Since we started asking for submissions to the Ask Unclutterer column, we have received many, many, many questions on the following theme:
I am uncluttered and organized, but my partner/spouse/roommate/sibling/child is not. It drives me crazy! Please tell me how I can change/fix him/her/them.
Each time I see one of these messages, my heart goes out to the people involved. I used to be the partner/spouse/roommate/sibling/child who was making messes and not picking up after myself. My college roommates used to yell at me, my parents hired someone to clean my bedroom, and my husband had to have a serious talk with me that bordered on being an intervention. Although many of you may not believe me, the reality is that being a clutterer living with an unclutterer isn’t the easiest of lives, either.
People can change from clutterbugs into unclutterers — I’m living proof of that — but wanting the change to happen doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. Here are some tips that may help to improve your situation:
- Put Yourself in Their Shoes. Living a cluttered life is not full of puppies and rainbows. You walk around with the stress of your crap and disorganization on your mind all the time. You want to be organized, but don’t have the knowledge and/or energy to make it happen. If you had enough money to pay someone to clean up after you, you would hire someone in a heartbeat just to get rid of the anxiety. You know that you’re upsetting other people, but something is stopping you from changing your ways.
- Stop nagging and have a conversation. The worst thing you can do is nag the clutterbug. Nagging sends the message that you have no respect for the person. Instead, have a conversation about the state of your home. Go to a public place (most people don’t yell in public spaces) like a restaurant, coffee shop, or bar, and really get to the heart of the matter.
- Be honest about what you do around the house. Most people overestimate their contributions to work done around the house. It’s because we focus on just what we’re doing, attach a sense of worth to it, and assume what the other person is doing isn’t as valuable. Keep a list of all that you do and ask your house mate to do the same. They might not know how much you actually do, and vice versa.
- Plan together. Walk through your home and talk about what you imagine for each space. Have everyone input their ideas equally. How do you envision yourself living together in those rooms? What storage exists? How do you use the space and what do you need to do to keep these areas maintained?
- Create responsibility lists. Sit down and set a clear plan of action for the future. Divide up chores and layout guidelines for who is responsible for what. Make action items and be realistic with time limits. Consider asking a professional organizer to join you if you want some help with brainstorming. Also, create a daily routine list, similar to what was discussed our “exhausted after work” column. Set clear expectations so that there is no grey area. Do this together — don’t make a list and hand it to your house mate.
- Avoid criticism in the early weeks. It may take some time for everyone to figure out the nuances of the new responsibilities. Ask if the other person needs help instead of being critical about how the work is completed. Organizing and uncluttering are things we learn, and not everyone is perfect at a task the first time they try it.
- Use gentle reminders. Turn on music when you clean so that there is an audible cue for cleaning. Or, use the same set of songs in a playlist for cleaning time if you typically have music playing in you’re home. Make it obvious that you are tackling the items on your list. Honestly, this is a more effective encouragement tool to get someone to do their chores than nagging them to help you.
- Positive speech. It’s important to focus on the end results of your organizing and uncluttering activities. The payoffs one gains from being organized are usually more valuable than the payoffs the person gains from being lazy.
Be sure to check out our post “What to do if you are organized and your partner isn’t” for additional tips and tricks.
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.
This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.