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Couple clears clutter before wedding

His e-mail entry to our Balance Makeover contest arrived as an SOS: ''Help! I write a list every night and stress about it until I fall asleep.''

To get the couple off to a good start in marriage, I arrived at their South Beach home with time management and productivity guru Leo Tonkin, CEO of Distinctions Inc. It doesn't take long for us to see why he wrote in -- there's a to-do list in the kitchen with scribbled notes. There are pads with lists and Post-it notes in his home office and worse, an unopened planner. Chris' desk is a heap of papers surrounded by stacks of magazines, business cards and scattered files.

As Chris shows us around his home, he talks of projects he and Alexis want to tackle. In the kitchen, they want to expand the cooking area. In the indoor patio/foyer, they want to create a tiki lounge. Around the home, they want to put in hurricane-proof windows. But for now, like many of us with dreams of improvements, the rooms remain cluttered, money remains tight and Chris has other demands pressing on his time.

In May 2006, Alexis started wedding plans. In October, when she landed a full-time job that requires travel, she turned the planning over to Chris, a marketing executive who had lost his job. But Chris' system for managing wedding planning, a job search, banking, unpacking and home projects is haphazard. Mostly, he's keeping track in his head.

Tonkin wants Chris to evolve from being reactive to proactive and to learn how to account for his time. That requires an organized system for scheduling daily tasks.


''You need to have everything in front of you. You can't manage what you can't see,'' Tonkin says. ''Most of us have a habit of letting things slide. But if you get it out of your head, you have a better chance of doing it.''

Tonkin advocates this system for Chris and Alexis to do together: Start with a brain dump, which means getting everything you as a couple want to accomplish down on paper. That list could include travel desires, home improvement projects, financial goals, movies to see.

''You can create goals for your life together by getting everything out of your head,'' Tonkin says.

From there, he tells Chris to schedule things on a calender, but not to plan more than 75 percent of the day, to leave room for interruptions. Create a pending list to do in the next three weeks and a another list of things to do in the future. If you find yourself with free time, pull something off your pending list and schedule it.

''Having a schedule will help you when you get into a job,'' Tonkin tells Chris. ''And it will help you sleep better at night.''

But what about spontaneity? What if Chris wants to soak up some sun -- to take a break from job hunting, wedding planning and de-cluttering?

''That's OK,'' Tonkin says. ''Just schedule it. Then you won't feel guilty. That's where work/life balance comes from.''

Clearly, Chris would feel less overwhelmed if he could find his planner, his box of thank-you notes or maybe his tax returns from last year. Behind his big-screen TV and on his coffee table sit large, unopened shipping boxes. Could they be there? And of course, there's the office where piles of papers lie atop a barely visible bed cover.

Like many couples who marry after living on their own, Chris and Alexis brought lots of their own stuff to their new South Beach home. The two moved in together from separate homes in Chicago in October 2005. ''It's a storage and organization nightmare,'' Chris says.

For this, I've brought in ClutterBusters to help. Jeremie and Kelly Barber, a super-organized couple, recently launched the South Florida franchise of this national chain. A chat with Chris led the couple to his home office/guest room as the best place to start.


The three tackle the clutter by grabbing it from around the room, putting it in one place and sorting through it. Kelly creates a pile for honeymoon information, one for instruction manuals, one for bills. Afterward, Chris will go through the piles and toss.

Jeremie wants Chris to cut back on his magazine subscriptions and tear out the articles or ads he wants to keep rather than hanging on to months of magazines.

Kelly tells Chris that de-cluttering and combining lives means some things must go. That may mean giving up college beer mugs.

''There are things that might have worked great for you when you were single, but you have to ask whether they work for you as a couple,'' she says.

Within five hours, magazines fit on a rack, files fit in a filing drawer and business cards are in a binder. Chris has created a donation pile and 1-800-GOT-JUNK's Albert Gutierrez has hauled away a bag of papers to recycle. Chris holds on to his beer mugs, but he agrees to part with dozens of magazines.

Says Chris: ''I feel less overwhelmed when I can go to a place and know where to find what I need. Alexis is going to be really happy. And that makes me happy.''

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