Confessions of a Neatnick Slob
August 1, 2005 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Neurosisfilter: I'm not very neat. Think "disheveled". Also, I hate to clean on a deep level, it's like a resentment. It makes me angry. Also, if my house isn't perfectly neat I feel like I'm a bad person and my life is spiraling out of control. I get depressed and angry and mean. You can imagine my dilemma.

Is there any hope for me? This seems to be getting increasingly worse as I get older. Not my tendency to leave stuff out around the house, which might actually be getting better, but my inability to cope with the fact that I do it. I've become unable to be happy while my house is out of order, and unable to keep it in order, and unable to not be miserable at the thought of putting it in order.

My parents are not to blame for the situation, but I wonder if my upringing did have an influence. My mother is a neat freak, my father is the type of guy who leaves his socks in the middle of the floor. (yeah they're divorced) When my mother would clean house every week it was one long wrathful act, full of seething anger and harsh words directed at anyone in her path. Hell hath no fury like my mama cleaning the house. My dad is sloppy, though in a fundamentally grosser way than I am. I'm wondering now if I ended up with my parents' worst traits. I have my father's tendency to let things fall apart, and my mother's tendency to feel that it's an indication of deficiency of character, and turn cleaning into an unpleasent and emotional business.

Can I learn to not mind being sloppy? (And if so, how do I deal with people's certain judgement of the condition of my house, and by extension, me?) Can I learn to like to clean? Can I learn to not ever make a mess? I'm sure anyone who does any of those three things thinks it's pretty easy, but they're all against my nature.

It's turning into a major source of unappiness, and it seems like such a silly thing to be unhappy about. Which makes me feel silly and unhappy. Which, in turn, makes me feel silly and unhappy. Is there anything I can do?
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You don't like thinks messy? Not a snark, but can you afford a maid or a cleaning service to weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or whatever? It sounds like part of what makes you unhappy is when stuff builds up from you sloppiness- this way, you can still be messy but it gets clean.
posted by jmd82 at 2:44 PM on August 1, 2005

My girlfriend just messaged me this link with "do you think I posted that??" so you have some idea our roles in this dance.

Putting aside the question of what else is going on in your mind that drives you to engage in a behavior that you are unhappy to engage in (and a matter for you and a shrink, methinks), I'd suggest two things I think are important with regards to being clean(er).

One, part of not living in a mess is not being messy. You hate cleaning but do you hate putting things where they belong? If you don't want to go through the house picking up clothing then a big part of removing that stress is not leaving clothing where you have to pick it up. Not letting things get out of order is obviously not something that's 100% achievable but you can build habits that have nothing to do with cleaning that will help your misery here. Don't take off your shoes anywhere but where they should go. Ditto socks and the rest of your clothing. If you pick up a magazine to take into the john, take it right back to the coffee table when you're done. Some of this is easier than you'd think - after all, you didn't sit down to eat without carrying over your plate. How hard is it to pick it back up when you stand and put it straight into the dishwasher? These are just habits you have to develop.

Two, try to stop thinking of cleaning as this giant monolithic task. If your aversion is really that strong then just pick one tiny little thing (all clothing off the bedroom floor, emptying all the garbage cans, straightening out the coffee table) and do it then STOP and reward yourself with something. Do something the next day. Try to overcome this need to be perfect: you don't have to clean everything all at once to achieve your goals. Eat the elephant one bite at a time, over time.
posted by phearlez at 2:56 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm finding that doing five- or ten-minute "cleaning flurries" -- scrubbing the toilet or tub, or wiping all the kitchen counters, or picking up all the mail that's strewn around the living room -- once or twice a day has diminished that feeling that I need to spend the next three hours THOROUGHLY cleaning EVERYTHING or else I'm a BAD PERSON.

I, too, had a mother who did the marathon house-cleaning once a week. I used to do it, too, until I realized I was avoiding it because it seemed like such a huge, sucky time commitment. But, like you, I *hate* having a messy house (which... you'd never know if you could currently see my house...).

In any event, doing short, random bouts of cleaning makes me feel like I've actually accomplished something (rather than just "failed" at getting the entire place sparkling), keeps me from totally detesting cleaning, and somehow makes the mess seem easier to handle.

Also, if you're a woman, it might help to realize that it's very easy to succumb to housework=woman's work, therefore messy house=failure as a woman. I don't think I've ever had anyone say that to me, and yet I feel it a LOT. Feeling that conflict doesn't make you neurotic, or unusual... maybe knowing you're not alone will help?
posted by occhiblu at 3:02 PM on August 1, 2005

phearlez is saying most of the things I was going to:

If you want to try to keep things un-messy, you have to do it incrementally throughout the day. Period. It doesn't have to be phearlez's suggestion that you put everything in its place immediately (though that's the surest method); you can just pick things up a few times a day, say. Take five minutes to put things where they go, etc.

In the same vein, break it up. Do this here, do that there, don't feel like you have to tackle the whole goddam thing at once if you have a real mess on your hands.

As for making cleaning fun? Fun might not be the right word, but I find I do a much better job of getting my clean on if I'm blasting some good music. Put an album on that you like, maybe something high energy, and you may be surprised just how much you can get done in 45 minutes without cursing every moment of it.

Can you learn to not mind being sloppy? I do not know. I sure don't mind being sloppy, but my wife isn't big on it; we end up striking a balance with occasional cleaning fits when things slide too far over to messy. Sloppy itself is neither here nor there, but if minding being sloppy means minding what others think of your home, you're going to have to take a pretty serious look at how you relate to your friends/relatives/miscellaneous visitors and think about how much of this is your concerns over what they think.

Mostly, the trick, with most things, is to not obsess about it.
posted by cortex at 3:10 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a sloppy house. Learning to not hate cleaning was a lot easier for me than learning to put things away. So, my advice would be to start with cleaning. Now I don't hate cleaning, but it still takes a bit of effort to get on with it. Putting on music and, as has been suggested, giving myself a reward post-cleaning, help. Also the idea of showing off my room to others. Also keeping in mind that I'm going to do one task at a time, and not thinking about the entire house.

If I need to clean in a half hour or so because someone is coming over, it is much less painless... mostly because this avoids thought. So to the extent you can avoid thought and choice in the matter, perhaps the better. Can you set a routine where you simply will do it for 15 minutes every other day? Routine setting worked with exercise as well, turning me from gym-dreader to gym-goer (if not gym-lover), because I simply go, without thinking. So maybe this strategy can work with cleaning.

Perhaps you can relate cleaning to some other procrastination problem that you have overcome in order to convince yourself that it's OK to have procrastinated in the past, but much better to cease. So much of the circle of procrastination for me was the self-loathing (OK maybe a strong word), so if you can try to decrease that at the same time it will likely help.

Keeping a calendar with stickers for each chore I do in a week helps. I can look over the last month, and if I see several stickers it means I'm doing well, and that feels good. This helps track progress and decrease the whole self-loathing aspect by showing you just how much you've done.
posted by lorrer at 3:10 PM on August 1, 2005

I'm not as severe a case, but I know where you're coming from anon. What's been helping me most recently is about the only bit I could be bothered taking from Getting Things Done* -- if it takes less than two minutes to do, do it NOW.

So, instead of leaving your plate on the table, you put it in the dishwasher. Instead of dumping your clothes on the floor, just pop them in the hamper/machine. It's become very effective for me, and really gives me a sense of everything being in control.

My mother's solution (when she got too busy to be the clean-freak) was jmd82's final suggestion - $AU 50/week gets her a cleaner for a couple of hours who do a good-enough job of cleaning the majority of the house (living areas dusted/vac'd, bathroom cleaned, kitchen done, one other job (eg set of windows)). Luxury. You haven't lived until you've come home to a house someone else has cleaned.

*Or at least, I'm told it's from GTD. It may not be.

On Preview: what pretty much everyone else has said.
posted by coriolisdave at 3:13 PM on August 1, 2005

Hire a housekeeper/cleaning service. Every two weeks is a good interval. The cost is minimal compared to the cost of therapy.

Wisdom consists of knowing what you're good at, and what you aren't.
posted by jellicle at 3:27 PM on August 1, 2005

Apart from all the other advice, if you can't get yourself to go around and pick things up, you can at least make the bed. It's really easy and it makes everything look soooo much better.

Still not satisfied? Put some loud music on and wash the dishes. Those two things alone (bed & dishes) are easy, make a big difference, and will make you feel a whole lot better.

I'm a big slob myself with your same guilt issue and this really helps. Sometimes after the dishes, I'll keep the momentum and pick up some stuff that's laying around. The music helps so much. Good luck.
posted by redteam at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2005

I'd like to add that, much as you might think it would help, the TV often leads to mindless staring without moving. Better is music or, if you need tv-like entertainment, talk radio. Books on tape could work, or you could even get soothing forest-sounds music.

You can even combine your reward with work. Example: if the, say, books on tape are ones that you really like, and you can only listen to while cleaning, you might actually look forward to the chores because that's when you get to hear the next chapter.
posted by lorrer at 3:43 PM on August 1, 2005

Yep - I paid for a cleaner for the first time yesterday, and it was worth every dollar. Like many of us, my mom was a bit of mad cleaner, but rather than inherit a responsibility to keep my place clean, I look upon it as spending my life cleaning as she did is not the way I want to live. Come on - we throw wads of cash away on houses, cars, gas, clothes, food, booze etc etc: I'm sure you can fit a cleaner in if it does make you that unhappy.
On the topic of learned behaviour, being messy is a bit like smoking - if you want to give it up, you have to be mindful and identify the processes that are going on in your head when you're about to make a mess/ have a cigarette. You can't look at an empty pack of cigarettes and wonder how you're going to give up smoking - you have to look at a full pack and wonder what you're going to do to stop the behaviours that are bad for you.
posted by forallmankind at 3:43 PM on August 1, 2005

I grew up with a neat freak, yet came around to be the sort of person that almost never cleans (example: sheets not washed for 3 months or more; vacuum maybe once a month, less in low-traffic areas)... YET, everyone who comes over to my house comments on how clean it is.

Here are the main components of my style:

• I realized that my mother's once-a-week full house clean amounts to 52 days a year spent cleaning. That's nearly two months! I don't want to be like this; I want to use as much as my time as possible on other things. This realization makes me not so much hate cleaning as feel dismissive of it.

•  I started out by being careful not to be messy. I don't splash stuff around when I cook, I check my feet when I come in from outside, etc. You'd be surprised at how much time and energy you can save by just not creating the mess in the first place.

• I don't keep anything I don't need. I'm ruthless about it. I use Freecycle and the Salvation Army and I sell books I don't like on Amazon and anything worth anything on eBay. Not having too much stuff prevents a lot of mess.

•  The next thing is to understand how things get messy and put systems in place to prevent it. Put a basket on the floor of your bathroom and your closet and wherever else you tend to dump clothes, and start dumping the clothes in the basket instead of on the floor. It doesn't make your house guest-ready, but it's a lot easier to collect a few baskets and shove them in a closet when someone's coming over than it is to collect armsful of clothes and find somewhere to put them. Do the same thing for newspapers or mail or bottles/cans or whatever else piles up.

• Otherwise, do like the others here have suggested and put stuff away as you finish with it. Don't consider your laundry task done till the laundry is put away. Do the same with dishes after meals. But if you can't or won't, at least stick the dishes in a dishpan in the sink (with soapy water) and put the clothes in a clean-clothes basket (rather than on the floor or the bed).

• Buy good cleaning products that work quickly and without effort. Those Tilex shower sprays, for example.

• The times I do clean, I try to treat it like a meditation. I think I learned this when I worked at a store and spent so much time folding shirts that were just gonna get unfolded. I don't rush around clattering the vacuum and bashing into things. I chill out and run it in stripes as though I'm painting, and my brain starts working on thoughts and problems and I usually come out feeling more calm and organized than when I started.

All that said, it probably helps to be a motivated person. I've noticed that some of my friends who feel disorganized and hate to clean also hate going to Linens and Things to buy baskets. If this is like you, you could hire a personal organizer (or an organized friend) for a day to go out and get you this stuff.
posted by xo at 4:06 PM on August 1, 2005 [1 favorite]

A big part of not making messes is having a system of organization for your various belongings. I grew up messy, but since my early 20's, I've been slowly becoming more organized, which in turn created less mess and less need for big time cleaning.

Getting organized mostly means dividing all physical belongings into categories, then deciding where those categories belong in your home. Once you're happy with the placements, you just have to keep putting things back in the place as you find them around the house. If it's a constant thing, you never really think of it as cleaning, and it only becomes a few minutes here and there.

There are also added benefits to keeping things in their place. I'm doing my laundry right now, so I'll use this as an example: When you finish your laundry, if you take the extra 10 minutes to fold everything and put things on hangers, you'll avoid the extra time spent later ironing and looking for stuff you can't find in the pile of clothes on the floor. If you think in terms of preventing later problems rather than spending time right now, that can be a big step toward constant upkeep rather than big messes and cleaning nightmares.

on preview - a lot of the same things xo said - I'm also a bit of a minimalist which helps too.
posted by p3t3 at 4:11 PM on August 1, 2005

It's turning into a major source of unhappiness

To summarize what your choices are:

(1) To hire someone to clean (doesn't address neatness issue); [mentioned above]

(2) To follow some or all of the advice above about how to attack disorder, and how to think about it;

(3) To hire someone to help you attack the disorder, and help you change your approach to it (yes, there are professional organizers);

(4) To see a counselor (of some type - a psychiatrist may be overkill) about your unhappiness. Some things are best dealt with interactively, and AskMeta, as good as it is, isn't that interactive (particularly for anonymous postings).
posted by WestCoaster at 4:48 PM on August 1, 2005

if folding and putting away laundry in particular is a problem, this shirt-folding technique can make it a lot faster. I always used to just stack unfolded t-shirts (which took a lot of space) so that i could avoid folding them but not end up with a pile of wrinkled shirts.

other than that, i'm pretty much in the same situation as you.
posted by clarahamster at 6:46 PM on August 1, 2005

I am naturally not a particularly neat person, however in the past year or so I've improved things quite a bit. The key thing for me was not trying to set aside particular time, but just to do small things regularly. It helps if you set a rule that you will do something before doing something else, such as eating, going to sleep, etc. I generally have a few things that I consider equivalent, but the main thing is just picking up general clutter. For this, the task is to pick up 25 items and put them in their proper place. What I like about it is that it's pretty fast, and the faster you go, the faster it gets done. I have various rules about what constitutes one item -- obviously you can make up your own. Just picking up 25 items per day for a couple of weeks can turn a very cluttered appartment into something that's at least halfway presentable. Alternates to picking up 25 things are usually something like vacuuming, cleaning counters in the kitchen, cleaning the tub, or cleaning up the bathroom sink and related areas. I've also found that it's important to not get hung up on things not being perfect. A few things laying about is way better than total disorganizaiton.
posted by cameldrv at 7:31 PM on August 1, 2005

As Professional Organizer, let me second the suggestion that you consider working with one. (That's for the "out of order" part of your concern.) The link posted earlier will help you find someone in your area, if you are in the United States at least.

One thing to remember is that there are different ways to be organized. For example, some people are more visually oriented, and don't do well with solutions that involve everything being put away where it can't be seen. A good Professional Organizer will work with that and help you develop approaches that work for YOU. This is not a hopeless situation by any means.

This is not at all a silly thing to be concerned about. Our home environments affect us tremendously, in many ways.
posted by jeri at 7:58 PM on August 1, 2005

p3t3's advice is spot-on. The advice "put things where they belong" only works when you've got a place for everything. That's the key. Find the "correct place" for all your stuff.

The basic rule of thumb is this: when you want something, the first place you think it might be is its "correct place." For example, I have a tool box. If I want a hammer, that's the first place I'd think to look. If the hammer isn't there, it's in the Wrong Place.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:40 PM on August 1, 2005

Sometimes I make muffins or cookies. I only have one baking tin, so in between waiting for batches to bake and cool, I muck around the house picking up random shit in my A.D.D. way. Then the timer goes off, and ooh! Cookies! And then I put another batch in and wander around, scrubbing the sink and then watering the plants and maybe organizing my socks. Fifteen minutes later, more cookies. It's honestly the only way I've ever been able to bring myself to clean all those things that don't stick out as glaringly messy.
posted by redsparkler at 8:44 PM on August 1, 2005

Anonymous, I'd like to Third the suggestion of finding a professional organiser. They will reassure you that you are not alone in feeling like this.

And if so, how do I deal with people's certain judgement of the condition of my house, and by extension, me?

This may be something you need to try therapy to come to terms with? It could be your Mother talking. You seem to be an intelligent, articulate and self-aware person - It isn't very likely that people judge you on how neat your house is. If you find yourself judging others like this try to give yourself a mental shake!
You have my best wishes, I really hope you can get some solution here.
posted by Catch at 1:41 AM on August 2, 2005

Giving in to the temptation to play armchair shrink here, but it sounds to me like you're recreating the emotional environment of your parents' failed marriage in your own head. (Anger, resentment, loss of control) Unresolved issues? You don't have to do this to yourself.

Here's an alternative perspective: People who put the value of cleanliness higher than the needs and feelings of the people around them are the ones deficient in character. Be kind and thoughtful to your guests, and the only ones who will judge you on how your house looks are cold, rigid and petty.

Be kind and thoughtful to yourself too. Relaxation therapy? Scatter stuff around your living room, then put on your relaxation tape and stretch out on the couch.

In a room with conspicuous yet mild mess, practice focusing on someone else- start a conversation about their love of string instruments, or fear of forest fires. Try to anticipate their needs (can I get you a drink? are you cold?)

Every time you feel bad about your messiness, remind yourself of your parents' divorce, the emotional upheaval, the feelings, watch what reactions you have to these memories. Talk to your inner child, give him or her a cookie.

Clean your house as an act of love. (This is a bonafide form of meditation-- washing dishes, vacuuming, etc) Think about how you're doing this for your loved ones, because you care for them. Think about how you're doing this for yourself because you deserve a comfortable environment. Stop cleaning when you start feeling negative.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 4:41 AM on August 2, 2005

You need two things:

- A cleaning service.

- A cognitive therapist.

The first has been addressed extensively. I seriously recommend considering the second. Granted, I over-analyze a lot of the questions around here, but the fact that you're posting anonymously about something as innocent as cleaning, and devoting a significant chunk of your post to your relationship with your parents, raises a red flag. You may be dealing with two separate issues (cleanliness and your parents), but it definitely seems that the latter is exacerbating the former.
posted by mkultra at 7:53 AM on August 2, 2005

I suggest finding and reading this book:
Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson
I first heard about it from Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools page. I got it from the library and then bought a used copy from Amazon.

Cheryl Mendelson is an attorney and professor that happens to like having a clean and well-functioning house.

The book, while it will not actually clean for you like a cleaning service, may help you with the motivation and methodology needed to do it yourself.

Note: this is not a self-help book. It serves the same function as the O'Reilly books for coding, or the service manual for your car, not the Men are from Mars... genre.

I used to fall into the perfectionist/procrastinator/fatalist cycle with cleaning. It goes something like this:
A. It's just going to get dirty again.
B. I'll clean it later.
C. If I'm going to clean this at all, it had better be perfectly clean (spends 3 hours on bathroom tile, tub, and floor, using every cleaning product and device in the house)
D. Wow, that sucked. And now I'm back to A. Better sit at B. for a while, that'll show 'em.

Ms. Mendelson describes every aspect of housekeeping, from cooking to dishes to laundry and cleaning, all the way to insurance and liability on your property and legal employment of help. Each subject is broken down into the most basic scientific or historical chunks necessary: not just the different kind of cleaning products, but the chemical basis of how they work.

Far beyond interesting trivia, this information helps. In my case, it removes the emotional drama out of making the decisions needed to alter behavior. The facts boil down to:
A. the floor is dirty
B. cleaning with a soap and water solution, followed by a rinse, is the most effective way to make it clean. No more, no less. There are faster ways to clean, but they are not as effective. There are more difficult ways to clean, but they offer no additional advantage.
C. I can either do B. now, if I have time and energy, or do it later, when I do.

Also, cleaning product labels and instructions lie to you. They lie in their teeth. You can't have a clean and dust free house for only 15 minutes a day with one wonder product. Cleaning is like any other work: it takes time and effort equal to the desired degree of perfection in the result. With the right tools and methods, that work can be done efficiently, but never instantly.

Ultimately, though, the more profound thrust of her work is to put the focus on you, the fact that taking care of your surroundings is really taking care of yourself.

As a MeFi user, I'll indulge in some profiling and guess that you are well educated, literate, and technically minded. You probably own a computer and take pride in understanding, operating, and maintaining it in a way that is efficient and useful. With the right methods, you might be able to leverage those same habits into the physical realm.
posted by sol at 9:37 AM on August 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Home Comforts is indeed an awesome book, but also realize that what she describes is an idealized lifestyle that is impossible for most mortals to achieve without a full staff.
Use her advice on how to clean things, but really you don't need to change the sheets every other day and wash the kitchen floor every week.
posted by exceptinsects at 2:58 PM on August 2, 2005

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