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  • Shanna Donhauser

Take Charge of the Mess

Maybe you're planning for baby, or you have a new baby, or you've been living with a toddler for a few years. Organization and tidiness often become a major source of stress. How will you organize your life with a newborn? How do you organize your life with a toddler?

Well, maybe more prudent question is: how do organize your life now?

For a moment, let's focus on organization. Many dimensions of life benefit from organization and tidiness; work, home, habit building, social life, etc.

For now, let's focus on the home. In all honesty, this topic makes feels difficult for me because I am a messy person in recovery.

If you’re a messy person too and you haven’t read this op-ed from the NY Times, go read it. The author writes about how being messy caused problems in her marriage. And, oh boy, did that resonate.

When my husband and I attended The Art of Science of Love Workshop with John and Julie Gottman back in 2015, the “perpetual problem”, the thing we were always fighting about, was my messiness. It was a huge problem. As soon as the topic came up I could feel a tightness in my chest and the urgent impulse to change the subject or distract. He nagged me all the time. I hated hearing about it and felt encroached on like he was bossing me around in my own house. I just wanted to relax when I got home. It didn’t feel like it was THAT bad.

After YEARS of fighting about it, and after working through some of the Gottman material, I decided to try a new strategy. I came across the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Yes, that book. Everyone and their mom talks about this book. Because it really does work for people. And it worked for me.

It took me many months to get through my entire home but by the end, our home looked tidy. My husband was happy. And I realized that I actually like living in an organized space.

Little by little, as time passed, my messy nature crept back into our lives. Little things, my socks on the floor, smoothie bottle in the sink, yesterday’s mail on the counter; little by little, the clutter started growing. And little by little, my husband and I argued more and more.

Then I left town for a wedding and was gone for the weekend. Within a few weeks of returning from that trip, my husband broke. My messy habits, my lack of organization and incessant clutter was driving him crazy. He was desperate. And I felt helpless.

Marie Kondo explains that organization is a learned skill. We don't realize that cleaning our spaces and keeping those spaces clean and clutter-free is a skill that can be learned, a habit that can be built. Instead, we tie our identities to this specific habit: “I am a messy person”. But I am not my mess or my clutter. My personhood, my sense of self, has nothing to do with whether or not I put things back or leave them out. However, my marriage, my partnership, struggles when I leave things out and it thrives when I put things away. I am also more productive when I am tidy, I have room and energy to spend time with friends, and I look forward to going home and being able to relax instead of clean.

There have been times that I have viewed my husband as rigid and inflexible, with outrageous and unreasonable standards. I still sometimes think that. But I also know that I play a huge role in this problem. He asks for something from me. I ask things from him. As his partner, I want to make him happy and I want to live in a clean and orderly place. That's how I learned to be organized. And you can too.

Reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up may be your first step. If that book doesn’t resonate with you, there are thousands of books and resources available for decluttering and organizing your life. I will leave it to other experts to weigh in on this subject.

There are only three steps to this system. It's not that complicated. It takes intention, consistency, and practice.

Step 1: Declutter and Organize

I recommend the Konmari Method for decluttering. Mainly because this is the only organizational framework that has worked for me. If it doesn’t work for you, keep looking for something else.

*Know a system for organizing that has helped you? Comment and share with everyone!*

Decluttering and organizing takes a long time. I set aside dedicated time every weekend for several months. I literally put it on my calendar and set an alarm so that I wouldn’t forget. Use reminders, recruit help from a friend or your partner, incentivize yourself with treats after a hard mornings’ work, whatever works for you. Focus on specific tasks and projects so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by the daunting task of organizing your whole home. Small and often will get you to your goal.

Step 2: Everything has a home

Make sure you know where everything lives in your home. This makes it easier to notice when things are not in their homes. Spoons live in the silverware drawer, dental floss lives in the bathroom cabinet, shoes live in the closet, toys in the bin, etc.

When new things come into your home, try to find a permanent home for them as quickly as you can. You can also designate a “temporary” home for things that require more thoughtfulness or space. Everyone in your home should build this habit including your partner and your children.

Step 3: Everything in its home

Make a challenge with yourself to put everything back in its home by the end of the day. Set an alarm to go off on your phone after dinner, before bed, and you can walk through your home to make sure everything is put away. If dishes don’t live in the sink, put them away. If socks don’t live on the floor, put them away. If toys don't live in the middle of the room, put them away.

This may seem tedious at first, especially when you (or your children) have left many things out. Over time, this gets easier. You’re building the habit of putting things away. And soon you learn that if you don’t put it away now (when you’re done using it), you’ll just have to put it away later.

As a bonus, you're modeling for your children the actual skills required to keep a tidy home and space. Wear your baby as you walk through and put things away. Invite your toddler to join you and help you "spy" the things out of place.

A note about children and messes:

If you haven't gotten the memo yet, here it is:

Those who live with children know this. Those who plan to live with children know it now. Some children are more cooperative about cleaning, especially when habits are developed early on. Even infants can learn to put one item in the basket. Most children cooperate with cleaning when they know they have help from adults. Even if you only put back one thing, helping your child clean tells them that they are not alone in completing tedious tasks.

Cleaning can also be hard for children when they have feelings about ending play. Acknowledge sad or disappointed feelings and encourage putting away 1-3 toys.

Oh. It's so hard to clean up when you're having fun. You're not feeling ready to stop playing, and that's sad. It's time to get going, and we need to clean up now. I'm going to put these legos away. Can you please put away that train?

As you organize your home, think about your children's spaces. Their toys should all have homes too. Predictable, consistent, easy to access homes. This makes it easier to play and to clean.

What have you tried to tackle your messy problem? What obstacles get in the way of building this habit?

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