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Mr. Clean

For a thousand dollars Jeffrey Mayer will go through your clutter, piece by piece, and tell you to throw it all away.

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"I can be a bastard; I can be a son of a bitch. I just stand there and say, 'Are you going to keep this or throw it out?'" says Jeffrey Mayer. For a thousand bucks he'll stand at your work space--be it lavish or humble--and hand you papers, letters, memos, piece by piece: he'll go through all the clutter on your desk, and sadistically demand to know exactly what you're going to do with it.

"I say 'Why are you keeping this? If you can't come up with a good answer, throw it away.'"

As a ruthless master of organization, Mayer hopes most of the crap ends up in the trash. But if you insist on keeping it, it will get filed, and whatever it is you intend to do with it gets documented on a master list. "It's the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at in the evening," says the master of the master list.

When he rushes off to the bank with your thousand smackers, he leaves behind a desk as stark as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, with only a phone, a pad of paper, and a pen. Everything else is in the landfill--or at least in a file folder, tucked away and awaiting the use you claimed to have for it on your master list.

"I was very small as a kid," he says. (He grew up in Highland Park and is now regular-sized.) "I had a lot of limitations. So I became good at creative thinking. I wondered 'What if something were done this way?' Then my mother used to say 'When you get work done--your homework, your chores--you can go out and play' and I took her seriously. I've always looked for ways to improve my efficiency."

So there he was a few years ago, in his mid-30s, armed with a degree in economics, planning people's estates but knowing his true talent lay in reducing clutter and saving time. So he offered himself to the few pack rats he knew--including one in trouble with the fire marshal--for $300.

From there he was referred to others who in turn referred him to big corporations--Sears, Donnelley, Encyclopaedia Britannica--where he says he's helped a number of CEOs and their underlings save time and money and get much more joy out of life. And he has thank-you letters to prove it

The publisher Simon & Schuster found the articulate high priest of cleanliness--combination taskmaster, cheerleader, bastard, and son of a bitch--and decided he could tell the masses how to straighten up in order to be happy and rich. So they published If You Haven't Got the Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find the Time to Do It Over? and are selling it for $17.95 and promoting it deftly in bookstores complete with a money-back guarantee. An accompanying audiocassette is offered for an additional $9.95.

"They're flying off the shelves," says Mayer of his book.

Now he's on a national press tour, looking neat as a pin and being punctual to boot.

So he comes to my downtown apartment, which in only a mile from his downtown apartment, and enters my home office. I figure we'll use my office as a lab and Mayer can espouse his philosophy and I can save a thousand bucks. Mayer declines to have a snack, a cold drink, or coffee; he is anxious to get down to business.

Except that he finds himself giggling--a little nervous, a little overwhelmed--because my office is nothing but stacks and piles and files that have been accumulating for years. I have let it become an enormous walk-in storage closet with windows. Mayer sits on a chair and rests his foot on a big stack of newspapers. The other foot butts up against three years' worth of Newsweek magazines that I'm saving as souvenirs--of world history. Mayer is hemmed in. A few magazines slip and he claims to be worried about an avalanche.

"This stuff sitting around, you're never going to look at it again," he scolds. "You're just spending money to store things you're never going to look at again. Even if there was something in here that you needed to make 500 million dollars, I don't think you'd be able to find it in here."

Oh right, I think to myself. Is this guy nuts? Hasn't he seen The Conversation?

"In effect, you've thrown everything in here away, except your repository is a room in your home versus a Dumpster.

"If you want to save a story to read, let's say, or one you've written, clip it out and throw the rest away. Because of the magnitude in here, you can't accomplish much working hourly or even daily. So nibble around the edges. Bring a Dumpster right into the room. Then pick a pile--any pile--you've got plenty to choose from. The Dumpster should be overflowing."

Mayer holds up a stack of manila folders and expandable file pockets--the tools of his trade. He knows that even a whole factory full of these things would be useless in just the hour he has allotted to me, but he gives me pointers anyway.

For instance, he says, one of the biggest mistakes people make when using manila folders is using them in the order they come in a box: all the right tabs together, all the middle tabs together, all the left tabs together. He says using each kind of tab, one by one, allows you to see three files at the same time--a handy little time saver.

And expandable file folders! They save 30 to 40 percent over the hanging kind, he gushes. Only dummies use the hanging kind.

When people know these kinds of things, says Mayer, maintain a clean desk and use files properly, they have more time to ponder business problems. "They're productive--not just busy--so they're apt to get raises, bonuses, promotions..."

As a guru, Mayer takes himself seriously. He knows about TV makeup (he was still wearing the makeup from his previous interview at Channel 26) and he's studied with a voice coach.

I wonder if his business doesn't smack of waste, of environmental abuse even. I wonder what with the state of our garbage pileup if it's not better just to keep the stuff.

"We're all in the business to make money. Guilt and business don't mix," he says. "There's a cost to keeping things around. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about the environment. The cost of repairing things is greater than replacing things. Some companies worry about saving old file folders and recycling them: scratching off the outdated file names, saving every paper clip, using old stationery for scratch paper. But they don't have the same concern about the value of their employees' time. They're just being cheap."

As our hour winds down I am still waiting for Mayer to tell me how to make more at least look like less. Isn't there any way--besides saying good-bye forever--to handle souvenirs, documents, old financial records, Tupperware samples, bills of sale, newsletters, booklets I studied to be an election judge, brochures on every parent-child activity in the Chicago area, 16 years' worth of Christmas decorations, 11 years' worth of story files, 20 years' worth of theater programs.

"Well, if you had every program you ever got and they were all in the same place, keeping them might make sense," says Mayer, relenting. "But nothing does you any good if you haven't got an organized system."

An organized system, according to Mayer, is life itself.

"People love what I do. They get wonderful results. And they tell other people, 'Spend a couple of hours with Jeff.' But if their heart isn't in what I tell them to do, then their careers just go down the tubes."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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