How To Organise Your Life

Part 3

In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun;
You find the fun and - snap!
The job’s a game.

Everyone who’s seen (suffered?) the film Mary Poppins remembers the scene where the mysterious new nanny demonstrates her magical powers for the first time to the Banks children. The nursery is an absolute mess and, with finger-snapping expertise, Mary Poppins begins to clear up - after a song of course, this is a musical - with unruffled panache. The Banks daughter, Jane, quickly catches on and snaps her fingers too: when she wants to put the toy bricks away she stands by the drawer where they live, snaps her fingers and (after hesitating for a second or two to form the words ‘Mary’ and ‘Poppins’) the bricks cascade themselves into the drawer; when Jane wants to try the new magic on the dolls’ house contents she stands by the dolls’ house and snaps her fingers, and at once the contents arrange themselves mid-air into the relevant floors and zip into place in the house, whereupon the doors close tidily.

Leaving aside the magic (and, please, the song…) and the finger-snapping, what happened?

Everything went into its allotted place. Everything had a place. A place for everything and everything in its place. (This simple-but-brilliant maxim is attributed to various people in various times, not least to Isabella Beeton in her The Book of Household Management, but the original genius is lost in the mists of history and Mrs Beeton never claimed it but rather quoted and endorsed it.)

That’s the real magic. If you spend a day creating your own Christmas cards and getting them written, enveloped and addressed, or designing a masterpiece of a PowerPoint presentation (is there such a thing?), or entertaining your children and their friends with papier mâché, then the place is going to be a bit of a mess at the end of that day. But if everything you’ve used (the scissors, the paper, the printer cartridges) was retrieved from its usual and known home then clearing up is going to be a doddle - even without songs, finger-snapping or magic.

On the other hand, if everything didn’t have a place various not-so-good things will have happened. Firstly, it will have taken a lot longer to get started than was good and enthusiasm for the project will have started to wear thin and tempers begun to fray at the edges even before everyone got down to business, and there will also have been an element of ‘making do’ (blunt scissors, dried-out glue, faded printer cartridges) which will have taken the shine off the creative satisfaction. Secondly, clearing-up will have been a long and tedious job when everyone was tired, jaded and probably hungry.

So when should the requisite magic have begun? Long before the creative ideas started flowing or the enthusiasm blossomed. Even long before Mary Poppins blew in, actually - that nursery had been tidy before the undisciplined children wreaked their havoc and then didn’t clear up. Someone (a previous, non-magical nanny?) had given everything a place and all Mary Poppins did (apart from sing most delightfully and with impressive diction) was put everything back.

So the ‘element of fun’ is actually putting things away, and that can only be achieved if everything already has a place.

We’re back to clutter here. Clutter is homeless stuff, stuff which doesn’t have a legitimate place. Clutter is not legitimate because it doesn’t have a raison d’être, and we know it. So we don’t give it a place because we don’t want to - daren’t - legitimise it. If you’ve spent a shaming amount on a new mobile phone, the third this year and it’s only August, then the bits and pieces belonging to that mobile won’t be given a home and the previous, almost new, mobiles will be dispossessed of their place as well (on their way out to the charity shop, or to see if your brother’s friend would like it). If you’ve accepted a bundle of useless freebies from an exhibition they’ll be discarded vaguely somewhere as soon as you get inside the front door. If you’ve run riot at the Pound shop, fête, car boot sale or craft market the bags might never even be completely unpacked once you’re home.

What about that ‘place’, though? Does it have to be a completely level bracket in the top tool row in the shed for the new hammer that was an absolute steal from the DIY store? Or a special hanger and a cleared space in the wardrobe for that new outfit from the designer outlet place? Or a space in the ‘teddy row’ on the windowsill in your child’s bedroom for the latest themed soft toy? If so, then of course the hammer, the outfit and the soft toy will have to sit around (on the worktop, the sofa, the floor) just until the bracket’s been put up, a new hanger has been found and the wardrobe clear-out has been done, and your child has been persuaded to decide which teddy is no longer loved. We’re in Never Never land here.

Some time ago I was due to visit an old friend, let’s call her Sally, in her home in London. Although our friendship is of many years’ duration, and she had often visited me at my home, somehow it had never fallen out that I had visited her in hers. When the visit finally transpired, after having been postponed for a few weeks beyond the originally-scheduled date, she at once showed me round the house. I was impressed at its tidiness, particularly when Sally opened a landing cupboard with proud fanfare and revealed shelves of assorted household items arranged with splendid precision and neatness. I offered congratulations on the state of the cupboard and the organisation behind it - at which point the façade crumbled slightly and Sally grinned: “It’s only been like this since I knew you were coming!” she said.

The only problem, it appeared after the tour of the house was a fading memory and a few drinks had been downed, was that the rather regimented neatness was beginning to get on Sally’s nerves. It went against the grain, she said, and she knew it wasn’t going to last however good it made her feel right now. The period between the original date of the visit and the actual visit had been hard and fussy work and definitely not fun.

The answer was simple: boxes in the cupboard. It’s not easy, unless you happen to be that sort of neat freak, to keep things tidy on shelves. You need to place them just so, you must be careful that things don’t overflow, overlap, or simply get too far out of alignment. You have to make sure that things are pushed back properly onto the shelves. It’s all a bit time-consuming and prissy. On the other hand throwing things into boxes is easy, quick and, however randomly they land, if the boxes are opaque the cupboard still looks neat. If the boxes are coloured, or toned, or all neutral, you’ve put your own stamp on the cupboard interior into the bargain: less effort, same result, more impact.

Everything can have its place, but that place doesn’t have to be regimented, over-designed or static. If you can clear a room that looks as if an East Wind was trapped in it for half an hour in just four minutes flat, you’ve cracked it. No singing, no finger-snapping, no magic - just a quick flurry of tossing things back into their places and a shutting of box lids, cupboard doors and drawers.

The preliminary magic is ensuring that the places are established. Right from the outset. If you’re thinking of buying something then, at that very moment of purchase-pondering, the question “Where am I going to put it?” should have an answer. (If what you’re buying is going to replace something, then the question “What am I going to do with the old one?” should also have an answer.) When that item comes home, or into the office or garage or shed or workshop, it comes home to an allotted place. No waiting on the worktop for months (or years), no sitting by the door, or in front of the filing cabinet - and no clogging of your living space or the space in your mind.

No degenerating into clutter, but a putting into place.

Twitter: @MaryonJeane

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