Ask Unclutterer: Suggestions for easily eliminating messes

Reader Barbara submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I’m organized and like things to be put away, except it doesn’t always happen. (I’m swamped, just like everyone is these days.) I want to know what I can do to step-up my game. Easy things with big impact, without much effort. I’m single and live in a 1BR apartment.

You say you’re already organized and that picking up is your biggest concern, so these three simple suggestions are tailored toward alleviating messes (not uncluttering) your small space.

  1. Five minute pick up. If you watch television, use the first commercial break of the evening to do a general clean up around the apartment. Race the commercials to see how much you can get done before your show returns. If you don’t watch television, each night before making dinner set the timer on your microwave for five minutes and race the clock. If your space were larger or there were more people living in your place, I’d suggest using two or three commercial breaks or setting the microwave timer for 15 minutes. A little work each night goes a long way toward keeping your place mess-free.
  2. Shift your mindset. For reasons unknown, most of us think of doing something and putting stuff away afterward as two activities. For instance, we think about “dinner” as making dinner and eating dinner, but we think of cleaning up the dining room and kitchen afterward as another thing to do, “cleaning up after dinner.” If you stop thinking of cleaning up afterward as a separate activity, but rather as part of the activity itself, you’ll get better at putting things away after you use them. Wrapping a gift for a friend doesn’t stop when you put the bow on the package, but is complete when all the wrapping supplies have been returned to storage. You aren’t finished playing a board game with your friends when someone claims victory, but rather after the game is boxed up and returned to its shelf. This also means you don’t ever randomly set stuff down. The act of handling the mail each day includes retrieving it, reviewing it, and processing it (shredding, recycling, filing, etc.). If you set the mail down on the table without processing it, you didn’t complete the project of handling the mail.
  3. Get ready for bed at least an hour before bedtime. I’ve written this nugget of advice numerous times, but I do so because it has such a strong impact on the state of one’s home. Since you’re not overly tired an hour before bedtime, your dirty clothes make it into the hamper and your shoes and accessories get returned to their storage spaces. You have energy to wash your face and brush your teeth and then put away related supplies. You also signal your brain that you need to start winding down, which can make it easier to fall asleep when you eventually go to bed. Your memory is better then, too, so you can set out all the things you’ll need to take with you in the morning without forgetting anything important. The only thing left on your to-do list in the hour before bed should be crawling under the covers and turning out the bedroom light.

Thank you, Barbara, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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.

13 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Suggestions for easily eliminating messes”

  1. posted by Julie Bestry on

    All great points, but I especially like you bringing up #3. The act of brushing your teeth, especially with minty-fresh toothpaste, is briefly invigorating. It’s why we sometimes recommend clients brush their teeth mid-afternoon to conquer an energy slump. So, brushing your teeth an hour before bed, rather than right before trying to sleep, increases the chance you’ll be able to wind down by bedtime.

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Julie — It also keeps me from doing any late-night snacking. I think to myself, “Oh, then I would have to brush my teeth again. Not worth it.”

  3. posted by Sara on

    I have 2 br/1 ba condo. One bedroom is my actual bedroom, which I keep generally clutter-free, and the other is my studio, where stuff goes to die. I’ve been spending a little bit of time every day decluttering, trying to make the space more appealing to be in (and be creative in). Last night I dumped my entire fabric stash on the floor. I’m not even sure why. I was looking for something, but I don’t even remember what. Then I left the fabric there for a couple of hours, until it was time for bed. I have a routine that I follow before bed, and one of the items on it that I rarely do is ‘pick up studio.’ Last night, I decided I could at least put away all the fabric I’d dragged out. I was really surprised when it took less than 10 minutes, and walking through my studio to the bathroom this morning was sooo peaceful.

  4. posted by Dusty on

    I go with the pick up/reward method. I will clean up a room or part of the house and reward myself with doing something fun.

    I will also sometimes clean up right after I get back from the gym, because I am still in moving around mode and I think to myself, “I need to do this before I shower so I won’t get dirty again.”

  5. posted by JC on

    I do the #1 method – 5-mins of cleaning up maybe twice a day.

    Once when I get home from work…I force myself to put my jacket/gymstuff and mail in the right place instead of dumping it on a chair. Turning up the radio and listening to dancey music helps make me feel happy instead of exhausted.

    And then once again either after dinner or right before bedtime…then I can settle in with a book or other evening diversion of my choice.

  6. posted by Kate on

    I think the mindset-shifting is dead on accurate and useful. I myself struggle with this with washing dishes, but with everything else, “it” ain’t done — whatever “it” is — until everything’s put away.

    For example, my best friend will say she “did” her laundry, which means clothes are cleaned, dried, and are sitting in her living room in baskets. For me, my laundry is done when all the clothes are hung up or folded/put in drawers, and the laundry detergent, quarters, dryer sheets, and laundry basket are all put away!

    So if I can just get my dishwashing in line with my laundry & other habits, I’ll be golden!

  7. posted by susan on

    I had to figure out why I wasn’t putting things away in a timely fashion. Usually it was because there was no good space to put it. So I avoided it. When my closet is too full to hang clothes or the dresser drawers to full to put things away I realized it was time to purge some items. I have the room. I’m single and have a 3 BR house all with small closets. It’s just I have a lot of clothes. That light bulb went on for each area where I was stymied. Once I reduced pot and pans and other kitchen items then putting away dishes was easier. Same with clothing and bed and bath linens. Too many garden tools, too many Christmas decorations, too many CD’s etc…
    I have done a huge purge over the last 2 years and now everything has it’s place and it’s not a chore to hang things up or put dishes or laundry away.
    So for me it was knowing why I was avoiding the clean ups.

  8. posted by Ella on

    I recently starting doing a 10-minute tidy up before bedtime. I set the timer but I do NOT race. Rather, I putter around at a relaxed steady pace, straightening up and putting things back in their places. Both the relaxed pace and the uncluttered space help me wind down for peaceful sleep. And more to the point of Barbara’s needs, I’ve found that this habit has begun to carry over all day long, so that oftentimes before bed there’s scarcely even 10 minutes’ worth of tidying up to do.

  9. posted by Gilly on

    #3 is the best tip! I’ve been doing this for months. It was hard at first, because I tend to procrastinate about everything. But the nights when I get ready for bed early are much more calm and peaceful, and I sleep better those nights, too. And my bedroom stays much neater. And I floss my teeth–I was always letting that go because it was late and I was tired.

  10. posted by Nicole W. on

    I had huge “Ah Ha Moments” reading all three of this! Even though I’m in my 40’s I think part of me is still a kid who wants to stay up late, have my mommy clean up after me, etc. Today, I am a mom who is passing this attitude on to my kids. Putting things away isn’t bad, it’s my thinking surrounding these responsibilities that is. Whew. big mental shift for me.

  11. posted by Pam on

    Great post, great ideas and suggestions. I once heard it said… Don’t Put It Down… Put It Away. So, when you catch yourself starting to just put something down, then say this to yourself, and it will help you to just go ahead and put it away. It generally takes only a second longer!

  12. posted by Andrea Nordstrom on

    Oh my, it honestly never dawned on me to get ready am hour before bedtime but I think this will make a HUGE difference to me! Especially since I am usually up an hour past my bedtime and everything gets thrown here, there and everywhere. Will have to try it tomorrow (since I am already past my bedtime now!)

  13. posted by WilliamB on

    My absolute best quick-hit suggestion for big impact organization is: if you’re done with it, get it out of the house.

    This includes old reading material, junk mail, donations, broken items, etc. If it’s junk mail, put it in the recycling RIGHT NOW. (Really, why put it anywhere else? It’s not as if putting it in the bin is harder than putting on a counter, eh?) If it’s broken, break it down for recycling or put it in the trash. If it’s someting to return to a friend, make a date as soon as you can.

    My second is more about appearance than actuality: stacks look better than piles, boxes look better than stacks. But keep in mind that for some people, putting something out of sight means out of mind, in which case the box represents a step backward.

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