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Getting organized a new national pastime

By Manav Tanneeru
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(CNN) -- As the cameras and crew of cable TV's "Clean Sweep" descend on the three-bedroom house of Frazier and Cynthia Watts, the clutter is comical.

There is barely enough room to walk in the master bedroom, with Frazier's more than 70 pairs of shoes stacked to the window sill or hidden beneath the bed. Clothes spill out of overstuffed closets, their kids' playthings litter the living room and the corner of the home dedicated to office work is in chaos.

"You get used to the clutter and if you keep looking at it every day, you get depressed," Cynthia, a stay-at-home mom of four children, said from the couple's home in Lakewood, California.

With hopes of an intervention, she filled out an application for The Learning Channel's reality show devoted to home organization.

"[I felt] like I had a chance to do something with my house," she recalled.

The Watts family is not alone in wanting to get rid of clutter. It appears to be a national phenomenon, evidenced by the steady growth of the home organization industry during the past few years.

Sales of space and closet organizers, including clothing-care items, accounted for 8.7 percent of the $76.2 billion Americans spent on housewares in 2005, according to the International Housewares Association.

Sales of all home organization products are forecast to increase to $7.6 billion by 2009, according to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland, Ohio-based market research firm.

Meanwhile, shows like TLC's "Clean Sweep," HGTV's "Mission Organization" and The Style Network's "Clean House" have acted as teaching mechanisms or outlets for empathy, industry observers say.

The Container Store, a retail outfit that sells organization products, is thriving and has plans to expand with new stores this year, company officials told Meanwhile, a cottage industry of self-help books has emerged, detailing how to organize everything from closets to offices and garages.

The use of personal organizers -- who help their clients take control of their time, space and priorities -- is also growing.

The National Association of Professional Organizers, founded in 1985, has grown from about a thousand members in 1998 to nearly 4,000 members by 2006, according to its president, Barry Iszak.

'The new asceticism'

Experts within the organization industry point to several theories for its boom.

Iszak blames a hyper-consumptive society deluged by its own belongings and the output of modern technology like fax machines and e-mail. "There's more to organize than ever before," he said.

Peter Walsh, the Australian host of "Clean Sweep" and the author of two books on clutter and organization, believes the phenomenon is representative of what he calls "the new asceticism," a term he uses to describe the movement toward slimming down, conserving energy and buying less.

"We are at a stage in the [United States] where we are starting to question what I call the orgy of consumption," he said.

Walsh, with a background in educational psychology, believes the events of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have created a desire for control and clarity in a culture interlaced with fear.

"What we are seeing in terms of this movement toward micro-organization -- getting my closet or my garage in order -- is, in some part, a reaction to the macro sense of uncertainty, a sense that we can't control what's going on," he said.

Garrett Boone, co-founder of the Texas-based retail chain The Container Store, perceives a change as well. "From the very beginning, we said saving people's time was the ultimate benefit," he said. "But now, it's becoming a sense of order and security."

Women going into the workforce in greater numbers also may be playing a role in diminishing homemaking skills, according to Monica Ricci, an Atlanta-based personal organizer.

"We have this generational gap now that didn't get taught those skills," she said.

Between love and shoes

As the episode of "Clean Sweep" nears the halfway point, the Watts family's belongings are spread out in the backyard, including piles of clothes, rows and rows of shoes and even an eight-track player.

"Someone called me Imelda Marcos because of all the shoes," Frazier said, laughing about the response the episode elicited from family and friends after it aired in 2004.

In the show, Walsh divides the backyard into three areas labeled "keep," "sell" or "toss" and places the Watts' items into each category.

"When you lay the stuff out on the lawn, you create a mini-universe of their stuff," Walsh told from Los Angeles, California. "No longer can they get away from their stuff."

Walsh soon focuses his attention on Frazier's shoes and his reluctance to part with them.

In Walsh's view, the shoes and the clutter are a metaphor for the couple's relationship.

"It's never about the stuff," he said. "The only way you can deal with the clutter is by asking yourself what is the vision you have for the life you both want."

For Frazier, they're simply shoes. "I didn't see a direct link between the actual items and the relationship," he said. "He made it seem like I loved the items more than I loved my wife."

Emotions boil over, and as Frazier and Walsh go back and forth, Cynthia sulks to a corner of the back porch in quiet sobs.

"I kind of saw my dreams crumbling and that's why I got kind of emotional," she said.

As the show nears the end, however, Frazier and Walsh have reached a détente. Frazier agrees to part with more of his clothes and shoes, concluding that if there isn't room or an obvious need for an item, then it has to go.

"Why would I need a pair of pants from the 12th grade?" he said, maintaining the clutter is symptomatic of bad habits rather than something ingrained in the relationship.

To avoid falling back into the clutter trap, the Watts said they now get rid of an item if they buy an item, and if they don't use the new item in a month, they discard it.

However, Frazier admitted with a chuckle, "I still gotta work on [the shoes] a little bit more."


Before their "Clean Sweep" intervention, the Watts could barely close their closet doors.

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