How did I get into this mess?

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Ruth Brown looks for neat solutions to the scourge of clutter.

We have too much stuff in our lives. There are the clothes we can't bring ourselves to throw out, the boxes of holiday snaps, old letters and concert programmes, the piles of knick-knacks and "items of sentimental value" lying forgotten under our beds. On top of all that there are the reams of pizza flyers and unsolicited catalogues that crash through the letter box every day. Forget feng shui and minimalist decorating, for many of us it's a battle just keeping the great tide of clutter at bay.

There are plenty of people and publishers out there willing to tell us how to do it. Some believe it comes down to your cerebral persuasion. "Left-brainers get sexually aroused by empty desk space while right-brainers are comfortable having stacks of books around," a recent issue of American Brainstorm magazine helpfully suggests.

And, also in the US, support groups for those in a muddle are flourishing. Clutterers Anonymous takes mess seriously. It believes that untidiness and chaos are merely symptoms of the true clutterer's "deep emptiness inside" which he or she "compulsively tries to fill by clinging to useless objects, meaningless activities and unsatisfying relationships".

Like its counterpart, Messies Anonymous (run by a former teacher in Miami), it has adopted AA's 12-step programme of recovery towards inner and outer harmony. This starts with admitting your "powerlessness" over clutter and working towards a spiritual awakening.

But is an overflow of belongings simply an isolated problem for a few, possibly neurotic, Americans?

The TES used its website to test the tidiness of British teachers, and we were taken aback by a flurry of on-line confessions, some carrying more than a hint of desperation.

"I buy things even if I don't have anywhere to put them and end up with lots of boxes of things which are really not necessary," wrote one teacher.

"It's refreshing to hear about such an article being written - it must mean that this terrible condition is not limited to me," said another.

Other comments included: "My class puts me to shame. They are so tidy, and yet my desk looks like a bomb has hit it"; and "I have tried boxes, files and all sorts of organisers but to no avail. If you've got any suggestions I'm more than willing to try them out."

British interior design specialist Elizabeth Hilliard, a mother and no stranger to mess herself, would like to help. She's written books on the subject; her latest, Perfect Order, has optimistic headings such as "Storage Can Set You Free". Her common-sense solutions are designed to calm the worst of our fears without alarming our bank managers.

Cardboard - that Cinderella of containers - can accommodate just about anything. Paint each box in cheerful tones to colour-code the contents and blend them in with the decor, Elizabeth suggests brightly. The space above doors and windows can be used for shelving, and mass-produced or junk-shop furniture can be customised, perhaps by changing the handles or adding an architrave, to adapt the piece for storage use. But it is the modest cup hook that earns her praise as the St Bernard of marooned clutterers. This simple invention can lift anything off the floor - kitchen utensils, a wardrobe of clothes or bags of children's toys.

Perfect order is about more than just a few shelves and gadgets, however; it requires a whole new attitude to life.

Rid yourself of the burden of unwanted possessions, preaches Elizabeth. This woman has so much enthusiasm you almost want to rush home to tidy your bedroom, and the new year is an ideal time to de-clutter. "It can be a very depressing time - all those dreadful new year's resolutions and dreary long winter months ahead," she says. "It's a good way to cleanse the mind and soul, and it's very cathartic."

So where to start? First, chuck everything on the floor. Then sort through, making piles for the rubbish, the local charity shop, the attic and so on. This is where most people founder; as you try to get rid of detritus, you hit the "letting go of the past" barrier.

Give yourself a trial separation period, Elizabeth says. Stack all those childhood mementoes, teenage diaries, and pre-divorce wedding photos in a labelled box to be set aside for one, two or more years, and see how it feels. If, after this period, the idea of throwing them away still upsets you, put them back. You're not ready yet.

She says we sometimes feel guilty about getting rid of things we have been given by loved ones or have inherited in a family will, and gives an example from her own life: the heavy, antique furniture she inherited, which after many years she has finally been able to part with. "The sense of liberation was fantastic. Suddenly that big, brown presence had gone."

Some people need more than tips, however. Clutterers Anonymous and Messies Anonymous have tapped into a deep well of misery on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sandra Felton, founder of Messies Anonymous, knows all about classroom clutter. She was a teacher when she began running classes and setting up support groups for "messies", and writing books on the subject, such as Time Management for the Harried Teacher.

When she started out 19 years ago, her story attracted nationwide publicity in the American press, and 12,000 people wrote to her. She had to hire a firm to answer all the letters.

"It was the first time anyone had ever said nationally that this was a big issue. I think it was just a door that opened, and once it was open a lot of people went through, particularly women who feel embarrassed and ashamed and can't talk to their friends about this."

Sandra Felton, a former sufferer herself, draws a sketch of the typical teacher who cannot be tidy. "They have a strong sense of perfectionism - they want to do everything right and they want to do it in a grand manner.

"In the US, our messy teachers join too many things - they tend to overdo it. Plus, people who are messy don't want to make decisions, such as getting rid of things, because they are afraid of making the wrong decision.

"They are very sentimental and keep too many things, such as old test papers, things students have given them. They don't use them - they're there 'just in case'.

"Frequently, they are high-quality people in the way they think and their ideals; they tend to be very friendly. But that messiness interferes a great deal and eventually it can interfere with their lives professionally."

She recommends a simple method of beginning the process of de-cluttering. Be it your home or your classroom, start at the door and slowly make your way around the periphery, perusing the tiniest nooks and crannies. Have three large boxes to hand: one for throwing out, one for giveaways and the last for things to store somewhere else.

There are three rules for deciding what to throw out, says Sandra Felton.

* Have you used this object in the past year? No? Get rid of it.

* Does it have any real monetary or sentimental value. No? As above.

* Might you find a use for it in the future? Yes? Definitely bin it. It was that kind of thinking that got you into this mess in the first place.

In the Messies Anonymous newsletter, Sandra gets down to basics: "Don't keep the pen that only works half the time and the year-old calendar, even if it does have nice pictures on it. Your freedom from clutter is more important than they are."

Be prepared. It will hurt, but "if it's not painful you're not doing it right. And remember, it's just as painful to live with the mess."

So how do you know when you need help? Clutterers Anonymous has a 20-point checklist, which includes questions such as: "Do you find it easier to drop something than to put it away?"; "Do you use distractions to escape from your clutter?"; and "Do you rent storage space to house items you never use?" You may benefit from a support group if you have a problem with mess or disorganisation interfering with your life, particularly if you have tried to address the problem and failed.

As Sandra Felton says: "If it is more painful to continue the way you are than to change, then you are ready to change."

Messies Anonymous is at www.messies.comClutterers Anonymous is at Elizabeth Hilliard's book, Perfect Order: 101 Simple Storage Solutions, is published by Kyle Cathie.

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