How do we get on top/stay on top of being clean and organized?
October 12, 2014 12:08 PM   Subscribe

OK...really I want to be somewhat clean and somewhat organized. Can anyone point to a method of organizing and cleaning a household in addition to a methodical way of purging things? My goal is to get to a point of being able to maintain a certain level of organization/cleanliness. It is to the point where I am embarrassed to have anyone over.

My partner and I are in our mid-30s with children. When we moved in together (he moved into my house, now it is our house) we did not take the time to go through everything and purge. We are both packrats and have TOO MANY THINGS. We are both disorganized people. This bothers me more than him (lots of piles, clutter, unpacked boxes, clothes). He put dozens of boxes in the basement; I already had dozens of my own boxes down there. We will look for items in boxes, resulting in boxes vomiting items all over the basement. There is more in the attic, but honestly that doesn't worry me as I don't have to look at it daily. There are some things I won't touch, like his massive baseball card collection. I just want it neatly stored put away as opposed to scattered on the basement floor.

Our house is also kind of dirty. I feel like I used to be able to maintain a semi-clean household most of the time on my own, but really not great at it. Now it is harder with family life, and my partner just doesn't really see dirt, grime, dust, etc. He occasionally completes some chores, which is a different, but related issue. I can't say I blame him for avoiding/forgetting it/being too tired to do it.

I feel weighed down by this every day. On top of trying to do daily household chores like laundry and dishes, how in the world do I try to organize all of this stuff and have time to do things I actually like to do on top of it? This is increasingly making me anxious, and I feel like it falls more on me since it bothers me more than him; I knew going into this relationship that he didn't see maintaining a clean house as a priority, so I am not surprised that our house is like this. This is not a dealbreaker; our life is pretty fantastic. I don't want to live like this forever, but I think he would be ok with it.

Ultimately, I want to know what *I* can do to move things forward so that I don't feel crushed by stuff and saddened by my surroundings. We don't have a lot of money, but I would consider saving up to hire someone to help if I knew that it would help me long term.
posted by retrofitted to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Are you willing to purge, or is this a question of being organised despite the boxes of stuff?
posted by Omnomnom at 12:24 PM on October 12, 2014

Minus children and attic and basement, yeah, I know this feeling! Many people have recommended UFYH to me, but it's still something that has to actually be DONE, so...that part I can't help with.
posted by wintersweet at 12:25 PM on October 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding UFYH (and adding a NSFW language tag). I have friends who enjoy it, and I've adopted some of its techniques (20/10) with great success.

Don't try and do the whole house at once- you'll get overwhelmed, and that'll just put you in a negative feedback loop where you try and do all this cleaning, you get exhausted, and nothing looks better. Pick a small area/task, do it for 20 minutes, rest for 10. Repeat if you can.
posted by damayanti at 12:28 PM on October 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I need to purge, I toss ten things in ten minutes each day. What makes it easy is that I count trash in among the ten things. So, some days, when I am brave, it can be ten items of clothing. When I am not brave, it may be nine things that are trash anyways, and one actual item, even if it is a hair clip. This method makes me not fear the purging while building the habit of purging. I also get to feel accomplished after ten minutes, which makes the next days easier and easier, until you actually start to look forward to it.
posted by Vaike at 12:29 PM on October 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

I found that hiring a professional organizer off Yelp was immensely helpful for this. (See my past questions for how incredibly stressed I used to be by all the clutter and filth in my house.) No advice on ways to deal with this myself helped because it was just too stressful and tiring. An organizer will not have the mental weight of all this shit on their brain so they can fly through it and help you figure stuff out. You might only need one or two sessions. I really can't recommend this enough.
posted by bleep at 12:37 PM on October 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

20 minutes a day toward clean or organize.
posted by 724A at 12:39 PM on October 12, 2014

And as for choosing someone, I overthought it a lot and flailed around on Google for months until one day I got fed up and just started calling numbers on Yelp until someone picked up.
posted by bleep at 12:39 PM on October 12, 2014

BASEMENT SHELVES made of whatever material is most handy -- buying steel ones, building wooden ones, sticking together terrible ones of planks and cinderblocks -- to put the boxes on.

LABEL THE BOXES. Even if you just list what's in them and it isn't very coherent. I got bright-pink masking tape and wrote on the masking tape so it's easy to see at a glance and I can tell which boxes aren't labeled yet.

PURGE THE WORST. I've been purging my closet this year and I knew I wanted to get rid of half of my shoes (I had more than 80 pairs) but just looking at 80 pairs and going "GAAAAAH which half do I pick?" was way too much. Instead, I decided which were the five worst pairs that I was least likely to ever want to wear again. That was pretty easy! A week later I thought, "While I'm up here putting away laundry, I'm going to pick the two worst pairs of shoes," and picked two more. And so on. It got easier as I went because I had fewer and fewer to look through and compare, and the overall task seemed smaller and smaller. Instead of deciding all at once what to keep and what to throw away, it's okay just to pick the "bottom 5%" to get rid of, and come back to the rest of it. It's pretty quick to pick just a couple things, you're making progress, and you're making the main task smaller all the time. (As I've been going through my work clothes, which are hard to part with because I can always think of a reason I MIGHT wear them, I've been tricking myself with, "Okay, what ONE thing are you least likely to wear again if you have to get rid of ONE thing?" I can always find ONE thing.) This has seriously changed my pack-rat life. Instead of tackling the WHOLE job, I just chip away at it from the bottom, and it does itself!

RIGHT OUT THE DOOR. Things I'm getting rid of go right out the door to the trash can or to the trunk of my car (for donation). Even if it means I drive around with junk in my trunk for a week before I can drop by the donation point or see the friend I'm giving it to; if it stays in the house I will have Purger's Remorse. (In the same vein, give up the idea of garage sales and ebay and whatnot until you've got it more purged and under control.) If you don't drive, put a box or a bin in the front closet or somewhere else, drop things in it, and close it away out of sight.

My husband and I are ALSO both packrats (I'm more of a reformed packrat, but I must fight the tendency) and I am much more bothered by it than he is. One other strategy we have is that I have claimed certain rooms -- the living room, the kitchen -- as (relatively) clutter-free and I am absolutely ruthless and people who leave their crap in that room, I dump it on their desks or beds. We designated the basement rec room as my husband's room and he can keep all the crap in the world down there if he wants, as long as it all fits in that room and I don't have to see it. The other rooms (bedrooms, dining room) are in a constant wash of clutter waves that I battle back and then creep up on me, but I can at least go in my clutter-free living room and working kitchen when it's too much to deal with.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:56 PM on October 12, 2014 [29 favorites]

Flylady, without a doubt. Ignore the Southern Church Lady vibe about the site and concentrate on the 100% rock solid tips for de-cluttering and cleaning.
posted by essexjan at 12:58 PM on October 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Everybody has their own best ways of doing things, so you might have to try several different approaches -- don't get discouraged when something doesn't work, because it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you.

Your problem to be solved isn't "we're sloppy packrats." It's a bunch of things like, "When we search for stuff in boxes we end up with a bunch of loose items all over the basement floor." Whatever it is, it will require making new habits -- ones that are worth the trouble. Suggestions: make sure your boxes are easy to open and close. They shouldn't be completely full, making it necessary for you to remove a lot of items in order to find what you're looking for. Find a way to know which box a given item is in, so you don't have to open more than one box to find it. Don't stack heavy boxes so high that it'll be too daunting to take them down or put them back up. Consider hiring someone to give you a hand with setting up the storage so it's easier for you to deal with.

Usually you're in the middle of one or several things when you go to retrieve something from storage. I'm really familiar with the whole thing: you get what you need and don't even think about tidying up the area. You don't have the gene for that! What works for me is something like this: "I'm about to go down to open and search a box (or make a sandwich) and I when I'm done I'll put things where they belong because __________." Because I'll be pissed at myself later if I don't, because I really do like a mess-free kitchen even though I never learned how to keep it that way, because I don't want to create a new problem as I solve the original problem.
When you try a new way of doing things, you need to tailor it to your own neuroses and motivations. And remind yourself of your motivating principle when you're reluctant to do things the new "right" way.
posted by wryly at 1:08 PM on October 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

If my mom or another relative gives me clothes I don't like, I feel implicitly guilted into keeping them. That's when it really helps to have an organized but nonjudgmental friend around!
I'll say, "That sweater's really unflattering, but my mom gave it to me -- I can't put it in the Goodwill pile."

Friend, as she puts ugly sweater in Goodwill pile: "You're not putting it in the Goodwill pile -- I am."

It sounds too transparent to work but somehow it does.
posted by virago at 1:12 PM on October 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

Flylady was overwhelming to me, even the babysteps. What made a difference in our house was A Slob Comes Clean, both the podcasts and the e-books (especially "30 days of hope for your home", which is very different from any of the "Your home clutter free in a week!" books you'll find online).
posted by Ms. Next at 1:23 PM on October 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Flylady worked for me. I retired early after a long career with a Mr. Mom at home handling all that stuff. I really had no idea how to organize a house or the schedules needed to keep it clean. I found Flylady here and started using the daily reminders. It worked great for me and I only used it for about three months before I had my routine down. But....I was retired and had the time to work the system.

I also use the "one item a day into the donation bag" system. Or ten items every day might work better for you in the beginning. Just keep a trash bag in the basement and pick an X number of items you are going to add every day. It really works, but it's a gradual thing and you don't feel so overwhelmed.
posted by raisingsand at 1:26 PM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't read all of the replies, so sorry if this is a repeat. As for clutter and "stuff", I keep a bag or box by the garage door all of the time and, as I come across things I don't want or need anymore, I put them there. When it's full, out it goes for donation.

When I have a spare few minutes and am in the mood, I'll pick one thing to unclutter, like a drawer.

Cleaning? Can't help you there. I'm still working on it.

Good luck!
posted by harrietthespy at 2:43 PM on October 12, 2014

Previously, from me.
posted by jgirl at 3:03 PM on October 12, 2014

The best solution I've figured out for keeping track of what's in boxes is to literally keep track of it in a spreadsheet (Google Docs is great because it's accessible anywhere and shareable). I know it sounds kinda anal and obsessive but it's been great. Write big numbers on each box and then in the spreadsheet write down everything that's in the box. Ideally you'd try to rearrange your stuff first so that like is with like, but you don't have to right now. Any time you want to find something you just search the spreadsheet.

If you have trouble finding boxes because it's so disorganized down there, you could also sort of draw yourself a little map of where each box # is.

Also virago makes a great point about enlisting a friend's help. I have a good friend who I help with her organizing and she helps with mine. We've both helped each other purge a lot of things that we probably wouldn't have been able to part with otherwise.

One thing that I have learned about organizing (doubly so when you have kids) is that it's important to make space for things in transition. Do you have a spot to put your purse when you come home? Does your husband have a dedicated place where he dumps out his pockets? What about where the kids put their library books? Stuff they have to bring to school tomorrow?
posted by radioamy at 6:14 PM on October 12, 2014

Pick 2 spots, probably a corner of the basement and a room in the living space. At least once a week, go through that space methodically. Evaluate everything.
- would I buy this if I saw it in a store?
- do I use it?
- is it in good repair?
- is it a project that requires completion?
- will I ever work on it?
- really???
- does it have a place where it belongs?

- does it fit?
- does it look good?
- do I really wear it?

Does it have a place where it belongs? is key. My house is cluttered because many things don't have a proper place, and there are far too many unfinished projects, and then I got sick and, well, you know. In my house, if I have storage space, and want to keep sentimental/ project items, and they are clean and organized, great. And when I moved, I got rid of really a lot of stuff, and then a flood took 1/3 of my books. There are boxes of stuff of my son's that are tidy, and someday his son will get a kick out of his drawings, halloween costumes, whatever.

You'll need more boxes. I label boxes in the upper left corner with the contents. You will almost certainly not wear most stored clothing, so have a box or totebag for Goodwill or other charity. 2 households - get rid of extra cooking gear; it's easily replaced. If there are boxes of paperwork - it usually ends up being old adverts, bills, and junk. Scan for anything important, like copies of taxes, and throw out the rest. Old magazines -> Goodwill.

Walk through the basement. What kinds of 'stuff' do you have and want to keep? Camping gear, sports equipment, collections, Grandma's china. Then have boxes clearly labeled for those things. If you have collections, consider displaying them in the house, or at least make sure the baseball cards are stored adequately. Grandma's china? If you like it, put it in a cupboard and use it for holidays, birthdays, any occasions. otherwise, maybe your sister wants it, or a consignment shop. When I moved, I gave stuff away on freecycle. I'd leave it on the front, covered, porch for pickup and it magically vanished, presumably making someone else happy.

Cleaning. Don't ask the BF to 'clean.' Give him some ajax and a sponge and ask him to scrub the bathtub after his shower, when it's wet. Put a recurring appt. in his calendar to take the trash out on Tuesday evening. Ask him to do specific tasks.
posted by theora55 at 7:04 PM on October 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Purge 1 thing a day (add it to a bag in your car for donation or the trash). Wipe down one thing a day (counter, shower, sink, dresser). No self judgement. Once that's easy-peasy, up it to wiping down half a room a day and purging 2 things (or none if you've purged sufficiently by that time.
posted by WeekendJen at 7:23 AM on October 13, 2014

I love organizing shit. It makes me feel like I'm the boss of things. My favorite kind of stuff is stuff you can put other stuff in. :)

In my experience, it's pretty common for partners not to synch up perfectly when it comes to cleaning and organization. The best advice I've heard on that subject was that the partner who needs or wants things to be cleaner should clean and organize things in a way that makes *them* happy--and do it for themselves. This last is key: it helps mitigate the feeling that one partner is "picking up after" the other. So, if a cleaner home will make you happy, clean your home for you.

My suggestions:


I think of things as falling into one of four categories:

-- Things I use every day or every week -- These should be stored in such a way that they're quick and easy to access *and* to put away. If the putting-away process has too many steps, it won't get done on a regular basis.
-- Things I use every six months to a year (e.g., holiday decorations, seasonal clothing)
-- Practical things that I use less often
-- Things I keep for sentimental reasons, but which I almost never use or look at


The kitchen - This is first on my list because when the kitchen's dirty, it's gross-dirty. It can produce bad smells and attract pests. A clean kitchen means that the whole home smells better and is more inviting. Here's my routine:

Once a day (15-20 minutes)
- Unload and reload dishwasher, run dishwasher
- Clean counters with a spray and paper towels. (I suggest springing for sprays that smell really nice. I like Mrs. Meyers' Clean Day in Geranium. It comes in sprays and larger concentrates that last awhile)
- Take out trash
- Sweep up spilled cat food and other loose debris

Once a week:
- Swiffer WetJet the kitchen floor. Do legit mopping less frequently for deep cleaning.

The Bathrooms - (15-20 minutes)
This isn't as big of a project as it may seem. I do it in this order:

- Mirrors - Cheapy glass cleaner works pretty well.
- Countertops - Mrs. Meyers again.
- Toilet (Dollar store toilet bowl cleaner does not mess around. It works better than the fancier stuff. Caveat: it may not have a child-safe cap (depending on where it's manufactured).
- Floor (I am all about the Swiffer WetJet in here too.)

Settle on in. Open windows if you can. Turn on all the lights. Put on some enjoyable music.

You need:
- A storage area
- A staging or "sorting" area

Storage: Nthing shelves. If your boxes will fit in them, you might try Sterlite's quick-assemble shelf units. They're not super-expensive, require no tools to assemble, and can be broken down and stored if you need to.

Staging: Put your shelves along the walls, (adjusting for moisture concerns as necessary).

It sounds like your stuff falls into two main categories: yours and his. Keep your boxes in one spot, his in another.

Take it one box at a time for now. Pick a box, find a space to go through it, and assemble the following:

- a blank sheet of paper
- a marker
- tape
- two bags (one for trash, one for donations)
- one tote (temporary storage for any items you find that you need elsewhere in the house)

Now go through the box, making a list of everything that's going to be put back in it. If there's room, add some of the loose things you've left lying around from previous spelunkings and add those to the list. This gives you permission to keep some things, but enables you to be the one in charge of those things. Repeat this process for each box on your shelves.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 12:01 PM on October 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

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