CAN DE­CLUT­TER­ING MAKE YOU FEEL CALMER?

Jour­nal­ist Lisa Witep­ski’s home is in a con­stant state of chaos. With some ex­pert help could chang­ing her fam­ily’s messy ways ac­tu­ally change her en­tire world?

Essentials (South Africa) - - LETTER -

Jour­nal­ist Lisa Witep­ski’s home is in a con­stant state of chaos. With some ex­pert help could chang­ing her fam­ily’s messy ways ac­tu­ally change her en­tire world?

We all know that messy sur­rounds make for a messy mind. Psy­chol­o­gists have even put a name to the col­lec­tion of symp­toms – rang­ing from stress to a de­crease in one’s life sat­is­fac­tion – that re­sults when there’s too much ‘stuff’ around us: the clut­ter ef­fect. This is some­thing that Lisa can def­i­nitely tes­tify to. She ad­mits that, while we might some­times feel too tired to pick up the Lego, she won­ders at her abil­ity to just let things lie. The re­sult? A chaos of toys, books and clothes that’s start­ing to make home feel un­com­fort­able. So, would

Lisa ac­tu­ally feel lighter if we chal­lenged her to clean up her act? We find out...

Meet Lisa

Lisa, 39, is a free­lance writer. She lives in Parkhurst with her hus­band James, 39, and their daugh­ters Leya, six, and Jessica, three.

I have never been a tidy per­son. Even as a child, I was reg­u­larly ‘grounded’ from watch­ing TV be­cause I hadn’t ti­died my room. At univer­sity, it would some­times take me a full night to clear away ‘stuff’ so that I could study at my desk, and cre­ate some breath­ing space in my broom cup­board-sized res room.

As I get older, I seem to have be­come even messier. I some­times won­der at my abil­ity to walk past a dirty plate I’ve left on the din­ing-room ta­ble. My bed­room cup­board is a night­mare, and I’m ad­dicted to buy­ing books, which tend to make their way from one pile to the next through­out the house.

In­evitably – since I seem to lack what­ever drive it is that makes other peo­ple clean up at the end of the day – I haven’t been that good at teach­ing my kids to tidy up af­ter them­selves. The re­sult? A mess that as­saults the eye from the minute you walk into the en­trance hall, and is then repli­cated in ev­ery room.

Need­less to say, it’s a ma­jor source of frus­tra­tion for my hus­band, James. Not that he’s much bet­ter – like me, he tends to fo­cus minutely on work and on mak­ing sure our girls are nour­ished and away from screens. Once we have achieved this, nei­ther of us has any en­ergy left for mak­ing the house look pre­sentable.

Ev­ery once in a while we reach a point where we feel so bad about the state of our home that we de­cide to take ac­tion. By that, I mean that we look around, and feel ut­terly dis­tressed, over­whelmed and dis­em­pow­ered by the piles of mess, which in­clude ev­ery­thing from head­less dolls in the lounge to traf­fic fines on the din­ing-room ta­ble. We’re moved to make a list of things we need to do to make the clut­ter go away, but, the prob­lem is, once the list is made, we feel that we’ve been proac­tive – so we sit back and rest while the piles grow taller.

Our house wasn’t al­ways like this. When we first moved in seven years ago, we took enor­mous pride in be­com­ing home­own­ers. We loved buy­ing art, and of course all our an­tique finds looked bet­ter when they didn’t have a back­drop of ‘stuff’. But then Leya came along, and all our beau­ti­ful things had to be packed away so that she didn’t break them, and they were slowly re­placed by heaps of her puz­zles and other kid­die para­pher­na­lia.

I won­der at my abil­ity to leave a dirty plate on the ta­ble

The first steps

And that is how we got to where we are to­day… which, ac­cord­ing to pro­fes­sional or­gan­iser Ju­lia Adam of Oh So Or­gan­ised ( ohsoor­gan­ised.com), isn’t ac­tu­ally that bad. I won­der if she’s merely be­ing kind when she meets me to as­sess the ex­tent of my mess and for­mu­late an ac­tion plan, but she in­sists that she’s seen far worse.

She ex­plains the rea­son we haven’t been able to make good on our in­ten­tions to de­clut­ter is be­cause peo­ple usu­ally have dif­fer­ent or­gan­i­sa­tional styles: what makes sense to me in terms of tidy­ing might seem un­doable to James. ‘ Some peo­ple are like la­dy­bugs: ev­ery­thing looks pretty on the sur­face but you might get a shock when you see in­side their cup­boards. Oth­ers can be like but­ter­flies: they need to have their pos­ses­sions in plain sight, and move from one sec­tion to the next, be­cause they’re very vis­ual,’ she says.

Most of my clut­ter is on the sur­face, and Ju­lia pre­dicts it should take only about two days to get things look­ing more hab­it­able. This seems im­pos­si­ble to me, but with her help I’m ready to take on the chal­lenge.

The big clean-up

Ju­lia ar­rives on a Mon­day and heads straight to the girls’ shared bed­room, where my weak­ness for books means that the shelves are strain­ing un­der their weight. This, plus my fail­ure to pack them away af­ter the nightly bed­time story has led to a land­slide in the cor­ner of their room. Leya has also turned her top bunk into a per­sonal lair, where she stores ev­ery­thing from her rock col­lec­tion to the noise­maker she was given in a party pack three years ago (and yes, she’d ab­so­lutely know if I threw any of this away).

Ju­lia is un­daunted, how­ever. Three hours later, the room is al­ready look­ing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. The books have been sorted into piles to be given to char­ity – there’s a whole stack that the girls have out­grown! Now with more floor space, the fur­ni­ture has been moved around to cre­ate more space for play­ing. And the toys have been placed in clear plas­tic bins be­cause, as Ju­lia says, if kids can’t see it, they won’t want to play with it.

At the end of day one, the girls’ ti­died book­shelf is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing things I have ever seen: all the books are ar­ranged in height or­der and by au­thor. Ev­ery­thing is on dis­play, so there’s no risk of for­get­ting what we have.

Hav­ing seen this magic, I can’t wait for Ju­lia’s help the next day to sort out James’ and my bed­room (also over­run by books) and the din­ing room, which

has be­come a repos­i­tory for, well, pretty much ev­ery­thing.

Al­though the thought of clear­ing up the mud­dled loads of magazines and cook­books – which have mi­grated out of the lounge and kitchen to the top of the book­shelves in my bed­room – fills me with dread, Ju­lia speeds through the process. Once again, it takes just a few hours to chuck out the books we’ve fi­nally ac­cepted will never be read, and to re­ar­range what’s left in height or­der. The room al­ready feels big­ger and more serene af­ter this sim­ple ex­er­cise.

The din­ing room is an area that has been a long-time bug­bear. It seems that pa­pers, school art, and the om­nipresent books fol­low a spe­cific route once they en­ter this room: be­cause our home is open plan, prac­ti­cally ev­ery­thing that is brought into the house gets dumped here, rest­ing a while on the ta­ble be­fore fi­nally be­ing stacked against the wall. I’m not sure how this ‘sys­tem’ evolved, but need­less to say it’s sloppy and, since the piles are at least 20cm tall, they are a tow­er­ing un­wanted pres­ence in the room.

Ju­lia quickly re­dis­tributes items to where they be­long: art­works in the kids’ newly cre­ated art drawer

( yes, I now have things like ‘an art drawer’!), free-float­ing recipes in a file that has been made for this purpose, and old magazines packed away to be given to char­ity. We can now sit at the ta­ble and ac­tu­ally have a con­ver­sa­tion with­out star­ing into a mound of clut­ter – there is even space for a vase of flow­ers.

The ver­dict

I’m ab­so­lutely de­lighted. The process was en­tirely pain­less: Ju­lia does in two days what would have taken me weeks on my own, given my work com­mit­ments, ex­tra­mu­rals and other parenting re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Go­ing through the house with her, there was less emo­tion about say­ing good­bye to stuff – and that, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, is what makes de­clut­ter­ing so hard. On my own, I’m sure I would have been much less quick to toss things I worry I’d miss at a later date, but with Ju­lia stand­ing by, I was far more ruth­less.

Am I hap­pier, though? Well, yes and no. The sight of a room devoid of de­tri­tus that had been there so long it had be­come as much a fea­ture as the couch is im­mea­sur­ably sooth­ing. In fact, it takes me a while to get used to it, be­cause our rooms ac­tu­ally look more spa­cious. And, pre­dictably, this makes me feel calmer – it re­ally does feel as though we have more room to breathe.

I think that one of the rea­sons why de­clut­ter­ing feels good is be­cause you’re phys­i­cally throw­ing out things that no longer serve you. Plus, mak­ing de­ci­sions, es­pe­cially tough ones, can give you a won­der­ful feel­ing of con­trol. So I can’t help wondering if I would have had a greater sense of achieve­ment and cathar­sis if I had done it all by my­self.

There’s only so much a lack of clut­ter can do to help set­tle your moods and emo­tions. We’re try­ing to stick to the or­gan­i­sa­tion sys­tem set in place by Ju­lia, and our home looks bet­ter, so I en­joy hav­ing peo­ple around more. But life will al­ways have its stresses, from work com­mit­ments to parenting re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, that per­haps not even a tidy book­shelf or clear din­ing-room ta­ble can help you get through...

Our clean-up guinea pig Lisa (left), with Ju­lia Adam of Oh So Or­gan­ised

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