Finding solutions to disorder by identifying the causes of disorder

Sometimes the solution for solving a clutter problem is simply identifying the cause of the problem. It sounds obvious, but you may be surprised by how often the cause of the problem isn’t considered when looking for a solution.

I hear complaints all the time that a spouse/partner/roommate/kid (someone else, never the person complaining) leaves items strewn about the house. The complaint usually sounds like, “my husband leaves his dirty clothes on the floor,” or “our son leaves his toys all over the living room.” The spouse/partner/roommates/kids are always named as THE problem.

Granted, the spouse/partner/roommates/kids may be making the mess, but they are not usually the exact cause of the problem. Usually, the problem is caused because:

  1. a convenient storage solution does not exist (the hamper is in the closet, but the husband changes clothes in the bathroom),
  2. no organizing solution exists (there isn’t a hamper),
  3. the person has not properly been trained on how to use the clutter/storage solution (the child has never been shown how to pick up his toys or been expected to pick up after himself),
  4. or the person has a different tolerance level of disorder than the person making the complaint (clothes and toys on the floor may not be perceived as clutter by the person making the mess).

When you properly identify the cause of the problem, it’s much easier to solve it. Based on the examples we’ve been using throughout this post, the problem might be alleviated by:

  1. Getting two more hampers — keep the one already in the closet, but add one to the bathroom and put another in the bedroom next to your husband’s side of the bed.
  2. Buy a hamper and put it where your husband usually drops his clothes on the floor.
  3. Teach your child how to pick up her toys and give her three minutes at the end of every play session to practice this skill. Read more from our archives: here and here.
  4. Have a respectful conversation with your spouse/partner/roommates/kids about your standards of order and their standards of order, and establish agreements and expectations about future behavior. Read more from our archives: here.

Are you identifying the real causes of clutter and disorder in your life? Doing so can help you to more easily find the solution.

21 Comments for “Finding solutions to disorder by identifying the causes of disorder”

  1. posted by Heidi Poe on

    When I still lived at home with my parents, my dad and brother always left empty packaging or cracker crumbs and other such small messes around the kitchen that drove me crazy. I tried to get on my brother’s case about cleaning up after himself, but nothing ever worked, so I just resolved to grumble as I did the cleaning for them. My brother’s room looks like a hurricane blew through there, so I think you’re right when you mention that I have a different tolerance level for clutter than he does.

  2. posted by lola on

    Kids can be overwhelmed by too much ‘stuff’. Our best investment was some small plastic totes for toys,and only 4 were left out for active playing. The rest were stored in the basement and brought out about every other month and the others were stored away. Kept the toys new and interesting, and the ‘stuff’ level reasonable.

  3. posted by Katie on

    I have definitely identified that the cause of disorder in my bedroom is having way too many clothes. When everything is clean, there is no way to put everything away in a neat and organized way, therefore leading to clean clothes in the laundry basket never being put away, dirty clothes on the floor instead of the laundry basket and never knowing where to find anything. The solution is getting rid of clothes, but for some reason I have a hard time doing it — but I’m just going to have to get over it and get it done!

  4. posted by amandalee on

    Erin, what a timely post. I was getting FURIOUS with my boyfriend, who seemed intent on leaving his candy wrappers/latte cups/old metrocards/crumpled receipts all over the apartment.

    This all stopped last week, when I went out and purchased a garbage can for every room of the house, even the dining room, sun room, and living room. The boyfriend’s trail of debris has mostly disappeared…all because I made it easier for him to deal with it without walking all over the house in pursuit of a garbage can.

  5. posted by Cory Anderson on

    I’ve always had this problem when in a relationship and living together. It is something that needs to be discussed before the problem occurs. In my home office (which my girlfriend didn’t like), I tried media organizers, a monitor riser, shelves and filing cabinets to sort the work stuff and keep things organized, we bought extra laundry baskets and hangers to hang clothes after use, and just talked to each other before the problem blew out of proportion.

  6. posted by Anita on

    Good post! Often times, looking for the root problem and solving that is even easier than pestering the other person to change their ways.

    In other cases, however, I think it’s just plain bad will. We have a big laundry hamper, in a corner of the bedroom, plain as day. Boyfriend has been taught (painstakingly) to put his clothes in the hamper or back in the closet if he does not want them covered in cat hair (he’s allergic). So now he tosses them not IN the hamper, but in the GENERAL DIRECTION of the hamper. And I still have to pick up after him! Honestly, it’s a big, open-top, easily accesible basket. How tough is it to make sure your dirty socks make their way all the way inside it, rather than draped on the sides or on the floor around it?

  7. posted by Karen Newbie on

    This post rings true – the root of the problem is often eliminated by putting the right implements in place. However, it also has a behavioral element. If someone’s not been held accountable for cleaning up after themselves (i.e., some of the boyfriends already referred to in the comments, or anyone whose mom had a lower tolerance for mess than they did), then they fail to learn it’s an expectation and part of being a grownup. I’m trying to instill this in my kids (having some success, depending on the kid), but I’ll admit that sometimes it’s just easier, more expedient, and less confrontational for me to just do it myself rather than ask-remind-harp until it gets done.

    I’d love to hear how others have successfully taught kids, boyfriends and girlfriends, roommates, and spouses to be accountable for their messes.

  8. posted by Jeanne B. on

    I have one for you–RE-WEARS. There are some clothes, specifically outdoor-related, that get reworn a couple of times before they are washed. Most specifically, the items I wear to the horse barn. They are such a pain to wash that I like to keep them separate from other clothes (horse hair, etc) and thus I need a real pile to justify doing the load.

    However… I don’t have enough outfits to get me through the time period without re-wearing a couple of times. They wind up sitting on the bathroom counter until they achieve laundry status. Ideas on how to solve this dilemma?

    –technically they are dirty
    –but they’re being reused a couple of times
    –can’t go with other non-horse clothes in the hamper
    –need a place to “live” between washings while in the re-wear stage

    One day, when I have my own farm, there’ll be a proper mud room/laundry room between outside and the rest of the house, but for now, this is it.

  9. posted by DawnF on

    @Karen Newbie-

    One of the ways I feel I have successfully taught my son about the importance of being responsible for himself (and his toys and his clothes and…) is by positive reinforcement. From a very young age I would praise him and cheer for him (and thank him) when he would pick up after himself, put away his toys or place his dirty clothes in the hamper. It made him happy to make me happy!

    I also feel we have been successful by giving him a monetary allowance each week for completing his chores. He gets a modest allowance each week for making his bed, putting away his clean and dirty clothes, setting the table, putting away his toys each day, helping to unload the dishwasher, etc. We started allowance at the age of 4.

    Plus, he sees that my husband and I put up our things each day so hopefully we are setting a good example ourselves!

    If a child is old enough to play with a toy or dress himself then I feel he’s old enough to pick up the toy and put it away and put his dirty clothes in a hamper…

  10. posted by Sabrina on

    The key to teaching children to be responsible for their stuff is consistency. We, as parents, need to be constantly reminding them of what they have left behind and praise them for taking ownership of their stuff.

    Most of my clients haven’t experienced this in their life. They move from one thing to another and not complete the last task. That is usually why they call because, sooner or later, they realize the need to change their ways. Thanks for the topic.

  11. posted by Sinea on

    I’ve learned to overlook a lot. Surprisingly, my husband has started to help more around the house, like loading the dishwasher for me. Every little bit counts.

  12. posted by Jody on

    Ha, I was the person dropping the dirty clothes on the bedroom floor – I change in the bedroom and the hamper was in the bathroom. My solution was to turn a wicker garbage basket I had into a second small hamper that I keep right where I change. Problem solved and I felt brilliant when I came up with that solution.

  13. posted by Debbie M on

    @Jeanne B. – You could use a coat rack for re-wears. Or you could take over a small closet for them or get one of those laundry hanging racks.

  14. posted by Debbie M on

    I love when I find the magical storage solution that is convenient and handy.

    A filing cabinet made a big difference for me in dealing with various kinds of papers (recipes to try, job ideas, resume hints, home maintenance articles, etc.).

    I’ve done a few odd things in the kitchen that have helped. For example, I put pots under the sink (instead of soaps and poisons like everyone else–I keep those on the bottom shelf of the pantry). I hung a videotape rack on a wall (cut off the over-the-door part and put screws through some holes that were already there) for spices. I put nails in the wall for pot lids. I still need to figure out a recycling solution–the boyfriend won’t walk through the dining room to get to the recycling in the pantry but instead takes over a counter in the kitchen. Maybe I should see if I can find room under the sink.

    I’ve moved out-of-season clothes into a hall closet so the clothes I’m wearing are easier to get to. The sheets are in covered (and thus protected from dust) containers under the bed.

    And I finally figured out a receipt system I like. I have one of those spirally racks where you can store envelopes. I have one envelope for each month and keep them in order except that the current month is in front. At the end of the month, I move that month’s envelope back to it’s spot and pull the next month’s envelope out. I look through last year’s receipts and see if there are any I still want to save or do anything with (such as record the buy date or price or something) and toss the rest. Then I put that envelope at the front. I’ve used these old receipts several times now but have so far never wished I had one from over a year ago. Now I just need a good way to store coupons (not very many) in my purse.

  15. posted by Sidney on

    I need a hamper for my regret. Don’t you?

  16. posted by Debi on

    I was amused by the suggestion of putting a hamper where my husband leaves clothes. I have one near the foot of the bed, but he leaves his clothes on the floor by the side. I got a visual image of him having to climb over a hamper to get into bed. 8-D

  17. posted by Tweetie on

    LOL @ Debi–if that’s what it takes for him to get the hint, so be it!

    I have actually been amazed at the number of people (especially when I went to college) who just didn’t own a hamper. Naturally, their clothes were strewn all over their dorm room. I grew up in a rather cluttered environment (mostly knick knacks and paperwork), but one thing my family was good about was not dropping clothes on the floor. Each family member had a hamper, and laundry was done on a weekly schedule so it never piled up. When I went away to college, one of the supplies I purchased for dorm life was a big plastic laundry basket. It was just a no-brainer, like buying a desk lamp or a shower caddy to cart things to the bathroom down the hall.

    My parents always let the mail pile up on the kitchen counter, sifting out the “real” mail and letting the junk sit for weeks and even months on end. For awhile, my husband and I had the same problem, but to a lesser degree due to having a recycling program in our community and the recycle bin lives next to the trash can under our kitchen sink. To hold the mail until we were ready to really sort through it, we bought one of those hang-on-the-wall mail sorters (one bin for me, one for my husband) and hung it right next to the front door.

    Now if only my parents had a better organizational system for unfinished paperwork tasks, my desk wouldn’t be such a mess! :D

  18. posted by Maryann on

    @ Karen Newbie,

    My boys (10 & 13) are responsible for bringing their laundry hamper down to the basement when they need me to wash their clothes. No hamper, no clean clothes. Oh, and socks rolled up into balls = no clean socks. Believe me, they will learn quickly.

  19. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Great post, Erin! The title says it all! You could fill in practically anything in place of the word “disorder” and make your home, your city, your country or the world a better place to live. Too often we spend our time complaining about things instead of doing something about them.

  20. posted by Kandace on

    My husband and I have very different levels of acceptable clutter. I can handle papers and projects materials spread out for a while but he can’t. He on the other hand does fine with dirty clothes all over the room, trash on tables, etc. I offered a hamper on his side of the bed after reading this post and he responded, “You know, I’m not sure that would help.” He may be messy, but at least he’s honest.

  21. posted by Lianne on

    I like how the example is always the husband, until the point about not being trained, at which point the example shifts to the kid. I find not being trained in the ways of not making a mess is exactly the problem with a lot of guys. My boyfriend, for example, never realised how much cleaning his mom was doing when he lived at home, so now he doesn’t realise how much more cleaning I do than him now that we live together. Kids aren’t the only ones who need training.

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