I did. And it caused me what I now call Mess Stress. Anxiety even. I actually couldn’t relax on my time off because I was constantly thinking I should be sorting it out. It affected my ability to enjoy time with my family. Because either I tidied – meaning I felt guilty about the time away from my family – or I didn’t do it and then couldn’t relax and enjoy the time with my family properly. Lose-Lose.
Someone said to me last week that I acted like that time didn’t affect me that badly. Even though as a result of the mess stress and building a system to deal with it for good, I came across like it wasn’t that horrendous – mainly because I’m a naturally positive person and have perhaps deliberately suppressed how I felt back then. So I started thinking about it a bit more and realised that it did actually cause me near-constant anxiety.
Because I like to be tidy, I like things off my surfaces and looking good. Having lived overseas for 12 years and moved house many times – at one point I think I unpacked and packed between homes eight times in five years – we were pretty clutter free. Without the luxury of unlimited shipping between assignments, I did really keep control of the clutter during that time. But moving back to the UK to our ‘forever home’ and settling into life where I could buy something in the knowledge that I’d have it in this house for however long I wanted, and more room to put things (New York apartments do not allow much of that!), the piles started to build.
My messy secret.
People naturally assumed I was super tidy because I was a Global Programme Manager in my corporate contract role and pretty darned organised there. So I must be at home too right? Since starting Serenely Sorted I’ve realised it’s common to have that fear of people dropping in because the house would be messy, and a dread of having people round because of the mass tidy you’d have to do. Except of course you didn’t tidy, you just shoved it in cupboards and made the whole thing much worse.
Realising we can’t – and don’t want to – do it all
So having this image of me, where I appeared organised and tidy, but inside a messy person who hated mess – well that was always going to be a problem! As I sit here at my work desk I am thinking back to what it was like. Since returning to the UK four years ago I’ve worked from home in various roles. In some ways, it’s been fantastic as I could be at school in five minutes, but because my job was full on and required massive attention and focus – but a limited time to do it – my day zapped my energy through intense focus to get things done, and then not a millisecond between picking up the kids (oh and with my husband studying intensely for the past two years I’ve been breadwinner and chief parent-in-charge a lot of the time too). There was no time for the tidying unless I took out time from my precious Friday off (total resentment if I did that – my only time to work on me) or my weekends. Something had to give – or change.
From Piles to Smiles
It was last Summer after a particularly intense, stressful period at work that I saw a small window to do something about those piles. My kids were away at my parents a bit over the summer. I saw this as a chance to reset. I started to tackle things one pile at a time. Actually, I decided to make one mega pile on the bed and worked out a system for myself whereby things were fast tracked from the post/school bag to a set of three drawers in our spare bedroom. If they needed action, they went onto my work desk so they didn’t get forgotten like usual (how many times have you forgotten a bill or school trip payment because it got lost in the pile? Yep). The system goes a bit deeper than this but you get the idea already.
A few magic things happened after I did this. Not only could I find what I needed easily (dishwasher broken down and need to find the manual? No problem!), kitchen stools could actually be sat on, books could be accessed on shelves not covered in paper – I suddenly felt a lot better. I felt a bit more serene. The nagging voice was less (not gone – I still had other things to sort!). I wasn’t anxious.
I had also cleared headspace to allow me to tackle other areas – because not only had the first sort made me feel a lot better – I realised if I applied those principles elsewhere I could find a bit more serenity along the way. With four in five office staff wanting to keep working from home (i Weekend 26th July) after the pandemic, it’s more important than ever for us to manage our mess stress for long term wellbeing – as more and more people are experiencing the work/life blend and most likely some form of the anxiety that I did. It’s my mission to share what I have learned so that people don’t have to suffer the hard way, and can find ways to reduce the drudgery of tidying. To make a start, read my Five Tips for keeping sorted as we shift to the new normal.
The best bit
What made me realise I was really onto something was that the piles didn’t come back. Because my new approach had bypassed the surfaces/chairs/bookcase entirely and I had eliminated mess! No mess, no anxiety, more serenity. No piles!