"If everything is placed in accordance to feng shui principles, we can create a happy, healthy and prosperous environment," says Janene Laird, of ShenChi-Feng Shui. "But first I tell my clients to clean up. Nothing can be done in a cluttered environment."
Enter sisters Meg Hardy and Julie Lyons, who established Neatliving in Melbourne last year. A former teacher and a banker, they had identified a niche where they could put their formidable organisational skills to use.
"Decluttering is about working with the space you've got. It's about not being overwhelmed by chaos," says Hardy. "If you've got too much or it's not working for you, you've got to get rid of it. And people need help purging. It's very difficult to let go by yourself. But once you're organised, it is much easier to keep organised."
Organisation was urgently needed in my bathroom, the most cluttered areas for any beauty journalist (they assured me sympathetically). The cupboard was crammed with products: most had been tried, some were waiting to be, all needed some order so that I could find my toothbrush and close the doors. Out came five baskets labelled "keep", "test", "toss", "pass on" and "charity".
"Only you can decide what goes where," the declutterers said, though Lyons did provide a patient ear and encouragement as I ruminated over volumising foams and straightening serums, while Hardy refolded the linen in the press to create room to store the "test" basket. It took hours. And the smallest basket by far? The "keep". My heart was lightened.
"There is no point keeping anything that doesn't absolutely work for you. Sort, purge, reuse, rearrange, work efficiently," said Lyons.
The "keep" products were then sorted into nifty compartmentalised plastic boxes that slipped perfectly into the cupboard - essential ones for cleansers, face preparation products, masks, eye make-up, nail care and so on (Hardy and Lyons didn't raise an eyebrow between them). Over-the-door shower caddies and suction baskets from Howard's Storage World ($30 to $55) now house hand cream and sunscreen for quick access. Sorted.
The rest of the house was really well organised, they said (they didn't see inside the pantry): the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the family room were a wonderful idea and the overflow of magazines could be organised with cardboard holders or by ripping out and filing the articles of interest. My son's artwork, which was threatening to resemble wallpaper, could be photographed then thrown out, or placed in a portfolio. If I had booked more time (their fee is $65 an hour or a "package" rate), they would have helped with this.
There is obviously a need for neatness in our time-poor society: since the Australasian Association of Professional Organisers was established in 2005, it has attracted 100 members, including 36 in Victoria.
But when Laird arrived and, using a compass and floor plan, measured the house and gardens to the last degree, she discovered things were not necessarily so neat chez Hughes.
"With the year the house was built, its facing directions and compass centres, I can measure what invisible energies or 'flying stars' there are," Laird said, as she located the tai ji or central point of the home where, she said, the energies meet (family room: benign; whew).
"When a bad star is found in an important position such as the bedroom, trouble is likely to occur. Feng shui makes the most of the positive influences and controls the negative."
I found myself gazing about the room for showers of glitter and stardust, but the process was coolly mathematical. A bit like decluttering - as are the feng shui guidelines (see box).
Laird returned a week later with her detailed report (these cost $499 for a single-storey house) and a fund of ideas and advice. There were bad stars in a couple of sectors, but these could be remedied. I was to relocate the study to the north-facing guest bedroom, which has auspicious energy related to "current prosperity" and a steady increase in wealth and fame. The current study had energies "that may actually increase the risk of illness, obstacles, conflict and theft", said Laird, placing a string of six metal Chinese coins near the computer, a traditional feng shui remedy.
"I'd keep this room quiet and inactive - use it for storage and the occasional guest."
The front entrance, the "mouth" of the house, proved another trouble spot as it lies in the non-prosperous south-east sector and could, Laird said, cause financial difficulties (thereby negating any of that wealth-generating in the new study). That entrance is seldom used.
"Keep it that way," said Laird.
The bedrooms had wonderful energy (the master bedroom is considered the most important room in the home because it represents the foundations of the family) and only the bed in the second bedroom needed repositioning "to promote peace, stability and a clear head". Not a problem.
But the swapping of the study and guest room was: what to do with all the piles of papers, magazines, books and ... well, stuff. I hadn't let them near the "final frontier" before, but I knew who to call.
Lyons and Hardy came into their own: tape measure to the ready, they worked out precisely how the furniture should be placed, what should be replaced and where my (new) storage systems would be located (on shelves to be fitted in the built-in wardrobes). The new guest-cum-storage room would need a bed on a base to fit under the window and a $269 Ikea cubed storage unit which, incidentally, would also be ideal for my son's room, for toys.
This all makes wonderful sense, but not the sort of sense I could ever have made of it. The chaos was busted and I can work and sleep soundly.
Guidelines for good feng shui
* Ensure the interior and exterior of the home is free from rubbish, clutter and unpleasant odours: these could lead to a blockage in your life force.
* Ensure the front garden is well kept as this encourages opportunities to enter your life.
* Clear out any unwanted clothes and goods as they suggest you are holding onto the past.
* Replace washers on dripping taps as this could mean a gradual loss of income.
* Attract good energy into your home with healthy plants, fresh flowers and incense.
* Maintain the structure of your house: if your home is run down it suggests you are tired and may be experiencing a gradual decline in health.
Tips to get you organised
* Tackle one room at a time.
* Assess the problem: make a conscious decision about how much space to allocate to any one thing.
* Set goals and set a realistic deadline. Stick to it.
* Break large projects into small, manageable tasks (start with one drawer or shelf at a time).
* Eliminate clutter.
* Group items into "like" categories. Designate a permanent place in your home for each group of items and always put them back there.