Time to spring clean! This year should be much more exciting than other years, because it’s entirely possible that we’ll all be able to get our COVID-19 vaccines soon and commence socializing in person.
If you don’t like hosting at your place, maybe you can get excited about going to someone else’s freshly spring-cleaned place?
Or maybe the prospect strikes dread in your heart because you have no idea what ‘spring cleaning’ means or how to do it?
Or maybe you know full well, and it just seems like when you finally start, it will take three years?
That’s okay. You don’t have to actually do anything this year, or any year. You can just eat snacks and read this and imagine it, the same way I used to watch Richard Simmons workouts from the comfort of my couch when I was a little kid.
What’s unfailingly interesting to me about helping others clean house is what their homes reveal about how they spend their time. Clean houses are all pretty similar - you can find the forks, you can find the laundry soap, you can find the spare towels, you can find a pen - yet messy houses are all messy in their own particular way.
To an outsider, there are always immediate questions:
How long has it been since you could use this door?
Why is there a pot on the floor?
You didn’t know about this leak, did you?
But where do you sleep??
I’d like to remind everybody that our homes are supposed to serve *us*. We are not their servants. What we do, we do to make ourselves more comfortable and to make our lives easier. One day robots will do it all and we won’t even realize how much effort went into it, just like I have no idea what is involved in getting electrical current into my outlets.
Beds are for sleeping. Bathrooms are for personal hygiene. Kitchens are for preparing food. Living rooms are for relaxing.
When you are no longer able to do these functions, something has taken over, and that is either clutter, deferred maintenance, or a problematic roommate.
Physical bottlenecks are easy to spot. A door that can’t be opened, a table or countertop that is unusable, a bed that is buried under piles of stuff, an area where someone has to turn sideways to get through.
Sometimes the bottleneck is being unaware of your surroundings. Not just clutter blindness, but a blind spot about relationships and power dynamics.
Sometimes the bottleneck is fear of calling the landlord or a repair person. Sometimes it’s shame.
Sometimes the bottleneck is lack of money, coupled with a lack of knowledge of how to solve problems without money, which usually involves at least rudimentary negotiation skills.
Usually, though, a bottleneck has to do with a routine - or lack of routine - and the way that stuff tends to accumulate in certain parts of the home. These bottlenecks often have to do with tight schedules and multiple people.
For reference, I would say that only about 10% of people keep their homes staged and photo-ready most of the time, 80% of people are basically at least a little messy, and about 20% of people are at least at first-degree squalor. It’s more common than you would think.
Let’s cover a few areas that tend to be full of clutter, not just in my clients’ homes, but in most people’s.
The car. When I meet someone with kids, I’m willing to bet a flat green American dollar that their vehicle is messy. Most people have junk in their cars. Why? Because when they get home, all they want to do is go inside. Also, a lot of the time, when they are exiting the car it is dark outside.
Area around the front door. (Or whichever door people are using, sometimes the door between the kitchen and garage). This is where people dump their stuff when they come in, and there it stays, usually because there’s nowhere else for it to go. Most homes do not accommodate a landing station.
Dining table. Also kitchen counter. This tends to be overflow for mail, kids’ school papers, menus, coupons, and any other papers that come in. This tends to be an extension of two other problems: 1. If there is a desk, it’s also covered with papers, magazines, catalogues, books, packages that need to be returned, bills, tax documents, and whatever else. 2. The lack of a designated place to dump stuff after coming home.
I can fix all of these problems basically by waving my hand. This is because I’ve found the bottleneck, which is the transition between coming home from wherever, and settling in to relax. Once awareness is brought to this, a person who is highly fed up with a clutter-filled life can make a simple change.
THIS IS A TRANSITION
One of my clients solved several clutter problems by hanging a reusable shopping bag on his doorknob. He kept having to buy these shopping bags, his house and car were full of them, each bag was partly full of mail, and they were also getting expensive.
We talked through his new habit. He would bring one bag out to the car with him in the morning, he would put his mail and whatever needed to come back into the house in the bag as he went through his day, and then he would carry the bag back in. He would call a friend and spend five minutes emptying the bag while he chatted, and then he would hang the empty bag back on the doorknob.
(The phone call to a friend is the most important part of this; Obliger types will do anything if they can hear a friendly voice and basically nothing if they are lonely).
If you think to yourself, Right now I am spending the five minutes that will stop my annoying problem, it can give you a sense of purpose. It also starts to pay off quickly so that you can see how well it is working.
Okay, so here are some of the most common habits that lead to bottlenecks:
Going from the car to the house basically empty-handed
Opening the door and setting stuff down “for later” - especially mail
Going back out to the car basically empty-handed
Wandering away from the kitchen after eating
Those habits alone can quickly lead to a cluttered car, a dirty kitchen, and mail and papers on every flat surface in the house. If you’re ambitious you can do this in just days.
The exact reason why someone suddenly decides to make a change will vary from person to person. (For me it’s usually doing a photo consult with a client or watching a hoarder show). Not just the reason for change will be unique, but the exact spot where someone starts will be unique too.
One person will be motivated to start with their bedside table. Another will start with the medicine cabinet. Someone else will clear out the trunk of their car and presto, there’s enough room to start hauling off bags of donations.
Where will you start? Where will your spring cleaning begin?
Don’t overthink it - just start somewhere!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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