You know it’s out of control when your teenagers are embarrassed by the mess.

The picture shown here doesn’t do our family room justice: toys and game pieces scattered everywhere, papers piled high on a desk and the surrounding floor, Xbox games and DVDs overflowing from a TV stand, and a laundry rack and chair full of clothes. A few feet away is a mud room filled so deep with junk that I have to gingerly maneuver the three paces through it to the laundry room.

My goal is to get our den and nearby mud room back into shape. But, truthfully, the entire house is a wreck.

It wasn’t always like this. With two young kids (and two adults overseeing the household), we had a good handle on our stuff. Then our oldest started school and papers started coming home by the dozen. Along came kid number three, and at some point the scales tipped—there was too much coming into the house.

In desperation, I call a pro organizer. We’ll call her “Sally.”

My late husband had the energy and ability to quickly sort tons of junk into neat, organized piles. I’ve always covered every surface with clutter, and I’ve struggled to maintain order since he died. I want to work with an organizer who understands grief and solo parenthood, and Sally lists several family losses on the bio on her website. We hit it off over the phone.

When she arrives for a 90-minute consultation, Sally tours the entire house with me, making suggestions. First step: Get rid of the large items that we are ready to donate. Sounds simple, but I never thought about the space that would be created as a result. As we talk and walk through the house, I feel less overwhelmed. I realize that I already know what to do with many odd items lying around. Surprisingly, I feel much more relaxed by the time Sally leaves. I schedule a three-hour work session with her for three weeks later.

The upcoming work session gives me a deadline, a much-needed motivation. Sally told me that often it’s best just to discard or donate stuff all at once, rather than trying to sell it. I make my first trip to the local thrift shop; drop-off takes only a few minutes.

I’m not sure what to expect of the three-hour session with Sally, who arrives wearing an apron and carrying large bins. We start on the mud room. After a bit, we have cleared enough space for Sally to make it a few steps into the room. She moves quickly, making piles of similar items. (So this is how it’s done?) I take a cue from her and do the same.

As Sally and I work our way through the mud room, we pick up items and sort them into trash bags, donation bins, and piles. If not for her, I think I would have given up in the first half-hour. But we keep at it, and I’m stunned that after only two hours everything is sorted, and we can walk through the entire room! We have filled three large bags with trash and one large box with donations. Once the mud room is under control (with piles and bins for me to go through later with my kids), we start on the family room.

After three hours of intense clean-up, I’m exhausted, hungry, and feeling accomplished. I never imagined that we’d make so much progress so quickly. I immediately schedule Sally to come back to help me tackle another room.

In the coming days, I sift through our organized piles (Nerf guns, bubble blowers, outdoor toys), and my kids help me decide what to donate. They’re decisive and quick, happy to discard most of the questionable items—another surprise. Now I actually want to tackle the rest of the family room; my success with Sally made it clear that I could do it and get it done faster than I had thought.

The real test is whether we can keep it up. Sally called me a “tosser” and I don’t disagree—she said that if I toss things, then the kids will follow my lead and toss things, too. Maybe that’s not a revelation to everyone, but it was to me. Sometimes it takes someone else to point out the simple common-sense ideas.

Wish me luck!

Cost: $275 for 4.5 hours of consultation and work

What We Learned:

  • Start by getting rid of items that take up a lot of space or that are easy to identify as junk.
  • If you don’t have time, don’t worry about selling items or donating them in the most optimal way. Tons of things to jettison? Pick a single resource that offers easy drop-offs.
  • If you toss things, then your kids will follow your lead.