Sadie the tidying lady?
October 3, 2009 1:08 AM   Subscribe

I know how to--and rather enjoy--housecleaning. But I suck at tidying. my brain just doesn't work that way. As a consequence, I'm clean but quite messy. How do I look at a room & figure out the most efficient way to make it look neat? Share with me all your approaches and strategies.
posted by mjao to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The main trick is to have "a place a for everything, and everything in its place". Kind of an annoying phrase, but useful.

So even though I'm not consistently tidy, I will go through spurts of major organization. During one of these spurts, I go from top to bottom around a room, clearing off all surfaces and collecting those things in one place. Then I go through the pile, and put things that I use frequently where they belong, things that I use infrequently in storage, and things that I no longer use in the garbage/take to goodwill/post on the free section of craigslist.
posted by molecicco at 1:59 AM on October 3, 2009

Seconding the idea that tidying is about putting everything in its place. The trick is to assign *everything* a place.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:12 AM on October 3, 2009

A recent strategy of mine to deal with papers and paperwork is: first, I don't bring any papers into the house that I don't want to keep (ie. after checking the mailbox, I walk straight to the bin with any junk mail or catalogs). Second, I got a shredder, so that I can deal easily with those things that have personal info on them and can't go straight in the bin - I put them through the shredder as soon as I have decided it isn't something that needs keeping. Third, I changed over to electronic paperwork from any companies or banks that offered it to me, so I don't get so much paper. I now get very few pieces of paper that must actually be filed (for which I have a folder in a drawer).

This has helped because now I don't get piles of paperwork sitting around the place.

In general, that has been my strategy in moving to being a tidier person - deal with it at the time and don't leave things lying around in the first place. I would have once scoffed at this a bit, but as I get older, I realise it is far less hassle!
posted by AnnaRat at 3:10 AM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yes, you should have a place for everything and everything in its place, but you may have to spend a lot on storage solutions to make this possible. Go for it -- the reduction in chaos is worth the price. In setting up house with my bf I have also found it useful to specify what *shouldn't* live in specific rooms: i.e., no papers in the bedroom, no laundry in the study, no DIY stuff in the kitchen etc.

Once you've allotted a place to everything, how do you keep it in its place? Tidy little and often. To tidy, I start at one end of a room and work my way methodically around the room until it is in good order and empty of everything that doesn't belong there. The key to doing this without being distracted by other tasks is not to leave the room until you're done with it. Carry a dump box or bag (wicker basket, plastic tub, old shopping bag etc.) Anything you come across that doesn't belong in that room goes into the dump box. When you are finished tidying the room you can distribute all the stuff in the dump box into its proper room.

If creeping paperwork is a particular problem, try reading Getting Things Done for a variety of solutions for managing paperwork. Warning: this book may change your life and take over your mind, so approach with caution.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:41 AM on October 3, 2009

For the kitchen (and most other rooms), I think of the space as a clock. I pick a 12 o'clock starting point and clean "around the clock" from there. (I saw this tip on an ADD/ADHD board years ago. It works!)

The exception is the bedroom, where I always make the bed first. The bed is the biggest thing in the room, so the whole space looks much tidier once it's done. Making the bed first also gives me a flat surface to toss or fold things on as I clean up.

When I'm not doing full-bore room cleaning, I'm picking up one or two things as I pass through a room. I grab a loose toy from the family room and set it on the stairs, ready to go up to my son's room; I pass through the kitchen and snag the dirty tea towel and then throw it in the laundry basket. The "tidy one thing in a room as I pass through" rule helps. "Stuff stations" at strategic points (base of the stairs, by the front door) will help you group objects that need to be moved in the same general direction.

Yes, yes, yes, a place for everything. Buy or make bed risers so you can put a wheeled tub under the bed. If you have room, build an extra shelf for high up in the closet, so you can put stuff up there you don't need to access often.

Commit to donating or Freecycling objects you don't use or wear. Put a bag or box in your car and toss donations in it as you come across them.

You can do this. Good luck!
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:18 AM on October 3, 2009

Less stuff. Much less stuff. Plus this design acronym:
CRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. Seriously, works for everything (thank you Robyn Williams).

Suppose your living room does dual duty as a place you watch tv, and a place you iron clothes. Repetition, Alignment & Proximity: Put the clothing stuff together, within the clothing stuff, put the short sleeved stuff side by side, hang the pants side by side. Even though you have more stuff in the room, it'll look neat because like things are together, and stuff that relates to each other are together.

1 or 2 books and magazines are messy. 300 is a library. If you're not anal enough to sort them by topic (or worse still by dewey decimal system- and look, I did it once, and it was fun, but there's no need. If it's your book, you can probably remember what the cover looks like and what size it is, right?) stack the magazines on top of each other, stack the same size books together. Don't put them in the same pile.

Lastly, just to make up something for contrast: keep a travel basket in your main living rooms and when you think of it, put everything in it that's in that room that doesn't belong in that room and go like little red riding hood distributing it through the house.

But mostly, less stuff. If you don't love it or use it, why the hell is it in your house? Don't make extra storage spaces, get rid of the stuff. If it has sentimental value, take a picture or a scan of it, and throw it away.

Metafilter's own Jeri talks about the French girls' way of doing things. and there are a number of blogs on the topic of getting rid of clutter (i think subscribe to them all.)

Align stuff and cluster stuff. 8 different vases in the room? Or two separate clusters? I got more - should I go on?
posted by b33j at 5:00 AM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I do the same thing-- stuff is clean, but not neat. When it gets embarassing (mr. nax is incredibly neat, so the contrast can be striking) I start at one corner of a room and pick up whatever doesn't belong. I move that to a pile in the room where it DOES belong (no attempt to put it away at this point, I just re-stage it so to speak). If it belongs in the current room, I put it away. Then I move to the next room, etc. I can do the whole downstairs (5 rooms including the bathroom) in under an hour unless I've really let it get out of hand. What I like about this method is how, well, methodical it is-- you just pick a starting point and move forward until you finish the circuit. Presto-chango, room is neat.
posted by nax at 5:14 AM on October 3, 2009

I go with clean surfaces, and organizing things by type. Stuff on the coffee table? Stack the magazines together then the books together. Anything that doesn't belong in that room gets moved to where it does belong. Then that room gets organized.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:36 AM on October 3, 2009

I had this problem too. One thing I do is assign myself a "thing" and go and deal with that thing. So, I say "get all the dishes that aren't in the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher." Then "put all the books on bookshelves." Then "put all the dirty clothes in the laundry." "Put all the mail in a pile."

If you don't have a place for everything, a few iterations of this process will reveal what those things are. I wouldn't rush out for a storage option, personally. If your clutter problem is that you are overflowing with stuff, you have to start really considering all stuff you add, and an impulse storage option is as likely to end up as clutter as to help alleviate it. If the problem is that you have too much stuff in your house, you need to get rid of some stuff. Then you need to go slowly, and think about how you use the stuff that doesn't have a place and investigate storage options based on that.

The good news is that tidying is something that can be learned. I am now much better at going into a room, spending 10 minutes on automatic tidy pilot, and finding that it looks great at the end. Like one of the above posters, I do little things like take stuff from the room I'm in to the room I'm going if that's where it belongs, even if I'm not actually doing housework at that moment. Practice awareness, and this will soon come naturally.

Once everything has its place, you have to be careful about adding new things. From years of living in small apartments, I have gotten pretty good at looking at any potential purchase and saying "where will it live?" If there is no answer to that, I don't buy it. It helps tremendously.
posted by carmen at 5:58 AM on October 3, 2009

I'm kind of like you - things are clean (well, relatively) but can be messy. So I will reiterate molecicco's "a place for everything" suggestion. If I don't have a place for things, they stay out, and just kind of get moved around.

One thing I do that helps reduce the cleaning "overload"... I have three levels of vacuuming.
1) For normal (once/week) cleaning, I vacuum without moving furniture. Just quick, get it done.
2) Move the easy pieces of furniture, and get easily accessible horizontal surfaces.
3) Move everything, vacuum all "pieces" (e.g. couch cushions), and everywhere (walls, ceiling, etc.).

This helps make vacuuming less daunting. Doing level 3 in the living room can take more than an hour.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 6:06 AM on October 3, 2009

It's all about clear surfaces - tables, kitchen counters, floors. And the remedy for this? Baskets!
On the tops of my bookshelves, in my bookshelves, next to my couch in my living room, in my closet....I have baskets (and a few pretty boxes). Everything that would ordinarily be on the surface of something making my loft look messy goes in a basket. I'm not particularly organized, so this system works well for me and each basket has ended up securing its own function as per what's in it (bills, electrical cords and adapters, sentimental stuff, socks and underwear, things I bring home from work, etc.)
posted by meerkatty at 7:06 AM on October 3, 2009

Say no to baskets! Otherwise you have to dust everything in solution is stuff with covers. Ikea is good for these.
posted by saysthis at 7:16 AM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ditto what meerkatty says about clear surfaces -- that's my mantra. Baskets, as well as any container, will work. On my front table ("landing strip" if you read, I have a carved wooden bowl for my keys and garage door opener, a shiny metal bowl for loose change, a small ceramic platter on the botton shelf for all my chargers, etc. If it's out in the open, I like it to be pretty. But under my sink, it's just a large sturdy cardboard box that holds all my cleaning supplies, rags, rubber gloves, etc.
posted by Majorita at 7:24 AM on October 3, 2009

Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. If I leave a book on the coffee table, this is like a big neon sign saying "Place anything you want on this table", for both me and my roommate. Before I know it there,'s a plate leftover on the table, two magazines, and a set of keys. If I hide the book away, the sign goes away, and the table stays neat and tidy.

Buy tables, etc., with drawers and doors - so you can put everything away and keep your surfaces clean - it makes a huge difference.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:40 AM on October 3, 2009

I agree with commenters who say "less stuff!" Here's what works for me:

1. Get rid of many or most of your possessions and stop buying things. Really. You don't need storage bins and you don't need a storage unit because you don't need the stuff.

2. Vastly reduce the amount of paper in your house as AnnaRat describes.

3. Identify a place for everything that remains. Since you got rid of so much, there should be plenty of room.

4. Tidy in 10-minute segments. I do it as a break from the computer (I work at home). If you have only 10 minutes, you get focused. Tidying = putting things that have wandered from their places back in their places. I pick a place to start, such as the dining room table, and do what I can in 10 minutes, which is surprisingly a lot.

During your normal day, notice when something in the room you happen to be in actually belongs in the room you're heading toward. Pick that thing up and bring it with you. Ideally, put it in its place in that room, or at least put it in a temporary landing place there. Then during your next 10-minute burst you can deal with what has accumulated in that landing place.
posted by PatoPata at 7:56 AM on October 3, 2009

My dad taught me to always leave a room cleaner than you found it. This - along with a place for everything and everything in its place - has worked well for me over the years.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:09 AM on October 3, 2009

I also have a 'place' for everything, which means I get rid of the whole 'where should this really go' problem, and turns it into a 'put this thing back in it's place'.

So I have a place for books, for dirty laundry, for unopened mail (baskets and shelves). And when I see something lying about, I think about where it goes - even if i don't put it there at that moment, it feels more calm.

Secondly, when I clean, I do it in two stages. The first is just to walk around the house and put everything in the right room. Not the right place, but just the right room. Then the second stage is going to that room and putting everything in it's place. So clothes in the living room go to the bed room on the bed, dishes by the piano, go to the kitchen in the sink. But I don't hang up clothes or wash dishes at that stage. This keeps things efficient, because I get slowed down by the having to pick one thing up AND put it in the right place, all in one go.

Lastly, my drawers for random stuff is either sorted by type of object or sorted alphabetically. So one drawer that just has all of my hair care products, so if I'm ever looking for hair stuff, it's in one place. Or, alphabetically, in the kitchen, I could have one drawer that only has (A-F stuff) "baggies, batteries, crayons, folders, etc." and another for (G-M stuff) "gardening gloves, hammer, Markers, etc". In the drawer, it's entirely cluttered, but I know exactly what drawer is probably is in. If you have a lot of little stuff this is super helpful (we've also sorted our office supplies this way. So helpful).
posted by anitanita at 10:31 AM on October 3, 2009

How do you deal with things that are dirty - things that are wet, or oily, or have mud on them?

Why don't you just imagine that things that aren't dirty, like newspapers and library books, are dirty and can't be left laying around because they will stain/discolor/water-damage/mildew/stinkify and otherwise un-clean anything they touch?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:14 PM on October 3, 2009

Nthing what saysthis said: closed containers mean the stuff inside stays clean.

About everything in it's place: I've found the best place is where you use is. Keep your good china in the dining room along with the table cloths, napkins, candle sticks, candles, etc. that are going to be used in that room. Keep your cooking things together: pots together, spices together, baking ingredients together. If you read in the living room, keep your books there. Make it so you don't have to hunt in the living room for something you always use in the kitchen. I love those long upholstered ottomans (not your grandma's style) instead of a coffee table as you can stash the TV guide, all the remotes, extra coasters, etc. in there out of sight. If someone else in the house is messy, have a big box or basket, and just toss all their bumf in there. At the end of the week, it they don't put it back, it's gone - or hidden until they panic.

And, when it gets overwhelming, I remember my friend's MIL who kept her overflow Douton figures and bits of good china scattered in with the cereal boxes and whatever else she could cram into the kitchen cupboards. You wanted to duck every time you opened a cupboard door in that kitchen. So, purge is another suggestion.
posted by x46 at 12:18 PM on October 3, 2009

A clutter bucket stops you from shifting clutter around the same room while you clean. No more looking at a cluttered room and wondering why it looks worse than when you started.

For example - cleaning the lounge room? Walk around it with a plastic bucket. Anything that doesn't go in the lounge room goes into the bucket. When you're done, put the bucket in another room. Clean the room. Then go through the bucket, putting everything inside in its proper place.

If you have a family, give each member their own bucket. Assign them a room - everything that doesn't belong goes in the bucket, and it's their job to make sure everything that goes in ends up in its proper place. You move in behind them and dust / wipe / vacuum.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2009

Before the housekeeper leaves she stages the house by walking through each room and creating groups that are visually logical. If she stacks our books, she stacks them in largest to smallest. When she groups the toiletries on the counter, she groups them by size. She looks at each surface and greats a margin of empty space which prevents the tables for appearing overflowing. Entry points to the room are always empty; the table in the entry area is always clear.

That's totally different from how Mr. 26.2 and I do it. We stack the books so the one we're reading is on top and sort the toiletries onto his side of the sink and mine. It's little stuff, but it's always much neater looking when the housekeeper leaves.
posted by 26.2 at 2:05 AM on October 4, 2009

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