A self-confessed ‘disorganised shambles’, comedian Shappi Khorsandi shares how she finally conquered decades of clutter and chaos.
My life is mayhem. I have a marrow plant growing out of my rose bush because foxes attacked my bin and I didn’t clear up properly. I’ll open a sock drawer and find an uncashed cheque in it from years ago. If a letter says ‘Shappi’, I know it’s something nice; if it says Miss S Khorsandi, it goes straight into my pile of things never to be opened. I needed a proof of address to get a library card, so I picked up something that looked like a utility bill and it was a court summons for a bill I hadn’t opened.
I’m not actually one of those people who are fine with chaos. I’m not fine with it at all – it causes me such anxiety. I had to renew my son’s passport and something as simple as that stopped my life for about two months. The shame and self-loathing I felt because I procrastinated about it for so long actually triggered a relapse of the bulimia I’ve been recovering from since my twenties.
Three years ago, I actually went to see a therapist about my erratic behavior, and got diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. The chaos that is connected with ADD affects everything from your sock drawer to your relationships. I know some people will raise their eyebrows and say I’m using it as an excuse, but it explains so much.
Looking back, my life has always been chaotic. My childhood was full of love, but my parents were refugees and their world was upside down – my mum’s brother had been murdered in the Iranian revolution and she and my dad had escaped to England. At school – a massive London comprehensive – I couldn’t keep up with deadlines and homework and only got three GCSEs, even though I was capable of much more.
My comedy career took a long time to take off. I knew all the things I needed to do, but I couldn’t put them in the right order. Jimmy Carr and I started out on the comedy circuit together. We were 23, complete novices, and someone said to me, ‘Jimmy saw you the other night and said that you were really good, but you lack focus’. I remember thinking, ‘I know, but how do you change that?’
I was tweeting recently about how chaotic my life is, when a producer at BBC Radio 4 approached me about making a documentary on decluttering. I’ve had decluttering services in twice before and it hasn’t worked – they’ve always been so focused on the practical aspect of it.
But when I met professional organiser Sarah Macnaught for the documentary, it was like finding the right therapist: she immediately recognised how emotionally difficult the process of decluttering is for me. I was wracked with feelings of shame. Why did I find it so hard to do the things that other adults manage so easily?
I didn’t want anyone to see the mess in my home, because I feared their judgement. But Sarah was incredibly reassuring. She arrived and spread out stacks of paperwork on my kitchen table, while I sat having palpitations because I didn’t know what was lurking in there.
There were bank letters, invoices, contracts and payment reminders dating back to 2002. Mixed in with all the financial stuff, there was a love letter I wrote to someone when I was 19 and never sent, a National Trust membership that I didn’t know I had for myself and an au pair, and several Nandos gift cards that were now out of date. Sarah very quickly separated it all out, setting aside urgent letters that I needed to attend to, and creating four categories for the rest: ‘to be shredded’. ‘statements’, ‘personal’ and ‘bin’. With each pile she organised, it was like a boulder being lifted off my back.
Then we got to the boxes of photographs that have been in our family for decades, and have been added to over the years. Pictures from my childhood, mixed with pictures from my wedding, a photo of my son when he was one and a photo of my grandmother when she was 16.
In there was a batch of photos of my son when he was three, when I would have been in the thick of my divorce. I looked at those photos and I felt the pain of my marriage breaking up all over again. I thought those emotions had gone but the ghost of my divorce and my heartache came flooding back. I was immobilised – I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I’m so glad Sarah was there with me – there’s no way I could have sorted through those photos alone.
An inability to deal with your own stuff makes it very, very hard to share your life properly with somebody else. I’ve always gone out with hyper-organised guys. At first, they are your saviour. Every boyfriend I’ve had has come in and had a little project to make things a bit better for me, sorting out my admin – but that help can very quickly become control. Acknowledging that my untidiness has had a massive effect on my relationships has been a real epiphany.
Another important breakthrough I had from working with Sarah, is realising that decision-making is not my forte – and I have to limit the amount of decisions I make a day. Simplifying even the smallest things – like making every single pair of socks I own the same of colour – might seem minor, but the way my brain works, giving me that tiny bit less decision-making is a good thing.
My mantra after getting my home in shape with Sarah is ‘do it now’. If you look at an object and the thought crosses your mind to move it, do it immediately, and then it’s done. Put it away now, save time later.
To stop myself getting distracted I write myself strict lists: polish this, dust this, wash up. I tick them off as I go. I physically have to do the ticking, or I’ll be washing up, then I’ll get in a panic because I think the dog hairs need to be hoovered off the sofa, so I’ll stop washing up, I’ll go do the dog hairs, but on my way to get the vacuum, I’ll think I’d better clean the bathroom sink, and then I’m in disarray and I’ll sit on Twitter instead.
Now I realise that I have to spend time calming my brain down, or it just rushes off and I don’t complete anything. Mindfulness is a really good thing for me. I am one of those people who has adult colouring books. I don’t care who knows it because they really help me.
Someone said to me, you keep joking about being a disorganised shambles, but you have a career, you’re raising two kids and financially supporting them 100% by yourself – something works, so be a bit proud of it. I’d never really thought of it like that. I’m not lazy, I’m a grafter; I just struggle to focus
What does my future look like? My monochrome sock drawer won’t be home to uncashed cheques. Precious photos will be in ordered albums that will be a delight to look through. I might not open every bill – but I should be able to avoid another court summons: everything is on direct debit.
Shappi Khorsandi Gets Organised airs on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC Sounds app on Monday 7th October at 8pm.
As told to Francesca Babb
5 steps to stop clutter taking over
By Sarah Macnaught
- Put ‘like with like’. Start by putting every pen you find in your home with all the other pens. Then notebooks with notebooks. Ditto batteries, dinner sets, unopened mail, photos, staplers, light bulbs, batteries, travel plugs, foreign money, unused plastic boxes, winter boots, summer hats, gym equipment – you get the idea.
- Plan your home like a department store. Choose a specific area in the loft, kitchen, utility room etc for each type of item you own: Xmas dept, toy dept, gym dept, travel dept, tool dept, gift dept, cleaning dept. Then every item in your home can be placed in its correct department. NB – there is no Miscellaneous Department so don’t create one.
- Stop repurchasing what you already have. If you have followed step one and two, then this is easy to do. If you know where something is and how many you have, you don’t have to buy it again. Controlling your repurchasing of existing items saves money and space.
- There is no place on Earth called ‘away’ – you can’t put it ‘away’ nor throw it ‘away’. Everything has to have its place. Or be repurposed, rehomed or recycled responsibly.
- Maintenance is key. We use so many of the same things every day, (now that we can find them!) so allow a bit of time at the end of every day to simply put your things back in their department, ready to be found again as soon as you need them.