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  • Dr. Vin

Art Before Dishes: Notes on Neatness



The book Organization for Dummies stood in my overly packed bookcase for about ten years before I picked it up a few months ago and found the magic formula that transformed my attitude about cleaning. On a scale of 1 to 12, where “ones” are natural born neat-freaks and “twelves” are packrats/hoarders, I am a 7 who has moved to a 6 and is striving to become a 5.

I grew up in a big family. When it was time for indoor chores my mother could rely on two of my sisters to be proudly standing at attention at first bugle call with their dustcloths and brooms at the ready. I could usually be found daydreaming or drawing and would scamper off to hide in the closet, ignoring my name being called to front up for chore duty.

I think we all have different temperaments. Some of us got the clean gene and some of us naturally tolerate more messiness. Where are you on that scale from 1 to 12? Where is your spouse, your roommate or each of your kids?

Regardless of temperament, chores need to get done to keep family life from dissolving into total chaos, where no one can find what they need when they need it because no one puts anything back where it belongs. Like Goldilocks found out, a bed can be too hard (rules so rigid that no one can relax in the house – like sitting on the stiff sofa permanently covered in plastic covers) or too soft (no “home” for items and piles covering every surface so nothing can be found easily). Then Goldilocks found the bed that was “just right” and fell into a deep and restful sleep.

How did I move from a (more natural for me) 7 to a 6? One of my brothers (who I place at a 3 on the cleanliness scale, next to those two sisters (1 and 2) who were a great help to Mom) gave me a plaque for my kitchen that reads, “Art before Dishes”. I hung it up. It kind of gently shames me into never going to bed without doing the dishes. That and a spouse who likes a clean kitchen.

Notes (other than shaming) for neatness.

  1. Post a reminder for yourself on tasks.

  2. Respect the family neat freak. In couples therapy, I once had a frustrated husband show me photos of soiled carpets, messy couches and a cluttered kitchen to get my support for his wife to clean the house more. She countered, “I have a job, do all the childcare and will not give up my two dogs!” While you may feel sympathy for her, here are the hard facts I have learned. EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO FEEL AT EASE IN THEIR OWN HOME. The person who can tolerate more messiness is comfortable and can blissfully trot off to bed with cups left in the living room and a pile of dishes left in the sink. The person who can’t tolerate those messes remains anxious and can’t sleep comfortably. So, the messier types need to accommodate to the neater types. Why? Because if the rule is that everyone deserves to feel at ease and relaxed, messy types can usually feel happy in a clean home.

  3. If you are a neater type, here are some things you can do. If you cannot get others to be neater, clean it up your self or (if practical) hire someone to clean the house. Also, you could demand that “common areas” stay at your higher cleanliness standard, while private areas (e.g. office, bedroom) remain at the standard of whoever inhabits that space. Ideally those spaces have doors that close so you don’t have to see those piles too often. Let go of expecting private areas to meet your higher standard. This will provide more peace at home.

  4. The magic system for organizing that saved me: When organizing, stay in one place with three containers, labeled “donate, distribute (to save and put away in a particular place later) and dump (throw away). Toss everything in the bins. When done, distribute where things go. Move to next spot and repeat.

  5. Next is a system for cleaning my adult daughter just taught me that we have both done successfully for the past two weeks. On Monday – laundry; Tuesday – floors; Wednesday – an organization project. Minimum time 15 minutes. Check in with each other for support and praise.

  6. Here is a communication tip for Neatnicks to get more cooperation from their reluctant (perhaps hiding in the closet) housemates. Present the problem, how it affects you and what behavior you want as a solution. In that order. For example,

  7. When you leave everything out and don’t put stuff away after you are done with them

  8. I feel irritated and uncomfortable. I can’t relax. If I clean up after you, I feel resentful.

  9. I would like you to put your things away when you are done with them for the day.

I used to experience the above type of communication as an impingement of my sense of freedom and creativity (i.e. “Art Before Dishes”). Now, I see it as a necessary sign of respect for a housemate. Also, now that I know the magic power of the three D’s (dump, donate, distribute), I am no longer intimidated by big projects. Plus, even if I resist laundry or other chores, knowing I only have to do it for 15 minutes makes it easier to start. As my mother used to say, “A job half started is half done.” And if I know my spouse is on the way home, I will scoop up my messes as best I can before he gets home or at end of day so he can rest more easily.

However, this is also true, I feel more in control when my stuff is spread out where I can see it all. I do not have a kitchen apron and a painting apron because I am neat. I wear them because I am sloppy and do not want to get olive oil or acrylic paint all over my regular clothes…because then I would have to do the laundry more often – and you know that is not my favorite thing!