonMari Method,” a de-cluttering cultural phenomenon led by professional organizer Marie Kondo and her Netflix series, “Tidying Up.” A state of mind — and a way of life — her technique encourages tidying by category, not by location, beginning with clothes, then books and papers, “komono,” or miscellaneous items, and saving sentimental items for last.

The aim is to only keep those things that speak to the heart, she explains, and discard items that no longer “spark joy.”

“When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too,” Kondo writes in her book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” “As a result, you can see quite clearly what you need in life and what you don’t, and what you should and shouldn’t do.”

Clutter — defined as anything that is kept, even if it is not used, needed or wanted — has the exact opposite effect, scientists say. Owning an overwhelming number of possessions, and storing them in living spaces, cars or even the garage, can lead to anxiety and heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol, creating a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, and a detachment from the concept of “home.”

According to “The Dark Side of Home: Assessing Possession ‘Clutter’ on Subjective Well-Being” by Catherine A. Roster — published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in June 2016 — clutter has a negative impact on self-reported well-being and a “strong negative impact on feelings of security, safety and other positive emotional benefits derived from a sense of psychological home,” a term that refers to the concept of “home” as a vital source of meaning, belonging and identity.

For East Quogue-based professional organizer Jean Linder, this is nothing new.

“I read daily that studies are now coming out that clutter causes stress and anxiety, but I don’t think we necessarily need that study,” she said. “When I go to many people’s houses that have called, a good number of them are embarrassed for me to come. They always seem to think they’re a failure, or that they’re the only ones that haven’t been able to keep up with the stuff, the clutter. But that’s not the case at all.”

De-cluttering, as a profession, was borderline taboo as little as 10 years ago, Linder explained, but the mountains were starting to grow even then.

“At one time, this level of mess was never an issue,” she said, “but then, all of a sudden, it started becoming a problem. If I had to guess, I would say maybe when Costco started to become a popular destination for people, where people started to get that ‘stockpile mentality’ in their homes.

“Unless you’re interested in keeping an organized home, clutter can really creep up on you,” she added. “And when it accumulates, and there’s no un-accumulation, it’s going to keep growing.”

Tackle One Room at a Time

It can be overwhelming to even consider the de-cluttering process, Linder said, let alone following through, so she urges her clients to start small.

“I hate when I see people feel bad. They feel like they’re defined by their mess — and that’s who they are and there’s something wrong with them,” she said. “But there’s a lot more things out there than there ever were. The economy is a lot different than it was 30 years ago. There’s just a lot of stuff to manage, when it comes to de-cluttering.”

In a direct contradiction to the “KonMari Method,” Turturro says the key to organizing is to handle one room at a time — and be sure to eliminate any self-inflicted pressure, she said.

“Be kind to yourself, do not judge yourself for where you’re at, and pick the most important thing you need to do first to make you feel better,” she said. “Start to tackle it and do one room at a time. When things are miscellaneous, put it in a bin and you’ll find its home next. Don’t look at the whole picture. Look at one step at a time.”

Give Every Item a Specific Home

Organizing is highly personal, Turturro said, and what feels right for one person may not feel right to another. But no matter what, every item in any given house needs to find its home, she said.

“A lot of people don’t know how to make homes for things. I don’t like it when people have the nail polish in the kitchen, you know what I’m saying?” she said. “Everything needs a place, and obviously it’s harder when you are someone who has more stuff than places. Then you really have to fine-tune.”

When it comes to sifting through belongings, both organizers urge their clients to be a bit more pragmatic than the “sparking joy” method, and gently guide them with prompts and questions, while encouraging them to let go when need be.

“Some people feel with gifts, they’re more obligated to keep things,” Linder said. “I feel like a lot of times, a gift is not something you even chose for yourself, so if it’s for you, you don’t necessarily need to hold onto it, if you don’t want to.

“I usually find that when people call me, they’re ready to let go,” she continued. “They just need to feel good about working through those decisions and getting it done — and when I’m there, it gets done.”

The amount of time it will take to organize any given space is nearly impossible to predict, both organizers agreed. But the outcome is almost always the same.

“From beginning to end, they are so relieved,” Linder said. “When it’s clutter in your house, it looms over you all the time and once it’s done, you have such a feeling of relief. It’s not done, because it will always come back, but the big project is done and new habits can help you keep it that way.”

Stick the Landing

With a system in place — whether it’s containerizing and labeling, organizing a closet by color and style, or simply cleaning out the garage — the final step is moving the clutter out of the home.

And while this may seem obvious, it is the step that is most often overlooked and forgotten, Linder said.

“People have good intentions, but you have to see the process through,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just gonna get jumbled back up into it, as new stuff is added. That’s a big one. That’s why when I come in, I take it with me so they don’t have to, so that last hurdle is not what trips up the process.”

By the end of the de-cluttering project, what begins as nervousness and anxiety often transforms to gratitude and relief, explained Linder and Turturro, who both feel professional organizing has become a more normalized profession.

“I love acting, don’t get me wrong,” Turturro said, “but when I act, I hope I do well. The thing about organizing, I really feel like I make a dent in the world. I really feel like I help someone on a personal level.”

If hiring a professional organizer is out of the question, ask an honest friend or two to come over, hang out, offer their support and give advice when asked, Turturro said.

And then take them out for dinner, she added.

“Everybody isn’t good at certain things. We all need another eye sometimes,” she said. “Your home is important. It should be beautiful. If you take care of your home, it’s about taking care of yourself. Organizing is for you.”

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