Reader Anthony submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
Single dad. Two kids: one in middle, one in high school. We keep things tidy and organized most of the time. I like schedules, the kids work better on schedules, so we follow a tight schedule. We go along at a good clip for about three months, and then everything falls apart for a week or two. We end up wasting a full Sunday cleaning and getting back in the game. Three months or so are good, and then we devolve into chaos again. How do we not spiral into chaos? How do we end this cycle?
Anthony — Unless you have a full-time housekeeper whose job it is to keep your home continuously running smoothly, I think the situation you’ve described is pretty normal for an active, uncluttered, and organized family. We all encounter chaos in our homes occasionally. I don’t know if it’s every three months and for a week or two in all cases, but disorder happens over the course of the year, even to me. Life can be messy, so it’s not too surprising that mess eventually creeps into our homes.
In other words, if you’re only “devolv[ing] into chaos” 2 out of 12 months each year, I think you’re doing fine.
In our home, chaos tends to erupt when a kink is thrown into our schedule. One of us might travel for work or we’ll all go on vacation, and two weeks later the house will look like it was hit by a miniature tornado and mealtime resembles feral cats hunting for dinner. Another thing that throws us off is illness — if one or more of us get sick, disorder almost always follows (especially if it’s one of the adults who is under the weather). Exhaustion and stress can be culprits, too. The other trigger for us is being spread too thin, which is chaos of our own making because we voluntarily agreed to do too many things.
As I mentioned earlier, life is messy and at some point your home will reflect that. You can’t alleviate it completely, but there are a small handful of things you might be able to do to reduce its frequency.
- Identify the disruptions. This seems obvious, but it is incredibly easy to live in denial and pretend like the disruption isn’t happening. Instead of ignoring the problem, name it as quickly as you notice it and take responsibility for it. “Whoa! Half of our chores didn’t get done today because we’re all exhausted.” When you know what is wrong and why (in this example, probably too much stuff on the schedule for one day), you can address fixing it tomorrow, not two weeks from tomorrow.
- Tomorrow is a new day. Don’t let the one day of mess provide you with an excuse to abandon your schedule the next day. All hope is not lost. Wake up and face the new day with a positive attitude. Move throughout the day as you normally would, simply compensating for what went awry the previous day when you can. Dishes left on the counter last night? Put breakfast dishes into the dishwasher along with last night’s dinner dishes, don’t set the breakfast dishes on the counter. You know something went wrong yesterday, so fix it today.
- Have schedules in place. This sounds like something you’re already doing. However, there might be people reading this article who don’t, so I want to discuss it briefly. Have you ever had a boss who waits to do things at the last minute and then thrives on the adrenaline rush? The reason this happens is because the boss has learned that she can get things done well at the last minute. As humans, we like to do things in ways where we know we’ll likely be successful, and the boss feels her chances of success are improved if she waits for the adrenaline to kick in. We are creatures of habit. If that boss knew she could also be successful not waiting until the last minute, she would be a boss who didn’t wait until the last minute. The same is true in our homes. If your family doesn’t know it can operate in an uncluttered and organized way on a schedule, it will primarily operate in a state of chaos — even if that state of living is to everyone’s disadvantage. When there is a regular schedule in place and everyone in the home has practiced the routine and enjoyed its benefits, it can become the standard operating procedure. It will become the way your household prefers because it will be comfortable and rewarding.
- Rebounding is easier with less stuff. I’m not advocating asceticism. I’m just reminding you that when you have less stuff, you have less mess. There is less to be out of place and messy when you have less stuff to be out of place and messy. It takes less time to put out-of-place things away when there aren’t many things to put away. There is less laundry to do when there are fewer clothes in the house. Again, I’m not saying you should live like a monk without any possessions, I’m simply pointing out that managing less stuff is easier than managing more stuff. YOU get to define what less and more mean for you and your family.
- Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes, but the most important thing is that you learn from them and try your best not to repeat them. Are piano lessons, tennis lessons, playing on the basketball team, singing in the city choir, and dancing in the Nutcracker too much for your daughter to do in addition to school in December? Well, you’ve learned this year that she can’t do it all, so next year you can help her be more selective about which activities she chooses to do. I have this year’s and next year’s calendars in my planner and continuously make notes for future me on next year’s calendar. In this example, I would write in September something like, “Auditions for the Nutcracker are this month. If Molly tries out this year, what activity will she NOT do in December so our lives aren’t insane like last year.”
- Don’t beat yourself up. As I mentioned previously, life is messy. If you get sick, you get sick, and you need to focus on getting better. When you’re better, you’ll re-establish order in your home. There is no need to clutter up your emotions with guilt when you have no rational reason to feel guilty.
Thank you, Anthony, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was helpful to you in my response. Please check out the comments for even more advice from our readers. — Erin
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