help! i'm a slob.
January 16, 2010 7:58 PM   Subscribe

My apartment is starting to look like I'm trying to audition for the TV show Hoarders. The floor is covered in trash and I have not a single organizational system. How do I deal with this mess by myself and how do I learn to change my behavior?

I've never learned to promptly put away or throw away things but all my life I've lived in small enough spaces that a deep decluttering every week or so was a feasible task. Now I live in a huge studio apartment and the trash just won't stop piling up. I'm ok about taking care of stuff that will smell bad but right now the mess seems insurmountable and I'm terrified that my landlord/boss will drop by. I want to spend the day cleaning, but where should I start and how should I approach it? And how do I develop good habits so I don't let my apartment get this bad in the future? email is:
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (37 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
The place to start is anywhere. Don't try to "approach" it if it's that bad - just start. Pick something up; put it away or throw it out. Then pick up the next thing and do the same. When you fill a trash bag, get it out of your apartment (basement, trash chute, wherever you get rid of it.) The hardest part of things like this is the first step, which is why getting started is far more important than anything else.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:01 PM on January 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Here's one system. You may loathe the style, and the emails or whatever. But it does work. It is also very adaptable to your personal circumstances/challenges/lifestyles. And you don't have to do all the extra 'stuff'.
Fly Lady
Fly Lady Baby steps to get started.
Beyond this. Pick a system. Any system. Which one works best? The one you'll keep doing.
posted by kch at 8:07 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Clean as much as you can in 15 minutes.

If you want to go again, set the timer again and go. Otherwise take an hour break and start again.

Fly Lady is good - Essentially you want a place for everything - if stuff is piling up (magazines, etc.) - it needs a place to be stored. I personally like to hide everything away in drawers, or whathaveyou - as clutter anywhere leads to more clutter.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:18 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, go to the store, buy a box of garbage bags. fill as many up as you can with unwanted garbage.

Put on some good DVDs that you like to watch while you clean, or some good music. I actually disagree with backwards guitar. Don't stop for more than five minutes at a time. Just clean.

As for going forward, you've already provided your own incentive. Pretend the landlord/boss is coming over. Every night.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:25 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a long term thing, once you're unburied a little (and my friends like Fly Lady for that), I've found Julie Morgenstern's books (specifically these two) pretty helpful. One of her broad principles is that you should have a way to keep stuff where you use it, and that's really made me rethink where and how I store my belongings. There's a corollary about the stuff you actually use, too--if you're not using it ever, maybe you don't need it.
posted by immlass at 8:31 PM on January 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Get one of those big black trash bags and throw away things you absolutely don't need/want. It doesn't matter if it's things you would normally want to donate, like used clothes - just throw them away for now, because you don't want to risk setting the bag aside for later and then never taking it there.

Take that one out to the trash.

Then, go back in and get the stuff that you feel sentimental/unsure about and toss it in. Do put this one to the side, and see what it's like without this stuff. (By sentimental I don't necessarily mean grandmother's necklace, but rather that DvD case that you kept because it looked cool even though you have a space-saving DvD holder.) If you find you don't miss it after a few days, toss it.

Take as many breaks as you want, and don't worry about how long it'll take you. Usually, when I do deep cleaning it takes me about a week with several breaks because after about an hour my mind will just go, "This is too much!!" and I start getting sick if I continue. That's perfectly OK.

It's also OK to "hide" stuff that you know you want to sort through later, but can't because the room is too cluttered at the moment. Just make sure you remember to go back through it later (unless you don't care if your drawers and stuff are messy!) I tend to do this when I want to decorate my desk but I have to clean it off first. I just toss random stuff on the bookshelf, or something.

Good luck!
posted by biochemist at 8:32 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

My approach to the massive clean-up operation is to do it in several stages. The first pass is just a keep vs. throw out decision. Go through each room and sort the clutter into a "keep" pile, and a "throw out" pile (or several such piles if you need to separate garbage and recyclables). Put the "throw out" pile(s) into garbage bags and/or recycling bins, as appropriate. Things will probably look much better after this.

Then go through the "keep" pile and sort it into "stuff that belongs in this room" vs. "stuff that belongs in other rooms". Move the stuff that doesn't belong, into the room where it does belong.

Next, get everything off the floor and put away. Don't worry about organizing it by some system (like alphabetizing books), just put everything on shelves, in drawers, closets, etc. If there isn't really a good place to put everything, get some filing boxes or storage boxes and just put stuff in there. Just get it all off the floor and looking tidy.

You will probably have a bunch of dishes and cutlery piled up in the kitchen, having moved it there from everywhere else. Clean this stuff next and then clean the kitchen counters.

By now you should be able to see almost all of the floor area. Time to vacuum, sweep, mop, dust, etc., the floors and furniture. At this point it starts to feel like the place is actually clean again. If the bathrooms are a disaster, take care of them last. I have no idea why, but it seems easier to find the energy to tackle these when the rest of the place is already clean.

This doesn't address actually organizing all your stuff, but this is the general approach I've followed whenever I've let the tidying and cleaning situation get out of control for a while. The idea is to get it starting to look cleaner fast, so that it stops feeling like an insurmountable challenge that's going to take forever. If I don't have a whole day free, I'll just do this process in one room at a time, over several days.
posted by FishBike at 8:34 PM on January 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Buy some contractor trash bags. Expensive, but good to have.

Pick one area that will be the TEMPORARY home of things that don't have a designated spot in your home. With my nieces, I put a piece of newspaper on the floor. The stuff without a designated spot cannot exceed the size of that newspaper. This will force you to make decisions about finding a spot or tossing items.

Pick the corner farthest from the door. Start there. Declutter working your way toward the door.

Each time you pick up an item that doesn't have a spot ask yourself - Do I care enough about this to find it a spot? If the answer is no, toss it.

Once you've cleared that path to the door, you take the full trash bag to the dumpster or trash chute.

Take a break.

When you're ready to start again, pick another spot that's distant from the door. Trash bag, declutter, dumpster.

posted by 26.2 at 8:36 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do organizing for people. I agree with backwards guitar and set a timer. Do it over and over again. Then set the timer for your break. Then again for the cleaning. What you are doing is setting up accountability for yourself. Even if the accountability is to a timer and not another person, it can be affective. Combined with roomthreeseventeen's advice of pretending the landlord is coming over, it should give you enough motivation to break the inertia.

Start by a massive detrashing. Go from room to room with 2 huge trash bags, one for trash, one for donation. I like to do 10-15 minutes at a time in each room. It is astounding what you can do in 15 minutes. Just don't think too much on each item. If you don't know what to do with it, it is o.k. to come back to it later. Just root around for all the trash you can, even opening drawers, looking in cabinets, etc.

Lastly, don't even start to implement an organizational system until you get rid of all of your trash and donations.

(I like flylady's advice, but the hairs on the back of my neck started going up when she suggested we declutter by getting rid of our animals. It was creepy enough for me to stop supporting her. Although, her method can be very effective.)
posted by Vaike at 8:37 PM on January 16, 2010

First, don't think it's that big a deal. For me, the more stressed the non-completion of a task makes me, the less likely I am to want to face it. Trash really just does pile up. As everyone else has said, just start somewhere. But it's important that you quit the guilt, too. That's the thing that will ultimately paralyze you.
posted by Gilbert at 8:37 PM on January 16, 2010

Oops, by the time I hit post, everyone posted great suggestions!
posted by Vaike at 8:39 PM on January 16, 2010

My Nana is a terrible hoarder so I try really hard not to be like her. Like roomthreeseventeen said, it's good to pretend someone's coming over. I often invite friends over on the spur of the moment, or people turn up out of the blue so it's a good incentive.

One room at a time, with a box for stuff you want to keep and a garbage bag for stuff you want to throw out/recycle. Choose a category of items (e.g. bills/receipts/mail) and sort every example of it you can find. For the ones you need or want to keep, get an accordion filing box. Once you think you've found most of that item, choose something else (e.g. magazines) and start all over again. You'll still find things you overlooked earlier but that's okay. I find that I get on a roll and don't want to stop -- in which case fly lady's advice is no good. It feels really good when you can see your floor, even if it's just part of it.

For me it's really important that everything has a home, and that the home is a fairly small space. Magazines have one holder and it can only hold, at most, a dozen magazines. I have a tiny inbox for incoming bills, etc. Little fiddly things like loose screws, buttons, small tools, whatever have a small container in the kitchen.

It apparently takes one month of repeating the same behaviour for it to become habit-forming. If you can take fifteen minutes every day to sort that day's mail/purchases/garbage, and keep doing that for a month, in theory it'll become part of your routine and you'll barely have to think about it.

Even with all these things in place, I still do a deep declutter every couple of months (we have kids, so clothes, toys, etc as well as the usual). You'll still accumulate stuff, but not to such an overwhelming extent.
posted by tracicle at 8:41 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Up until very recently I was pretty similar. I knew what needed to be done and I knew how to do it, but I had serious executive function issues and I just *couldn't* do them. I'd finish eating and put the bowl on the coffee table and leave it there for weeks. Laundry on the floor, both clean and dirty. Junk mail piled on the dining room table for months. I'd step over things rather than picking them up. And I'd look at these things and think "I should do ___ with that." but I wasn't actually able to do it.

And then I started Adderall. Now I clean the kitchen before I eat dinner. As soon as I'm done the dishes get rinsed and then go in the dishwasher. I take off my clothes and they go back on hangers or in the hamper. I make my bed every morning. I've managed to organize pretty much everything in my house and complete a ton of DIY tasks that I'd been meaning to do for years. I am always ready to have people over unexpectedly and it is such a beautiful relief to come home to a clean house every night.

I'm not saying that you need to be medicated or something, but I AM saying that in addition to finding a organization/cleaning system like FlyLady, maybe investigate WHY you're a slob? You say you never learned to do things, but the fact that you KNOW that things need to be done kind of indicates that you're aware, you just lack something.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:46 PM on January 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

The easiest way I've found to get unburied is to sort as you go through things: garbage, recycle, shred. If you've got more than just paper and trash, you could also sort into keep, sell, and donate piles. You can use garbage bags or large shopping bags for the first clean/sort.

Once you know what you have and how much you have of it, you can go out and buy receptacles to keep these things in in the future. I have these bins right next to my landing pad (the place where I set my keys and shoes and jacket as soon as I enter the apartment). I actually store the small shredder I have in the top one and shred stuff every couple weeks. The bottom one I use for recycle, and I don't empty it unless the papers are falling out, which takes a while. The other thing I do is that when I get my mail in the evening, I take the coupons and junk mail crap straight to the recycle bins for my complex, so they don't even come in to my house in the first place.

I also have a roomba, which makes me at least clear stuff off the floor every week or so in order to run it. I do a quick run over of the little stuff on the floor (trash cans, things that have fallen out of trashcans, boxes, clothes etc.) and put everything on the couch or bed, and then start the roomba right before I leave for work. then when I come home I have to do a little decluttering in order to sit on the couch or get in my bed.

That Hoarders show really fucks me up too. I have a pile of bills sitting on my craft table that have been there over a year that just makes me hate myself every time I look at it. So that's my project for this long weekend: coming up with a better filing system. It's a mind over matter thing, for sure. There are actually certain cleaning things I like to do (cleaning the bathroom makes me really happy, wtf?) that make me feel better about myself, and when I latch onto that feeling, it leads to me cleaning more. Good luck!
posted by sarahnade at 8:50 PM on January 16, 2010

I keep a big clear trash bag on floor behind the couch. Every time the room looks cluttery I do FlyLady's 27-thing-Boogie. Put on a loud energetic song, and put 27 things you don't need into the clear bag by the time the song is over. Re-hide the bag behind the couch. Because the bag is clear, you can see if you're making a terrible mistake, but because it's hidden, by the time you pull it out again, you won't want the stuff in it. Eventually you'll take that bag to Goodwill.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:51 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Start off easy. Start with trash. Trash doesn't need to be filed away or stored. It doesn't necessitate any fancy furniture to put it in, doesn't require any sort of thought at all, really. Just get a big leaf-trash bag and start going around the apartment throwing away the trash. That alone is a great start.

Next: clothes. Clothes are also pretty easy. Not much thought required. Just pick up any and all clothing and put it in a hamper (trash bag if you don't have a hamper). When there are absolutely no clothes left in open sight, and you've got a couple hours to kill, clean the clothes, fold clothes, and put clothes away. Take this opportunity to get rid of anything that doesn't fit you, or you don't wear any longer, or you haven't worn in more than five years.

Everything has a place. The hard part is finding that place. The rule of thumb I like to give people who are messy: the correct place for anything is the first place you would think to look for it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:53 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't be afraid to get rid of things you "might need someday." If you really do end up getting rid of something you need later, it will be available on eBay. Nothing is irreplaceable any more.
posted by The Deej at 9:07 PM on January 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

I speak from some experience on this score. First off, it's useful to think of the task before you as having two major components: Cleaning and Organizing. They're related, but still different. You can clean till you're blue in the face, but unless you have a basic underlying organization to your space, all the cleaning in the world won't ultimately solve the problem. Thinking of them as distinct issues, though, can help you tackle them in phases.

First: Cleaning, Step A. This is where you 1) just pick one spot to start, and 2) simply throw away the trash. Your decisions are pretty binary here: keep or toss? (You can add "donate" and/or "recycle" to the mix, if you like, but the point stays the same: identify the things that are worth staying with you and set them aside, then dispose of the things you need to part with.) Just do this section by section. Give yourself a few days or a week, if you like: the important thing is not to overwhelm yourself with All Of It At Once, but rather to set section-by-section goals that will allow you to see -- and savor! -- some progress within a reasonably short time frame.

Once you've disposed of the trash, you can then move on to Cleaning, Step B. This is just straightforward cleaning: get a broom, a bunch of paper towels, a few cleaning supplies, and maybe some Swiffer-type stuff. Again, go section by section: dust, sweep, wipe down. Since you've already cleared out all your trash in Step A, this can probably be done in its own day.

Now -- now -- you can ORGANIZE. The principle is simple: you can hang on to whatever you want or need, but only as long as it has its own place to live. The trick here is to get an idea of A) what kind of things you have, and B) what kind of spaces you need to create to put them in. This could include getting enough shelves for your books and CDs, getting an inbox/outbox system for your bills and paperwork, getting a pot rack for your kitchen, or getting one of these nifty things to double the hanging space in your closet. You don't need to spend a mint, either -- these sorts of things can be found easily and inexpensively at Target, Ikea, the Container Store, etc.

The thing to do is to not try to organize everything too early in the process -- otherwise you wind up getting bogged down in trying to make sense of clutter that's often half trash, half treasure. Go through the cleaning process step by step first, in order to get a better idea of the kind of stuff you you really want to keep, which in turn will make it clear to you what organizing tools (shelves, racks, etc.) you need to obtain in order to create a space that will be easier to maintain.

Finally, once it's all under control: make your bed every single morning, and hang your clothes up (or put them in the hamper) every single night. It's surprising how much those simple tasks alone will help keep you on track. (Again, I speak with experience!) Good luck. It feels good to do.
posted by scody at 9:07 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Several relatives in my family have issues with clutter ranging from "messy house" to "could be on Hoarders." I've noticed their cleaning sprees quickly get derailed shortly after they start because of three reasons:

a) They try to do too much at one go.
b) They way overthink the keep vs. toss decision (should I keep this item? I paid so much money for it; I hate to waste things; It would be fine if it was fixed; I might need this someday; I'll just put this aside for now and deal with it later.)
c) They can't or won't accept help.

The key is to not let yourself fall into despair: it took a while for your home to get this way, it's going to take a while for you to get it the way you want. All-day cleaning sprees are exactly the same as fad diets: sure, you might thin down a bit quickly but the unwanted clutter + more will creep back.

Take things in manageable chunks: for the next week, once a day attack one spot in your house. It's OK if this is just the top of your coffee table. The goal here is you will remove every item from that spot and right then and there, decide upon its fate: it stays or it goes. If it stays, you must decide where its permanent home will be. The permanent home will be a place that is logical for this item to live: accessible to the ratio that you use it (no Christmas decorations front and center of the closet) and as close as possible to where you will use this item (spatulas in the drawer next to the stove, not in the drawer on the other side of the kitchen). Very Important Note: this permanent home is not the floor of a closet, or the top of another table, or a random drawer. Next, take a notebook and write down where you put that thing, "Chapter One: Kitchen. Page one: Drawers: spatula is in the top drawer to the right of the stove." Draw diagrams if you prefer, just record where this thing lives. It helps to use a timer to push your decision making along.

If you can't decide where an item's personal home is, it goes to the trash bag. If you have more than one of something that you can't use simultaneously, all but one go into the trash bag. If you're not sure, it goes into the trash bag. At the end of your spot cleaning session, immediately march that bag outside and toss it into the trash can.*

Now record in your notebook what lives in the spot you just cleared: Chapter Two: Living Room. Page 1: Coffee Table: a. Remote control. b. Fruit bowl. Now you're on your way to having a map: a list of what you have and where it goes. Once a week, check your notebook: what's on your coffee table? Does it still have Authorized Items on it or has stuff piled up again? Eventually, you'll internalize this map but until then, write it down.

*Many will protest the decision to toss something away without regard for reuse/recycling. Perhaps you'll find yourself rebelling against the notion too. Fight this impulse: if you were organized enough to donate your unwanted goods, you would have done it by now. You've probably already got a few sacks of items squashed at the bottom of your closet that you set aside a while back to donate. Forget about it: no one wants this stuff, just throw it away: at this stage, it's just too complex to deal with.
posted by jamaro at 9:20 PM on January 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

What has kept me sane in the past is spending 20-30 minutes in a room or area...then moving on. Yes, you might not finish with that area, but you gradually lessen clutter in the entire house and you don't spend all day in one place, having it look spotless and everywhere else look less than that. Once you've finished every area, you return to the first on the list, spending 20 minutes (or less) until the entire place is done. Good luck!!!!!
posted by bach at 9:36 PM on January 16, 2010

So, people in this thread have given advice on getting your space clean, which is obviously the first step. Maybe you realize you need a few more book shelves, or organizing doo-dads, and you fill them up.

But, what are you going to do when you have your space cleared out? And everything in it's place? And how did you get so much junk in the first place?

Think about a system for everything that comes through your door. Put a box by the door (or cut the top off an old kleenex box) and sort your mail and bills. What will you do with new books or DVDs when your current shelves are full? Buy new shelves? Store some digitally? What about when your closet is full of clothes?

I stick to the philosophy that if I don't have room for it I don't really need it. If I did really need it or want it I could make room for it. Therefore if I can't figure out where I'd keep something I won't buy it. If for some reason I've got it already (like mail, or a useless gift) I'll toss it right away. Don't create junk limbo.

Try to reduce the things you bring into your home in the first place. Do you really need to buy books or DVDs? Netflix and a library card will save you money and space.

A pet peeve of my mom's was when my sister and I would have the "after school explosion", where a spit second after getting in the door we'd drop our backpacks, jackets, lunch boxes, shoes, and whatever else in the hallway. So she'd yell at us to take the extra 15 seconds to walk into our bedrooms, and then explode stuff. I still do this today, and I manage to explode things into a semi-organized location.

I think you've figured out that it's a matter of will power, and mental state, not gadgetry or spending lots of money. So get started, and keep motivated. I think watching shows like Clean House and Hoarders can actually inspire people to change the way they act and keep junk and clutter out of their homes and lives.
posted by fontophilic at 10:07 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

In addition to all of these suggestions, I'd add that sometimes it's easier to do these things if you have someone to help you.

I keep a clean house, but have difficulty getting my laundry done. Last fall, I reached a point where I had worn basically everything I could or would wear; there was nothing left. The laundry hamper (and full laundry bags beside it) seemed insurmountable. It was only by calling my sister, admitting that I had a problem, and asking her to help me with it that I was able to break through what had become a huge mental block for me. She came over to help, and her presence helped keep me on task. With our joint effort, the laundry was finished in one day, all seven loads of it.

Find someone who can do for you what my sister did for me. And don't think "Oh, I'll wait until my house is a little neater before I ask for help." This is the critical time; if you don't get help now, it'll never get done.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:31 PM on January 16, 2010

it's not going to work if you don't maintain. after you do the bulk clearing/cleaning out (which is the easy part, btw) you can make it a habit or something to clear that ONE dish from the dish rack in in passing or whatever. it can be as complicated as you want to make it, or as simple. at the coffee shop i used to work at, we had a rule that every time someone walked into the back room they had to take a dirty dish or mug or fork (just one simple thing) back with them to put it in the sink. this is actually the hard part, making sure that one little thing was cleared away even though it might make more sense to wait until there's more, or I'll be coming right back, or whatever other reason you can think of NOT to maintain. maintenance is harder because you have to constantly be aware of the level of cleanliness instead of waiting till the end of the week to see what it looks like.

not to derail: while I think it's great that someone can be inspired by a tv show that way, it's just so.....depressing.......
posted by bam at 10:43 PM on January 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

After you've taken care of the current mess, keep large outdoor-size garbage bags around. Not just in boxes, but open--ready to put trash into (you can somewhat conceal them in hamper type baskets as long as they're easy to use, or just leave them hooked onto a corner where they're accessible). Dinky little "waste baskets" suck for actually putting things into, basket overflow sucks, and changing itty bitty little bags every day sucks.

Oh, and shell out for the kind with the pull loop to close. So worth it.
posted by anaelith at 3:45 AM on January 17, 2010

I began to tackle my clutter problem when I moved into a new, modern apartment that I had painted and decorated. I invited people over, which required cleaning. Even with this, ultimately the only thing that solved the clutter problem was getting married to a guy that has excellent cleaning habits.

So after your big clean-up, maybe a fresh coat of paint on the walls? New furniture or new coverings for ratty furniture? Dinner party for friends? Try anything that will transform your image of the place from trash pit to fresh, presentable, public friendly space.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:28 AM on January 17, 2010

I cannot recommend Flylady enough, really. I am one of her biggest fans.

(To Vaike: I understand what you're saying about Flylady saying you should jettison the pets~ that bugged me, too, but what I got from that was that it was only if your pets are making everything worse, living in a mess with dog crap everywhere isn't good for you or your pets. Makes sense).

One more thing, is to look at your house through your guest's eyes. What would a visitor see if they were standing there? This has helped me be brutal in decision making, and also makes me pretty happy when I can say, "Oh, they'd say my house was pretty clean!"

Timer, rest, timer, reward ~ reward being reclaimed space and serenity.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 8:17 AM on January 17, 2010

I've spent years being disgusted with the disaster that is my housekeeping. I've begun to keep my place cleaner lately. I think it's a combination of several factors. I started dating someone who's very tidy, and I'm embarassed to have him over when my place is a mess. After cleaning for him, I noticed that my mind is a much quieter place when my house is tidy. And I love cooking, so having a clean kitchen to cook out of makes me that much happier.

My goal for 2010 is to treat life maintenance as a form of self love. I still hate cleaning my house, but I deserve to live in a clean house, so I will make it a clean house.
posted by mollymayhem at 9:35 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice, especially about breaking it into increments. What can I add? My name is peagood and I am the child of a hoarder, a collector myself, a flea market enthusiast with a catch and release program, and a fan of Hoarder shows (and the forums that snark on them). I've helped friends, and my parents informally, and my old job was to sort things and value them and put them through auction. I go to friends' homes and mentally rearrange their stuff (not that I tell them I am doing so). We have a lot of "stuff", it's what we do - but it's tidy.

I think FlyLady has a few great tenets too, and I follow the clean sink idea; the tidy-up before bedtime, and the getting dressed first thing and then treating caring for your home like it's a job to go to. And while I don't follow the emails any more, we do have "x-number of things Boogies" around here as a way to keep stuff from hanging around forever. I also find Peter Walsh's book "It's All Too Much" to be a good way to work through the whole house and set goals.

To help you get started (it's the hardest part - but once you have, the momentum is tremendous), try to look at it impartially (like a guest, as was said above) or ask a friend. If you can take a picture of your space from your entrance point (or stand there and have a cup of something and look around), and then spend some time with it make a "Top Ten" list of what would make the biggest difference (better - do a short-term and long-term list).

For example, right now, doing that I'd say, for the good household in the short-term: we need to put away some our winter clothes from the front hall into the closet; put the last three undelivered Christmas presents in the trunk rather than on the table; dinosaur mountain and its guys need to go away from the window seat; the cat's messed up the curtains again; the rug needs straightening and fur removal; last night's board games need to be put IN the buffet, not ON the buffet; newspapers away...and long-term, a floor pillow can't forever disguise that bit of baseboard we've needed to replace for some time after insulating that outlet and the dog's chair is heinously hairy and needs a washable slipcover. You can set a time for that, or a pick a random number of items to complete; but ticking off things in increments and then crossing them off is far more satisfying than attempting to tackle a seemingly insurmountable pile. And doing the things with the most visible results will have a more energizing effect (hence, the excellent suggestions to take on the trash first). And then rewarding yourself afterword (Say...taking time to answer a question in a forum! Or a fresh status update and profile image! A cookie! But keep it brief.)

Back to your maintenance and moving forward questions - I have two rules/mantras as I'm cleaning: One is, "Stuff expands to fit the space allowed." So, when I had a larger desk in the kitchen, I had more room for a giant basket of paper to sort through. My smaller work table needs to be tidier necessarily, and I can't stash things in drawers now. If you are a person who needs to see things to feel comfortable, then stashing stuff in drawers or bins won't work for you long-term. But if your surfaces allow for things to be visible, but are limited, you're more likely to keep them that way. Personally, I stuff things in one basket near my desk and once in a while have a big sort (Oh - I try to have another rule for that: Handle things once!) - but at least I know most things are in that basket if I were to go looking for them.

The other rule/mantra is that "The longer it sits, the more it looks like furniture." I've stopped seeing those last three Christmas presents, because after all these weeks, they just look like they belong there. So, get in the habit that if it takes less than a minute longer to bring something to its ultimate destination, just do it (When our friends couldn't make it over the holidays, I should have mailed them or put them in the trunk for the next time I'd see them at their place). It's really pushing yourself in a hundred little ways all day long, which initially seems kind of like a pain - but eventually that good feeling of doing the right thing and the resulting order will be its own reward. My example would be that our daughter just ate a cup of yogurt and a banana, and after I finish answering this, I'll go rinse it and put it in the recycling bin in one fluid movement and the peel in the compost bin, rather than dumping it in the sink or on the counter in the kitchen and then in the right bins later. One way makes me feel junky, the other virtuous. Being house-proud is like a little high, every day. And then I picture those goblin ladies from the movie Labyrinth making me carry everything on my back and turning the place into a junkyard, and the fear keeps me motivated.
posted by peagood at 10:21 AM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

A thing that helps me keep from getting overwhelmed is keeping a 10-minute task list (similar to FlyLady's zone jobs, but I never found that following her Zone system worked for me). peagood made me think of it. Whenever you come across something that needs doing, like washing window sills, add it to this list. When I'm in a good housekeeping groove (which I emphatically am not right now), doing something from that list 3-4 days a week makes a huge difference.

Doing a list like that can also help when you're doing the big de-cluttering because it can help keep you from getting sidetracked as you work on the first big purge.
posted by not that girl at 11:00 AM on January 17, 2010

Stop beating yourself up. We live in a culture of excess.

Pick any spot. 1 bag for garbage, paper groc. bag for paper that can be recycled, plastic bag for can/bottles/plastic to be recycled, box for stuff that can be given to Goodwill/Freecycled. Get 1 spot looking good, and move to another. De-cluttering is overwhelming in the aggregate, but do-able in small amounts.

When you fill a garbage/recycling/donate bag/box, take it to the curb or stash it near the door, and reward yourself. The reward can be a star on a chart, a soda, a piece of fruit, 1 download from iTunes, etc. Recycling/donating helps me with the guilt of wastefulness. Yes, it takes more time, but you're building lifetime good habits.

Music helps me a lot. Dance music to get moving, sing along, and get stuff done.

Get help, if possible. Other people have heinous tasks. Help each other out.
posted by theora55 at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2010

"The longer it sits, the more it looks like furniture."

This is so true. I've had an ice chest sitting in my dining room since my holiday party nearly a month ago! (I'm going to take it to the garage after I log out of metafilter!)
posted by vespabelle at 3:21 PM on January 17, 2010

My mother was hoarder. By the time she had a cancer diagnosis and was going in and out of hospital, the house was getting pretty bad. She managed to confine it to rooms that weren't seen by guests, though, and the basement. Her bedroom was impassable, however, and she was sleeping with stuff on the bed with her, and there were the classic little paths through the stuff. I couldn't let her come back to it, so I went in with garbage bags. I just started at the doorway, because progressing into the room was almost impossible. First, just fill up the garbage bags with what you know is garbage. Getting the garbage out at least lets you see the next category of stuff to tackle.

Good luck!

I'm also a natural slob/hoarder who fights very, very hard against it. So like others, my advice is just get the big garbage bags and just start filling it up. Once you get some space freed up, it's lifting the first weight off you, and you may feel up to tackling more.
posted by Savannah at 3:22 PM on January 17, 2010

Host a party. That in itself will make a good incentive to clean up (well, it works for us in this house).
posted by divabat at 3:49 PM on January 17, 2010

I clean other people's houses, for fun. So, while I can't say "hey I've been there" I can say "I've seen worse, here's what we did to fix things..." I'm a non-judgmental cleaner-person and so people let me help because I STFU and just get things done. It's a little disjointed because for me a lot of this stuff comes totally naturally, so it's tough for me to explain how I can look at a room and sort of "see" how it's all supposed to go together. But I can definitely tell you how stuff gets bogged down....

I see a lot of this stuff in terms of some sort of flow. What is the system? How it is supposed to work? How it it not working?

So for an example... the mail. The system is you get bills and catalogs and letters and magazines in the mail. You open it and either pay a bill, read a catalog, read a letter or learn some information. You then [at some point] file or dispose of the mail. How this breaks... you don't open your mail, you sort of open your mail and save the envelopes, you pile the catalogs in a "to read" pile that never gets dealt with, you pile other things on top of the mail and lose mail. How you fix this, you change the system. For me I recycle all my catalogs at the post office [I have a PO box], I always toss my envelopes [you really pretty much don't need them], I have a clipboard where all bills go [highlighted due dates, paid once a week], I have another clipboard for letters, I file everything else. Other people set the bulk of their bills to autopay, or they have a container for catalogs and magazines that's only allowed to be so full and everything else gets tossed, or they write the Direct Mail people to get off of catalog lists, or they toss advertising without looking for it.

My approach for cluttered spaces is pretty much the two pass system. Go through once and get trash, go through again and get other stuff going out [donate, recycle, whatever], then make piles, putting like with like [books with books, clothes with clothes, tools with tools]. Eyeball your things and get a rough idea of what percentage of stuff you'll need to get rid of. Once you've got stuff sorted, look at the space where the stuff goes and see if the space is adequate for the stuff. If not, either pare down or get more places to put stuff. Basically for me it's math. There's no shame in having too much stuff. Forgive yourself for whatever you've done before and just move forward. A lot of the time, with one disinterested person [me, in this case] approaching a problem, it usually takes just a few hours before the place is mostly decent, and a few more hours before the place looks "normal" People sometimes think that stuff like this takes weeks and usually, except for stuff like getting to the thrift store, it doesn't.

Also while you're doing this, keep an ear open to the things you say you can't do, impediments to getting things done *now*. So a few examples from some messy places

- can't get rid of 100+ plastic supermarket bags because we use them for cat litter [this was a combination of not wanting to fill the landfill and inertia]. We kept five, tossed the rest.
- can't put stuff in recycling without washing it first [leading to a queue for washing and drying cans that were heading out anyhow]
- can't take out trash because garbage can has no lid so trash needs to stay in the house til trash day [leading to house full of trash when what was really needed was to get a garbage can lid]
- can't vacuum because we're out of weird-sized vacuum bags [we got new ones]

each of these small issues can seem insurmountable when you've got a big project, so sometimes having a helper person to do some of this stuff [I seriously threw out 80 plastic bags of my sisters and still sort of had to fuss with her about it when she found out] can keep your momentum going. Find a buddy, invite them over for some decluttering and dinner. Say that you're feeling a little sensitive about it, so please no jokes, and spend a few hours in 15 minute increments listening to your favorite music, in your favorite pajamas and I think you'll be surprised at how much you can do. Then think about your systems for the things that are causing your clutter. How they break down and how they need to be fixed.

I'm like a few people in this thread, I have a sort of unyielding routine for a lot of things. Put away clothes, toss out envelopes, brush teeth, do laundry, take out recycling. The more I can make patterns that help me do the things that I know I need to do anyhow, the better I generally feel in the long run. Good luck with your house, it's not as bad as you think it's going to be.
posted by jessamyn at 8:58 PM on January 17, 2010 [14 favorites]

Has Jessamyn just given me permission to throw out my vast grocery bag collection?? What if I need them later??? *deep breath* No, no, I can do this..., I threw out my grandmother's entire drawer of old shoulder pads cut out of dresses, I'm strong...
posted by artychoke at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

On the grocery bag thing: I have this grocery bag container. If it is full, I am not allowed to save any more grocery bags. Most of the time, it's full.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:38 PM on January 18, 2010

This always seems incredibly simple.

Stop making it worse *now*, and every time it bothers you, make the place at least slightly better.

If you get tired of cleaning, at least don't make it worse again.
posted by talldean at 7:18 PM on February 4, 2010

« Older dot the i with a heart   |   How to become more than fluent in English ? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.