Reader Kat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
How do I get my husband and stepson to follow the systems I set up? How do I work with other people to attain organization? How can I convince my husband that we don’t need to keep every piece of paper that crosses our threshold??
Full disclosure: Kat’s email was significantly longer than the paragraph of questions quoted here. The gist of the other part of her message was that her family has incredible qualities, they’re truly wonderful people, they just LOVE keeping paper and not doing anything with it except for stacking it. This behavior drives Kat, a newlywed, batty.
Kat, the first thing you need to do is accept that you live with paper keepers and stackers. It’s who they are. They were this way before you married into the family two years ago, and you will never be able to force them into becoming shredders, scanners, and filers. As much as you want to, you can’t force anyone into being an unclutterer.
That being said, you can implement strategies to help you deal with your frustrations about their behavior, and you can also talk with them about your uncluttered and organized preference and hope they choose to adopt them.
The first step is to sit down and have a family meeting about the paper situation in your home. If you can maintain a calm conversation at home, have it there. If voices are likely to be raised, take pictures of the rooms in your house that are cluttered with paper and head with your family to a restaurant to have the conversation in public. People are much more likely to keep level-headed in public spaces.
During your conversation, be specific with how you feel about the paper clutter, the impact the paper clutter is having on your life (don’t over dramatize, state only facts), and describe exactly how you wish the space to look. Then, ask your husband and your son how they feel about the paper clutter in the house, how is it impacting their lives, and how they want their home to look. Try your best to come to an agreement between the three of you for how you want your space to look. You will have to give a little, and they will have to give a little, but the three of you should agree on a state that works for all of you. Then, discuss in detail how you plan to make the vision a reality.
If you cannot agree upon the way you want the house to look, I strongly recommend seeking the help of a therapist. Talking things over with a person who doesn’t live in your house can help significantly in these situations.
After you decide on the desired state of your home, everyone should do a walk through of the entire paper handling process with each other to make sure everyone will work in the same way. Since you already own a shredder and scanner, everyone should practice on the equipment. Don’t be condescending to each other, just walk through the process.
Then, when the walk-through is over, you need to trust your family to stick to the plan. You also have to stick to the plan, no exceptions. If your husband or son do not follow the agreed upon behavior, they have two choices. Ask, “The three of us agreed that we want our home to look a specific way. Do you still agree with this or has something changed and we need to revisit our goals?” As long as the person still agrees with the goals, he will very likely get up and process the papers appropriately. If the person no longer agrees with the goals, you need to sit back down and have the conversation about paper in your home again.
If the paper situation doesn’t bother anyone but you and neither your husband or son have interest in changing their ways, there may be a point where you will want to take over as the paper person for the house. You can’t take over this role without the permission of your husband and son. If everyone is okay with you being the paper person, though, trade it out for chores you don’t want to do but that your husband and son do. Maybe you agree to process paper and your husband agrees to do all the yard work? Maybe you agree to process paper and your son agrees to load and unload the dishwasher every night after dinner? Whatever trade you decide to make, be sure the chores are as close as possible to taking the same amount of time and energy to complete. We do this separation of responsibilities with numerous home maintenance work in our home.
Thank you, Kat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck getting the paper under control in your home and be sure to check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.
Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.