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Get free of your stuff

Getting organized is the new dieting. Organization consultants assist in the pursuit of the perfect closet.

If Alesia Latson had not gotten organized, she'd still be single.

Latson hired organization coach Robin Blank to come into her home and help throw away clutter, arranging what remained into a neatly organized basement, pantry, and closets. The process was transforming, preparing her to fall in love and marry Brian Latson, after girlfriends signed her up for an online dating service where they met.

Getting organized "gave me psychic space and emotional energy to be out in the world because I didn't have all this crap," said Latson, 41. "Stuff stops us. It drains energy. We have way too much stuff."

Latson is a woman obsessed. She can expound on why "neat" is not "organized" and why a National Get Rid of Crap Day would do this country good. Her kitchen junk drawer is so orderly, she can find her junk. But her prize is her costume jewelry -- strings of shiny necklaces laid in rows, spangly bracelets grouped together. Yet she is never satisfied. Being organized, she said, makes her "ruthless about getting rid of stuff."

Getting organized is the new dieting. Total organization, like weight loss, is difficult. But it is an antidote to excess for people like Latson and her husband, who is still in training.

An entire segment of commerce panders to the organization trend. 1-800-Got-Junk? is a wildly successful franchise that hauls stuff away in cheery blue trucks. Getting organized is now a science honed by members of the National Association of Professional Organizers. There are also gadgets, from endless varieties of low-tech folders, shelves, hangers, and wine racks to high-tech tools. In five years, sales of personal digital assistants more than doubled, to 6.6 million in 2004.

"People are trying to get control of their lives," said Faith Manierre, owner of Busy Bees Professional Organizing LLC and president of the Connecticut chapter of National Association of Professional Organizers. "We all want the perfect life," she said. "It is something we've seen on TV or in a movie, and it's not messy."

Powerful historical forces converged to create a nation of organizers. First came the postwar mass production of goods. A Depression-era mentality of scarcity gave way to "affluenza," as the rich and not-so-rich filled their homes with trinkets from Bergdorf's and Wal-Mart. Baby-boomer couples, juggling two careers and sandwiched between aged parents and overbooked children, are drowning in stuff. Young adults in rebellion have embraced paperless desks, PDAs, and minimalism.

The trend is descended from 1980s time management, an attempt to minimize time wasted looking for keys, toys, the remote control. For example, some may think The Container Store simply sells space-saving containers. "We're not really about saving space," said Kip Tindell, a Container Store founder and its chief executive.

The Dallas-based chain owns 32 stores nationwide, and sales are strong. The Container Store opened its first Manhattan location a year ago, in Chelsea, where sales are double its next best locations. The company plans to open a second store in New York City, Tindell said, and one is scheduled to open Nov. 13 in Chestnut Hill.

"What we're really about," he said, "is saving time so that people can be happier and more fulfilled by being ahead of the curve and accomplishing more out of life."

Such promises are the livelihood of nearly 3,000 members of the National Organization of Professional Organizers, including 125 in Massachusetts. The group's members have sprouted from an obscure profession to service providers charging as much as $150 an hour to peer into your drawers and look under your bed. They even have specialties: closets, Tupperware drawers, garages, desks, and small businesses. Some help those with attention deficit disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, who organizers say tend to struggle with disorganization.

There are less expensive ways to get help: Williams-Sonoma catalogs labeled "The Well-Organized Kitchen," or Real Simple magazine's features, such as "5-Step Closet Makeover: Before and After in One Woman's Very Real Closet." Voyeurs gloat over those in far worse shape they are, thanks to a flurry of reality TV shows -- "Mission Organization," "Clean Sweep," and "How Clean is Your House?"

Disorganization is a national scourge, said Ramona Creel, a professional organizer and owner of OnlineOrganizing.com. "We have too many choices in this society," she said.

"It's only now people are beginning to realize there is a downside to prosperity -- having crap, having too much to do, not spending enough time with your family," she said. "We live in an age of personal services, and organizing has become one of those."

Alesia Latson had been in denial for years. On Robin Blank's first house call to Latson's Randolph town house, she saw a clean, tidy apartment. Then they opened a closet, and stuff toppled out. "It was creating so much tension and stress for her that it was bad," said Blank, owner of Chaos Consulting in Boston's Back Bay.

Latson had difficulty throwing out things such as old Christmas cards. Working in the basement, Blank instructed her to make three piles: keep, throw away, give away. What Latson kept, she sorted into storage bins: candles and candleholders in one, games in another. Laundry detergent had its own shelf, fabric softeners another. A few months would pass and she'd called Blank back for more tips.

She got so organized her friends started to worry. Noting the bins were translucent, a friend asked why they were labeled. "That's when I knew I'd gone over the edge!" Latson said.

Her total bill -- about $1,000 over a two-year period -- was a small price to pay for falling in love. After she married, Blank helped merge her stuff with her new husband's.

Brian Latson, a sergeant in the Boston Police Department and self-described "typical guy," is learning to appreciate his wife's obsession.

"I can find things," he said, "and I don't have to send out a search party."

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

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