Surprise benefits of an uncluttered life

At 1:30 yesterday afternoon, my husband made an off-hand remark about his parents coming to visit from Chicago. I was in a zone, still focused on a phone call from that morning, and only really heard “my parents” and “dinner” and “arrival.”

About an hour later, I came to understand that he said, “My parents just called and they’re arriving around 8:00 tonight. I think we should take them out to dinner when they get here.” He meant 8:00 p.m., as in six and a half hours from when he first mentioned it to me. Surprise!

It’s exact moments like these when I am thankful that we live an uncluttered life. Instead of worrying about the state of the house or what we might feed our guests while they are here or anything hostess related, I simply nodded and told him, “good to know.”

The toilets and shower in the bathroom are clean, there is food in the kitchen cupboards, we have clean bed linens, and everything in the house is in its place. I ran the dishwasher a few hours earlier than normal so that it wouldn’t keep them awake (our “guest room” is a pull-out in our living room), but, except for having two wonderful guests, our schedule for the day was the same as a typical Wednesday.

It’s surprise situations like these that I like to focus my attentions to when I’m doing my 30 minutes of chores each evening. Being free from unnecessary stress is a powerful motivator when routinely taking care of the small things. A little bit of work each night means that there is never a big issue to solve, and house guests can show up for surprise visits without causing my stress levels to soar.

Now, I just need to be a detective and figure out how this visit never made it onto our family calendar.

What benefits have you found with leading an uncluttered life? Tell us about them in the comments.

47 Comments for “Surprise benefits of an uncluttered life”

  1. posted by Michelle on

    My motto is a place for everything. I take a walk through of the house each day and just straighten/organize. And you are right, a half or one hour of work each night means you can have relaxing and quiet weekends. Thanks for this post and have a great day Erin! ~Michelle

  2. posted by RML on

    You have just condensed exactly what I want my life to be like into this post.

    At the moment, I canΒ΄t handle unexpected guests – or even expected ones some times. ItΒ΄s not how I want life to me and this post is a great reminder to me, that less clutter is going to mean less stress about having people over.

  3. posted by Edie Howe on

    The ability to find things, having what I need at hand; I started my uncluttering because I had to move into a tiny room in a trailer with no running water here in Yosemite National Park. I’m now able to find what I need, pack it up in short order and hit the trail in record time. This means more time actually taking pictures like this ( instead of hunting around for my gear!

  4. posted by Nate Baxley on

    You obviously have no kids πŸ™‚

  5. posted by Rick Lobrecht on

    My wife would kill me. Of course, a cluttered or uncluttered house wouldn’t change that fact for an unexpected visit from my parents. 😎

  6. posted by TDK on

    I agree with you, RML, this is exactly how I’d like my life to be, but I’m not there yet! When we do have unexpected company, there is lots of running around, throwing things in the “storage” room and worst of all friction between myself and husband and kids. That part bothers me the most, because by the time our company arrives, there are hurt feelings we were sharp with the kids and each other in our attempt to get things organized.

    I dream of Erin’s situation where I can just calmly do a quick run through, see that everything is in order and get on with my day. Very inspiring – thanks.

  7. posted by Dawn on

    One happy note about living an uncluttered, organized life is when the next-door neighbor rings the doorbell for a quick chat, I don’t have to slip out the door and force them to stand on the front porch chatting – I can cheerily welcome them inside and not worry about them tripping over clutter or seeing piles of mail on the front foyer table. I’m not fearful of surprise guests – I am proud to welcome them into our comfortable, cozy, happy, organized home. πŸ™‚

  8. posted by Katie on

    Ok Ok I’ll start cleaning now. Expecting guests on Sunday, busy all day Saturday, Need to bake Friday night for our busy Saturday. I guess tonight’s cleaning night. Maybe I could coerce the child to help.

  9. posted by Christine on

    RML has nicely summed up my feelings as well; I dream of having a home like this someday, although it seems that as one part of my life gets more organized, another gets worse!
    I do have to say though, that even when my house is a little messy, I make a point of never being ashamed of it. I have no qualms with friends dropping by on a whim and seeing a few dirty dishes or a basket of laundry on the coffee table- that’s life! I believe in being real with people, not making sure my house always looks like a showhome before I’ll let anyone in the door. Sometimes I feel more uncomfortable visiting someone when I know they’ve busted their butts making the place sparkle for me instead of just relaxing and being themselves, and enjoying my company.

  10. posted by Elizabeth on

    That’s actually my main goal for my home. I want my house to always be less than thirty minutes from “in-law ready.” Maybe there are a few things out, here and there, or some dishes to be done. But in the end, I need it to always be almost there. Because if it is, then I can clean up easily every day, rather than facing an ever growing problem at the end of the week when I’d rather relax.

    Some of our friends had an unexpected trip up to our area and stayed with us recently, and it took very little time to get everything clean. I realize it was a wonderful benefit for the hard work we’ve put in to organizing and uncluttering.

  11. posted by Olga on

    This is very inspirational. That’s how I would like to feel when presented with unexpected, or even expected guests. I’m not there yet… We are still trying to assimilate all the stuff from my boyfriend’s moving in. Too much stuff πŸ™

  12. posted by Erin on

    Erin, when exactly do you do your 30 min of daily chores? Immediately when you get home from work, while dinner is cooking, after dinner… you work from home (I think) so maybe during lunch time? I’m so exhausted when I get home and I just want to relax. I’m thinking about trying to move my 30 min to the morning and do them before I get ready for work. Thoughts on the best time of day?

  13. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Erin — (Great name!) We do them immediately after work. This is when we have the most energy we’re going to have over the course of the night. We put on the stereo or an audiobook, set a timer, and work. If doing chores immediately after work is difficult, I recommend after dinner or before work, like you mentioned. We do 10 minutes of general house cleanup and then 20 minutes focused on a specific room. Most nights (except on nights we do laundry), we finish way before the 30 minutes are up. When we first started doing this, though, we wouldn’t necessarily finish in 30 minutes. We stopped anyway. At some point, after weeks of doing it, everything eventually got done and was able to be finished in under the set time. If you have roommate/spouse/children, everyone should do chores at the same time. It makes things go much faster.

  14. posted by Michele on

    @Nate — I am a single mom with shared physical custody, and I’ve managed to unclutter my home to the point where I can handle unexpected guests on no notice (though they’ll have a slightly cleaner bathroom and better breakfast options if I have some notice). I don’t think that having kids means you’re guaranteed to lose the uncluttering battle.

    For me, I keep 4 basic rules: (1) Do the dishes every night. Do not wake up to a messy kitchen. (2) Keep the bathroom clean and picked up. For our household, this requires that I scrub the bathroom weekly and change the cat litter about every 5 days. (3) Dust and vacuum weekly. In order to effectively dust and vacuum, surfaces must be clear. Dusting and vacuuming is more of a chore when there is more stuff lying around. (4) Make the beds. It just looks better. (5) Keep staple foods on hand, or at least enough so that guests can have pasta for dinner and toast and coffee for breakfast.

    I just started implementing a 10-minute rule with my daughter, this week. The nights that she’s with me, before she goes to bed she has to set the kitchen timer and spend 10 minutes straightening her room. So far it doesn’t look as though anything has been accomplished, but she’ll get there.

  15. posted by Michele on

    Hrm, I forgot to add one rule specific to guests: put the sheets and towels they use at the top of the laundry list and launder them in the very next batch of laundry. That way you’ll be ready if you have unexpected guests unexpectedly soon after the first ones!

    Anyway those are my 4 rules, and any other things I do are just strategies that fall under those general categories.

  16. posted by Tish on

    I’ve recently (this week!) started doing this. I did 30 minutes of housework this morning and was actually a little disappointed when I was done, as there’s still much left to do. I’m spring cleaning my little apartment in increments, top to bottom, culminating in a good scrubbing of the floor. My reward is that I’ll feel good about doing yoga in the mornings, with my nose near the floor. ‘-)

    Although the constant cutesy emails from FlyLady drove me to give up on her, the “Detailed Cleaning List” on her site is very useful. My goal is to keep up with 30 minutes per day, and work my way through her list as I do my maintenance cleaning. This way nothing in my place should develop “crud” again. Hopefully.

    What I love about being uncluttered is that my home looks like a fine hotel, with nothing in sight but what I need, and everything stored neatly.

    Great post!

  17. posted by infmom on

    My house isn’t exactly uncluttered, but getting it clean enough for company doesn’t take long. It’s mostly a matter of giving my husband firm orders to get rid of all the debris around his chair in the living room.

    However, when it came to my mother coming to visit, my usual philosophy was “She used to see my room when I lived at home, anything will look like an improvement.” πŸ™‚

  18. posted by Carol on

    @Erin – Thank you for posting HOW you handle your 30 minute clean-ups.

    I remember that my mom was always cleaning but the house was never clean. She’d clean when woke up. She’d clean after work and again after dinner. Part of the problem was that she was horribly disorganized in her methods. However as a result I’ve always hated the idea of cleaning everyday. I’ve always saved all my cleaning for the weekend but then it takes me all day to clean and I feel stressed out and feel like I haven’t done anything I wanted to do. I never understood how that 30min thing worked. Thank you!

  19. posted by JLSR on

    Wow! I thought I had made progress (and I have) but this is a great reminder that there is plenty of room for improvement. I think my heart would definitely skip a beat if I had such short notice for house guests.

  20. posted by BonnieK on

    I am far from living the uncluttered life … but I have hopes of being their someday! LOL But I never stress at the condition of my home – those who are coming here are friends/family who love me, and therefore understand my mess.

  21. posted by J on

    I like to think I’m always helping my “future self” when I keep my house organizes, exactly for situations like you described. Every new task I see ahead of me if so free of stress because I know where my things are, I know what I have, etc… Alouds me so much better to only concentrate on what I need.

    I’m thanking my “past self” all the time, specially when there are extra tea bags somewhere in the kitchen!

  22. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tish — I don’t know about the FlyLady’s system. I went to her site once about two years ago and was totally overwhelmed by all of the purple. But, if she’s recommending doing daily chores, that is great. You don’t need to do some “system” to get things in order, though. Each home is different. Each person has different needs in his or her home. Make your own routines and do what works best for you. Don’t feel like you didn’t achieve success because you’re no longer following her system, think of it that it just wasn’t the right system for YOU. Make your own and stick with it, you’ll be great!!

  23. posted by Tish on

    Erin, it didn’t feel like a failure at all. Her system was kind of a nuisance for me!

  24. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tish — Oh great!

  25. posted by Jen Conner on

    OK, this just makes me straight up jealous! For someone just embarking on what feels like a daunting get-on-top-of-everything task, do you have any suggestions on favorite schedules/ways of getting started? Thanks!

  26. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    The other great thing about having an organized home is that you can let it get totally disaster-like without worry because it takes 10 minutes to put it all back in place. This is really good for someone who likes to nest, like I do, but also likes to have a neat and tidy place.

  27. posted by Chris on

    I’ve just trained my parents & neighbours to expect it to be messy. And I blame the 3 yr old. πŸ™‚

  28. posted by Terry on

    I believe the best way to live at home is to go with the motto – Leave it better than you found it.

    Before you exit one of your “rooms” – take a look around and bring out the “daily clutter”. At the end of the day do a final sweep and set up for the next day – better than you found it.

  29. posted by Sheena on

    I was raised in a house where there were always little children. I’m the oldest and the youngest is 20 years younger than me. So I am used to the house having to be clean enough for a baby to crawl on the floor. Which means spotless. Everything put away. My mother also homeschooled us and we all participated in some many things that organization was essential.

    All these things spilled over into my adulthood luckily. So I stay organized, clean, and clutter free. Therefore when a surprise guest comes over…I have no need to scramble because I know I made my bed, the dishes are clean, and so forth. And when I had roommates, I laughed as they scrambled to make their rooms presentable. I would just sit back and took another sip of my drink.

  30. posted by gerette on

    Erin, I think you would have a heart attack if you dropped by my house unexpectedly. While I’ve never been a minimalist nor a neatnik, a variety of major stressors this past year has put my house into a total state of chaos (FlyLady followers know that’s Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome–cutesy, but it’s true). I’m trying to get back on track without completely burning out, but it’s a challenge. A birthday party next week and house guests the week after are motivating me to kick it into high gear, but the key will be maintenance thereafter.

  31. posted by Kaz in Oz on

    Thanks to this site my mum was able to come and pickup my 4 year old this morning without me having to apologise for the state of the house, just as well as when she arrived I was putting the 5 year old on the school bus. This has bben a major achievement for me this year. The public areas of our house are now in a fit state for company at the drop of a hat, not perfect all the time, but getting there. Just don’t go upstairs….

    Our bedroom is our sanctuary, ensuite always clean and bedroom tidy and bed always made, pity we have to walk through the kids playroom to get there. That room is the bain of my existance.

    My mum would have freaked had she seen it this morning!

  32. posted by Dorothy on

    @Kaz, my mom’s rule might help you: If a child is old enough to get out a toy to play, she is old enough to put it away.


  33. posted by twosandalz on

    @Dorothy, my mother had the same rule. πŸ™‚

    This article speaks directly to one of my mother’s matras: If you keep up with your cleaning and tidying routine, you free your time for both the planned and unplanned.

  34. posted by anniep on

    i love the comment by the person who said you obviously have no kids – i have three and we live a very uncluttered life. with the exception of needing to run a vacuum before a guest arrives, my home rarely, if ever, drives me in panic mode. sure their might be dust, but we have a “home base” for everything. including our kids toys. they know what bins hold what toys and it makes life a lot easier. kids CAN be trained, and we don’t run a super militaristic lifestyle where our kids sit properly and play puzzles in their pinafores. i have two active boys and one active girl and a crazy border collie and we make it work. a little each day and it always picked up and presentable. enjoy your clutter-free life, it really makes for less stress!

  35. posted by Jen on

    To the lady who’s children’s play area is the bain of her existence- Try letting the kids have one area that can be messy and dare I say it- cluttered! One room or area that is theirs to be free in. I guess it’s tough if the only available space is on the way to your bedroom and you actually have too wade through it. However, I remember, when I was a child, my friends’ basement was the kid zone. It was wonderful! Toys and games strewn from one end to the other. Paradise! And I remember the mother was happy and relaxed. Perhaps the rest of the house was orderly, and the designated kid area helped her keep her sanity!

  36. posted by Cliff P on

    It’s anecdotes like these that remind me, that uncluttering isn’t just an act done for myself. It’s done for others. The problems inherent in excess consumerism, excess materialism, failure to treat objects and material gain with the respect they deserve, failure to remember the life-energy that went into collecting or hoarding or earning the salary …

    All of that, isn’t just about me. It’s about everyone else, too. It’s about helping the planet environmentally, or about helping my relationships with others such that I can more readily accommodate them and their idiosyncrasies. For me, being an unclutterer means being prepared for life, and all its curveballs.

    In the anecdote printed, I’m sure the husband and wife, both, felt they have each given the partner a surpassing fine gift, that of making it possible to host the in-laws effectively. Imagine how great it must feel to know that you can help your spouse to love his or her parents.

    In the long run, I’ve never really felt comfortable with the idea of “owning” my own space. I’ve always felt like I just rent it for a short time, and then I must leave. That space is, therefore, something I owe some duty to, in that I must not damage or disrespect it. Over-cluttering a home, to me, is just a lazy cop-out, something that would have let me out of an otherwise rather heavy responsibility, that of being prepared to respect my fellow humans and respect the planet.

    I dunno … the anecdote really hit home for me. And I don’t even HAVE in-laws, because I’m not married! πŸ™‚

  37. posted by Kalani on

    Wow. I am inspired.

    This past weekend, I was the unexpected guest as four of us girls surprised a fifth who is expecting a baby for a surprise reunion weekend. (We are all close enough we knew she’d enjoy it) Her house was cleaned and comfortable and ready for guests– granted, her husband HAD surreptitiously done a lot of sprucing up for us, but still it was a reminder to me that being ready can put one in a position of generosity, which is always a good thing for everybody.

  38. posted by Shalin on

    hmmm…yes, in these surprise situation, there are definite benefits of an uncluttered life and home.

    But also, it gets me thinking of having a variety of checklists for misc situations – blame or thank my operations experience with NASA or volunteer firefighting, I guess.

    e.g.: checklist for 30min evacuation in case of fire, another for surprise guest(s) in 5min, another for appliances on the fritz, another for the monthly dinner party, etc., etc. I know I could really use that for having people over for party’s or even just “chill nights”.

    I guess you could apply, if you really wanted to, some kind of process refinement (Six Sigma, etc.) too. …You’d probably get to the the point of an uncluttered life at some point anyhow. How ’bout that πŸ˜‰


  39. posted by Marina Martin on

    I built my efficiency consulting business on this idea — that organization brings freedom, not restriction, if approached right. The ultimate goal for all my personal clients is to be able to up and leave for Paris on 56 minutes’ notice, anytime at all. I share the story here:

  40. posted by catherine on

    i just had this happen, sort of! cleaned for a guest, guest didn’t stay long, now house is ready for more surprise guests this week! feels gooooood.

  41. posted by Celeste on

    The key to uncluttered living with a family is to have spousal buy-in. When you don’t have a spouse who also wants to live in an uncluttered way, the kids soon follow. Your choices become A) live with it or B) do it yourself.

  42. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Celeste —

    C) Talk to your spouse in a mature way and set ground rules for future behavior

    D) See a marriage counselor to address the spousal buy-in issues

    E) Move to your own house (my parents live in separate homes)

    F) Divorce your spouse and upgrade to a new one who is respectful of you and your things

    G) …

    The world is not black and white, you have MANY options.

  43. posted by Kate on

    Woo boy…do I wish that I was at the point of uncluttered to expect surprise guests! I am now at the point where a friend just let me know that she has the opportunity to come visit in THREE weeks and I’m pretty much freaking out about how we can get it all done in time!! Maybe this is the kick I need to get uncluttered once and for all!

  44. posted by WilliamB on

    I like the fact that things are ready and in a known place when I need them. I’m not sure it takes less time to be organized/uncluttered than it does to be disorganized/cluttered (ie, that the time it takes to organize is less than the time it takes to look for things) but it does mean than when I’m short on time, I can move quickly. Good in emergencies.

  45. posted by ceduke on

    I was just thinking of this post yesterday, as I had some surprise guests (I live in Las Vegas so sometimes people call me last minute as they’ve planned their Vegas vacation and then remember at the last minute that I live there) and all I had to do was wash the sheets and I was ready to head to the airport and pick them up! It was a great feeling, and having them compliment my home when they arrived gave me warm fuzzies. πŸ™‚

  46. posted by Matt on

    I find that so many of us walk in the house and throw everything onto our entry table or kitchen counter…in just a weeks worth of mail…your spaces are a disaster!To keep them clean and organized, you have to have a system…and none works better than the Xambox. You can really throw anything into it…appt cards, business cards, take-out menus, credit card payments, even childrens art work that you don’t have the heart to throw away but have no more space on the fridge for it! Check it out! You will save soooo much time by using the Xambox and you will never have to run around the house (or your home office/office) searching for that elusive paper buried under mounds of coupons and newspapers. Check it out!


  47. posted by Lee on

    After our kids left the house, I’ve read some good ideas about controlling their clutter.

    – Limit what comes into your house
    —Limit what you buy for them (be strong)
    —Have gift free birthday parties or ask for a gift donation for a shelter or a good cause (plus don’t send the children home with cluttery party favors and possiby other parents will do the same)
    —Have a serious talk with friends, relatives, asking for clutter free gifts such as college fund donations; experience gifts such as a family pass to the zoo or taking them out for a day of fun; helping buy something the child really needs or is special (watch, camping gear); something that gets used up,
    —Designate excess or cluttery gifts as “grandma’s house items” that stay at grandma’s and can be used there
    – Rotate toys so everything isn’t available at the same time
    – Use the “one toy in, one toy out” rule, which will also help them start donating or getting rid of broken or worn out items at an early age
    – Designate “toy areas” and “no toy areas” in your home
    – Keep a few toys in areas where you don’t want lots of toys and designate them something like “kitchen toys” and keep them in an basket that makes it easy for the kids to put the toys away
    – Have an easily identifiable and easily used “place for everything”
    – Spend more time with them doing activities that don’t require lots of toys, such as biking, something with a ball (that’s wide open),
    – Try “The House Fairy” game, started by Pam, who was one of the Sidetracked Home Executive”, and is explained on FlyLady’s web site ( You can buy some extras from Pam, but you can also do it on your own. The House Fairy comes at unexpected times and leaves small gifts (preferably not clutter) when she finds a clean room and also leave a message for the child telling them what a great job they have done and how proud she is of them. Parents have found this works well and even older children buy in when there are younger children so they, too, can get a little surprise. They find that children are calmer and less stressed with clean rooms.

    Essentially, we bombed at all of these, so hope they help someone else πŸ™‚

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