Originally created 07/12/98

Workers dealing with paper flood



NEW YORK -- Elizabeth Marner-Brooks groans as she opens a 5-foot-tall file cabinet and peeks into a Manila folder stuffed with papers.

"We haven't done any of this, we're going to start at the front," says Barbara Fields, a professional organizer hired by Ms. Marner-Brooks to help sort decades of accumulated papers in her home office.

Ms. Marner-Brooks, a speech coach and teacher, groans again but pulls out an inches-thick file.

Stack and file. Sort and toss. Coping with the paper flood is a chore everyone knows well. Except now the deluge is ever-increasing due to the information boom and the ready availability of printers, faxes and copiers.

Drowning in paper, people lose the ability to decide what to do with the next piece they receive, organizers say. Mostly, they just shrug and add it to the mounting piles growing around them.

"The real problem of paper isn't a problem of neatness but of decision-making," says Stephanie Winston, author of The Organized Executive, and a professional organizer who charges $2,000 a day. "People do feel more and more bewildered."

That's just about how Ms. Marner-Brooks looks as she starts sorting on a languid June day.

"What should I do with this?" she asks Mrs. Fields while holding up a wad of papers. "Should I dump these?"

Mrs. Fields, who charges $65 an hour, sports a no-nonsense apron and a manner to match.

Sipping iced, black coffee, she guides her client through file after file, relabels folders and asks: "Do you need that? Why?"

They've already had several three-hour sessions together, and have scheduled six more.

After a while, Ms. Marner-Brooks gains momentum. "I don't think I have to keep every single lesson plan," she says, ripping up a sheaf of papers triumphantly.

"At the end of this, we're going to sell one file cabinet," Mrs. Fields says mischievously.

"I was thinking that," Ms. Marner-Brooks answers with a grin, before turning to another file.