DEAR CA & AC —
Spring has long been regarded as a time of renewal and cleansing. The ancient Greeks, the earliest Chinese dynasties, virtually all of the world’s religious and cultural groups have marked the season with solemn observances, joyful festivals—and housecleaning. As a university anthropologist, I have studied the psycho-cultural implications of the formal rituals, but given little thought to housekeeping, which has turned out to be something of a problem at home.
Complicating life further, my husband and children are utterly oblivious of their surroundings—until they lose something. Then they frantically look everywhere hoping to find their missing car keys, cell phones, gloves, favorite hats, hockey sticks, etc. Last week, it was toilet paper. Empty roles in every bathroom, and an entire unopened, package, had gone missing.
My house obviously needs reorganizing, although that suggests it was once organized. I don’t know where to begin. Short of abandoning family, what do I do to get out of the business of crisis excavation?
SIGNED, DOMESTICALLY CHALLENGED
DEAR DC —
You poor dear, how awful to be faced with the unpleasant task of bringing order to your home when you could be doing something important like charting tourism trends in Syria or analyzing the syntax of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches.
Whatever your field, I hope you have read the latest university research showing that untidy surroundings stimulate creative thinking. In all that chaos, you could be cultivating the next Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso or Steve Jobs, all of whom worked amidst clutter.
Budding geniuses or not, if I were living with an incorrigible mate and a trio of teens, I would hire a personal organizer to deal with the mess. You can find such people online under descriptions like “creative order” and “clutter busting” or through the 4,000-member National Assn. of Professional Organizers (NAPO). You might also get a referral by word of mouth if you have any friends or neighbors who are not academics and therefore cognizant of their surroundings.
If you don’t feel comfortable paying a stranger anywhere from $15 to $60 an hour to wade through your family’s clutter, then you should carefully consider CA’s advice (below). I don’t often say that since I’m usually the one whose opinion I value more. But in this area, she is the Ladies Cyber Club’s reigning expert.
Although tidying rooms and reordering the contents of cupboards may not be my idea of enjoyable pastimes, such activities are “exceptionally satisfying” for CA. She likes her projects quick, intense, and without any long-term commitments.
Her descriptions of organizing sound so titillating they could have been in an Erica Jong novel. In fact, I think we should call CA’s quickie reorganization method the “Zipless Fix.” You may recall that in “Fear of Flying,” her wildly popular ’70s novel about a feminist’s quest for autonomy, adventure, and carnal knowledge, Ms. Jong coined a similar term for spontaneous, passionate, no-strings-attached sex.
DEAR DC —
I try never to be shocked by what falls out of AC’s brain.
While creativity may thrive in chaos, some human endeavors—law, medicine, dentistry, accounting, computer science—depend on order and structure. If you don’t think that getting a family equipped and successfully out the door requires as much discipline and advanced planning as, say, piloting a plane or operating on a brain, you underestimate the complexities of motherhood.
A confirmed dissolute housekeeper such as yourself is in no danger of turning into another Martha Stewart or a Marie Kondo, the Japanese millennial dynamo who is showing the world how to fold clothes and toss belongings that don’t “spark joy.” Yours is a modest goal: to be a “good-enough” housekeeper. It involves only three simple rules. One will get you started on your house. Another, with any luck, will keep you going. The third is so basic that I hesitate to mention it, but in your case, I will.
If you haven’t done so already—and it sounds like you haven’t—you MUST designate a drop-off place near the entryway for keys, wallets, phones, and other items essential for daily functioning. Until it becomes habitual for everyone, part of the family’s daily routine, you will probably have to impose a system of rewards and punishments to ensure that everyone uses the drop-off. Nightly policing—all essentials in place and ready to go for morning—should be done by family members on a rotating schedule. No need for Mom to be the enforcer all the time. Plus we all know how much children like to boss around siblings and parents.
Now for the rest of the mess.
Some people think the key to success in life is to think big. Big may work for dreaming, but when it comes to reorganizing a home or an office, big is the number one killer of good intentions. Big overwhelms and paralyzes. Think small. That’s the second rule of home organizing. Never tell yourself you intend to reorganize an entire house or even a room.
When you become overwhelmed, as you surely will, step back and think of the advice the late writer Lawrence Lamott gave when his 10-year old son appeared immobilized with fear at the prospect of writing a report on birds which he had spent three months researching: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Always do small, but don’t start with easy. That’s the third rule of home reorganization.
The messiest places in a house are probably the busiest, which means they are full of things people need and want most. When a front-hall closet becomes crowded and disorganized, things are in danger of being damaged or disappearing. Reorganize it and you’re sure to find lost treasures that will make you a hero in someone’s eyes. Taking on the toughest, messiest jobs first, builds confidence. Whatever comes next will get easier.
Want more details? Keep reading.
- Pick a small area that gets lots of use to organize first. Say, the cabinet under a kitchen or bathroom sink or a front hall closet. If you have ambitions to reorganize an entire room or, heaven help you, the entire house, put those thoughts out of your mind. Your focus should be that of a surgeon, laser-sharp on the task at hand.
- When you have selected your target and are ready to go to work, jot down the time on a piece of paper. Next to it, write your estimate of how long the project will take. Put the paper in a safe place where you can consult it later.
- Take a picture of the area you are about to tackle. You’ll also take an “after” photo to remind yourself of what you are capable.
- Write “donations” on one bag and “trash” on the other. Use a box or start a pile of items to move elsewhere.
- Remove everything from the cabinet or closet and place on a table or the floor. As you take things out, arrange them by appearance, function, frequency of use, whatever makes sense. Ask yourself if containers or dividers would help keep order in the area you are organizing. If so, look around the house for items to repurpose: shoe boxes, flower pots, lazy Susans, tension rods.
- Clean contents and area as needed.
- Put the keepers back in the closet organized by frequency of use (upfront) or rarity (buried in the back). If you decide you need containers or hooks you don’t have, start a list to buy later. For now, make do with what you have. Do NOT leave anything out to be “put away later.” That’s how messes get started.
- When everything is in order, admire your handiwork. Bask in the warm glow of satisfaction. Take another picture. Write down what time it is. Compare how long the project took to how long you predicted it would take. If you are like most people, you will be pleasantly surprised at how quick you were.
- Don’t tackle another project without a break. Better yet, wait for another day when you are fresh and eager for another shot of satisfaction. In the meantime, feel free to be shameless in showing off the before and after photos.