Shira Gill brings compassion and practicality to her work as an organizer and life coach. (Photo/Vivian Johnson)
Shira Gill brings compassion and practicality to her work as an organizer and life coach. (Photo/Vivian Johnson)

Getting rid of stuff hurts — but this Berkeley mom can help lighten the load

Many people think being a personal organizer means an adeptness at folding clothing and labeling bins. And while Shira Gill does have those skills, she says working with clients and their clutter goes much deeper.

She can’t count how many times, for example, that she’s walked into a kitchen filled with expensive cookware, and when she asks how often the client cooks, the answer is “Never.”

“It’s painful getting rid of stuff,” Gill said in an interview, noting that it’s not uncommon for clients to burst into tears when confronted with just how much they’ve accumulated.

Gill’s career wasn’t at all planned, it just kind of happened. But it’s clear that being a personal organizer and life coach was what she was meant to be doing. And now she’s a first-time author at 44, with her book coming out next month, “Minimalista: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Better Home, Wardrobe and Life” (Ten Speed Press).

Growing up in a “psychology-minded family” and then later getting certified as a life coach have given her the tools she needs to meet her clients where they are when it comes to their hoarding tendencies.

“Nearly every client is processing some sort of anxiety, grief or shame over it. This is really emotional work for people,” she said. “This work is about so much more than just putting things in labeled bins; we’re getting to the heart of why are you living this way, how do you really want to live and how do we bridge the gap between those two? That’s really the work, that process of figuring it all out.”

The truth is that many of us live among perpetual states of clutter; we have trouble getting rid of clothing we know no longer fits or flatters us, kitchen gadgets we never use, or spices we never cook with. (While I actually do cook and use most of the spices in my collection, I found myself guilty of many of the other messy tendencies that Gill describes in the book).

Gill grew up in Berkeley and attended Camp Kee Tov as a child. She met her husband, Jordan Gill, when they were both counselors at Camp Tawonga. She easily draws a throughline between Judaism and her work.

“My relationship to Judaism is about intentionality, and my work and organizing in general, if you pare it down, is about being more mindful and intentional and leaving things better than you found them,” she said. And minimizing and making do with what you have goes along with living a more sustainable life and reducing your carbon footprint.

Gill came to this career after the birth of her first daughter in 2009 when she hosted a group for new mothers in her Berkeley home. Her fellow new moms couldn’t understand why her living room — or the whole house, really — wasn’t taken over by baby gear covering every surface. “How do you do this?” they asked her.

It’s not uncommon for clients to burst into tears when confronted with just how much they’ve accumulated.

As it turns out, it’s a skill that started in childhood. Gill was the only child of parents who divorced when she was young. Going back and forth frequently between her parents’ homes, she needed to devise systems to keep track of what was where — her clothes, toys and other things.

“The inner sense of my family falling apart and the anxiety around that led me to take solace in organizing and arranging things until my room and environment felt good,” she said. “It was my earliest form of self-care and therapy.”

This was long before such shows as “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “The Home Edit” were staples on Netflix.

Gill had first pursued a life in acting, and despite realizing some success — she studied improv with Chicago’s famed Second City Conservatory — she reached a point where she decided that the late nights and travel didn’t align with her other life goal, to have a family.

She transitioned into catering and events, but decided that wasn’t the right path for her, either. When she began offering her organizing services to her fellow new moms, she thought of it as a side hustle — she worked in three-hour increments to accommodate her life as a parent — until someone wrote a post recommending her on the Berkeley Parents Network website.

In response, she put up a simple website announcing her services to the world, advertising that she could help people with any type of decluttering or styling of their homes. Her business exploded. When she had to start a waitlist for bookings, she realized this was no longer a side hustle. That was when she decided to go all-in by also becoming a certified life coach in 2016.

While Gill said that she was at first apprehensive about leaving acting behind, as it was her first love, she is grateful that things happened the way they did.

“There’s no downside to this,” she said. “It gives me a creative outlet, and I love helping people. And there have been so many things I’ve been able to leverage. I’ve launched virtual workshops that have helped people all over the globe on every continent.”

She’s working on a second book that she can’t talk about yet, and “now I’m doing coaching for people wanting to run their own small businesses. I feel like I’ve been able to design my own dream career.”

Here are five tips from Gill on how to become better organized, based on the work she does with clients.

1. Clarify: Write down how you want your home to feel, or create a family vision statement about how you all want your home to look, feel and function.

2. Edit: Subtract items that don’t belong. Set up a donation station, which could be a tote bag on a hook by the front door, or a bag or basket in each person’s closet. Whenever these get full, donate them.

3. Organize: Make a space for something that always gets dumped, like papers that are strewn on the counter or the mail on the dining room table. Put them in a magazine file or wall file, or find another streamlined storage solution.

4. Elevate: Identify items in your home where you can eliminate the packaging and replace with something more visually pleasing. For example, put the coffee beans on your counter into an airtight jar, or dish soap into a pretty pump dispenser.

5. Maintain: This is about implementing habit shifts to maintain your space. Gill suggests people instate a five-minute tidying up period before bed to “reset their space.” This can go for kids, too. “It’s shocking what can happen in five minutes,” she says. “Put on that timer, roll up your sleeves, and get the laundry sorted or do the dishes in the sink. The daily tidying up has such a compounded effect over time.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."