I’ve always been a messy person. The situation was grim – but could I really change? | Australian lifestyle

One star-crossed night some years back, a dashing young man found an excuse to visit my home. As I am the messiest person I know, impromptu visitors are almost always unwelcome. Generally, I manage my dirty little secret by attempting to confine my chaos to one area: my bedroom. Being single for much of my life helped. (Or did the state of my bedroom help keep me single?)

Just back from a festival, said interloper popped past to borrow some such thing. By the time I realised my good fortune, it was too late to “pretend tidy” by stuffing the wardrobes with the contents of my floor. I refused us entry to my room so many times, he became suspicious I was hiding a body in there.

Though not a crime scene, the situation was grim. The bedside table littered with supplements and pharmaceuticals, tea-stained yet unread books and several half-drunk cups of tea. A chest of drawers, with little in them, covered by knick-knacks: tiny sculptures, favourite pebbles, pointless bowls – all somehow sentimental but sitting under layers of dust. A second chest of drawers doing nothing to quell the mountain of clothing that permanently resides on the floor. Getting to the uninhabited square metre of space that is, in theory, a bed, requires some quite specific gymnastics – physical and mental. By the time I let the cunning chap in, the urge was – well, less urgent.

Since then, I’ve come to acknowledge something has to change. Being a literal mess is a hindrance, and it fills me with various types of shame; the failed adult, the inept housemate, the ultimately unlovable human. So how do I go about tackling it?

‘Though not a crime scene, the situation was grim’: a view of Beth Knights’ bedroom.

‘The objective of organisation is efficiency, and the reward is freedom’

I call Amy Revell, an organisational expert, author and host of popular podcast The Art of Decluttering. Revell assures me while some people may be naturally neat, tools to simplify my domestic strife can be learned – and even enjoyed.

But isn’t the decluttering trend just thinly veiled moralising, I ask?

Revell calms my fears. “We ask clients a tonne of questions. How do you use this? Who uses it? How often do you use it? Where would it make sense? Where would you go to look for it? Some people like all of their appliances on the shelf, some people put them all away – neither is right or wrong,” she says.

Rather than aiming to Cinderella me, or somehow craft a never-to-be-repeated picture-perfect home, decluttering services such as Revell’s are about creating systems that are personalised and can be maintained.

We often view mess as a lack of discipline. “Australia glorifies hard work, so a tidy home represents the person who puts in more effort,” Revell says. But she suggests these value judgments are incorrect. “It’s not just ‘I can’t be bothered’ – it’s overwhelm, or ‘I just don’t know where to start.’” This rings true. Decision paralysis is a huge obstacle to tackling my bedroom. Just setting foot in there makes me exhausted. Good thing I can take a wee nap and postpone the life-changing spring clean for another day.

People seek out support when their mess is having negative consequences, such as being an obstacle to achieving a goal.

“A goal might be, ‘I want to go back to work but I’m so overwhelmed because I know it will take more than an hour to get ready in the morning,’” says Revell. I relate. There are times that, despite owning enough clothes to dress the entire Von Trapp family, I can’t find a thing to wear. I wind up late, or not leaving the house at all. Tardiness, lost items and household disharmony are other common reasons messy folk seek help.

Revell believes tackling household disorder can improve other areas of life. “It may not be the most significant thing you can change in your life, but it’s the foundation of a lot of things,” she says. “A client might simply want to feel better in the house, but then they’ll message and say, ‘My marriage is the best it’s ever been,’ or ‘I’m teaching the kids [how to play] Monopoly because the kitchen table is clear after dinner.’”

I instantly lament the life I’ve lost to chaos.

According to Revell, the objective of organisation is efficiency, and the reward is freedom. The minutes saved by having a tidier space could be spent with a book or a friend, she says. At last, a motive for change I can truly get behind.

‘I encourage moderation’

Values around cleanliness have many origins, and that history can feel like a bad hangover. Arwen Dropmann, a qualified social worker and professional organiser at Calm Space Professional Organising, believes we’re often victims of our own unrealistic expectations. “Our culture is a highly anxious one and deals with that by pursuing perfectionism,” she says. “I encourage moderation. If someone’s home is affecting their emotional wellbeing, safety or their goals, then I can help them to work through it.”

Social media adds further fuel to our tidy-house aspirations. “We perpetuate unrealistic standards through the glorification of highly curated homes,” Dropmann says. Perhaps not surprisingly, an important part of an organiser’s profession is supporting clients in modifying their expectations. “Sometimes the work is helping people be kinder to themselves. Perfectionism is damaging to people’s wellbeing.”

‘Values around cleanliness have many origins, and that history can feel like a bad hangover.’ Photograph: Alex Potemkin/Getty Images

Recent social media videos have certainly helped to tackle the stigma of not having a perfect-looking home. Among them, KC Davis – a counsellor, author and the founder of mental health platform Struggle Care – popularised the concept of housework as “morally neutral”. When you boil the philosophy down, how well you perform a chore has nothing to do with your worth as a human. (There are definitely some orderly arseholes out there.)

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Further research on the chronically disorganised sometimes even champions it. A famous study in 2013 suggested messy rooms could even promote creativity. Finally, my genius is unveiled.

To make sense of this, I seek out a neuroscientist. Dr Anna McLaughlin, founder of science communication agency Sci-translate, explains that disorganisation and creativity can be linked due to unique brain wiring – a wiring frequently seen in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

People who have ADHD struggle with tasks requiring executive function skills such as planning, staying focused on tedious tasks, and time management. “They might prioritise organising the bookshelf instead of tackling a big pile of dishes, get hyperfocused on the books, maybe start reading one, realise the bookshelf is wobbly, get out the tools to start fixing it and then realise they forgot to take out the laundry – leaving the place in a worse condition than when they started tidying up,” says McLaughlin.

I have never felt more seen. While having issues regulating attention is not the definitive cause of messiness, it certainly fits the bill in my case. In fact, neurodiversity was the elephant in my room. Should have been easier to spot, even amid the clutter.

‘I cull about a third of my wardrobe … I sell some of the clothes at a local market stall and make some dosh I can use to hire an organiser.’ Photograph: amriphoto/Getty Images

Initially diagnosed with ADHD as a tot, it wasn’t addressed due to stigma (it was the 80s after all) and a fear of medication. Jumping out of windows, staying up past midnight and electrocuting myself because I wanted to know what would happen when I stuck a fork in a power socket was just part of my package deal – alongside a flair for maths, music and mess. When I was diagnosed again recently, many of my struggles made sense.

“Recognising that people have different needs can help everyone find their best way to be productive and creative,” McLaughin says. “It also teaches us to understand and appreciate each other more – everyone’s brain works differently, and that’s a good thing.

By beautiful coincidence, both Revell and McLaughin have ADHD, while Dropmann also identifies as neurodiverse. Though not all of us are messy, we all offer unique perspectives on mess.

“Sticking to a strict way of organising things isn’t always necessary and can even take away some of the joy of living freely.”

Maybe I can finally accept who I am and make some helpful changes. While my lamps, wall art and carefully curated crockery bring me all the joy Marie Kondo goes on about, it’s time I face the nightmare that is my bedroom.

Using a few hot tips from my interviewees, I go straight for the jugular – my clothes. I cull about a third of my wardrobe. It’s exhausting, almost overwhelming and ultimately liberating. I sell some of the clothes at a local market stall and make some dosh I can use to hire an organiser. I’m ready for the thrill of efficiency, the joy of simplicity and of having a bedroom my paramour can enter.

I am no longer single, and my partner is kind about my neurodivergent mess.

“Bethy, do you think we could use the washing basket as a basket to take wet clothes to the clothesline and not as a receptacle that lives in your room with last week’s clean clothes?” he gently suggests. Putting what I have learned about creating realistic systems into action, I go right to the shops and buy us a second washing basket.

This article was amended on 8 April 2024. A previous version of the article incorrectly identified everyone who the author interviewed as having a formal diagnosis of ADHD.

Years ago, on a star-crossed night, a charming young man found his way to my messy home. I am notoriously disorganized, so unexpected visitors are usually unwelcome. I usually keep my chaos contained to my bedroom, thanks to being single for most of my life. Or maybe my messy bedroom contributed to my single status?

This visitor, fresh from a festival, dropped by to borrow something. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hide the mess in my room by stuffing everything in the wardrobes. I refused to let him in so many times that he started to suspect I was hiding a body in there.

The scene in my bedroom was not a crime scene, but it was far from tidy. The bedside table was cluttered with supplements, books, and half-drunk cups of tea. Drawers were filled with knick-knacks under layers of dust, and clothes covered the floor. Getting to the bed required some acrobatics, both physical and mental. By the time I finally let him in, the urgency had faded.

Since then, I’ve realized that something needs to change. Being a mess is holding me back and fills me with shame. So, how do I tackle it?

I reached out to Amy Revell, an organizational expert, who assured me that anyone can learn to simplify their life and even enjoy it. Decluttering is not about moralizing but creating personalized systems that can be maintained.

Mess is often seen as a lack of discipline, but Revell believes it’s more about overwhelm and not knowing where to start. Decision paralysis is a major obstacle for me when it comes to cleaning my room.

Revell believes that organizing your home can improve other areas of your life. It’s about efficiency and the freedom that comes with a tidy space. This motivates me to finally make a change.

Arwen Dropmann, a professional organizer, emphasizes the importance of moderation and being kind to oneself. Unrealistic expectations fueled by social media can make us feel inadequate. Organizers help clients adjust their expectations and be kinder to themselves.

In the end, decluttering isn’t just about a tidy home; it’s about improving your overall well-being and achieving your goals. It’s time for me to make a change and reclaim the life I’ve lost to chaos. Perfectionism can have negative effects on people’s well-being. Recent social media content has helped challenge the stigma of not having a perfectly clean home, emphasizing that the value of a person is not determined by how well they do chores. Research even suggests that messy environments can foster creativity, particularly among those with ADHD. Understanding and appreciating different ways of thinking and organizing can lead to increased productivity and creativity. Embracing neurodiversity and making small changes can lead to a more efficient and simpler lifestyle, ultimately improving overall well-being. Please rewrite this sentence.