Paula George was desperate. She had lost control of her clutter.
Friends and family members offered to help, but she was too embarrassed to let them go through her closets, drawers and shelves.
"(The house) was just a mess," said Paula, 50, a radiologist, pastor's wife and mother of three daughters in Chesterfield, Mo.
The situation called for drastic action, so Paula contacted Edwardsville organization expert Aby Garvey. The two women spent more than a dozen "coaching" sessions working their way through her house, room by room.
They got rid of items the family didn't need or want, taking photos of the wedding dishes that were never used and artwork from kindergarten class.
"She didn't push me to throw things away," Paula said. "She just asked me questions. She'd say, 'When was the last time you used this?' Or 'When do you think you'll ever use it again?'"
The women found sensible, permanent places for kept items, with heavy use of storage containers and labels that serve as constant reminders of what goes where.
Aby also helped Paula develop good organizational habits, including five-minute "pick-ups" every night before bed. She goes through mail immediately and puts the paper into bins for Recycling, Reference or Action.
"I don't lay mail down on the washer (in the mud room) and let it pile up," Paula said. "It's so easy. It's so quick. It takes me about three minutes, and I don't lose things like I did before."
Taking action in small bursts
New Year's resolutions to "get organized" make January a very busy month for Aby, whose business is called simplify 101.
Her advice has appeared three times in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, most recently on holiday time management in the December 2012 issue.
Aby, 44, sees striving for perfection as the biggest mistake people make in organizing.
"People will say, 'I'm not going to do this unless I can do it perfectly,' and 'I'm not going to start until I have the perfect solution figured out,'" she said. "It's better to try and tweak because you learn something when you're taking those first steps."
Aby's best piece of advice is to "take action in small bursts of time."
She talks people out of the mindset that they have to block out an entire weekend or wait for spring break to organize their homes.
"(I recommend) that you spend 15 minutes a day on your organizing projects," Aby said. "Get a timer, set it for 15 minutes and give yourself permission to stop when you hear it ring."
Remembering how to dream
Aby offers on-site and telephone coaching but primarily leads online workshops with titles such as "Quick and Simple Clutter Control." She also blogs and publishes a newsletter on her website.
The most popular workshop is "Organize Your Paper Clutter," which includes six lessons and eight weeks of access to an online forum with other students.
"People can say, 'This is what I'm going to do today,' and then they can come back at the end of the day and say, 'I did it!'" Aby said. "It gives them accountability and support and encouragement."
Another popular workshop is "How to Achieve Your Goals and Create a Life You Love." It starts by asking students to come up with 101 dreams, big and small, and helps them develop plans for reaching them.
"As adults, we forget how to dream," Aby said. "We get so caught up in our routines, the day-to-day grind. We don't stop and ask ourselves, 'Is this what I really want?' Or 'What do I really want?'"
Aby offers 12 workshops, which cost $30 to $89. During a specified time, she makes herself available to answer questions about individual projects.
Alissa Williams, 33, of Morton, has taken almost all the workshops. She considers herself fairly organized but always is looking to improve.
When Alissa was pregnant, Aby drove to her home near Peoria and helped her convert an office into a nursery, efficiently arranging furniture and supplies.
"She encourages and inspires you to take action," said Alissa, a librarian and mother of two daughters. "She doesn't want you to just read the material and think about it. She wants you to do something."
Alissa took the workshop "How to Achieve Your Goals and Create a Life You Love" twice. Her 101 dreams included "buying a pair of red shoes," "paying off outstanding debts," "sending birthday cards to friends and family" and "losing weight after pregnancy." She has reached 15.
Striking out on her own
Aby grew up in Michigan and earned a degree in "packaging engineering" at Michigan State University.
"It's really just the science of making sure products get from Point A to Point B," she said.
After a couple of jobs in the health-care industry, Aby started her organizing business in 2004 with encouragement from her husband, Jay, then an electronics engineer.
Aby self-published a scrapbooking e-book called "The Happy Scrapper" in 2006. The following year, she co-authored "The Organized & Inspired Scrapbooker," a print book published by Simple Scrapbooks.
Today, Jay serves as her full-time partner and website administrator. The couple have two children, son Collin, 14, and daughter Kailea, 12, and one employee, Marketing and Content Coordinator Jennifer McClure.
People from all over the world take the online workshops. Many clients start with the same frustrations as radiologist Paula George, who is downright ecstatic about her new life.
"I don't miss anything I got rid of," she said. "And (getting organized) took so much stress off me."
For more information on simplify 101, visit www.simplify101.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-616-8117.