This Valentine’s day, make a change

As we talked about in the post Ask Unclutterer: How can I change someone into an unclutterer?” we get many emails asking how unclutterers can live with clutterers. It reminds me of one of those light bulb jokes: How many Psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.

Our clutterful light bulbs — our roommates, significant others — may not want to change. But, there is something that we can change, ourselves.

If you’re up for the challenge, what small unclutterer change or efficiency enhancer are you willing to make? If you’re stumped, think about your partner’s pet peeves. Some examples I’ve seen with couples are:

  • Dropping a jacket on the floor when arriving home
  • Leaving dishes about the house
  • Losing keys frequently

These things may not bug you, but we’re talking about our partners here — the things that bother them. As I got to thinking about Valentine’s Day this year, and realizing that gifts themselves can just contribute to clutter, I thought: how about changing something I do? I ran the idea past my significant other and we agreed it was a good idea. We decided that I will work on keeping the house better stocked with groceries. I’ll make a template with a specific list of items to regularly have on hand (in addition to the staples). It’s the little things that make a difference.

Forming a New Habit

Some experts suggest that takes 21 days to form a new habit. I like to use 30 day blocks, however, to be sure the habit gets locked in.

Start Small: Pick just one daily, do-able thing that you’ll take on for 30 days. For example, you commit to putting your clothes in the hamper before bed for the next 30 days. Selecting one thing will put all of your focus there, rather than trying to tackle several habits at once.

Be Clear: Be sure that you know clearly whether you’ve accomplished the task or not. For example, is your goal to file paper in your home office for 10 minutes each day or is it to file 1/2 an inch of paper each day? Near dinner time each day, mine task will be to check off food items that need to be purchased this week.

Track Progress: Use a calendar, goal-setting software such as Lifetick or create a spreadsheet with 30 boxes to track your progress. A check mark or gold star means you did the task. Leaving the box blank of course means you didn’t do it.

Keep It Visible: Have your document pop up on your screensaver, set reminders in your electronic calendar or place in another visible place, such as on the refrigerator. As you’re forming a new habit, you’ll need prompts.

Be Consistent: When possible, do the task at the same time every day. This will make the action a routine and, in time, you’ll be pulled to complete it automatically. For instance, pop your jacket into the closet right away when you arrive home each day.

Begin: The hardest part is to begin. Pick a start day. Today is a good idea so that you don’t build up resistance to change. And, why wait to surprise your partner with a clean family room or an uncluttered car?

I think creating a productive habit will give you more mileage than your standard Valentine’s Day gifts.

Up for the challenge? What habit do you want to take on for 30 days? Let us know in the comments. And, if you choose to go a more traditional route, check out Matt’s post from last week on uncluttered Valentine’s day gifts.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

19 Comments for “This Valentine’s day, make a change”

  1. posted by Dallee on

    Great idea!

    My “reminder to change” is using — a free web service that will send you emails on the schedule you set. You can set date(s) and time(s) for delivery of your email(s), even recurrences which don’t follow a regular schedule. I use it for all sorts of things, including reminders to take medication at a designated time. sends out email reminders if you choose to use the feature, but has more refined control on timing.

  2. posted by DanGTD on

    > I think creating a productive habit will give you more mileage than your standard Valentine’s Day gifts.

    It may, or it may not. If your partner is an unclutterer, she may see your new habit as something normal, and that’s the oposite definition of a gift.

  3. posted by Julia on

    And…turnaround is fair play. What small area of clutter are you willing to accept and quit b***hing about?

    Julia (the unmarried!)

  4. posted by Natasha on

    My fiance and I are both clutterers! But I love the idea of doing one little thing for a month to make it a habit. We often see cleaning as such a big thing that it’s hard to do a little bit here or there.

    We used to leave the mail at the bottom of the front stairs, where it comes in through the mail slot. For the last 10 days or so, we have brought it up with us every single day when we get home! Of course, then it sits on our dining room table for a while, but it’s a start. I think getting dirty clothing in the hamper every night will be our next task.

  5. posted by Christine on

    Actually, one of my new year’s resolutions was to be more loving towards my beloved. One of the major facets of that – after 5 years of living together, stop commenting about his desk (as long as all the crap stays *on* the desk the majority of the time), don’t comment about dishes (just do them more often myself), and keep the living room clean around his stuff. After all, I love him, he’s busy (we’re *both* busy), and I want to have a clean house because I like it.

    Cleaning around him and doing more dishes is pretty easy. Not commenting about it is really hard. I just tell myself, nobody likes a nag. And some people put off doing things purely because they were nagged to do it.

  6. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    Since New Year’s I’ve been working on keeping the house clean and I realized that it’s much easier to pick up little stuff throughout the week when I do the big cleaning on the weekend. So my habit would be to get up early every Saturday and clean first thing just to get it out of the way.

  7. posted by Kathy on

    But what do you do with someone who wants to be organized but isn’t willing [change] to be organized?

  8. posted by allen on

    Great post, guys! Even for those of us w/o an SO in our lives, there were some great suggestions, & reminders about the 21/30 day rule! (i know i had forgotten)

  9. posted by Sarah on

    I have a habit of not doing the dishes until they are utterly disgraceful (I live alone so have only myself to blame). My bf hates it! I hate it. So, I am going to make a new habit of doing the dishes every night – not just rinsing them off and leaving them beside the sink which is my current cop-out.

  10. posted by Michele on

    My husband and I tried this once, and it didn’t work because most of his annoying habits are due to his ADD. I can’t expect him to change his brain chemistry! The one that bothers me most is that he is constantly “drumming” by beating rhythmically on whatever is handy (desks, tables, his lap).

    So, we compromised by deciding “nagging” was allowed and we would not get mad about being reminded about one particular pet peeve. I think we get along better for it.

  11. posted by Beverly D on

    This is a great idea. I’m going to ask my husband tonight about it. I’m a fairly organized, although not entirely uncluttered person. I’m sure there are things I do, or don’t, that bug him, and changing one behavior as a gift to him would be a true act of love. I’d never know otherwise, because he is so nonconfrontational, and we don’t nag each other about anything. Weird I know but we just don’t. It’s a second marraige, ok? Plus, we follow the maxim, “a closed mouth gathers no foot”.

  12. posted by Joyful Abode: Domesticity by Trial and Error on

    That’s awesome! 🙂 We recently did something similar.

    One thing that bothered my husband is that I would leave a pile of my clean clothes next to my dresser rather than folding or hanging them immediately… it would be there for days at a time, looking sloppy.

    One thing that bothered me was that after dinner he would leave the dishes around/in the sink and sometimes not wash them till the morning… or he’d leave dishes in the sink throughout the day.

    So I approached him and asked him, “Hey, can we make a deal? I’ll put my clothes away immediately if you promise to not leave dishes in and around the sink.” He agreed, motivated by the prospect of my clean clothes being put away. And now I put my clothes away, motivated by the fact that he’d do dishes more often.

    It’s been awesome so far! And now that there aren’t any dishes sitting around, I’m more likely to actually clean the kitchen… clean counters, clean sink, sweep the floor, etc.

  13. posted by 2009-02-12 | Productivity Stream on

    […] This Valentine’s day, make a change […]

  14. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    My boyfriend notices actions and I notice words. Therefore it doesn’t matter how much I talk about something unless I do it he doesn’t notice. So I make a bit more effort to remember to do things and to anticipate his needs.

    He on the other hand can do a million and one nice things but one negative word and I’ve forgotten all the actions. He therefore makes a bit effort not to complain.

    As long as we’re both conscious of the other person’s buttons, we do well at avoiding them and everyone is happy happy.

  15. posted by Sue on

    I think the 21-days-to-become-a-habit rule doesn’t work for everyone. It certainly doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it, and been successful at doing something every day for 3 weeks, 1 month, and sometimes even several months, only to have one slip-up or other interruption in the daily routine put me right back to where I was before I tried adopting the new habit.

  16. posted by Suzyn on

    We recently made a new habit: clean up the kitchen BEFORE the kids’ bedtime. I always thought it would be easier to clean up once the house was quiet, but after 20 mins of cuddles and lullabies in the dark, the last thing I want to do is turn on all the lights and wash dishes. So now, the 4 year old is allowed to play in his room, the toddler gets an extra handful of raisins in his high chair, and I get the kitchen all tidy while I’m still energized.

    What annoys my sweetie? It drives my husband crazy when I don’t give him all the pertinent info when I hand off the kids to go to work: is the little guy in a fresh diaper? Did the big guy get a vitamin? So I just created a checklist – now we can run down the checklist every morning, and (hopefully!) there’ll be no more (or at least fewer) misunderstandings.

  17. posted by Sue on


    Great cleaning idea before the bedtime routine. Plus, the added gift of going through the ‘kid check list’ first thing in the morning. Good luck and keep us posted on how it goes…

    Sue Brenner

  18. posted by Forming habits | Seedplots on

    […] The original link is here. […]

  19. posted by Ivory on

    I think the sentiment here is really powerful, even if we’re not talking about clutter. Actions speak louder than words, and making small changes in ourselves for the sole purpose of making someone we love happy is no small thing. Thank you for the reminder.

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