How a Lifelong Messy Person Can Learn to Become Neat

Experts in habit formation are adamant that no one’s a hopeless case

The trick isn’t just in learning to clean up; it’s developing a routine to keep your momentum going. Here’s how.

Set your intention

Before you start cleaning, you should be able to visualize your end point. “Know what your picture of tidy is,” says Anne Blumer, a professional organizer and the author of Master the Business of Organizing. “Go on Pinterest, or if you see a room that looks tidy to you, take a picture.” It’s easier to stay motivated if you know exactly what you’re working toward.

That could also mean tackling one small space at a time. “If you have a room that’s become a dumping place, have a goal for what you want that dumping space to be,” advises consumer psychologist Catherine Roster, a professor of marketing at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management.

You can get so exhausted looking for that garlic press that you buy another, and the next thing you know, you have six of them.

Give yourself a clean slate

Once you’ve figured out the space you want to focus on, it’s time to go scorched-earth. Declutter mercilessly. “If you start with this massive purge, you should be more attuned to anything that’s out of place,” says psychologist Benjamin Gardner, a senior lecturer at King’s College London who researches habit formation. Once you’ve gotten rid of everything you don’t want or need, you can work on putting everything back in a way that makes sense.

It sounds like an arduous undertaking, but I’ve discovered that the clean-slate approach actually saves time. I now know, for example, that there are only one or two places I might have stored spare shoelaces, so when I need them, I only look in those two places. If they aren’t there, I know I need to buy new ones instead of wasting time searching through the entire house.

Recruit a body double

Some people struggle with mess because they’re sentimental and indecisive about letting things go. “If you’re prone to that kind of sentimentality about things, have another person there,” Roster says. “I get a buddy to ask questions that help me through the decision.”

Professional organizers often refer to this role as a “body double,” someone whose role in the cleaning process is only to talk the cleaner through it. “They’re just there to keep them anchored to the task,” Blumer explains. “If they start to walk away, if the phone rings, we say, ‘That’s okay, they can leave a message.’ Body doubles don’t give any judgements, and don’t participate in the task unless they’re asked.”

Plan regular purges

If you don’t do these purge-and-organize sessions regularly, Roster says, the mess can quickly build on itself: You let things fall out of place, forget you have them, repurchase, and end up creating a snowball effect of more and more stuff. For example, “I know people who have a problem with kitchen gadgets,” she says. “They get so exhausted looking for that garlic press that they buy another, and the next thing you know, they have six of them.”

When you’re purging, Blumer says, “try to focus on what you’re using in your life today.” Someone offered me a similar piece of wisdom when I did my big purge last summer, and it was downright transformative: By thinking about the concrete (when I’d last used something), rather than the hypothetical (whether I might someday want to use it again), I could more easily recognize when it was time to let something go.

Use “if/then” statements to create a trigger, like, “If I see a book out of place, then I’ll put it on a bookshelf.”

Cultivate triggers

If keeping things neat isn’t an instinct for you, make it a habit — something you make yourself do repeatedly until it sticks. Blumer says she helps her clients create “a maintenance plan they can do daily, or after they’ve taken some kind of action. If they’ve held a dinner party, what are they going to do to get the house back to where it was before?”

The trick is to find a context that will trigger you to do your tidying routine on a regular basis. Poppy Watson, a post-doctoral psychology researcher at the University of New South Wales who studies motivation and habit formation, recommends using “if/then” statements to build that trigger tidying association, like “if I see a book out of place, then I’ll put it on a bookshelf,” or “if I see the kids’ clothes on the floor, then I will put them in the drawer.” The more specific you can be, the better. “Start with a few,” Watson advises. “Over time, these will become automatic.”

You can also use these triggers to mentally break down bigger cleanups into more manageable steps. Blumer says she helps her clients create maintenance plans for specific situations they might encounter — for example, “If they’ve held a dinner party, what are they going to do to get the house back to where it was before?”

Reward yourself

While any trigger-and-behavior pattern can become a habit with enough repetition, rewards can speed up the process. “If often helps if they do something pleasurable while doing a tidying or organizing task,“ Blumer says of her clients. “Listening to a podcast while folding laundry or paying bills. Listening to music while cleaning up the house.”

It’s a spin on a strategy known as temptation bundling: Ease the pain of an unpleasant task by coupling it with something pleasurable. My own resistance to cleaning up went way down when I started listening to audio novels; now, I think of tidying as a chance to catch up with my book.

Revel in your successes

Building a tidiness habit may also involve rewriting your own self-image. Blumer says that when she looks at what’s holding her clients back from having a more organized home, “a lot of it is negative talk they’ve heard they’re whole lives: They’re a slob, or they’re lazy, or why can’t they just do it?” For these clients, even the initial purge can be transformative, because it shows them that they’re capable of successfully cleaning up.

All Rights Reserved for Alexandra Samuel

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