Finding Meaning in Clutter
By Marlene England

Johns Hopkins Magazine
September, 2004 Life can get pretty messy at times. Just ask Baltimore native, best-selling author, and life coach Sunny Schlenger.

A professional organizer for 25 years, Schlenger’s seen it all. Bedrooms filled floor to ceiling with papers and knickknacks. Grocery bags overflowing with unopened mail. Executives paralyzed by a fear of filing — and drowning in a sea of papers. Families too busy to share meals, let alone conversation.

Schlenger believes there is hope for the messes — and their makers. And she’s determined to tackle the time and space challenges that can make life seem so overwhelming.

Her first book — How to Be Organized in Spite of Yourself (Penguin-Putnam, 1999), co-authored with Roberta Roesch — achieved Book of the Month Club fame in 1999. Schlenger was profiled in The New York Times, Fortune, USA Today, Self, and other publications, and appeared on CNN, ABC’s Live with Regis, FNN, and Lifetime’s Working Women’s Survival Hour. The groundbreaking premise of her book — that everyone has a unique style of managing time and space — helped launch the custom-tailored approach to organization.

But for Schlenger, that was only half the story. “No matter how well organized we become, we’re still interested in balance and becoming who we are, where we are,” she reflects.

Published this May, Schlenger’s new book, Organizing for the Spirit (Jossey-Bass/J.Wiley & Sons), claims there is no such thing as clutter. “Your belongings carry significance,” says Schlenger. Possessions — even those unread magazines on the coffee table — are not “just things,” she explains, but rather extensions of ourselves and evidence of our personal styles, needs, priorities, passions, even idiosyncrasies.

Understanding that the details of your life are all connected, says Schlenger, helps those details become meaningful and manageable. “It’s then possible to go beyond simple organization to find out who you are, where you are in the story of your life, how to enjoy yourself, and how to give back something,” she says.

Does Schlenger practice what she preaches? “They say you teach what you most need to learn,” she responds, laughing. “I’m not sure whether I’m leading or following, but I’m living the life that’s right for me.”

It’s a life that is both busy and rewarding. From her New Jersey home, Schlenger coaches clients, writes a monthly e-mail newsletter, and conducts seminars and keynote presentations for Hewlett Packard, the American Heart Association, and other organizations nationwide. She is also the spokesperson for Esselte Corporation, the world’s leading office supply manufacturer. With a daughter in college and a son in high school, Schlenger and her husband recently bought a home in Sedona, Arizona, where they plan to retire.

Schlenger admits that her success has been “one big surprise.” As an undergraduate, she recognized the need to stay organized but never dreamed it would shape her career. Schlenger was part of Hopkins’ second co-ed class, and she and her first husband, both children of alums, were the university’s first undergraduate couple to marry.

While earning her master’s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Schlenger read about a professional organizer. The field — brand new at the time — intrigued Schlenger, who was second-guessing her future as a guidance counselor. She opted to use her counseling and psychology skills as a professional organizer, helping others live productive, well-balanced lives.

In doing so, Schlenger has discovered her gift — “really seeing people as they could be.”

She describes herself as a combination cheerleader-consultant who accentuates the positive — but only if clients are serious about getting their acts together. “People have to have a sense of humor and adequate motivation, because unless you’re ready to make a change, it won’t happen,” she asserts.

Schlenger credits her dad, Stanley Plaine, A&S ’43, for her own motivation and zest for life. A dedicated volunteer in his later years, Plaine died in 2003 but remains a shining example to Schlenger that it’s never too late to become who you were meant to be.

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