Reader Jenny submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I am a 29 year old, married, full-time MBA student. I have ADD, and have poor time management skills and am usually scrambling to get my school work and TA duties done. Since my husband and I first moved in together 8 years ago, we’ve never been able to come up with a way of managing household tasks. I grew up with parents who were both lax with household stuff, and my husband grew up in a very clean house in which is mother did 90% of the cleaning. Because we haven’t figured out how to deal with this, there is a lot of resentment and our ability to communicate about the subject has deteriorated. We’ve tried a cleaning service (which now we can’t afford), but it didn’t help the issue with the clutter. Our house is big, and takes a long time to clean (but we can’t sell in this market). Any thoughts on how I can learn these skills?
Jenny, let me begin by saying I empathize with your situation. When my husband sat me down to talk to me about my clutter, I was working full time, going to graduate school, and completely clueless how to “keep house.” He was frustrated by how I was living, and I was completely overwhelmed by my mess.
The first thing you need to do is re-open the lines of communication with your husband. Sit down together on the couch, hold hands (I’ve found it really difficult to yell at someone if you’re holding hands), and start talking.
Share with each other how you want your life to look when the clutter is gone. What will you do together? How will you spend your time? How will you live in your house? Initially, don’t talk about the present. Don’t talk about what needs to be accomplished to get to the point in the future. Instead, define in concrete terms what your remarkable life looks like, feels like, and how you two will function as a couple. Both of you need to talk, and both need to listen. Be specific.
Write down your vision of a remarkable life so you can reference it later. There will come a time mid-way through the process when you are tired and don’t want to work any longer, and looking back over this paper will help you remember why you’re putting in so much effort. You’ll have to trust me on this, but once you know where you’re headed together, getting there will be a lot easier.
The second part of the process is more difficult because you’ll both want to express your frustrations for the way things are in the present. I recommend heading to your favorite bar or corner restaurant to work out this part of the plan. (Similar to holding hands, I’ve found being in a public place often keeps tempers under control.) The two of you need to decide what needs to get done around the house to get you to a manageable baseline, who will be responsible for each action, and when that action needs to be completed. Your list and timeline need to be reasonable (think weeks, months, maybe a year), so have a calendar and lots of paper for list making. Responsibilities should be divided as equally as possible. Even if one of you is responsible for a part of the house being extremely cluttered, the other one can be tasked with uncluttering, cleaning, and organizing the space. Your home is one of the physical spaces where your marriage exists, and you both are responsible for it from this point forward.
If your marriage is your biggest priority, and saving it is paramount to both of you, it means you’re both going to have to temporarily sacrifice something else to make that happen. You may have to stop watching television for a couple months or give up weekends camping with friends or stop procrastinating (the rush from finishing something at the last minute can be quite addictive). I’m not suggesting you drop out of graduate school and become a full-time homemaker, but you can likely find something you’re spending time on that isn’t important to the remarkable life you have decided you want together. You’re going to have to make difficult choices, but those choices are hopefully worth it.
Having ADD is going to make this process more difficult for you than your spouse (assuming he doesn’t have it). He needs to be aware of this and find fun ways to help you stay on track that don’t annoy you. He could hang silly signs in the house with phrases like “Honey, you are beautiful, especially when you’re cleaning out the linen closet!” He could tell you jokes every 15 minutes as a reward for staying on task. He could work by your side and help you maintain focus. The more support and compassion you have for each other, the better and faster you’ll work — ADD or otherwise.
Be sure you both eat right and get a decent night’s sleep throughout this process. Doing this will ensure you have the energy you need to go to work, school, and take care of things at home.
Once the major clutter is cleared, you’ll be ready for maintenance. What’s good is that the less you have, the less you have to clean, put away, organize, insure, and maintain. At this point, you can create a weekly chore chart to keep up with all the things around the house you both need to do. Get a copy of my book and check out pages 98 and 99 for an example of how you might structure your chart. In short, you’ll want to do 30 minutes a night of chores where you do a general cleanup around the house for 10 minutes and then spend the remaining 20 focused on a designated room of your house. As the two of you work, play upbeat music or make a game of racing each other through your chores. Find something positive to motivate each other. Check out “Exhausted after work” for more suggestions on how to handle these daily house-keeping activities.
Thank you, Jenny, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope that the two of you find a way to get out from under the clutter and get back to having a resentment-free marriage. As someone who has been where you are and is now living an uncluttered life, I can attest that it was worth every second of hard work. Good luck!
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