February 15, 2007


Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! By Joyce I. Anderson. AMACOM. $15.

      All get-yourself-organized books share the same primary flaw: they are useless unless someone wants to get organized – no book can create the basic motivation. All these books then share the same secondary flaw: no single system will work for everyone, which means that any particular book’s approach will be useful for some (already motivated) people but not for others (and certainly not for people who are unmotivated to dig themselves out).

      Far too many of these books – including good ones like Joyce Anderson’s – undercut their value by over-promising. The cover of Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! offers this subtitle: “Conquer the Chaos and Get Organized Once and for All.” And then there is a starburst in the lower right-hand corner that promises a series of “Simple, Painless Routines!”

      Wrong. Like any recovering addict, someone who is perpetually disorganized will not be transformed into a super-neatnik “once and for all” by this book – or any other. And getting organized – if you are a disorganized person – is by no means “simple” or “painless.” In fact, disorganization provides psychological benefits to some people – without which they would indeed clean up their act. Consider one of Scott Adams’ surreal peripheral characters in his Dilbert comic strip: the “Cluttermeleon.” This character keeps a cubicle piled high with a huge mass (and mess) of material at all times. Then, when an unwanted intruder (say, the boss) appears, the Cluttermeleon becomes invisible against the messy background. Adams is no psychologist, but he here hits on a psychological truth of the benefits of clutter to the clutterer – a corollary of which is that only when a disorganized person decides there will be more benefits to eliminating clutter than to keeping it will he or she be ready to tidy everything up.

      Anderson certainly deserves credit for her own attention to detail. An organizational specialist and former public-school librarian, she breaks down the clutter problem into three parts, 23 chapters and no fewer than 121 “steps,” plus an extensive yearly checklist. Readers who do not find the table of contents daunting will have the opportunity either to read the book sequentially or to turn immediately to a chapter focusing on their particular problem area: “basement, attic, and garage,” or “entertainment center,” or “clothes and accessories,” or “bedrooms—kids,” which are wisely separated from a chapter simply called “bedrooms.” Everything in Anderson’s book is a checklist – a single “step” inevitably has many, many substeps. Under “basement,” for instance, the second step is “the fun house in the basement,” which contains five items to check off as you do them – and the fifth item, “set up the lounge area,” contains 15 bullet points of items to include in your setup.

      The constant checklists can become wearing very quickly, as can the perky subheads of the steps. Under “bathrooms and linen closet,” for instance, the third step, “the beauty counter,” has the subheads “makeup station,” “bathroom beautification” and “bathing beauty,” each of which has a separate extensive checklist. Yet there is something attractive in being told, step by step by step, exactly what to do as you organize, so you know at all times just what you have accomplished (but don’t look ahead at all you still have to do – that would be demoralizing). Anderson’s book is best for people with a few specific “problem areas” – its prescriptive minutiae make it tough going if you try to start at the beginning and do everything the author suggests, right through to the end. For people who are most comfortable taking very specific instructions (“clump the lipsticks together and the eye shadows together,” or “repair or throw out old piano and guitar sheet music that is torn or has missing pages”), Help, I’m Knee-Deep in Clutter! may be a fine guide to getting organized at last. But even for such readers, the process will be neither simple nor painless – nor guaranteed to succeed “once and for all.”

No comments:

Post a Comment