How do I overcome my very messy tendencies?
November 10, 2010 10:34 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to take better care of myself and my surroundings? I feel like a total unorganized mess and need some advice.

Here's some details. I'm a 22 year college student living in a house with 3 other roommates, GPA of about 3.4 (78 average) and a self confessed slob. I didn't realize how messy I actually am until I started dating my organized and clean boyfriend, and was too embarrassed to have him over to my room upstairs because it was too messy. Also feel like my grades would be better if I was better able to organize myself. I'm getting better at organizing my workload and time, started using a day planner and calendar system that seems to work for me. As for the rest of my life, I'm at a loss on what to do to become more organized, and at least reduce my messy tendencies.

I accept that I will never be a clean freak, and much prefer doing anything else BESIDES cleaning. I tend to get into hyper clean mode once the mess finally drives me crazy, clean it to an ok state then left it go until it gets crazy again, either boom or bust. So in essence, does anyone have any advice for creating an organizational system and habits to keep things cleaner? Secondly, how did you overcome your messy/chaotic/disorganized tendencies and how they may be affecting your life?
posted by snowysoul to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
I am in the exact same boat. Here are some things I've done that have helped, to some extent:

- Make a resolution to go to bed every day with the house marginally cleaner than it was when you woke up. This doesn't have to be a big thing (for me, it usually isn't) but just thinking "ok, I need to do SOMETHING, hey lets take out the trash" helps keep me ahead of the tide of entropy.

- Figure out where the mess is coming from and try to head it off at the pass. One thing that helped me IMMENSELY is putting a paper recycling bin (ok, a cardboard box) right next to the front door, so junk mail does not EVER make it onto any other surface in the house. Recycling in general has been good for me, because I hate cleaning but I like sorting.

- Invite people over periodically. I know when I have guests I clean like a maniac, so I use that as a trigger sometimes where things get really dire.

I'm not good about this in general, so I hope other people have better suggestions, but these things do help me some.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:41 AM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I recommend two things: first, a book called One Year To An Organized Life: From Your Closets to Your Finances, the Week-by-Week Guide to Getting Completely Organized for Good; second, meditation. Meditation is a great calming influence that can help your brain straighten itself out and help you focus. And I'm not talking about an hour a day, I'm talking about 5-10 minutes a day. There is a great blog post from Penelope Trunk about the importance of meditating here. (Her entire blog is wonderful, focusing on success in your career, but really hitting every topic you can think of.) It is short, clear and informative, and I think it might help convince you.

Anyway, from one slob to another, I wish you luck. Just tackle one pile at a time and don't let yourself get too overwhelmed. You can do it :)
posted by bethazon at 10:44 AM on November 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

(The tone of this is going to come off a little undesirable. That's not my intention at all! I just lack the ability to write better today. I think it's fabulous that you want to get organized and I hope my advice can help. /disclaimer)

Throw stuff away. and don't buy new stuff.

You don't need it. If it's not being used, doesn't fit, or doesn't need to be used to fix a broken [Thing] - sell it, throw it away, give it to someone else.

Cleanse yourself of stuff. Detach yourself from personal belongings.

Stuff you can live without but hate in your heart of hearts to give up (the teddy bear your grandma gave you), store in a box. Put it in the basement/attic/with your parents. I'm a big fan of bright orange totes.

I'm managed to force myself to be more organized by having a lack of stuff to get unorganized.
posted by royalsong at 10:46 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that you have to take a look at what you get out of being a slob. Do you think it proves you're creative, intellectual, passionate, artistic, etc? I think there's a certain romanticism to chaos and disorder.

But, in fact, plenty of artistic, talented, creative people exist in orderly surroundings. The Guardian had a terrific series on the rooms of writers, musicians, composers, illustrators, and it showed me how other people manage--visual references stir me. Some of these people aren't terribly organized, but there's still inspiration.

It takes, allegedly, 21 days to create new habits. So, pick 1 or 2 that will make the biggest impact on your life--hanging up clothes, making bed, sorting paperwork, or whatever, and work on making that action a habit. Then, master another one.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:58 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Throw things out. It's hard, but less stuff = less mess. Enjoy the look of empty shelves.

I really struggle with housework. The thing I do is straighten a little every day. Every night before I go to bed I make sure that the living room is clean. That way if I have an unexpected guest I know at least one room will be presentable.

I also make sure the dishes are done before I go to bed. If I do those two things every day my house will stay at least marginally clean. On a bad day it might take me 20 minutes to do both things, usually it takes me less than 10. I can handle 10 minutes and the sense of accomplishment makes me sleep better.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:12 AM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Get bins. Put things you don't often use in bins. Put the bins in the basement.

Throw things out. Next time you get into hyper-cleaning mode, look at objects and ask yourself, why am I holding on to this? If there's no good reason outside of the most unlikely scenario, toss it.

Adopt and try to live by the following mantra: "Do it now, while you're thinking of it." Bathroom mirror's dirty? Bust out the Windex now, while you're thinking of it. Clothes on the floor? Into the hamper, now, while you're standing near them.

Keep cleaning supplies in the general vicinity of where they will be used. It'll be easier to use them (now, while you're thinking of it) if you don't have to go far to do so.

Do a couple little things every night to tidy up. Notice how they are much less tedious or time-consuming than you expected. Keep that up.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:50 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I tend to get into hyper clean mode once the mess finally drives me crazy, clean it to an ok state then left it go until it gets crazy again, either boom or bust.

I used to be the same way. The thing is that tends to create its own problem. If you let stuff build up it becomes a huge insurmountable problem, which discourages you form doing it so it builds up...Eventually I came to realize that this was the least efficient way of doing things.Staying on top of stuff takes less time and effort and you don't have to expend mental energy feeling guilty about it. In fact it creates a feedback cycle so once you start doing it you start to feel good about the place you live in and this gives you the encouragement you need to keep it up. What is need then is a way of preventing that cycle, and the key, as it often is is to break it down into smaller parts that are more manageable.

What I do for cleaning is schedule it. You are already using a calendar/day planner so put the housework on it. Make a list of what needs to get down, break it down and do one piece a day. Today is Wednesday so at 11 o'clock I clean the bathroom. The more often you do stuff the easier it becomes but once a week is fine and you only have to a light clean -- so if you do the hoovering you only have to move the furniture once or twice a year for example. I just cleaned the bathroom, did the washing up, wiped the kitchen surfaces and tidied the entire apartment (apart from the messy area/desk that is my wife sole responsibility) and it took less than half an hour.*

The key to tidiness is "a place for everything and everything in its place". To succeed in this though you have to be really rigorous though. You need to create a habit of returning something to its place the moment you have finished with it, or transfer it to the next place to be processed e.g. always take dirty mugs straight to the kitchen (and stack them neatly so the kitchen surfaces don't get cluttered which will create unnecessary mess by itself). If you stick to this you can virtually eliminate tidying as a task, as all you need to do is a quick scan to pick up stry stuff, and you will save yourself lots of time. If I come in the house unpack my bag, put every in its place then take my coat off my coat and put it in the closet with my bag I can get it all done in one or two minutes. if I don't and just dump stuff on the couch I've probably tripled the time it will take to deal with it. I have to traipse back and forth putting things away (time I could have saved when I was standing right next to the closet) I have to spend time moving stuff to sit down etc. Another big time saver is you no longer have to spend time looking for stuff in the mess (which makes you late etc) this can be huge. Finally if something doesn't have a place it is because you need to throw it away or get rid of it. Always. (if it was valuable or useful it would have a place).

*That's not much more time than it took to write this comment.
posted by tallus at 12:05 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Buy some cheap containers, baskets, trays and coat hangers.

Set up a laundry basket for dirty clothes (2 if you do one normal and one delicate load), hang up any clean clothes, put socks in one basket, put underthings in another

Set up 3 trays, one is for papers to be filed, one for papers that need processing in some way, and one for schoolwork. Set up 2 containers, one is for papers that need shredding and one for papers that can be thrown out with paper recycling.
But what about filing? For now when the filing tray is full, get a small cardboard box and put it in there, tape it up and put the date on it and store it in the back of the closet. You can make a plan for having a filing cabinet etc later.

Set up a container for garbage, and one for cans and bottles.

Do you have a lot of computer parts or knitting stuff lying around? Dedicate a basket to it.

This sets you up well for cleaning. I won't go into detail for cleaning except that you should make a nice cleaning kit that has all the basics and rubber gloves.
posted by meepmeow at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2010

The internet tells me that Ben Franklin was the original source of this wisdom:

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

When I have junk piling up on the table/desk/floor, it's usually because that junk doesn't have an official place to be. I either make a place for it to belong, or decide I don't actually need that particular thing and get rid of it.

Occasionally I DO have a place for that thing to be, but it never gets to where it's supposed to be. This is my indicator that the selected place is not easy enough to put things away in, so I figure out a better place for my stuff. For instance, I kept leaving my laundry on the bathroom floor when I got undressed to shower, rather than putting it into the hamper in my bedroom. Once I made room for the hamper in the bathroom, the problem was solved. I'll admit, it wasn't as pretty when guests came over, having this extra hamper in the bathroom. But it sure beats (a) rushing around trying to pick up my dirty laundry from public spaces at the last minute, or (b) having friends see my unmentionables on the floor.

The key is you're trying to make it just as easy to put things away in the right place as to leave them in the wrong place. Put a recycling bin wherever you usually stop with that day's pile of mail. Put a dish or hook for your keys immediately inside the door you use most often. Rearrange your kitchen cupboards so the most-commonly dishwashed dishes are stored in the closest cabinet to the dishwasher, so it's less of a pain to unload. If you take this on as a puzzle to be solved ("How can I make it painfully simple to put this stuff away?") it doesn't feel like cleaning.
posted by vytae at 12:08 PM on November 10, 2010

I accept that I will never be a clean freak, and much prefer doing anything else BESIDES cleaning.

Please don't take this snarky. But if you're going to continue to live by the above, then your life is always going to look the way it does: living in messy, can't-have-people-over, can't-find-things disarray, punctuated by furious miserable cleaning frenzies. Is that what you want?

If it isn't, accept that there's nothing "freaky" about having a pleasant, clean and organized domestic environment, and doing the work (which can be quite meditative) of making and keeping it so. Once you establish your own standards and your own routine (lots of good advice out there for that), do it in peace. Cleaning is caring for yourself, just like eating and exercising and recreating.
posted by cyndigo at 12:16 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Try the 100 thing Challenge. There's nothing to clean if you give most of it away. And if you miss something, you just buy it back!
posted by Avenger50 at 12:54 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Previously from me.

Instead of calling them "routines" or "chores" I call them "anchors." It might sound silly, but think about it.

I've found a good mantra is "right away is the easy way!"
posted by jgirl at 1:42 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Get a small trashcan and a laundry basket. Put everything that's trash in the trash. Put things that are out of place in the basket. Set a timer for 15 minutes, nothing more. And do that every day. It really, really helps. After 15 minutes, walk away -- don't get sucked into tornado cleaning that just reinforces your later depression over cleaning.

Other ideas, if you're getting overwhelmed:
- pick a corner and work clockwise around the room. Anything that needs to be put away should be thrown into the basket rather than you hanging up clothes and getting distracted from your original task of sorting your bookshelf.
- I use the housecleaning lists/calendar -- a list of cleaning and wipe-down tasks that is the same every day plus a few other tasks, different each day, that are more organizational and that help do the deep cleaning out of stuff that tends to turn into surface clutter. I wish I'd had this in college to get me going!
- Just get rid of the books already. As an English major, I had shelves and shelves of books to prove I was A Reader of The Right Sort. now that I'm well past college, I do not have to (and never did) prove anything to anyone. I buy books, read them, and give most away to happy friends. It's incredibly freeing! YMMV, of course, if you're an engineer or math major or books are not your problem.
- things can't be put away if there's no place to put them. Clean out closets and drawers, and then you'll be able to put your stuff away.

posted by mdiskin at 2:42 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also agreeing with cyndigo above. I used to think I was keeping it real by not caring so much about my surroundings, and that I wasn't materialist because my stuff wasn't expensive. But think about this: dirt, dust and disorder make people uneasy. A welcoming home isn't one that's a mess, but one with flowers or the smell of baking bread (or the college equivalent). And if you pile up stuff and just cannot give any of it away, you're as material as the woman with a closet full of designer clothes with the tags still on. (by "you" I mean "me" and anyone who can relate)
posted by mdiskin at 2:47 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have the 'five things' rule. Before I leave the room/go up stairs/go to bed I have to put away/throw out/recycle 5 items. This breaks it down into small manageable pieces for me, otherwise I tend to get overwhelmed.

Five things isn't that much, but it can mean all my clothes hanging up, rather than in a pile beside my bed.
posted by WayOutWest at 3:03 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that the crux of the issue for me is that cleaning is never 'done'. It is an ongoing process, and training yourself maintain a more organized and clean space means accepting that it just takes time. Here are a couple things that help me-

-Making my bed every day. I don't use the bathroom before I make my bed in order to force myself to do it. Since I drink water before bed, this means that sometimes I"m doing a pee dance while making the bed. My 11 month old thinks this is hysterical.

-Leave the sink empty each night. Let the dishes pile up if you must, but if you have at least a clean sink in the morning you will be more inclined to keep the kitchen clean.

-Get rid of about half your stuff. You'll be amazed at how much easier it is to keep a simple space clean

-Work in 15 min blocks. I set the timer, and then clean for 15 minutes. When the timer dings, I'm done. If you do this twice a day it will change your house.

-I find that cleaning the bathroom is the worst, so I do it every day. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it doesn't get gross at all in one day, so I spend about 90 seconds to wipe off the counter and swish the brush in the toilet while the shower is warming up, and then I never have to deal with a truly gross bathroom again.

-Use cleaning supplies that make you happy. I like peppermint dr. bonner's castile soap, it smells nice and makes me smile.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 4:15 PM on November 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all your help guys! I'm looking forward to trying some of these out, much appreciated!
posted by snowysoul at 4:22 PM on November 10, 2010

I had this problem for years too, and in my experience it takes a long time to transition from a perpetually messy house to one organised enough that you can have unexpected visitors and not freak out. Don't try and reinvent the wheel - you just need to start making small changes here and there until they become habits, and over time you can build on them until you have a routine (and a nice clean house).
I started in the kitchen, because I realised that if the kitchen is tidy, the whole house seems tidier. Plus things get really skanky really quickly in a messy kitchen. The kitchen is also kind of easy, because generally everything already has a pretty obvious place to be (i.e fridge/pantry/cupboards etc). Wash up at some point before you go to bed and leave everything on a drainer to air dry. Put it all away while you're boiling the kettle and making breakfast in the morning. Voila, clean kitchen for the day.
The advice about a laundry basket is fantastic, this will keep your room from looking like an explosion in a dress factory. Dirty clothes go straight in the basket, then, at the end of the week, strip your bedding and do all your laundry in one go. While my stuff is in the machine, I spend maybe 20 minutes straightening up my room and giving it a quick dust/vacuum, putting on clean sheets, and then you have a clean bedroom and your washing isn't even on the rinse cycle yet.
Paper-related clutter can be dealt with by reading your mail over the bin, using online banking to pay bills, filing anything school-related so you can find it later, and generally keeping an eye on places where papers start to pile up.
All of this is a lot easier if you don't own a lot of stuff. I am a hypocrite in this regard as I have a lot of art supplies and a lot of books (both of which are kept under control with shelving - my life changed the day I bought two second hand bookshelves and finally had a place to put everything). I decided to dramatically pare back everything else, so that even if I do end up with books and paper everywhere, at least I don't have a lot of crockery/knick-nacks/clothing etc to contend with.
I used to insist on a day's warning before I had anyone over so that I could power-clean the house, usually in some sort of 8 hour frenzy, and believe me, it's a lot easier to change than you think, if you start small. Good luck!
posted by sleep_walker at 4:25 PM on November 10, 2010

The above advice is great. Once you've done some of the basic stuff (laundry basket, try to do a little cleaning more frequently, in 15-minute chunks, instead of mega-cleaning and then letting it slide for weeks) the next thing to watch out for is: what's cluttering up your space? Figure out what it is and make a place for it. Avoid having some elaborate filing system, just have some box or basket or shelf for that particular kind of stuff.

For instance, if it's clothes that you've worn once and don't want to put away because you might wear it again, get a basket dedicated to those. If it's notes and papers for school that you need because you're in the middle of a project, have one area (preferably delineated with a tray or box of some kind, to avoid spread) for that stuff. You don't necessarily need to go out and buy lots of organizational tools for this -- regular cardboard boxes will do, or whatever random containers you happen to have around. If you do want to buy something, it's easy and cheap to get a large plastic drawer unit that looks like a filing cabinet, which will provide lots of extra storage. Just have a place for each type of thing that makes it easy to put that thing away. Mess happens when either there's no place to put something, or it's too hard to do.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:09 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I second/third/fourth everyone who has said, "own less stuff". I like that saying that you oughtn't own anything that you don't know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

As for clothes, chuck anything that you regularly look at in your closet and go, "" You know exactly what I'm talking about, that sweater that you thought you look nice on you but pulls up weirdly in the back and so you never wear it. It's clutter, get it out! Plus someone else might love it!

But I've also known a lot of people who claim they are messy and disorganized who have had success with the FlyLady stuff.
posted by blue_bicycle at 7:11 AM on November 11, 2010

« Older melodrama, fade-out, third option?   |   Is there a way to do volunteer work at home from... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.