I have a nerdy fascination with the subject of organisation, from email inboxes right down to sock drawers. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Being organised is critical to running a business and critical to running a family and becomes essential when you manage both. I also believe it to be vital to my mental well-being.
My brother bought me a labelling machine as a jokey Christmas present one year. It prints out neat little white sticky labels with black type. I could not love it more and would happily label everything in my house if I had my way – including my children. Pretty much every project I undertake starts with a list and this labelling machine.
There are lists and then there are lists
In my oldest son’s first week as a trainee lawyer, he was given training in managing his inbox. I was curious about it so I contacted the training company and explored what they taught, which was so fascinating we ran workshops in our Sloane Street shop.
We learnt a technique, devised by David Allen and delivered by a company called Next Action Associates, called ‘Getting Things Done’. The first central idea is that you make yourself as efficient and time-effective as possible if you take all the incoming – texts, WhatsApps, emails, things you get tasked with in a meeting, stuff your child shouts down the stairs at you, the school handouts – and immediately put them on one comprehensive to-do list.
Organise your new comprehensive to-do list according to where you are going to do each task e.g. one group of tasks to do at home and another group of tasks to do at work. Make lists for things you need to do at your computer, lists of phones calls and so on. The idea is that you don’t waste time staring at a task you can only do at home while you are at work; similarly, if you are walking from one meeting to another and only have ten minutes, you can scan your phone-call list and knock some of those calls off quickly.
If you can do a ‘mind-sweep’ and get everything you need to remember out of your brain and onto a list, you can relax in the knowledge that it is all captured and won’t be forgotten.
A second key strategy we were taught – which I am still learning – is that if there is something on your list that you keep coming back to again and again but which you never actually get done, you should try thinking about what the next action is. Break the task down, be clear what the next action is, and then you are much more likely to take that action and get it off your list and not stay stuck.
Declutter your life
I am not good with clutter. I find puddles of things all over the place suffocating. I find calm in looking at a little bit of empty space on a shelf, and knowing that my cupboards aren’t all bursting. I think we all need some empty space in our homes and the capacity to be able to put things away.
Gill Hasson, who wrote the book Declutter Your Life, focuses on our emotional connections to things and the emotional reasons – fear, hope, nostalgia and guilt – why things we don’t want or need or use still end up occupying precious space in our homes. Sometimes we find it difficult to let go of something because we worry we might need it in the future, or it represents a person we one day hope to be. There are things we can’t let go of because they represent precious memories. And then there are the things that we feel guilty about giving away, like gifts from family.
But in reality, if in a month or a year or five years you find you need something you have given away, you can probably borrow another one, or buy one second-hand. In reality, owning things that you would use if you were different will not make you different. Focus on enjoying the things you need for who you are now. Don’t allow gifts or heirlooms to become burdens, and separate your feelings for the people who gave them to you from your feelings about the things themselves.
Perhaps what I find most helpful of all, when I am struggling to part with things, is to be very conscious of where a thing is going next, and to think about how lovely it is to put that thing back into circulation, where someone else can make use of it and take pleasure from it. Let it go.
‘Like with Like’
I don’t like not knowing what I own and buying a new something because I’ve forgotten I already have one. If I keep light bulbs with light bulbs. batteries with batteries, cables with cables, then there is just one place to look and if we have it, I will find it.
The same goes for paperwork. It helps to have an area set aside for paperwork, full of labelled files: one for instruction manuals, one for guarantees, one for each child. I even have a box for orders of service, from weddings and funerals. I love keeping those, for sentimental reasons but also for inspiration as and when.
Being uncluttered and keeping ‘like with like’ doesn’t mean you have to be heartless, or that you can’t keep special things you are attached to. I have a memory shelf in my wardrobe, where I keep sentimental items of clothing that I will likely never wear again but which I don’t want to give away, along with my wedding dress. And memory boxes – both digital and physical – are important to me. My digital memory box is a folder on my computer where I keep emails that make me smile or lift me up in some way. My physical one is full of funny little notes from the children, handmade birthday cards, special invitations and so on. I have one box per year and the contents grow as the year goes on, and then things are easy to locate when I need them.
Wardrobe clear-outs are a win-win activity
I pull everything out of my wardrobe and put it on a fold-out rail I bought from Amazon. That way I am committed, and I can only put back into the wardrobe clothes I am actually wearing at the moment – rather than those that haven’t been worn in years. Often what I find as I am doing this is that I have lots of ‘almost-outfits’ that are missing a component. Or perhaps I realise that there’s a shirt I love that goes with everything but I never wear it because the sleeves are too long. So, better to get it altered. Get that missing button sewn on, buy that sweater. There is no point having a load of half-outfits clogging up your wardrobe and wasting time in the morning as you try to work out what to wear.
Someone in my industry who I worked with once shared a tip, which is to actually lay each outfit out, complete with shoes, belt, handbag, earrings, everything. Then take a photo and put it in an album on your phone called ‘Outfits’. I can then lie in bed in the evening and quickly choose what I’m going to wear the next day from this album. In the morning I can jump up, throw on the outfit and get going.
Being organised does, in itself, take time, of course. I have not been able to find a better solution to organising my life yet than working on a Sunday afternoon. It means I can clear my inbox of whatever didn’t get dealt with during the week.
It’s also my time for looking ahead and planning and the time for getting ahead with the life admin. Buying a birthday present for a godchild, writing the thank-you letters, working out how each child is going to get where they need to be through the week, looking at my own forward diary and making sure I have cut out enough time to go for a walk or to get to the gym.
If I have seen the bottom of my inbox, I feel ahead of the game: I feel like I have washed my hair.
If in Doubt, Wash Your Hair: A Manual for Life by Anya Hindmarch (Bloomsbury, 6 May, £18.99)