Writer and broadcaster

“Our house is a mess and tidying up seems beyond us.” The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My problem might seem pretty trivial but it is a huge issue in my life – it’s mess. I have always been messy, and my partner is messy too, but I don’t enjoy being this way and need desperately to sort things out. We both work full time (in jobs that often encroach into our evenings) and have four children (twins aged 10, a three year old and a nine month old). We live in a smallish house and I can’t stand the stuff everywhere.

I am sure people will just say tidy up, and we seem to spend our lives doing that, but I have come to the conclusion that I must be completely inefficient to be so ineffective. We are bright, intelligent people, but maintaining a tidy home in the way others manage to seems beyond us at the moment.

We aren’t greatly sentimental about possessions and regularly try to have purges and chuck things out, but it is the day-to-day management that I seem to find impossible.

You might find it interesting to know that my partner and I are both neat and organised at work. How can I change things?

D, via email

Let me see. You have four children aged from nine months to 10 and you and your partner both work, often into the evening, and your house is messy? I think this is the most shocking letter I’ve ever received.

You don’t tell me what your daily routine is like but I imagine that you have a school run to do, nursery drop-offs and then you go to work; and in the evening, you repeat all that. So work is an oasis where you can be tidy because you aren’t being interrupted a million times a day by small people asking you to look at a butterfly they have drawn, or slightly larger people asking you to listen to the story they’ve just written. I wonder if your expectations are realistic.

Sometimes, people make a mess to make a statement to another person as if to say “this is what’s going on in my head, this is what I feel like”. (It’s like obsessive compulsive tidying, but in reverse – as if the mental vacuum is on blow instead of suck.)

I would ask you to consider if either of these descriptions applies to you, and if the mess is a physical manifestation of something else.

Going on what you’ve said, I suspect that there is also a time issue. You say you’ve always been messy, but you could probably have managed it with binge tidying every now and then before you had children, but now you have other priorities.

Practical solutions: Would you consider, and can you afford, getting any help in, even for a short while? Maybe a housekeeper/cleaner who could come a few times a week? Or even a local, older teenager?

What about the twins? Do they help? Try zoning parts of the house, dividing it into small chunks and not thinking beyond the part you assign yourself that particular day (when I say you, I mean it in the plural, you and your partner, as there is no way that this should all be down to you).

Look at flylady.net, a website and online coach that you can use to regain control of the mess in your house. I have to say, she annoys the pants off me because it’s just one more bossy person telling you what to do and because she says everything starts with a shiny sink and it doesn’t, because I have a shiny sink and the rest of my house is still a mess. But lots of people find it helpful, so have a look.

Depending on where the mess is, you may want to consider buying a few things to help you sort it out. For example, do you have enough hangers for everyone’s coats? Do you have folders for everyone’s paperwork (Muji is brilliant for that)?

Sometimes regaining control in small steps can help you to feel less engulfed. Do you have a tidy friend who you could ask for help? Other people’s tidying up is always easier to handle than your own because it is viewed simply as a task and is not imbued with emotion.

Unless you have staff (!) there will always be mess in a family house. I appreciate that it matters to you, which is why I think you should try to gain at least partial control. But ultimately you may need to do a bit of head work to realise that four children and two working parents is not going to give you a house from World of Interiors magazine. I’m sure that lots of readers will also have tips for you.

First published in The Guardian Family section on 20th September 2013.