I have never claimed to be a domestic goddess. Fortunately, my husband knew this before he married me. Every time he visited my apartment in Boston from his (extremely neat) apartment in Chicago, he would have to move stacks of papers and piles of clothes aside just to find a spot to sit on the couch. When we got married, I tried to clean up my act, but piles persisted. Usually, Kevin is easygoing about this stuff. (Let’s face it – he could never have married me had he been a neat freak), but every once in a while it gets to him and we argue about it. I always have a logical sounding answer. Why can’t I keep the area by the back door clutter free? (I could, if I had a mudroom.) Why is the countertop between the kitchen and the laundry room always buried in piles. (Because I don’t have a desk to store everything in!) Why are there always boxes by the front door. (Because I’m always buying things. : ) You get the picture.
But this summer, before our home exchange and trip to Paris, Kevin and I spent two months cleaning and organizing every corner of this house, from the medicine cabinets to the closets to the aforementioned trouble spots. And I put systems in place for the areas that always seemed to accumulate clutter. When we returned from Paris, our wonderful new French friends left the house neater than they had found it, and we kept it that way. Now I don’t permit a single item to land on a surface where it doesn’t belong. That’s my goal anyway, and I have pretty much stuck by it. The back door is neat. The pool table is no longer covered with mail. And my desk area near the kitchen is clear of clutter. That doesn’t mean I have this whole house thing under control. I am still looking for a way for toys to put themselves away. I need clothes that hang themselves and laundry that stops reproducing. But it’s getting much, much better. After 40 years of being messy, I am slowly learning to become neat. And here’s what I am doing differently.
1. Know thyself: I know that I am lazy, messy, and always in a hurry, so I had to find ways to make it very very easy to keep things neat. Bins and baskets are the best solution for me, because I need to be able to toss things in and forget about them. For example, the back door used to be a mess of shoes, jackets, and ingoing/outgoing items, so I slid large wicker bins under the pool table, very close to the door, where I could quickly and easily toss these offending items. My shoes go in one bin, jackets for myself and the girls go in another, and donations go in a third. I know that I will not be carrying them halfway across the house. I also set up a cubby system with chalkboard labels for everything from Returns to one called Family/Friends, where items headed out of the house to other people make a brief stop. I also have two boxes in this area for artwork and school work for each of the girls. And the girls have their own shoe rack. Now they know to come in, immediately take off their shoes and put them on the rack and put their jackets in the bin. Now they don’t have to be neat, they just have to be there. I take Lola’s work out of her little backpack and put it in her box, and put the backpack in its place.
2. Sort through mail in a timely way! I LOVE junk mail. To me, catalogs are another way to do my favorite thing ever – shop! But they were taking over my life. During our pre-Paris cleaning frenzy, I hauled stacks and stacks of magazines and catalogs into the recycle bin from the heaping piles next to my bed. These days the sorting begins before I get into the house. I leave a recycle bin in the garage, and immediately sort through the mail, tossing the garbage in the bin so it never gets into the house. Then I put my husband’s mail on my workstation, and stick my catalogs in a couple of baskets that I leave under the couch for this purpose. In the evenings, after the kids are in bed, I answer any mail that needs my attention. I am only allowed to go through catalogs once (this was a HUGE time waster for me), and when I do, I tear out the pages that have interesting items and put them in a horizontal paper sorter on my desk area, in the slot labelled “shop.” I also have slots for School, Home (inc decorating ideas), volunteer activities, my column, etc. I try to go through this shopping pile frequently, ordering what I want to order and tossing the rest.
3. I never make a trip up or down the stairs without something in my hands to put away. This has really been key in keeping my house neat. Since my husband considers stair baskets to be a safety hazard, I keep upstairs-bound items on a chair near the stairs, and put them away on my next trip upstairs. I also immediately open boxes that come in and put the items away, rather than letting them pile up by the front door. I do the same with items from trips to Target, TJ Maxx, etc… At the earliest opportunity, I bring those items in and put them away.
I know these suggestions are specific to me and my home, but they are as much for inspiration as for information. I was born a messy person, and if I can slowly start to reform my ways, I believe anyone can. I guess what I’ve learned, after so long, is that it is so rewarding to live in a neater home. I feel a sense of calm when I walk into my house instead of chaos, and I find it so much easier to relax when I am not surrounded by clutter. Now that I am older and busier than I’ve ever been, it’s become essential. I have also found it such a relief to be able to spontaneously entertain without needing a couple of days to get the house ready. We have had a couple of functions in our home since we have returned from Paris, and it was a relief to be able to focus on party prep and not about picking up a messy home! And finally, I’ve learned what naturally neat people have known all along – that it’s a lot easier to stay neat than it is to clean up a mess. I find that if I keep things picked up, then there are never huge, overwhelming messes to tackle. I know this is obvious to most people, but for me, it’s really life-changing.
Tomorrow, I will offer a list of household shortcuts so that you can wow your friends while saving time and sanity, and then Sunday we begin Gift Guide week. Happy Halloween, everyone!
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