In praise of disarray

When casual chats about clutter give way to gifts of calendars, wall planners, stationery shop vouchers and ‘Get Shit Done’ notebooks, you know the folks in your life are trying to tell you something. But though ‘getting more organised’ regularly ranks as one of the top New Year’s resolutions, it won’t be on mine. It would be nice to grab 2016 by the balls. I’m just not convinced it’s worth the effort.

I was raised in a household where one of the many magnets adorning the fridge read: Boring women have immaculate homes. (Rest in peace, Mum.) I’ve cheered studies suggesting that people who inhabit messy environments are more creative, due to items crossing paths and forging new connections. And when scientists revealed a few years back that frequent exposure to pet dander, germs and assorted other nasties actually strengthened the immune system, I realised that all members of my household, including the dog, cats, chickens and fish, should live to a ripe old age.

Any professional organisers reading this column will have dashed off by now to douse themselves in anti-bacterial hand-wash, located to the right of the cold tap. So it’s probably safe to reveal that when they sashay into your home or office, with their colour-coded file tabs and bookcase-sized wall planners and remote-controlled pegboards and waterproof post-it pads (allowing men and women of genius to capture ideas in the shower), they truly have their best interests, not yours, at heart.

Professional organising is a big, booming, multi-billion dollar industry in Australia and other first world nations afforded the luxury of contemplating Maslow’s higher order needs. (Oh, the irony. We have the opportunity to reach a state of self-actualisation but instead we squander our days fussing with magnetic menu planners and adjustable box files.)

Local organisers, unsurprisingly, have their own organisation. It’s called the Australasian Association of Professional Organisers. A browse of their website makes for terrifying reading. For starters, their mission statement is: ‘Professional Organisers Providing Solutions for an Organised Life’. Let’s backtrack a minute. Surely the use of the word ‘solutions’ presupposes the existence of ‘problems’? On this point, we’re far from unanimous.

Professional organisers argue that the average person spends a good hour a day looking for items like keys, glasses, pens and mobile phones. The authors of the untidy person’s bible, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, suggest that this is a figure plucked from thin air. But in any case, who would spend an hour looking for misplaced items, when you could just buy replacements? There are key cutters, optometrists, newsagencies and mobile phone vendors on every corner. There is no need to prise out of hiding objects that, for reasons of their own, choose to disappear.

Personal organisers pathologise mess. They wield clutter-hoarding scales, issue referrals to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (really) and register business names like ‘Hope for Hoarders’, ‘Pack up your troubles’, ‘Miss OCD’, ‘Little Miss Organised’, ‘Decluttering Diva’ and ‘The Filing Fairies’. Seriously, would you want these people meddling in your wardrobe, sorting your mail, stacking shelves in your garage? Submit to one of their ‘obligation-free chats’ and the second they step through the door, all your belongings will vanish.

In their wake, they will leave behind a collection of acronyms, tips, lists, stickers and multi-step processes. Like SPACE (which stands for Sort, Purge, Assign a Home, Containerize and Equalize), or the ‘one touch’ rule for paperwork. My own streamline paperwork management system is just as effective: I file under F for floor, T for table, or C for chair. Maybe I should patent it.

An edited version of this story appeared in The Sun-Herald on 26 December 2015. Read online.