I'm all messed up
July 20, 2005 10:07 AM   Subscribe

My house is a mess. It's out of control. No matter what we do, we can't seem to keep it under control for any period of time. We don't have systems for organizing our stuff. Laundry, dishes, bills, garage, the whole nine yards. How do I find a way to keep the house in order? Bonus points: we've got 3 children.
posted by GernBlandston to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's really cutesy, but if you're able to get past that, flylady has some really good techniques and ideas.
posted by amarynth at 10:12 AM on July 20, 2005

In my experience the root cause of a lot of this is lack of storage. I'd say go out and shell out some money for portable cabinets, drawers, storage bins, accordion folders, and milk crates... whatever you can get.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:14 AM on July 20, 2005

second the flylady!
posted by k8t at 10:18 AM on July 20, 2005

Tackle just one area at a time and organize it, and train everyone to use it properly.

Roly is probably on the right track - everything should have a place of its own. You might also just have too much stuff - consider weeding out.
posted by orange swan at 10:18 AM on July 20, 2005

Double ditto for the need for storage. Every time you pick up something from the floor, tell yourself it needs to go in a proper place. That could be the trash, or it could be some other place. If it's a bill, you need to buy a basket or something to put bills in. If it's a toy, you need to get a toy bin or shelf to put it in. Everything has to go somewhere, and you must discipline yourselves (the kids need to be part of this too) to resist the temptation to just put that thing back in the pile on the table. Nowdays when I find something that doesn't belong on the floor, I make loud threats to throw it away if it's not put back on the shelf where it goes.

BTW, we have a magnet on our refrigerator - "cleaning the house while children are growning is like shoveling snow while it's still snowing."
posted by jasper411 at 10:23 AM on July 20, 2005

My wife loves flylady too.
posted by agropyron at 10:25 AM on July 20, 2005

It might seem a little corny, but there's a show on HGTV called Mission: Organization that has pretty good tips.

Some of the things that come up again and again: work on cleaning one small area until you're proud of it (the laundry room, for example)...Have a 3rd party (a relative who doesn't live with you, or a good friend) come in when you decide to tackle a new area--they will force you to admit your attachments to your junk and help you break the bond... things like that.

If you picked up one tip from one thirty minute show and implemented it each week, you'd probably have your whole house shipshape come fall. Especially since it's sometimes easier to digest a concept when it's played out on video, rather than facing a large website or giant organization book from the library.
posted by bcwinters at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2005

Four keys (two of them already mentioned):
  1. Have the smallest amount of stuff you can get by with.
  2. Have a place for everything.
  3. That place should be convenient to where the item is used. If the kids play in the livingroom, have some kind of attractive toy hamper right there. If you have to travel too far to put something away, it ain't gonna happen.
  4. As much as you can, keep even the slightest bit of clutter off areas you want to have clear. For example, if you'd like the kitchen table to be clutter free, don't rest even so much as an envelope on it for more than a minute. Once one bit of clutter is there, it's like a signal okaying further mess. It sounds weird, but it's true.

posted by frykitty at 10:35 AM on July 20, 2005

I just finished digging myself out a huge mess of junk that had been accumulating for years.

I'd bought many books about HOW to do it, and they just accumulated with the rest of the stuff.

BUT this book really gave me the insight into how crummy my life was when I was living like that, and how wonderful it would be to get rid of all the stuff. Just ignore the feng shui part if it bugs you (I did), but there is so much inspiration in here, and for me it was all true.

In my experience, it wasn't about organization. It was all about being brave enough to really pare down your stuff to just what you REALLY need. Although this may be much harder to do with spouse and kids.

Fourth of July weekend, I finally finished the bedroom, the last room in the house that underwent the de-junking process, including all storage areas, cupboards, drawers, closets, etc.

I live in a really small one bedroom house. After getting rid of about 75% of the junk that I'd been stuffing into my house, I now have a peace and joy at being in my home that I'd never experienced before. I not only have a place for everything, but lots of wonderful empty space too. I can enjoy cooking because without gadgets and only essential tools, I can always find what I need right away without hunting thru stuffed drawers and cupboards. And without having to move lots of stuff out of the way, I even enjoy keeping the house clean.

Again YMMV, especially with the needs and wants of others to consider. Could you start with a space of your own, maybe your bedroom, pare it down as much as you can, and maybe then when everyone else wants to be in your peaceful serene space, you can persuade them to try this out in their own and shared spaces.
posted by marsha56 at 10:48 AM on July 20, 2005

Take a look at Home Comforts. It's big, but don't be intimidated. The opening section on easing into a routine is life-altering, if you're messy, clueless, and overwhelmed. There are great suggestions along the lines of every day - every week - every month - once a year timetables, detailed instructions on the best way to do everything, and a real absence of any snotty or superior tone, which often comes with organizational books. Plus, who wouldn't love a housekeeping book that calls your bedroom the "cave of nakedness"?

I tried flylady; the 8000 daily email messages with all caps subject lines were just too much for me, plus it's completely geared to someone who is home all day, which I am not.
posted by donnagirl at 11:01 AM on July 20, 2005

Something that I heart on TLC's Clean Sweep is that if you value something, you need to treat it as if you value it. So, keeping your "treasured" LPs in the garage, for example, isn't treating them very well (unless your garage is where you listen to music, but I digress). I have begun applying this to all of the stuff I "just can't" let go. It's helpful. And the third party suggestion is helpful, too. Make sure it's someone who isn't afraid of making you mad, and swear them to honesty. It will help.

For bills, we use online bill pay. If your bank doesn't offer it, CheckFree offers an independent service. A bill comes in, I sit down and pay it, and then it goes in its folder in the flexifile. It's fabulous.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:01 AM on July 20, 2005

This is in *no way* a suggestion that you and yours may have adult ADD, but this guide to organizing your home comes from the National Resource center on AD/HD and has some straightforward steps on how to start a system for your house.

You don't have to be diagnosed with ADD for this to be useful . . .
posted by jeremias at 11:06 AM on July 20, 2005

My girl and I have a constant conflict over cleanliness and my personal opinion (completely unencumbered by fact or proof) is that the thing that makes the biggest difference is that I try to never avoid a chance to put something where it belongs. If I'm headed upstairs and I walk past something that needs to be there, I pick it up and take it with me. I take off an item of clothing, I pitch it straight into the laundry bin. If I have already picked something up and realize it's trash, I walk to the trash bin.

It's a hard habit to pick up and having a place things go is a big part of it - the things where I fail to do this as well as I can (clean clothing for the most part) are the things where I lack a place or easy place to put them. I notice that down in my workshop where I don't have the amount of pegboards etc that I want is another area I have a problem.

I suggest you make sure you eat the elephant one bite at a time - a big life change is hard and trying to go from slob to pristine is too much at once, particularly with three mess tornados sharing your space. Pick one thing at a time to attack - clothing, magazines, toys, whatever.
posted by phearlez at 11:10 AM on July 20, 2005

My Messy House...a link on this very funny thread: Clutter Porn: The 2002 Messiest College Apartments Show! .
posted by Mack Twain at 11:34 AM on July 20, 2005

What others said. The most important maxim to keep a neat house is this: A place for everything and everything in it's place.

If you don't have a place to put something that's been left out, then it will never be 'cleaned up'. You may simply shuffle it between interim locations, but your place will never be organized.

A place for everything and everything in it's place. It's your mantra now.
posted by unixrat at 11:40 AM on July 20, 2005

Get generic storage, not special storage, and make sure it's easy to use. When I had cd storage where the cd had to line up in fussy slots, I never put them away. Now they're in cd-sized boxes, and they're easy to keep organized.

For the kids' stuff, keep legos together, and matchbox cars together, and doll clothes, etc. If it's all jumbled in 1 big toybox, it becomes undifferentiated junk and the kids don't play with it. In fact, if you can occasionally put toys or games out of sight for a while, they are quite popular when they reappear. I used buckets for all the small toys.

Try really hard to stop bringing stuff into the house, unless you have to have it. Do not buy storage containers until you are ready to use them. The 1st step to reducing "too much stuff" is to stop buying stuff. Kids obviously need new clothes and some new toys, but especially keep the toys in check.

Pick certain times of day, or a morning a week, to work on the problem. The rest of the time, just try to keep from making it worse. It can be overwhelming, and that just tires you out.

Get the kids to help. It starts out being more work than it's worth to get kids to help clean, but they'll learn, and they'll get a lot of confidence and earn self-esteem. Taking the stuff to Goodwill or Salvation Army is a nice way to teach recycling.
posted by theora55 at 12:03 PM on July 20, 2005

unixrat has a good point, but don't expect everything to have a place all at once. You likely have stuff that you have full control over, whether your clothes, toiletries, bills, cleaning supplies or whatever. Start with something of yours that is out in the open/in the way and figure out what its home is. Then put it there. Always. Add more stuff over time. Your family will eventually see what you are doing and imitate you. Remember, you didn't get this way overnight, if you try to change everything overnight you will slip back into your old ways.
posted by Monday at 12:05 PM on July 20, 2005

flylady, absolutely! Her basic philosophy is: build up good routines gradually, don't obsess, and do whatever you can in 15-minute chunks. She says to start by emptying and shining your sink every night, and it's amazing how things to start to fall into place by establishing that one routine. When your kitchen looks clean, it makes the whole house feel much more manageable.
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:46 PM on July 20, 2005

In the underlying issues area, many people with pervasive clutter are also perfectionists as counterintuituive as that may seem. They get bound up in the feeling if I can't completely clean everything perfectly right now, why should I start - i.e., getting overwhelmed. If this strikes a chord, you might start by redefining a new "clean enough" standard for yourselves.
posted by garbo at 12:48 PM on July 20, 2005

In the underlying issues area, many people with pervasive clutter are also perfectionists as counterintuituive as that may seem.

You just made the hair stand up on my neck. This is an ex room-mate of mine EXACTLY. Creepy.
posted by glenwood at 12:53 PM on July 20, 2005

I have 3 children as well. One of them is 2, which means he does not cease to walk around pulling things out, over, spilling, breaking, etc.

We keep things as under control as we can, but we've resigned ourselves to imperfection. Still, our house is far cleaner than many childless friend's houses. But I am both anal and obsessive compulsive, which means I never stop picking things up and throwing things away.
posted by glenwood at 12:54 PM on July 20, 2005

Organizing from the Inside Out is a pretty good book. And if it all seems like too much for you to do yourself, you could always hire a professional organizer.
posted by klausness at 1:13 PM on July 20, 2005

Danny O'Brien wrote about the 10 minute hate method. Put on some loud aggro music and spend 10 minutes picking things up, and putting them away/throwing them away. Do this every day.

My personal technique is pretty much exactly that. Another important point is to pick a starting point. Pick one corner of one room, and just do that. This means that whatever happens, there is something visibly better than it was before (makes you feel good), and also, you have what we programmers call "swap space", ie an working area for continuing to tidy where you can temporarily put things aside before you deal with them.

I also do some habitual sweeps. Before I leave for work, I voom through the bedroom and I pick up dirty clothes, remove coffee cups. When I get home, I put my bag and my shoes away. And so on. Being tidy is built on very small things like that done all the time.

Re children, my daughter is 10. I say to her: "Hannah, we are tidying the living room. I want you take everything that belongs to you, and put it where it belongs. If you don't know where it belongs, ask me, and we will make a place." Possibly yours are old enough to do this?

Children are the enemy of tidiness. If you have three, you may need to lower your standards....

Lastly, do small amounts regularly. It is too dispiriting to confront a house-wide pigsty. Get to clean in steps. Get the kitchen clean and tidy. Get the kitchen and the dining room clean and tidy, etc. Once you have a reasonable standard of tidiness, it's much easier to keep it that way.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:20 PM on July 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

1.) For the kids' stuff, get a laundry basket (or two or three) to leave in a hidden area. Get it out every night before bedtime and have them put ALL of their toys in the baskets. The baskets go back up to their rooms and get emptied (who cares how clean their rooms are). Anything they leave behind in the living area gets thrown out. Really. One tossed toy and it will never happen again.

2.) Get a basket or box or other container for your mail. Throw all new mail into it and go through it at least once per week. Immediately throw out all junk, then divide the mail into two piles: A) bills and B) action items. I used to use a book with numbered tabs for my bills until I went mostly paperless. I stuck the bills under a tab that corresponded to a reasonable mail-in date. Action items, act on them. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and spend 15 minutes taking care of something even though you don't have the time or the energy.

3.) What other stuff do you have lying about? Every few nights we find ourselves clearing off the kitchen counter and the dining table. I don't know where all that stuff comes from. We have a stepped approach -- literally: most items need to end up in the bedroom, master bath or the office, which are all upstairs. So we place items on the stairs and each time one of us goes up, we grab something and put it away.

4.) Dishes -- how old are your kids? They should be doing the dinner dishes. Make a rule that one is never allowed to leave ANY dish in the sink EVER. Either clean it, or rinse it and stick it in the dishwasher. This applies to you and your wife as well. Having a drying rack of some sort near the sink makes this easier.

5.) Laundry -- only do it on certain days. Anything not in the laundry on those days doesn't get washed until next time. I only do laundry on Sundays. Of course, it takes half the day, but how time-consuming is laundry, really? I can get a lot done while I'm waiting for it. After the age of 5 or so, kids should be folding their own clothes and putting them away as well.

6.) Cleaning -- keep cleaning supplies everywhere. I have full supplies in both of our bathrooms so I never have to run to the other one to get something, get distracted on the way and never make my way back. If I notice the toilet is dirty, I stop for 2 minutes to dump in some cleaner, swirl the brush around, wipe the whole thing down with a clorox wipe. Then it's good for another week or so. Maybe if I am not exhausted I'll pull out another couple of wipes and clean off the sink area while I'm at it.

7.) The best thing I've purchased in awhile is one of those padded message boards with ribbon criss-crossing it to stick things behind. Anything I need "eventually" like directions, a magazine article, concert tickets, etc... is on this board. I haven't searched for random things in a long time. And if your family has a busy schedule, you could find an erasable calendar to keep track of everyone's appointments and practices. While you're at it, get a magnetic notepad...best 2-bucks I ever spent at Target. When we run out of things, we write it down on the pad right away so we don't have to think of everything while grocery shopping.

8.) In general -- a place for everything and everything in its place. Not always possible to live by, but most of the time it really is if you just take 30 seconds to do SOMETHING.
**Wipe off the stove after dinner; it might turn into wiping down all the counters or cleaning out the fridge.
**Clean the toilet; it might turn into clearing off the sink or mopping the floor.
**In the bathroom, there should be baskets or containers of some sort for each child's stuff. If there's no room in the bathroom for it, then get them a container with a handle they can keep in their room.
**The simpler your storage "systems", the more likely they are to be used. This is why all of our kitchen utensils are in crocks on the counter. You just stick 'em back in where there's room; no finding the right drawer whether you're putting away or trying to locate something.

9.) Start small. Don't plan to rearrange your habits in one weekend. Start with a corner of the garage and go from there. First you should get everything cleaned out and pared down, then organize it. If you organize as you go along, you will waste time redesiging your systems. You need to know what you're up against before you figure out how to attack it.
posted by suchatreat at 1:31 PM on July 20, 2005 [2 favorites]

I do quarterly household donation drives. We all have things that are easy to get rid of (for the kids, it's toys from vending machines and restaurant meals, for us grownups its papers, stray packaging, and anything expired or irretreivably broken), so that's what we get rid of first. Think of all the places you keep stuff in your house--not just closets, but pantries, medicine cabinets, bathroom drawers, random surfaces, etc.

Then I poke through the closets, as each of us usually have something we've outgrown or don't like or don't use often enough to justify storing.

Learn to be selective about what things you grow emotionally attached to. Once you have decluttered, don't take on anything new without getting rid of something else.

When clutter gets really bad, sweep everything off a cluttered surface into a laundry basket. Then go sit someplace comfortable and sort it into stuff to toss, stuff to file, stuff that belongs elsewhere, etc. Make the kids put away things that are theirs.

We cleaned out our garage last spring and it was hellish: tons of DIY materials, hand-me downs, mementos, video and film equipment, gardening crap, etc. Aside from getting rid of a lot of things and grouping like items, We made it easy to find and get the most commonly used items.

When my husband leaves to go to the grocery store, I clean out the fridge.

Finally, remember that you and your family won't stick to a cleaning and organization scheme unless it is logical and pretty easy to follow. It's a process, not a one-time transformation.

I haven't read many books on the subject, but I liked Simplify Your Life.
posted by whatnot at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2005

I'll second marsha56's recommendation on the Karen Kingston book. There's a bit of new-agey stuff in there but most of it is common sense, and she has a lot of very motivating arguments.
posted by teleskiving at 1:55 PM on July 20, 2005

First and most important thing:
everything needs a place to live where it will be out of the way, but the place each object lives should be near to and accessible from the place it is used.
I guess other people have said this as well, but I can not overstate its importance.

Second: Every day, no matter how tired or busy you are, spend fifteen minutes cleaning. I mean, seriously cleaning. Go through and tidy, and then if you have spare time pick an area of the house and do something more serious.

Third: Every week, two things should happen:
a) A real cleaning where things go back to being in a state of cleanliness that you are satisfied with.
b) Stuff gets thrown out. If you are like me you accumulate junk mail, random crap, bad food in fridge, etc. Pick at least one area and go through and throw away excess stuff (maybe it's your closet, mail pile, fridge, medicine cabinet), and organize everything. This shouldn't take more than 20 minutes.

Fourth: Your kids can help. Besides their own rooms, they should each be responsible for keeping clean one thing. Maybe it is a pet's litterbox, maybe it's the bathtub, maybe it's sweeping the floors, whatever. This is on top of helping out with the family's weekly cleaning, which will be a lot more fun if you all do it together on Saturday morning while listening to some fun tunes.

This system will get you started and keep things under control. Eventaully you will figure out a schedule that meets your needs, but start small and work up to it. Nothing is more daunting than the idea of cleaning a dirty house top-to-bottom. I agree with those above who suggest keeping to a regular schedule.
posted by mai at 3:41 PM on July 20, 2005

Every time I go into a room, I have to put at least one thing away. If that leads me into another room, then I put something else away. It doesn't take a lot of thought, time, or motivation. It keeps the clutter under control so I don't feel overwhelmed when I need to do a big project like scrubbing the bathtub or doing dishes.
posted by idiotfactory at 4:43 PM on July 20, 2005

There's a lot of great advice in this thread. Flylady is good if you're home all day, otherwise most of the cleaning you'll do will be your inbox. Absolutely- less stuff and places for all the stuff you have.

But here's the key- do not adopt a system that does not suit you. You need to think about the personalities of everyone in your family and plan accordingly. For me, it means choosing the easiest route. If I have to open a cupboard and a lid to put something away, chances are I won't do it on a regular basis. If, however, it's an open basket in that cupboard that I just have to drop something in, my chances of actually doing it skyrocket. I do not believe in one-size-fits-all organizational systems. I know so many people that try them and fail. They then feel bad and after a while try another system. Hey, that's why the Container Store is so effective! But you know how you live. So take your time. Think about what you will actually do to put things away, then find the right thing to put them away in.

You can reform. Trust me. Every place I ever lived until the age of 25 or so was a pigsty. Then I figured out my system and I'm a tidy person. Do I remember to sweep? Heck, no. But at least all the crap is away. Not in stacks, but actually away. You may find it very addictive.
posted by wallaby at 6:46 PM on July 20, 2005

This is really silly, but it's what I do. I count. I make a silly game out of it, and tidy as I go. I sometimes make a drink (hey, it's been another day from hell at the office) and then when I feel like moving around, start tidying. And count. Keep moving and keep putting things away. One (book back to the current reading pile), two (dish into the dishwasher), three (piece of paper into the recycle box), four (panties into the laundry hamper), five (earrings I took off when I came home back into the jewellery box), six (hang up the jacket I'll wear again), seven (toss the stale crackers I didn't eat at work), eight (last week's tv guide insert into the recycling), nine (fold and put away something from the clean laundry), ten (gather up husband's empty pop bottles and put in a bag to take to be redeemed)... And so on. Hey, I had two lovely vodka-and's tonight, and put away/tidied 85 things on one drink, then another 31 on my second.

Tasks like emptying the dishwasher or loading it count as 10 in my "things away" total.

And the house is once more, under control. Of course, if I actually put things away in their place (and the "a place for everything, and everything in its place" is a mantra worth learning) at the time, I wouldn't have to do my count-and-tidy thing. But I'm a natural slob, and my silly counting game helps me, anyway.

I couldn't handle Flylady. I work. I'm out of the house at 8:15 and not back 'til 5:30 at the very earliest. I can't get up and be domestic every fifteen minutes. Sorry.
posted by Savannah at 11:48 PM on July 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I should have said that flylady has some good techniques and ideas to adapt. I used her website to get my own routine started, but then developed it more on my own.
posted by amarynth at 7:06 AM on July 21, 2005

I also recommend Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. It is life changing. Just don't read it if you have someplace to go. You'll want to cancel everything to clean and pare down your possessions!
posted by abbyladybug at 5:58 PM on July 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

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