Don't mess with me

Clutter is the enemy and must be rooted out, says Elizabeth Hilliard. Be ruthless if you're after the easy life

Glossy magazines would have it that rearranging the contents of one's wardrobe has become a national pastime. Flick through their pages of seductive devices for sorting the essential elements of your wardrobe, your kitchen, your office and every other department of your style-conscious home and you could start to believe that being organised is sexy.

But if that's really true then how come so many of us fail to identify with the pristine pictures of a photo shoot? Why is it that clutter just seems to grow? Or that the one piece of paper/bill/photo you need to locate in a hurry is exactly the same piece of paper/bill/photo which has been deliberately hidden by a phantom thief?

If you're the sort of person who is defeated by your belongings, then prepare to feel even worse because what you've always suspected is true: the way we store our belongings says a lot about our personalities and our lives. I know because I've just written a book on storage and getting organised, called Perfect Order. (Optimism is in my nature.)

The book was partly the result of my own experience of moving from a large to a small house, but I also researched it by poking around in my friends' cupboards in search of some real-life storage solutions. This involved diving into their psyches, and what I found was quite scary. Reactions to storage ranged from wild panic to organisational mania that was verging on the anal. If you belong to the former rather than the latter extreme, it's time to get organised. There are some who would say that a tidy home equals a tidy mind equals a tidy life and fabulous success in all areas of your existence. All right, at the very least it means you'll be able to find what you're looking for.

Even if you tend towards the Steptoe and Son School of Storage, there are some basics which won't be too painful or too hard to stick to. Writing the contents and storage date on cardboard boxes is a bore but crucial - if you don't you are simply relocating unidentifiable clutter, literally storing up trouble for the future.

An attic or a dry, well-ventilated cellar is an invaluable storage asset. "Without one you have to be brutal, getting rid of almost everything you don't actually need," said a friend. Other people negotiate space in friends' or relatives' attics or, in extremis, rent a garage or storage unit. Architect Jason Cooper raised the floor in the bedroom area of a client's flat, creating huge storage lockers beneath. He also created space by famously removing the bathroom; basin and loo are hidden in cupboards while the bath is "stored" under the bed which rolls aside on runners when necessary. A radical, imaginative solution.

The first step to rationalising your storage is to be decisive. Leave yourself enough time to excavate your cupboards and be brave about throwing out or giving away stuff whose time has passed - like old, unwrapped wedding presents. I found several of these in our clear-out just before our move to the smaller house. Off they went to a charity shop, while unwanted furniture went to the sale rooms.

Sometimes the situation is reversed, and the noble act is to keep a possession you'd rather part with - such as the albums recording a marriage long since dissolved. "What shall I do with these?" cried one friend. I suggested she stash them away in case her children wanted them one day. If she hadn't had children, she could either store the photos in the attic until she felt ready for a symbolic conflagration, or offer them to his relatives.

All my respondents agreed that organising the possessions you are keeping is the next obvious step towards creating perfect order, for which mail- order suppliers like Lakeland, McCord and The Holding Company are helpful, as are files and folders you can buy in any good stationers. My advice is to buy some presentable containers for possessions on view, and be ready with the cardboard boxes, parcel tape and marker for stuff that's going out of sight.

Getting organised is a nightmare at the beginning. There's always a point half way through when everything looks as though it's in more of a mess than it was before. It will be worth it in the end. I had a mass clear- out recently and the house instantly had more space. But more than that, I felt lighter, airier, happier. The relief was almost physical.

DISAPPEARING UNDER YOUR OWN RUBBLE? HERE'S HOW TO GET THINGS UNDER CONTROL

NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES

Store the publications you decide to keep in smart magazine files. Give outdated mags to your doctor's waiting room or to a school. If you feel really organised, cut out the interesting articles that you want to keep and file your cuttings in A4 envelope folders labelled by subject: gardening, decorating, interesting people, recipes, etc.

CLOTHES

Fold them into old suitcases with layers of acid-free tissue paper and mothproofing lozenges for woollens. Don't cram. Hang larger garments in zip-up bags. Pack away heavy woollies and coats in summer and flimsy frocks in winter. For shoes: use see-through pockets or separate boxes with a Polaroid image of the shoes stuck to the front. No, really.

VIDEOS/RECORDS/TAPES

Keep current collections in holders. Otherwise, if you don't watch/listen to them any more are they worth keeping? If you're convinced they'll be collectors' items and you have sufficient storage space, pack them away in clearly labelled boxes. LP-sized cardboard containers can be bought from removals firms, or look up "cardboard boxes" in the Yellow Pages.

PHOTOGRAPHS

Date each pack when it returns from being processed. Every year or so, stick the best in an album (with card pages so you can write captions), keep the negatives and bin unwanted prints, store them in the attic or send them to the other people pictured. As for any dusty old photographs - spend a nostalgic weekend sifting out the classics, put them in an album and bin the rest.

PRESENTS AND BEQUESTS

Have you kept 21st, 40th and other "important" (but terrible) presents out of guilt? Sell or give them away. How long to store such items before you can reach this point? Depends. Ten years under the stairs is plenty; if you live in a small flat about two months will do. As for mementoes such as sentimental reminders of ex-lovers or trips abroad - create a treasure chest for precious souvenirs.

OLD DOCUMENTATION

A tax officer I spoke to said you should keep bank statements for six or seven years, but paperwork can go back decades. Archive by subject, in dated packages, and review every few years.

'Perfect Order' by Elizabeth Hilliard (Kyle Cathie, pounds 17.99). Lakeland: 01539 488100; McCord: 0870 908 7020; The Holding Company: 0171 352 1600.

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