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The key to bringing order to your life

To get the right outside help, you need to know if you are messy or dirty. There is a difference.

You know you want to hire a professional to help bring order to your life. You're ready to change your ways, and you're ready to pay.

That leaves you just one question away from getting your spring cleaning done:

Are you messy, or are you dirty?

"People tend to somehow blur the lines of organization and cleanliness, but they're really quite distinct," says Barry Izsak, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

And knowing the difference between the two will help in hiring the right kind of help for your cluttered desk, grimy bathtub, or unpaid bills.

Here are some clues to which you are, to assist you in deciding the kind of help you might need this spring:

For the messy. These are the people often surrounded by stacks, whether they are of paper, books, or dry cleaning.

Messy people lose track of important paperwork, friends' birthdays, and how much money they spend.

They have no system of organization, or they have one that doesn't work, which is why a professional organizer might be more appropriate than a cleaning crew.

To find an organizer who can be trusted with confidential paperwork, get the names of two or three people and conduct interviews until you have a strong sense of their backgrounds.

Try Web sites with a reputation for listing credible professional organizers, such as (run by Izsak's group), says Stephanie Winston, Office Depot's organizational adviser and author of The Organized Executive.

Once you pick an organizer, let that person see exactly who you are - don't try to clean it up to make yourself look better.

"It's actually better if you don't do anything before we get there . . . for us to see the way that you work and the way that you live," Izsak said.

Find out about an organizer's strategies for getting you in order.

Winston recommends what she calls a "TRAF system" for getting rid of clutter: Toss and shred all unnecessary paperwork; keep a reference pile for items that need to be discussed with a spouse or partner; act on the items you can take care of yourself; then file away the rest.

For the dirty. These are the people who might have beautiful bookshelves with neatly stacked books, but there's an inch of dust on them. Neat doesn't necessarily mean clean.

Dirty people have their paperwork and important dates straight, but their kitchen sinks hold a week's worth of dishes. They are the people who could benefit from a cleaning service.

The Maids Home Services, which has residential-cleaning franchises across the United States and Canada, offers this advice:

When interviewing housekeepers, ask for references and a work history. If you're dealing with a professional cleaning service, ask whether there have been screenings for honesty and dependability.

Make sure the company you hire from is bonded and insured so you're protected if a maid is injured while working on your property.

Ask for a satisfaction guarantee - most reputable services offer a 100 percent guarantee with every cleaning.

Don't let the cleaning professional bring feather dusters, dust wands, or brooms. They recirculate unhealthy particles.

Find out which cleaning products and equipment you are expected to supply and which the cleaners will bring.

Be mindful of federal tax laws. If you pay a housekeeper at least $1,200 a year, you must pay Social Security on that person. Check to make sure service companies withhold taxes for their employees. If you have questions, call the IRS at 1-800- 829-1040.