I Wish I Were A Neat Freak
Perhaps a public confession will help
When I was a kid, my mother and her best friend would have competitions to see whose child was messiest. Mine always won.
I’ve never been able to keep “stuff” in order. I’m the avatar of chaos in the world, the eye in a storm of clutter. Belongings nestle beside me, nudging my feet, hemming my laptop, jostling for attention.
Let me give you an example. As I type this at my desk, to my left is a bottle of witch hazel, two moisturisers, a sticker of Olympic basketball players, two oil burners, 4 essential oil blends, three water bottles (all empty), a tea cup and a mug (both also empty), hand sanitiser, an empty planter, a box of matches, two pens, nail files, micellar water, smudge sticks, a box of permanent markers, a large scented candle, a belt, an Allen key, a pen (no longer working) and — oh! there it is! — my favourite lipstick.
There are three things to note about that list:
1. All these items have been kept “at hand” for easy access…
2. …yet most of them haven’t been touched in weeks.
3. This is the least cluttered part of my desk.
I’m a little surprised at the number of duplications in that list. At what point did I decide to fetch another water bottle from the kitchen, rather than refill one of those already there?
Part of my problem is that, after a while, I simply don’t see things that don’t move. More than once, my partner has exploded: “When are you going to put away those books?” “What books?” “That pile right there.” As in, the pile on the floor in the middle of the otherwise-clear living room. The ones I’ve miraculously stepped around for a week. The ones I’m now blind to.
Perhaps my eyesight is keenly developed in other ways. Perhaps I’m more likely to see moving things. I certainly notice if a large pile of boxes starts to waver. The solution? Rearrange them more stably against the wall. Easy!
I really wish I were a neat person. My dearly beloved is. The parts of the house he’s responsible for are beautiful: clear, open, ordered. I love to read in those spaces, to stretch out unimpeded and let the words flow over me, my concentration unbroken by visual stimuli.
We’ve had to negotiate boundaries over the years, careful demarcations of where he can tidy up and where he can’t. Our great compromise? He’s allowed to put things I leave lying around for too long into boxes. The plan is that I’ll sort through them later. (Don’t ask what actually happens to them, though the comments above about wavering piles might give you a hint.)
In contrast, the areas I nest in are cluttered, claustrophobic, busy. I walk to my desk carefully placing my feet between books, totes and boxes. I’m surrounded by colour, texture, stimulus. Back issues of New Scientist lie beneath my dream journal. My collection of icy pole sticks — so useful for labelling seed beds — rests between a roll of plastic bags (ready, like bridesmaids, for the Great Tidy) and a pot of nail polish. Fat quarters await their destiny between a face mask and a packet of curtain hooks.
I have a finely honed sense of where things are. C6 envelopes? Right drawer. Spare headphones? On top of the filing cabinet. Gift voucher to the cinema? On the fridge. Sometimes my uncanny ability to find things verges on the paranormal. Perhaps they should have employed me to find Bin Laden. On the other hand, I cannot find roll of ribbon I specifically purchased to edge a bookmark I’m making for a friend. Not to worry, I know there’s another one behind my bedside table.
All this mess comes with an emotional toll. I look at it in wonderment: how did things possibly get this bad? Shame and guilt press in. I’m embarrassed to have people in my room. I walk out, close the door, bury my nose in a book; I don’t want to know, but I do know, and my self-esteem takes another hit.
Psychologists talk about how bad habits become established because they serve a purpose, or they served a purpose in the past. They offered a reward. What reward does living like this offer me? I don’t know. There’s the false promise of convenience (“I’ll put it there, so it’s handy for later”) and the siren lure of busyness (“I’ll put it away when I’ve marked this class’s work”). Am I still, as an adult, rebelling against parental instructions? Let’s not forget, this behaviour has roots in my early childhood.
Am I destined to be like this for the rest of my life?
Decluttering? Yes, I’ve heard of it. I’ve bought the books, watched the docos. I’ve even tried my hand at it. I just don’t get that “Ahhhhh” feeling friends rave about, though. Experience has taught me that the days of effort will be undone in mere weeks; why bother? As inevitably as the tide, my mess will return.
It will start slow: a notebook left open with a thought half-written, but by the time I return, I’m carrying lunch which I need to finish before a video call. So the empty plate and notebook get placed — carefully, lovingly — to one side while I grab another pen and pad. During the meeting, I fetch a reference book from my shelf. Straight after that, it’s time to teach a class, so I quickly brush my hair and apply lipstick (guess where the brush and tube end up?) before adding textbooks and my teaching chronicle to the pile. Three hours later I cannot see the surface of my desk. It’s all too much by that stage, so I grab my Kindle and retreat to my partner’s oasis.
Aha! Maybe he’s enabling my mess through his constant tidiness! Could it be … that my perpetual disorder is all his fault?
Alas, no. I can’t dodge responsibility that easily. This is a pattern I want to change, and I’ve tried in the past, without success. Despair sweeps over me. I’ll always be this way. I’ll never be any different. My mother was right. (Although she did used to say that no-one would ever marry me if I were that messy, and she was wrong about that.)
However, I am determined. I’ve done the reading. Here’s what I know about significant behaviour change:
- I need to create an environment in which the change is possible and which supports the process. In my case, this means biting the bullet and doing that big clean, in order that I can sustain tidiness from that point forward.
- At the same time, my goal needs to be achievable and realistic. Instead of thinking “I’m going to tidy my whole space and then keep it clean forever” I’ll start with “I’m going to tidy my desk and keep it clear for a week”.
- Through understanding the behaviour chain (trigger → action → consequence) strategic disruptions can be planned. In my case, this could involve checking my desk at key points during the day: before work, at lunch, after work, before bed. I’ll actually be doing that thing I hear people talk about: putting things away before the mess takes root!
- Accountability is important, as are rewards. In my case, this could look like daily photos and a star chart (who doesn’t love a gold star?).
- Support is also vital. I know my dearly beloved will be my biggest cheerleader (provided he can refrain from rolling his eyes…).
Of course, the only potential loser in all this is my mother. With any luck, she will no longer have the messiest child.
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