Ask Unclutterer: How do we avoid occasional chaos?

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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15 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: How do we avoid occasional chaos?”

  1. posted by Julia Bloom on

    Great stuff! Our family (two adults and two school-age kids) has greatly benefited from minimizing stuff (several purges of the kids’ room and continuous routine purging) and making a very detailed daily schedule for the work/school week.

    One of my favorite improvements we’ve made to our routine – after each meal, each person washes their own dishes, and the cook washes the rest of the dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher and I prefer it that way. No piles of dishes taking up counter space, and when it’s time to cook the next meal, all the dishes are clean! (No hunting in the dishwasher for that certain utensil or pot, only to have to hand-wash it for immediate use.)

    (Credit to for his recent post that inspired this change for us – http://www.becomingminimalist......ishwasher/)

  2. posted by monica on

    Great article!

    I have a 6, 4 and 2yo. Most days we join play dates in the morning somewhere while my 6yo is at school. To us, I find that when we DON’T do play dates, that is when we stay home all morning, is when it turns chaotic. The kids bring out every toy available to keep busy. As opposed to when we go somewhere they come back more relaxed and play “less hard”.

    Those scarce rainy days are the worst, as all playing takes place inside. It IS like a tornado went through the house. It takes a couple days to finally clean up the mess. :p

    I have learned that, although it seems like it takes forever to leave the house (fix clothes, hair, shoes, snacks, diaper bag, etc), it keeps things tamer in the house and it also makes for happier kids.

  3. posted by Sarah on

    Hiya, interesting article! I hate the chaos that ensues after getting home from a holiday or weekend away. A bag to unpack, washing to do, normal chores and feeling a bit tired, all end in minor chaos which takes a few days to sort out!

  4. posted by Steven on

    Isn’t Reader Anthony in chaos 4 times a year, not 2? Either way, it’s a lot better than my current cycle, and I live alone!

    Great letter and article.

  5. posted by Deborah on

    I think Anthony sounds like he is doing a terrific job. I don’t think he need beat himself up at all; even the most organised of us has moments where it all turns to custard. I used to be insanely organised (Christmas presents bought and wrapped by about July, paperwork filed the day it arrived-type organised) but I struggle with keeping on top of things now that I have a baby who doesn’t sleep well, and my husband works very long hours. Sometimes I take a deep breath and decide I will worry about stuff the following morning (or the following, or the following…); sometimes I pop bubs in daycare for the day and clean, organise, grocery shop and run errands between dashes to the daycare to breast-feed him; and sometimes I acknowledge that some of the things I feel I have to do such as filling out his baby book are not priorities next to things such as making bubs’ mashes, ordering groceries and paying bills.

    Steven, I believe what Erin meant was that chaos 2 weeks at a time, four times a year, adds up to about 2 months a year.

    Sarah, yes I absolutely agree. Especially with all the baby stuff one needs to lug around, and no uninterrupted time to unpack.

  6. posted by maxie on

    @Julia, I’m having trouble understanding “No piles of dishes taking up counter space” Isn’t that part of the beauty of a dishwasher? You stick them in the dishwasher when dirty. The only time we’ve had piles on the counter was when the dishwasher broke.

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Steven — Deborah figured out what my thinking was: 2 weeks + 2 weeks + 2 weeks + 2 weeks = roughly 2 months.

  8. posted by WilliamB on

    Anthony, your desire to keep up the good job all the time makes perfect sense, I do hope you realize how great your current normal sounds. yes?

    In any case, what is it that kicks off the falling off the wagon? For example, is there something that happens quarterly that throws you off? Do you gradually fall a bit behind and bit more behind over the course of the quarter and finally you tip over the edge?

    Good luck and keep doing great.

  9. posted by Debi on

    Great ideas!

    Every 3 months makes perfect sense for things to get off track. It seems like our lives change a little with each season. Also, each sport season or activity seems to last that long, and here in the Midwest, the weather outdoors changes about every 3 months.

    It may make sense to reevaluate your routines or have a different routine to account for the changes in weather/sports/daylight.

  10. posted by MizLoo on

    Wow! I’m so impressed that a single parent can manage such impressive structure. Congratulations on raising youngsters who know how to keep things uncluttered.

    Here’s a comment that might seem not-so-unclutterer-y. Your kids are at an age that is less amenable to structure than when they were small. Perhaps, if this is a recent development, their needs have changed and a little LESS structure would serve them better.

    Where – especially for a single parent – keeping a tight rein was essential when dealing with little kiddos, now that they are older and maturing, they may need more space that isn’t scheduled so tightly by Dad. Perhaps it’s time for a family meeting that lets the youngsters begin to assume some responsibility for the scheduling. Just in case one or both of them are tending to sabotage the schedule in the interest of a little more independence.

    Consider (if you are not already doing it) letting them learn to be schedulers; they already know how to follow a schedule. After all, when they leave home, they’ve got to know how to manage their own time.

  11. posted by Julia Bloom on

    @maxie – Yeah, that didn’t come across quite right! What I meant was, since we wash dishes after every meal, we don’t have piles of dishes taking up counter space. That particular benefit isn’t related to not having a dishwasher.

  12. posted by Rashelle on

    It sounds like Anthony is doing a fine job of running his household. I sometimes think interruptions or disruptions to our normal schedules are needed for us to take time out, hone in and focus on what is important in our lives. It takes *a lot* of energy to run a household…and we humans are not robots! I say, do the best job you can, and when chaos strikes, go with it and also do the best job you can under the circumstances. Take the time you need to get back on track. Remember, without chaos there is no order, without order there is no chaos.

  13. posted by klutzgrrl on

    And a day spent cleaning isn’t necessarily wasted. Sure, we’d rather be out in the mountains or somewhere, but when you put on some music and work together, it can be quite fun and the results are satisfying.

  14. posted by Thrift Store Mama on


    We run a fairly organized home and life, and this happens to us too. It generally happens when somebody hasn’t gotten enough sleep due to work travel or sickness or when we undertake some home project and our regular chores get pushed aside. It also happens when I have overscheduled myself or the family.

    Having a very firm and regular set schedule is a godsend to little children. It makes their life predictable and peaceful. But now that my girls are over (5 and 7) I find that it’s okay to upset the apple cart once in a while. My response and reaction to the overturned applecart must be calm and measured because I want to show them that chaos happens and that it’s okay.

    So, if this chaos doesn’t bother you too terribly much, perhaps that just a little bit of the way it has to be ?

  15. posted by Ottawa Storage Expert on

    The thing here is time management. I myself hated occasional chaos, but come to thingk of it the fun experienced pays it all. Anyway its occasional not everyday right? We only need to prepare ahead of the time schedule and expect changes within our limits.

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