THE WASHINGTON POST – It may seem like some people are natural born neatniks and others are hardwired to create clutter. But experts say that’s just not true.
Far from innate, these tendencies are largely acquired over time.
“We are the products of our learning environments – you’re not born to be tidy or messy,” says Joseph R Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago who researches procrastination and clutter.
“Tidiness can be learned or unlearned, just like messiness can be learned or unlearned.”
So, if your messy spouse or kid thinks they simply weren’t born with the neatness gene – or if you think that about yourself – it might be time to reconsider.
There are good reasons to try to become more organised, too, given that living with clutter or messiness can cause stress.
A study in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that living amid clutter compromises people’s sense of psychological well-being. But that doesn’t mean you need to panic – “tidy” means different things to different people.
What’s important, experts say, is figuring out the level of neatness that works for the individual, not striving for some unrealistic ideal.
“Organisation is about designing a system in which you can find what you need, when you need it – it’s order that supports you and your goals,” says Julie Morgenstern, an organising and time management expert in New York City, and author of “Organising from the Inside Out” and “Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life.”
“When you shift to this higher purpose, you get rid of the judgment.”
Here are manageable ways to tidy up your act.
Think about why you want to be tidier
One of the first steps is to consider what’s been standing in your way.
A study in a 2023 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health investigated the underpinnings of clutter and found that being hesitant, indecisive or resistant to social pressure to declutter were common contributing factors.
Given this, it’s a good idea to identify your reasons for wanting to become better organised or tidier – reasons that matter to you, not anyone else.
“Nobody’s end goal is to be organised or tidy,” says Shira Gill, an organising expert in the San Francisco Bay Area and author of “Minimalista” and “Organised Living.”
“It’s a tool you can use to get closer to your goals.”
Maybe you want to be able to have friends over at a moment’s notice. Maybe you’re tired of feeling stressed and overwhelmed by clutter in your living space. Or, maybe you’re sick of spending time looking for things you should be able to get your hands on quickly.
If you relate your desire for tidiness to the life you want to have, Gill says, you’ll have built-in incentives to make it happen.
Try the ski-slope method for tidying up
In her book “Home Therapy,” Anita Yokota, a licensed therapist and interior designer in Los Angeles, describes an approach to organising that involves viewing a messy or disorganised room as if it were a ski slope: Rather than trying to zip straight down the steep slope, which would be unnerving, she recommends traversing it – working from one side to the other – by straightening up a corner or section of a room before moving to another area.
Zigzagging through the space creates little successes as you go, motivating you to keep at it, she says in an interview.
“Psychologically, it’s enough motivation to get the whole room done because it makes you realise, I’m doing it.”
Decrease the volume of stuff in your home
“Most people have a volume problem and too much [stuff] to manage in the first place,” Gill says.
Before trying to organise your belongings, it’s important to edit them by deciding what you want to keep and what you can let go.
To make the distinction, Gill recommends asking yourself: Does this item support the vision I have for the life I want? Does it add value or clutter to my daily life? Is this item worth the space it’s taking up in my home?
Create a holding box
While it’s easy to part with things that are broken or damaged, that are duplicates or obsolete, or that you simply don’t use, sentimental items are a tougher call. This is where a “holding” box or basket can come in handy.
Use it to temporarily store things you’re ambivalent about, explains Yokota. After you’ve cleared items you know you want to save, toss or give away, use the holding box to buy yourself some time to make the harder choices.
“Let the items sit there for 24 to 48 hours so you can process your feelings of ambivalence and decide if you want to save or toss them,” Yokota says. You can include a holding box in each room or area that you’re working on.
Give everything a place that makes sense to you
Consider what’s working and what’s not in a given space, then devise systems that give you easy access to what you want or need. “Part of being tidy is knowing where things are supposed to go,” says Darby Saxbe, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. Try grouping similar things together, then giving each group of items a designated home.
Start with a small space – say, the junk drawer in your kitchen or your nightstand – and use trays, bins or baskets to group related items. Remember: “Organising is for retrieval, not storage,” Morgenstern says.
Create 15-minute tidying rituals
Giving yourself small pockets of time to work on getting organised makes the process less daunting. That’s why Gill recommends setting a timer (on your phone, for instance) and organising one area – such as your desk drawer or the cabinet under the kitchen sink – for 15 minutes.
“Getting a 15-minute win gives you energy and motivation to tackle the next area,” she says. “When the room is complete, move on to another room.”
Adopt a new attitude
To maintain your newly tidier, better organised environment, Gill recommends embracing the mantra “don’t put it down; put it away.”
If you pause as soon as you come home and consciously spend a few moments putting the mail in a designated basket or hanging up your purse or the dog’s leash, and you integrate those steps into your daily life, you’ll prevent messes from building up.
Similarly, get in the habit of putting things back where they belong after you’ve used them, Morgenstern says. This includes putting the clothes you were wearing in a hamper or closet after removing them at the end of the day and washing the dishes after meals.
“You need a mind-set shift,” Morgenstern says. Rather than letting your belongings land where they may, “think of it as setting them up for their next use. It’s a little gift to yourself.” – Stacey Colino