George Carlin’s stuff routine

This post originally appeared on Unclutterer 10 years ago to commemorate the passing of comedian George Carlin.

In 1986, George Carlin first performed his “stuff” routine for Comic Relief, a charity dedicated eradicating poverty. In this routine, Mr. Carlin humorously tells us the hard truth about the things in our homes. There are some choice words in the video clip, so if you are sensitive to harsh language or at work where other people can hear sounds from your speakers, you may not want to click on the link. However, if you’re up for some Friday humor, here is George Carlin on “stuff.”

Thank you to The Excellent Adventure for reminding us of this great sketch.

Streamlining your morning routine

My friend Brittany has a problem. She can’t get out of the house in the morning on time. No matter how early she wakes up, she can find a reason to be late. Laundry, phone calls, or lost objects are common time sucks.

“I dawdle,” Brittany reports.

Brittany doesn’t have a big issue with her lack of promptness, but her boyfriend who carpools with her does. Most days he makes her lunch while he waits for her to get her act together. She admits that she doesn’t even figure making her lunch into her morning routine any longer, if she were responsible for it, she’d be even more tardy.

“He likes having something to do while he waits for me,” she rationalizes.

Her lateness is starting to wear thin on her boyfriend, however, so she turned to me for advice. She asked if I could help her streamline her morning routine so that she could start getting out the door on time.

The first step in streamlining your morning routine is to discover how you’re spending your time. In my friend’s case, I think that her boyfriend might be a better person to track her morning processes. Either way, keep a log of how you spend your time from the point you wake up until you arrive at work. Keep this log for two or three weeks so that you get an accurate view of your typical morning. How long does it take to shower? Choose your clothes? Hunt for items you need to drop at the dry cleaners, post office, or child’s school? What throws you off track?

After you have a log of what you do, you’ll need to evaluate the information you’ve collected. What are the activities that you do every day that you can’t avoid (things like showering, teeth brushing, getting dressed, and commuting fall into this category)? List these items and their time requirements on a sheet of paper. If your commute time varies, find the average length of your commute times over the two or three-week period and use that number. Now, do the obvious and add up these numbers to make sure that you’re waking up at least early enough to achieve these essential tasks.

The next step is to evaluate those other tasks that don’t have to be completed in the morning. These are tasks like picking out your clothing, making lunches, collecting things together, or hunting for your daughter’s pony tail holder. Could any of these tasks be relocated to the evening beforehand? Could you make all lunches for a week on Sunday afternoon? How much time are you wasting every morning doing tasks that don’t have to be handled before work?

Here are some other questions to ask yourself:

How many times are you hitting the snooze button on the alarm in the morning? Do you need to move your alarm clock to the other side of the room? Resolve not to hit the snooze at all? Go to bed earlier?

Do you routinely pick out your clothes the night beforehand so that you can make sure your shirt is ironed, you know where both shoes are located, and your socks match? Do your children go through the same process?

Do you have a spot in your home where you put all items that you’ll need for the next day? Do you have a basket where your child puts forms that have to be signed for school so that last-minute tasks are kept to a minimum? Do you keep your keys, wallet, watch, and cell phone in a valet, purse, or on a landing strip so that you don’t have to hunt for them?

Do you take the time to read the paper in physical form when it might be easier to download a digital version and read it on an e-book reader or your iPod/cell phone on the subway/bus? Are you stopping to buy coffee every morning when brewing it at home would reduce the time involved (and the price tag)?

In the drastic measure department, do you need a different job that doesn’t care what time you get in to work? Is there a family in your child’s carpool that routinely makes everyone else late that you could tactfully un-invite from your carpool?

Once you work through this process, you should have a clear view of what is keeping you from arriving at work on time. Now, you have to take the steps to streamline your schedule and get your morning routine running on time.

Good luck to my friend Brittany and to anyone else trying to get your morning routine on the right track!


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Establishing routines

One of the best ways, in my experience, to stay ahead of the game and keep your home from being overrun with clutter is to establish routines. Every household works differently, so develop a set of routines that is practical and effective for your living space.

Here are some ideas for routines that you can develop for your home:

Car — Each time you leave your car do a quick check to see if there is anything that doesn’t belong in your car. Then, once a week, do a check under the seats for dropped wrappers, coins, etc. I do the full check on Saturday mornings before I run errands.

Laundry — You’ll want to have a weekly schedule for washing bedroom sheets and bathroom towels (I do these on Thursdays). Additionally, you’ll want to plan for doing the laundry once a week if you’re single, twice a week if there are two or three people in your home, every other day if there are four people, and everyday if five or more people occupy your house. I suggest putting the load of laundry in to wash before work, putting it into the dryer after work, and folding it and putting it away after dinner.

Home Office — You should have routines in place for filing, clearing off your work space, and addressing to-do items. I promote filing items as they need to be filed instead of collecting a pile to file all at once (piles = clutter). Every Friday, I make sure to clean off my desk and review my next week’s goals.

Banking — One day in your schedule needs an hour dedicated to paying bills, organizing receipts, depositing checks and taking care of your finances. Once a month, add in balancing your accounts to your hour of banking responsibilities. I do this on Fridays because my bank has extended hours on this day if I need to contact them.

Deep Cleaning — The best way that I’ve found to tackle cleaning is to give each room a day of the week (Monday is living room, Tuesday is family room, Wednesday is bedroom, Thursday is bathrooms, Friday is kitchen, etc.). I’ll dust, clean the floors, and do other chores for 15 minutes to half an hour everyday per room instead of a five-hour, full-house, cleaning session all on one day.

Yard — During the warmer months, walk through your yard looking for children’s toys, fallen branches, and any other clutter that can find its way into your yard at least twice a week. If you mow your lawn, do this walk before you mow. If you have someone else mow your lawn, do this check the evening before the lawn maintenance people arrive. During the winter, you can probably reduce this check to once a week or once every other week.

Closets — As discussed in previous posts, go through your closets every six months to purge items that shouldn’t be in it any longer. Do this for linens and other storage closets, in addition to your clothing closets.

There are dozens (maybe hundreds) of other routines that you can establish in your home to keep it clutter free. Think about your home and create a schedule that you and your family can work with to keep clutter reduced. Remember, too, that even though it feels like you are doing work on your home everyday, when routines are in place you spend less time overall on organization. Plus, your home will always be in a state of order, which will cause you less stress and will be presentable if an unexpected guest decides to drop by for a visit.

If you have effective routines established in your home, feel welcome to share these in the comments. The Unclutterer team loves to hear about innovative ways people are keeping their homes clutter free.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Declaring laundry bankruptcy: How to use the laundromat to get your laundry routine under control

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a laundromat. I won’t divulge too many details, but the words “broken” and “dryer” and “angry” would aptly belong in a statement about why I’m in my present location.

Since I’m trying to look on the bright side of this situation, I’m reminding myself that all of my clothes will be washed, dried, and folded in less than two hours. If I were doing my laundry at home with just one washer and one dryer, it would take me close to two days to get my mountain of clothes under control. (This particular mountain being a direct result of the “broken dryer” mentioned above.) If I were to wait to do my laundry until after the new dryer is delivered, I then would have to walk up and down the stairs about 20 times and I would be tied to my house since I’m not too fond of letting the machines run when I’m not at home. So, instead of doing this mess in a couple days, I’ve declared a laundry bankruptcy and headed to the laundromat.

If you’re someone with a mountain of laundry who is having a problem getting your laundry situation under control, I think that the laundromat bankruptcy plan is a good plan to follow. Go once to the laundromat, get all of your clothes washed, and then get started on your new laundry routine at home with a clean slate. To complete the laundry bankruptcy plan you can do your laundry yourself, or you can use the Wash-Dry-Fold service that most laundromats offer.

I have friends who don’t have washers and dryers and they exclusively use the Wash-Dry-Fold services in their neighborhoods. One friend of mine who lives in New York’s West Village has found that it is only $4 more to have his laundry done for him than if he were to do it himself. His believes his time is more valuable to him than $4, so every Monday he makes a trip to the Wash-Dry-Fold on his way to work and picks his clothes up that day on his way home. My local Wash-Dry-Fold charges $1 per pound of laundry with a minimum $10 purchase.

There is something simple and wonderful about using the laundromat as your first step in getting on track with a home laundry routine. If you find yourself under a mountain of clothes, it is definitely worth considering. Also, if you don’t have a washer and dryer in your home or you have a set you don’t use, you may want to consider using the services of your local Wash-Dry-Fold. You may find that the expense of the service is less than the amount you value the time you could spend doing something else.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

Routines: Are you for or against?

Do you like having a routine? Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with them. I see the usefulness in them, and when I follow a routine I’m more productive and don’t forget things as often as when I don’t have a routine.

However, I’m a bit like my mother. She loved routines, in theory, but after three or four days of following a routine she would find herself getting dizzy, as if her brain couldn’t cope with being so ordered. While a routine doesn’t make me dizzy, I do find myself looking for excuses to get distracted.

Of course, there are different types of routines to consider. There are regular practice routines, such as exercise, writing, or meditation. And then there are daily routines such as:

  • 7:00 Get up and have breakfast
  • 8:00 Go to the pool
  • 9:00 Write an article for Unclutterer
  • 10:00 Clean one area of the house
  • 10:30 Do some quilting and watch an episode of favourite TV show
  • 11:30 Go for a coffee and do some creative writing
  • 12:30 Prep lunch and tidy the house
  • 13:30 Eat lunch
  • 14:00 Leave for work

The first type of routine works for me. It focuses my mind. It creates momentum. It’s self-motivating. The second type of routine, however, while on paper seems like a great idea, always ends up depressing me, for two reasons: there’s never enough time to get everything I want done and it feels like being in the military or in a super-strict boarding school. Life is not so orderly — it’s spontaneous and unpredictable. Trying to squeeze it into a rigid plan just creates stress when the plan can’t be completed.

That’s why I like using the Bullet Journal system. It focuses more on the idea of regular practice and there’s no pressure to do everything in a single day. By having the “permission” to move tasks forward with a simple arrow takes away the stress of having too many tasks in the to-do list.

But when it comes to deciding how you feel about routines, don’t just take my opinion. Check out the book Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, with contributions from Unclutterer’s Editor-at-Large, Erin Rooney Doland, as well as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Gretchin Rubin, and 17 other experts in the field.

The power of an organized daily routine

After working from home for seven years, I know what determines success more than anything else:

An organized routine.

There’s no project management app, list-making strategy or careful balance of work and home life that can top a proven routine for getting things done. In fact, the absence of a good routine hinders those things. Here’s how you can make a strong, organized routine to depend on. Let’s get started.

But first…

First, a note. The word “routine” implies rigidity. “This is the way it is and that’s that.” Well, no. A structured, organized daily routine is not divorced from flexibility. There will be times when, for whatever reason, things don’t pan out as planned:

  • The internet is down
  • Someone is sick
  • A last-minute cancellation
  • The car decides, “Eh, I think I won’t run today.”

When these things happen, and they will, it’s important not to spiral. Something might have to get moved around, postponed or abandoned entirely. A deadline might come and go. It’s always OK to re-work things a bit. Just be aware of that when the time comes. With that said, on with the show.

Let’s build an organized daily routine

Getting started with a routine that’s going to work is easy. It starts with what I call a “mind dump.” It’s a great way to list everything that’s on your mind, but it’s also a fantastic starting point for establishing a new routine, if you ask the right questions. Get a pen and paper, and answer the following:

“What must I get done each day for (work/school/volunteering/etc.)?”
“How much energy do I have at the start/middle/end of each day?”
“Which days offer more free time? Which ones offer less?”
“What are the errands that must be done daily or weekly?”
“What are the chores that must be completed?”

Don’t censor yourself at this stage. Nothing is too big (paint the mud room) or too small (brush teeth). As you go, you might generate your own questions. Perhaps getting prepped for work each morning or ushering the kids out the door for school.

When that’s done, it’s time for “triage.” Much like the triage nurse at the ER, you’re going to decide who (your tasks) get addressed when. In question two, you identified your energy levels throughout the day. Put the most labor-intensive tasks when you’re ready to tackle them, reserving the rest for later.

For example, I’m at my best in the early morning and afternoon. That’s when I write reports or articles, brainstorm new ideas for upcoming projects, work on the podcasts and so on. Meanwhile, I schedule other tasks, like responding to email, at the end of the day when I don’t want to think anymore.

Next, identify where you can do yourself favors. Before bed, I prep for the next morning: lunch ready for work, kids outfits ready for school, a list of my most important to-dos in front of my keyboard. Maybe you can bring a mission-critical paper out to the car so you won’t forget. Making this prep time a part of your daily routine is a huge time-saver (and headache reducer).

Give your brain a chance to do its thing

Your brain is good at solving problems. Make sure your routine includes a chance for it to do so. Most of the people we’d consider geniuses in their fields adhered to a daily routine that included a walk. According to Harvard Business Review:

“Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon — and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Tchaikovsky made do with a two-hour walk, but wouldn’t return a moment early, convinced that cheating himself of the full 120 minutes would make him ill. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck.”

Taking a walk can help your brain function well. That deserves a slot in your routine, no?

I hope this was helpful. A good routine will make your life so much easier. Just remember to be flexible. If plays change on the fly, it’s OK! Go with it and adjust tomorrow. Good luck.

Getting started with a daily routine

A few years ago, I was fed up with the frenzy of realizing something important was due … two hours after I had missed a deadline. After much trial and error, and a little dragging of my feet, I’ve established a workable daily routine. For me, adherence to a routine is especially important. Since I work from home, I’ve only got six hours to myself while my wife and kids are at school, and enough work for much more than that. I keep it all manageable, in part, with a fixed routine. It’s all about knowing what’s coming, preparing ahead of time, and finding a “home” for key items and ideas.

The view from up here – knowing what’s coming

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my routine, I must briefly address projects. I define a project as David Allen does: anything that takes more than one action step to complete. Therefore, “land the new client” is a project, but so is “give Jr. permission to go on the field trip.”

In Getting Things Done, Allen emphasizes the importance of dealing with your stuff “when it shows up, not when it blows up.” If you can get past the Doctor Phil-ness of that rhyme, you see the wisdom in it. Remembering Jr.’s permission slip is no good after he’s been at school for two hours.

With this in mind, I have a running list of what tasks need to be done. My list is a week long, and it lives on a bulletin board behind my desk (I’ve previously written about my search for the perfect bulletin board). Each Sunday, I review what must be done over the next week, write those actions on index cards, and pin them to the board.

Preparing ahead of time

It took me years to learn this lesson. Remember the kid who was always rushing last second to finish that paper in school?

Hello. Nice to see you again.

Today I’ve finally realized that I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and that last-second frenzy is not something I enjoy. As a result, my daily routine actually begins the night before. As evening draws near, I:

  1. Make sure the kids’ bags are packed for school and that all required papers, etc. are inside those bags.
  2. Ensure that clean, weather-appropriate clothing is available for school the next morning.
  3. Review the “home” calendar (I have a separate work calendar) for pressing to-dos (sign permission slips, special pick-up or drop-off arrangements, etc.) and act accordingly.
  4. Review what’s due at work tomorrow, make sure it’s written down, and any necessary materials are ready to go for the morning.

Your evening prep list might look different, but the idea is the same: review what’s due tomorrow — be it a PowerPoint presentation or snow boots and gloves — and get it as ready as you can the night before.

Finding a home

Being who I am (warning: one NSFW word in the title of the linked post) I tend to misplace things. Just like the sun tends to be hot. So, a part of my daily routine has been to ensure that everything is where it needs to be.

This isn’t the same as my evening prep. Instead, I’ve established a “home” for important items when they’re idle. For example, car keys are always in the Roscoe, New York, coffee mug on my night stand. Always. My coat and hat live on the second peg of the closet door. Even when I’m walking around, I know which pocket each doohicky should inhabit (phone is right front, every day).

Following these rules impacts my day significantly. I can’t afford to spend 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there looking for who knows what. I’ve done that and it’s not fun. An ongoing part of my daily routine is to put everything in its proper place as I go.

General guidelines

The website Personal Organizing has shared some good, general tips for establishing and, more importantly, adhering to a daily routine. Some highlights include:

  1. Make breakfast simple. Find something nutritious that you can routinely prepare without much fuss.
  2. Organize the kitchen and pantry cabinets. Meal prep is easier, and everyone living with you can answer, “where does this go?” all on their own.
  3. Have a good mail management system. In regards to paper mail, my wife and I have our own desks for processing this stuff, and that’s been a godsend.
  4. Get the pets on a schedule. It takes some doing, but it’s definitely worth it.

Seven habits and routines that will help you become a more effective unclutterer

Over the last few days, several of our posts have focused on resolutions and ways to achieve the goals you have for 2013. To help you through the process, you may want to arm yourself with additional skills, like what you might find in a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Though it was published in 1989, it remains a bestseller today because the advice is solid. We thought you might want an uncluttering-specific tool, so in this Covey style, we have created seven habits and routines to become a more effective unclutterer.

  1. Have easy-to-follow uncluttering rituals. Complex routines that have more than three steps can be difficult to keep up with, so create simple routines that are easy for you manage. It’s also important to create a system that works with your current lifestyle. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to find the right type of activities (like getting up 30 minutes earlier to unclutter, keeping a donation box inside your closet) that are not only easy to follow, but also produce the results you’re desiring.
  2. Engage in uncluttering activities regularly. Maintaining a clutter-free environment is an ongoing process that needs regular attention. Otherwise, clutter can build up and quickly take over your space. Add regular uncluttering days to your calendar for a specified time frame (30 minutes each weekday, 60 minutes each weekend day).
  3. Use the right strategies and tools for you. Rather that use a strategy that’s popular at the moment, use techniques that suit your personality. For example, you will need to capture your tasks so that you remember to get them done. If you prefer paper, write your task list in a notebook, but if you’d prefer a digital option, use an app, like Due or Remember the Milk.
  4. Keep frequently used items accessible. If the items you use often are not easily accessible, putting them back will be a hassle, which means you’ll be less likely to put them away when you’re finished using them. Put those items that you reach for frequently on shelves that you can reach easily and at eye level.
  5. Put things away rather than putting them down. Unclutterers tend to put things where they belong after each use. Doing this reduces the chance of having clutter pile up, and you’ll always be able to find what you’re looking for without having to search for hours on end.
  6. Have a “home” for everything. It will be much easier to put your things away when there is a space already designated for them to be kept. Items that don’t have a home will always be unnecessarily out and about. Instead, have a place for the items you use in the room that you tend to use them (magazines in a basket in the living room, office supplies in the home office closet).
  7. Refrain from making whimsical purchases. Purchases made without much forethought have a greater chance of hanging about your home or office. When you think about the types of purchases you’ll make beforehand, that’s also an opportunity to figure out the proper place to store them. Keep in mind that the fewer things you have, the less you have to maintain and store.

Creating uncluttering and organizing routines: A typical Tuesday

A reader recently emailed asking if I could put together a detail of what my day looks like and how I stay on top of uncluttering and organizing tasks. I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve become a mom since writing the original article, so I thought I’d put together an updated routine. This one-day example shows how a little bit of effort each day can keep most people’s homes in good condition.

Not every Tuesday works exactly like what I have listed here, but this is a fairly accurate representation of how I move throughout my day. All of the chores I share with my husband, so where the schedule says “load the dishwasher” or “take son to school,” it might be either of us who does this activity.

One thing to note is most weekdays I work until 5:00 p.m. The “After-Work Errand Routine” is special just to Tuesdays and allows me to grocery shop and run errands at a time when the stores and streets aren’t crowded. As a result, most Tuesdays I go back to work from 8:45 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. instead of relaxing during that time.

A Typical Tuesday

Morning Home Routine:
6:30 a.m. Wake up, brush teeth, wash face, put on workout clothes, and make bed.
6:40 a.m. Unload dishwasher, make coffee, feed pets, assemble son’s lunch, get breakfast on the table.
7:00 a.m. Sit and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes with a cup of coffee.
7:15 a.m. Wake up son, everyone eats breakfast.
7:45 a.m. Load dishwasher, sweep floor.
7:50 a.m. Supervise son getting dressed, teeth brushed and flossed, his face cleaned, and backpack loaded.
8:05 a.m. Take son to school.

Morning Work Routine:
8:30 a.m. Work on most important writing/client project.
9:45 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.
10:00 a.m. Work on second most important writing/client project.
11:15 a.m. Check email, social media, and administrative work.

Mid-day Routine:
11:30 a.m. Make and eat lunch, load dishwasher.
12:00 p.m. Exercise or do yard work (like mowing).
12:45 p.m. Shower and get ready.

Afternoon Work Routine:
1:00 p.m. Work on third most important writing/client project.
2:00 p.m. Make another cup of coffee, check email, social media, and administrative work.
2:15 p.m. Wrap up writing/client projects for the day.
2:30 p.m. End-of-day routine for work: set phone to do not disturb, clear desk, set writing agenda for next day, have everything set and ready to go for tomorow.

After-Work Errand Routine: (Tuesdays only)
2:45 p.m. Pick up son from school.
3:05 p.m. Run errands to grocery store (made shopping list on Sunday), post office, dry cleaner, etc.

Evening Home Routine:
4:00 p.m. Return home and sort and shred mail, put away groceries, scan and shred receipts, unload son’s lunchbox and other items from backpack, load lunchbox items into dishwasher.
4:05 p.m. Spend time with son.
5:20 p.m. Put load of son’s laundry into washer.
5:30 p.m. Make dinner and get son’s lunch ready for tomorrow so it only has to be assembled in the morning. Everyone eats dinner.
6:30 p.m. Load dishwasher, run dishwasher, sweep floor.
6:35 p.m. Move son’s clothes to dryer. Everyone does 20 to 30 minutes of general house clean up with special focus on bathrooms. (Other special focus areas: Mondays are kitchen and dining room; Wednesdays are bedrooms; Thursdays are living rooms; Fridays are remaining spaces like hallways, entryways, and garages; and Sundays are meal planning.)
7:00 p.m. Spend time with family.
8:00 p.m. Bathe son and put him to bed.
8:30 p.m. Fold son’s clothes (will put away tomorrow morning after breakfast), get self ready for bed, brush and floss teeth, feed pets.
8:45 p.m. Hang out with husband or do more writing/editing work.
10:30 p.m. Go to bed.

On pages 98 and 99 of my book, Unclutter Your Life in One Week, there is a routine schedule that covers the full week. We’ve made a few additions to the schedule now that we’re parents, but it is still very similar to what we do in our home. It has worked well for us for many years and keeps our weekends free to have as much fun as we desire.

Also, twice a year we spend a weekend doing major uncluttering work throughout the entire house. Even with daily maintenance, we find we still need to give everything we own a good review every six months. Usually our major uncluttering weekends are held the weekends preceding our fall and spring cleaning weekends. We like to get rid of clutter before doing the spring and fall cleanings so there is less to clean and maintain. You can find our cleaning guides in my book on pages 100 and 185. We usually do the “Dedicated Cleaner” plan.

Finally, we try our best to put things away after we use them and to have a permanent storage space for everything we own. These two simple actions aid us significantly in keeping our home uncluttered and organized.

Backsliding can help you fine tune your routines

We’ve all been there. We make a resolution at the start of the year to change our behavior and current ways of doing things. Perhaps, we decide to exercise more, to stop smoking, or to become an unclutterer. And, we start seeing the results of our efforts, of our commitment to our new goals … then it happens. We backslide. We somehow fall off course, even though we may have earnestly given our new routine our best try.

Though you may feel disappointed and frustrated by this bump in the road, all is not lost. This is an opportunity in disguise, a chance to look back at what worked and what adjustments can be made. In other words, don’t give up. Instead, refine your plan so you have a greater chance of success when you begin again. Take some time to:

Investigate what happened

So, things didn’t work out. You could just accept that and wait for your disappointment to wear off. Or, you could try to figure out the reasons why things didn’t go as you intended.

When you look with an investigative eye, you focus on facts and less on how you (currently) feel. Ask yourself questions to drill down to the reasons that made it hard to stick to your new plan.

  • Did you take on too much at once?
  • Did you need more support?
  • Was your new routine too complex?
  • Were you feeling particularly stressed (or other emotion)?

By looking closely at the events that took place before the difficulties arose, you’ll have a better idea of the changes that you can make before trying again.

Consider that you may need more time

You might have heard that it typically takes at least 21 days for a new habit to stick. While there is some data that supports the theory that you can successfully make adjustments in about a month, the reality is that it takes most people 12 weeks or more. When you’ve been used to doing things a certain way for a while, changing that behavior probably will not happen quickly. Consider that you might need to give yourself more time to let your new routine become a natural part of your everyday life.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, in a recent interview with NPR, explained that “there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.” This happens after you’ve become used to the new habit. While practice may not exactly make perfect, repetitive actions do increase your comfort level, so much so, that you won’t have to think about what you’re doing. The new behavior will become more instinctive, like brushing your teeth. With this in mind, give your attention to the new routine as often as is reasonable and for as long as you need to.

Redouble your efforts

Dust off your previous plans and analyze them and the process you used to integrate the new habit a bit more closely. To increase your chances of success this time around, here are a six points to think about:

  1. Disadvantages of the “bad” habit. Looking at the negative effects of your current behavior will remind you of why you wanted to make a change.
  2. Benefits of the new change. Thinking about the positive outcomes can be very motivating and will solidify why you made the decision to adjust your behavior.
  3. Complexity of the change. Keep things simple and focus on just one aspect of your life that you’d like to improve. Making realistic goals will prevent you from taking on too much and getting overwhelmed.
  4. Ups and downs of the process. Hiccups will happen. That’s unavoidable, particularly until your comfort level with the new habit increases. Expect that things may be a bit tricky, especially in the beginning, but don’t let this discourage you.
  5. Strategies you’ll use. Continue using tactics that worked and remove the ones that didn’t. Instead of looking for significant change after 21 days, use that timeframe as a “pausing point” to assess where you are and check that you’re still on the right path.
  6. Visualize what success looks like. How will you know when you’ve made it over the hump? What will that look and feel like? Write out or sketch your success picture. Post it somewhere visible to inspire and remind you of what you’re working toward.

As I mentioned before, there is no one way to make improvements that will work for every personality. You will find some things helpful and others not. You may discover that you need more or less structure. Maybe you need someone to motivate you to continue on. Perhaps being in a different environment would be helpful. Writing down your thoughts might have a positive effect. As you go through this process of change, be mindful of how you’re feeling and be aware of what seems to work best for you. Keep things simple and use setbacks as opportunities to refine your system so that you can find a routine that works for you.

Ask Unclutterer: Routines on a constantly varying schedule

Reader Cat submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have read your book and your blog (including the recent post about establishing routines), I feel that your advice for scheduling routines is most applicable to individuals with regular office jobs, or more generally individuals who have a more control over their work schedules. I was wondering if you had any creative ideas for implementing routines on a more erratic schedule?

Nurses and doctors working in hospitals, firefighters, police officers, and food service industry employees are just a few of many professionals who don’t work traditional hours or schedules. In addition to the stress caused by varied sleep schedules and the demands of the job, it can be more difficult to get work done around the house than it can for people on more traditional schedules. (This isn’t always the case, but it certainly can be.)

Using a prioritized list of actions broken into times of day and days of the week is one way you can master regular chores when you work on a constantly varying schedule.

Start by making a list of all the routine activities that need to be done over the course of a week. Then, next to each item you’ve listed, note if the task has to be done during a specific time or can only be completed on specific days of the week (for example, your local grocery store may only be open certain hours or if you live with people on a traditional schedule you probably shouldn’t vacuum the floor at 3:00 in the morning). Next, prioritize the tasks by what has to get done (like feeding the pets), what should get done (laundry), and what is nice to get done but the house won’t fall apart if you don’t get to it every week (dusting). After this, write down approximately how long you need to dedicate to each task.

Once you have all of this information listed, create a new list (or a chart) where things are grouped by time of day and days of the week. Almost all of your tasks will appear multiple times on your list since there is no guarantee you’ll be home at the same time each week. For example, doing the dishes might be listed in every time slot since there usually isn’t a problem with doing them at any time of the day or week. After you’ve made your list (or chart), laminate it and get a dry erase marker.

Then, if you are home and awake on a Monday morning, you can look at your list and immediately see what tasks you can do on a Monday morning. Based on how much time and energy you have, you can select the chores to do from that section. Just remember to always do the highest priority tasks first. When the chore is finished, cross it off the list with your dry erase marker. If the chore is only a once-a-week task, also cross it off the list wherever it appears in other places on your list. If the next time you’re home isn’t until Wednesday evening, go back to your list and take care of the items listed as possible tasks in the Wednesday evening column and then cross them off your list. At the start of the next week, erase all your dry erase marker writing and begin working through your list again.

I also recommend you have a coming home routine in place that you work through every time you come home. This should include sorting mail, putting away anything you brought with you (hang up coat, put keys in key holder, etc.), getting things set in a way so it will be easy to leave your house when you need to go, and whatever else you need to do every single time you walk in the house. This repetitive behavior will help you keep on track, too.

Thank you, Cat, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Please check the comments sections for even more ideas from our readers for how they have successfully mastered home routines on an uncertain schedule — or have witnessed someone else doing them. Good luck to you, I know a varied schedule can be difficult.

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.

Daily routines: What time of the day works best for you?

In my experience, routines are an essential component to an uncluttered life. Without a few minutes of dedicated work each day, housework and clutter quickly build up and create stress. Small steps each day keep everything under control and ultimately give you more free time to focus on the things that matter most to you.

Fifteen years ago, I was someone who let things fall apart during the week and then spent a good portion of my Saturdays cleaning up all the messes I had made during the week. This meant that every Saturday morning and some afternoons were wasted. I couldn’t meet friends for brunch or read a book or whatever relaxing task I would have rather been doing. When I traveled over a weekend, it meant that I returned home to a place as messed up as I had left it and then I would have two weeks’ worth of cleanup to do the next Saturday. It also meant I would never have people over during the week because dirty dishes would be on the kitchen counter, dirty clothes would be spilling out of my hamper, and so many other things would be in disarray. During the week, everything was not in its place.

After my initial uncluttering and organizing spree, I knew I had to change my ways and figure out new daily routines to keep my home and office organized. I won’t lie to you, it took a lot of practice, and there are times now when I’ll miss a day here and there. Overall, though, daily routines have made maintaining an organized life incredibly simple and I no longer carry stress about the state of my home. That feeling of calm is very important to me now, and I have no desire to abandon it.

Since we’ve talked a great deal on the site about creating routines (e.g. articles 1, 2, 3), I won’t go into too much detail in this post about that stage of the process. However, I do want to discuss when to do the actions on your routines list.

We all have different times of the day when we have energy to do chores and when we don’t. Our motivation levels change throughout the day, too. Knowing yourself and when you are most likely to get daily chores done is key to choosing when to do your routines.

  • Before work. I function my best in the morning, and only want to do relaxing stuff after the sun goes down. As a result, I have to do the majority of my housework in the morning before sitting down at my desk to work. The same is true for my husband, so we unload the dishwasher, put a load of laundry into the washer, and put away stray items from around the house before we start work. We do these chores in addition to bathing and getting ready, getting our son fed and ready for his day, and eating breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen afterward. It means we have early mornings, but it also means our evenings are relaxing and light on chores. (Since we both work from home, we put the laundry in the dryer around 10:00 a.m. and then fold it and put it away during our lunch break.)
  • Throughout the day. If you work from home, you can set up chores to take place for 10 minutes every couple hours to give you a break from work. This is much more difficult to do if you work in an office.
  • Immediately after work. If you’re not a morning person, I strongly recommend doing your daily routines right when you get home from work. This way, once you’re done with dinner, you can relax and focus on doing what matters to you. Plus, you’re more likely to have energy at 5:30 p.m. (or whenever you get home) than you are closer to when you go to bed.
  • After dinner. If everyone in your family comes home at different times, daily routines might have to be completed after dinner when everyone is in the house and can lend a hand. You’re more likely to avoid your routines because you’re tired, but if you have the motivation you can still get them done. My friend Julie reports that she will incorporate her daily chores into her nightly television watching. Instead of fast-forwarding through commercials with her DVR, she lets them play and races to get a chore done while the commercials play.

Try doing your daily routines at different times to determine which one works best for you. When do you have the most energy and motivation to do the little stuff you need to do every day, so you can spend the majority of your time doing what matters to you?