Pile Driver

Porter Knight creates order from chaos

by Cindy Bernhardt

knight_leadLast spring, Porter Knight, the owner of Organized by Knight in Bristol, was one of the first in the United States to sit for and pass the exam to become a certified Professional Organizer. She is the only one in Vermont.

Encountering pileups isn’t only the purview of traffic officers. Just ask Porter Knight, who sees them on a regular basis. A productivity consultant and Vermont’s only Certified Professional Organizer, Knight is the owner of Organized by Knight. Knight’s clients drive desks, not cars, and their pileups are usually made of paper.

“Organizing is simply a skill that needs to be practiced,” says Knight, who likens this skill to learning to swim. “It comes more naturally to some people than others,” she says, “but everyone can learn to do it.”

Armed with a systems mind-set, lots of energy and her own array of client-friendly tools, Knight professes that — gasp! — “Organizing can be fun.” Her diversified list of clients, from the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. to Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, agree. 

Knight first glimpsed her career in professional organization thanks to her husband, Dave, and his culinary ministrations at their Bristol home. “He’s a terrific amateur chef, but he’d leave all the utensils out on the counter when he was cooking,” she says. “He said he never knew what he might need and wanted it handy. 

“When I explained to him where and how our kitchen tools

were organized, he was thrilled to realize we had a system and that it met his needs.” A lightbulb, at least in Dave’s mind, was lit. “Dave pointed out that most people want to have systems but don’t know how to create them and are too busy to try.”

At the time, Knight, a Pittsburgh native and Middlebury grad with a political science degree, was working in the solid-waste business.

“I was running the Bristol dump and working for the Addision County Solid Waste District,” she says. Her job involved considerable education and outreach about waste reduction. 

“I really enjoyed working in the public domain, doing presentations and training with businesses and schools.” 

Ironically, it was solid waste that brought Knight and Dave together. “It was a trashy relationship,” she jokes. Dave’s then job with Casella Waste Systems meant he and Knight crossed paths as fellow board members at the Association of Vermont Recyclers. They married in 1995.

Knight began to turn her career sights elsewhere. “I couldn’t see the next step for me in the solid waste field and had always known I wanted my own business,” she says.

She took several Women’s Small Business courses through Trinity College. There, she says, she “sifted through a couple of business ideas that would draw on my speaking and presenting strengths and allow me to work where I could make a difference.” 

It was the cooking-in-the-kitchen-with-Dave epiphany that led her to venture into the business of organizing in 1996. “He maintained, ‘People will pay for the systems thinking you do,’” she says.

“Dave was right,” she continues. “Systems thinking had always come naturally to me. I’m able to look at complex situations, discern patterns and articulate them.” Plus, she says with a chuckle, “I’d reorganized the files at every job I ever had.”

Business boomed from the start, when Knight’s resignation was announced at a solid-waste board meeting. “An Addision Independent reporter covering the meeting shouted, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I answered, ‘I’m going to teach everybody to get organized,’ and everyone burst out laughing!”

A subsequent front page article featuring Knight near the reporter’s overflowing desk left her laughing as the phone started ringing. “That piece created lots of interest right away,” she recalls. “Addison County is a small community. People knew me, so my transition made sense.”

She’s thrived in her trade over the years by listening and understanding clients’ goals and objectives. “Having expert organizational knowledge is not nearly as important as listening well to a client,” she says.

Walt Freese and Porter Knight Walt Freese, CEO (chief euphoric officer) of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., hired Porter Knight (left) to help him and his executive assistant, Melissa Bland, be more productive as a team.

“A novice organizer might elbow a client out of the way and simply fix a problem,” Knight observes. Doing that prevents clients from creating environments that suit their needs, she adds, and ultimately won’t help them achieve what they want to do. 

Nearly 85 percent of Knight’s clients are businesses, half of whom are entrepreneurs. Most find her through referrals or contact her after attending one of her presentations and workshops.

 “Office pileup” is her clients’ common thread. “People get lots of paper wherever they go, whether it’s seminars or meetings.” Trouble happens, she says, “when they hold onto it, and leave it out because they think it might be important. Papers accumulate, space gets restricted and they’ve got stress looking at all the work they perceive there is to do.” 

Enter Knight. “We’ll start with an assessment, create a blueprint and do hands-on work so a client can make decisions in a supported setting and I can see how quickly decisions come to them. Then we’ll clear backlog and create systems.” From here it’s all about practicing those new organizational habits. 

Sarah Cowan, a senior vice president at the National Bank of Middlebury, has worked with Knight on a number of projects at the bank. She has been practicing what Knight preaches. “Porter can quickly assess a task with an organized thought process,” says Cowan. “She easily sees what needs to be done and teaches skills to keep you focused on those tasks.”

Knight has developed her own “language of organizing” — easy-to-remember tips and tools that she’s included in her book and DVD, Organized to Last: 5 Simple Steps to Staying Organized. Her “gears of organizing” strategy is an example.

 “The imagery of gears working together has power, strength and momentum to move forward,” Knight says. Well-oiled gears include open space to work, a safe home for papers, and a link to a time system for what and when. 

Her “point of decision” tool is another way clients avoid default pileups. Says Knight, “I teach the client to use ‘intention’: to look at one piece of paper at a time and make a deliberate decision about it. Do you really want to keep that paper, and, if so, what do you need to do with it to move forward?”

A longtime yoga student, Knight incorporates the yoga principle about having a strong energy center into her work. “I encourage people to hold to that point of decision, maintaining focus, and making decisions again and again and again about what to do with each piece of paper rather than put it in another pile.”

She acknowledges, “Systems must be fluid and dynamic and provide support despite external conditions or issues, because life changes. And what’s happening in life affects your ability to be organized.” Her Life Change checklist helps clients determine if life factors such as illness, divorce or marriage might be affecting their organizational efforts.

Adding another layer of communications needing a system are new technological developments such as e-mail and text messaging, which pose other efficiency challenges.

“It wouldn’t make sense for me to say to a client, ‘You can’t have that technology.’ But by helping them pare down, it’s apparent what works and what doesn’t. My job is to give strategies, ask questions and serve as facilitator and change agent.” She adds with a grin, “I’m not bossy — although my kids might say otherwise.”

Knight has taken her organizing philosophy beyond Vermont. A frequent speaker at National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) conferences, she was chosen to write and teach the group’s introductory class for new organizers. Her mantra to the fledgling flock is “to meet clients where they are, find out where they want to go, and take them there.” Knight was also one of the first in the country to sit for and pass the exam administered by the Board of Certification for Professional Organizer last spring.

She recently conducted a survey to determine the impact of her organizational improvements, which showed clients saved an average of 45 to 55 minutes per person per week. That time means increased productivity and cost savings.

Sara Holloway and Porter KnightEfficiency Vermont hired Porter Knight to do a series of presentations and trainings with its staff. She is pictured with Sara Holloway (left), Efficiency Vermont’s director of organizational development.

Case in point: Walt Freese, chief euphoria officer at Ben & Jerry’s Homemade in South Burlington, and Melissa Bland, his executive assistant. Freese’s considerable business travel schedule prompted them to recruit Knight to improve their collective productivity.

“Porter has an amazing talent for developing simple, effective systems that make your work life more efficient, effective and focused,” Freese says. “She helped reduce clutter and enabled me to access everything I need more easily. It’s made my life, and Melissa’s, much easier.” 

Working with Knight, says Freese, “was a blast getting things off my desk and getting organized in quick, logical ways that worked. I found myself laughing because it was so much easier than I expected it to be.” 

Adds Knight dryly, “It’s a sport. Organizing can be an aerobic workout.”

Mother to two sons ages 7 and 9 who are “sturdy hikers,” Knight loves horses and can be found fox hunting twice a week with the Green Mountain Hounds club. 

She jokes the organizing gene might run in the family. “While other kids beg for candy at the grocery store my son is sorting it into the right bins.”

All kidding aside, this is a woman who has found her niche. “I hadn’t envisioned this or knew it existed but this is my passion. I love knowing I’m helping people do what they love and bring value to the world through it. It’s great fun to go to work every day.” •