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Barbara Hemphill

Barbara Hemphill was a well-known brand before “personal branding” was a thing. She was a recognized authority in the organizing industry long before it was popularized—in fact, she participated in the creation of the entire field, back in 1978. And for anyone who hasn’t seen her on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN Nightly News, and other media outlets, or read her best-selling books—including Taming the Paper Tiger, the veritable organizing bible for people the world over—well, they’d be in the tiny minority. The passionate founder of Barbara Hemphill LLC and the Productive Environment Institute, she is the definition of a pioneer and a visionary. But to the thousands of individuals, business leaders, and entrepreneurs who’ve benefited from her expertise or her wildly popular Vision Accelerator program, she’s an absolute force—and her surprising approach has people everywhere reexamining their physical and digital environments.

“Clutter is postponed decisions®,” says Barbara. “Organizing is not about decorative bins, baskets, or digital folders. It’s about the emotion, the memories, or the challenges that live in that clutter, and unwrapping them to find your purpose, your goals, ambitions—joy.”

Helping people create a productive environment has driven Barbara for over four decades. It’s a passion that saw her named among Power 20 by Formidable Woman Magazine, as a two-time recipient of the President’s Award from the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, the recipient of 100 Women to Know in America, as well as The Founder’s Award from Doing Good at Work.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Barbara to hear more about her approach, Vision Accelerator, stories from those she’s helped, and one simple action to start tackling the clutter for good.

You have a fascinating view of "clutter" and what "organizing" means, which you talk about in your book Less Clutter, More Life. Many people view it as physical (or digital) chaos that they must clean up. But you see it as a reflection of emotional pain, fear, or loss—and a journey to finding one's purpose that's buried beneath it. Will you tell us more about this?

"Clutter" is anything that prevents you from accomplishing your work or enjoying your life. "Organized" is organizing what you can control to cope with what you can't. Organizing in and of itself has no value; spending time organizing without a vision will significantly diminish your profit, productivity, and peace of mind. I started my career organizing physical clutter and quickly recognized that the real problem was not the clutter itself, but the emotion behind it. I was autographing Taming the Paper Tiger at a bookstore in New York City, and I stated that when I have a client who has difficulty "letting go," I find that if I ask enough questions, the client will reveal an emotional loss.

Months later, I was speaking for a group of professional women at a university, and a woman approached me and said, "You just saved my marriage! I came to this conference with the intent of returning home to tell my husband of 13 years that I was leaving because of all his clutter. I didn't realize until I heard you that it isn't that he won't clear the clutter, but he can't. His mother died when he was seven." Awareness of a connection between emotional loss and clutter is sometimes enough to inspire action.

What are some of the most common reasons holding people back from tackling the clutter?

Papers, emails, and digital documents accumulate on desks, computers, and the cloud because we haven’t decided what we need or want to keep or where to file it to find it later. A big stumbling block to letting go of clutter is fear: fear of letting something go and wanting it again or fear of the size of the project. Progress starts with the truth, so identifying and admitting your fear is a big step toward success. 

Your Vision Accelerator is one of the most popular organizing programs, Barbara. What makes it so different? 

I often ask audiences, "If you left this world tonight, what regret would you have?” The answers vary widely, from failing to pursue a lifelong dream to regret about the mess they’re leaving for their loved ones. But their answers are a form of clutter—something that’s preventing them from enjoying their life. That's what Vision Accelerator is all about. Many people underestimate what they can do or achieve. What they need is encouragement and accountability. I've watched clients spend hours, months, years agonizing over the personal property they’ve collected and intended to leave as a legacy, only to discover that their children don’t want it. They feel overwhelmed and disappointed, only to find through our work together that their story is the most significant legacy they can leave their children.

What is one little action someone can do today to move forward or get "unstuck?”

Begin by asking, "What is ONE thing that has to happen for me to be happy with my progress in organizing my life or business?" I didn't say "the most important thing," and I didn't say "to be successful." It might be something minimal, like clearing the clutter off my desk, or something big, like "Sell this business, and do something I love." Then ask, "What next action can I take to move in that direction?" Often, we underestimate the power of incremental change. Research shows you are 67% more likely to accomplish a goal if you have an accountability partner, so don't hesitate to ask for help.

So, we have to ask... What's your next action, Barbara?

I believe God created everyone with a dream, and our world desperately needs people with big dreams. When I was president of NAPO in the ‘90s, my theme was "Together We Are Better," and it’s become the theme of my businesses and my life. My focus is to use the speaking platform to spread my passion for eliminating clutter in every form, to accelerate the vision of everyone within the sound of my voice, and to partner with other dreamers to create more together than we can alone!


Barbara Hemphill

Founder — Barbara Hemphill LLC and Productive Environment Institute

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