After listing her profession as "professional organizer" on an visa application for travel to China not long ago, Joyce Becker got a call from an embassy official curious to know just what she was planning to do on her trip.
The confusion was understandable - proof that identifying oneself as an organizer is a sure-fire conversation opener.
Mrs. Becker is a "clutter surgeon"; she organizes possessions, not political demonstrations. In years past, she might have been identified - incorrectly - as an "efficiency expert." Most professional organizers reject the term, disliking its aura of impersonality and its association with the corporate world.
When organizers such as Mrs. Becker talk about "the bottom line," however, what they have in mind are the lengths to which people have to go to rid themselves of possessions they no longer want or need. Since that usually requires changing attitudes along with behavior, the organizer's job is more akin to therapy (Mrs. Becker prefers "advice and counseling") than to management theory.
Key questions they ask up front get to the bottom line fast:
* Why do you feel you must get organized?
* What does having more time mean to you?
* What does success look like to you?
* What is it (your life, your surroundings) going to look like when you are finished?
"It's scary to face up to choices," Mrs. Becker says, "because that might mean, say, having the chance to work full time and not part time when you're not sure you want to."
A former registered nurse, Mrs. Becker switched fields 15 years ago almost by accident even before she knew organizers existed. She found herself on duty later at night than she wanted and sought to plan her time better in a way that wouldn't interfere with patient care. Simultaneously, a neighbor asked for help in sorting out personal items in her home.
"I put like things together with the idea of keeping things simple," she recalls. "Later I went back and found she had caught on. I thought it was a lot of fun and wondered if I could get paid for doing it elsewhere."
A Montgomery County resident, Mrs. Becker sought help from the Small Business Administration and was told "that will never go around here." Undeterred, she says, she "read an article on service businesses and found others were doing the same thing."
Organizing isn't so different from nursing, she says: "There are so many skills I continue to use. I hate to see people in pain. I never dreamed of doing counseling, but, while sorting out papers and other materials of sentimental importance, people will tell you what no other person knows. There is a lot of trust involved."
The business she runs from her home near Gaithersburg is called Perfect Timing, a Residential Organizing Service. Her specialty is domestic, rather than corporate, management. Other organizers work in one or both areas.
Mrs. Becker is also president of the Greater Washington/Baltimore Chapter of the National Association of …