Organizing in Difficult Relationships

One of the most frequently asked questions I get in my presentations is about how to deal with the disorganization and clutter of someone else other than the person posing the question. Occasionally the guilty party is a co-worker (or a boss), but the majority of the questions are related to frustration with the people they live with and how to deal with their family members’ disorganization.

They usually fall along the lines of, “my home is disorganized and full of clutter, and my husband doesn’t want to let anything go,” or “how do I get my wife to get rid of her stuff,” or “how can I get my kids to pick up their things,” or “my family won’t help in keeping the house neat and organized.” While I can offer some limited organizational suggestions, over the years my response has become, “what you’re asking me about is not really organizing advice. It’s relationship advice.” Because really, that’s what you’re dealing with. I can offer suggestions about how to organize your mudroom, how to set up a filing system to keep important papers, and what kinds of organizational products and systems will work for each area of your living or working space. But dealing with someone else’s disorganization is a different animal. It’s not about getting organized or staying organized. It’s about how to deal with the people around you when they won’t behave the way you want them to behave. That’s about relationships.

After many years as a spouse, parent, teacher, and organizing professional, I’ve learned a few hard truths about how to get other people to do what I want them to do. It ain’t easy, and sometimes it seems impossible! It requires a great deal of time, patience, compassion, negotiation, and compromise. But there are a few tips and techniques I’ve acquired along the way through training, research, and experience that I hope will be helpful for you if you find yourself at loggerheads with the people you live and work with.

  1. The only person’s behavior you have control over is your own. You can cajole, persuade, rant, and rave all you like, but ultimately you can’t get someone to do what they just won’t do. Accepting this single fact is crucial
  2. Start with your own actions – model the behavior you want to see in others. Deal with your own clutter and disorganization first, or you have no credibility and no standing to ask someone else to deal with their own.
  3. Decide what YOU really want in your own mind, and be specific about it with yourself. Be clear what your goals are – are you looking for a home from a Real Simple magazine shoot, or would you be happy just to have everyone’s shoes end up in a basket instead of in a pile blocking the door? Perfection is not the goal. Functional is.
  4. Communicate clearly what you want to the people you are dealing with.This isn’t usually accomplished by yelling and screaming at them. Once you’ve figured out exactly what you want, it’s time to sit down with all of the members of the household and hash out what needs to happen. Start with small, easily achievable goals and work your way up.
  5. Compromise so everyone gets a little of what they want. You probably won’t get everything you’d like right away, but giving everyone a little something gets you closer to accomplishing your goals long-term. Maybe your teens are required to keep all of the communal family spaces (family room, kitchen, etc.) free of their clutter and picked up, but their rooms are their domain to rule as they like (you can always just close the door…)
  6. Set clear boundaries about what you will accept and what you won’t accept. If your spouse needs space to store collections or just a place to allow his or her clutter to reign free, give them a space to call their own to keep as they like. Perhaps the communal family spaces are designated clutter-free zones, and the spare bedroom becomes their specified “clutter territory.” But if they begin to expand beyond their appointed boundary, you need to call foul in a respectful but firm way. Set limits for how much will accumulate in closets, drawers, and other storage spaces. When they’re full, stuff has to go. Establishing firm boundaries will enable you to maintain your organized space long-term.

There are many resources out there for those who are looking to manage challenging relationships. For a book which specifically deals with how to de-clutter and organize your space while living with others, I highly recommend Embracing Conscious Simplicity, by Barbara Bougher and Teresa Worthington. It’s a down-to-earth, easy read and offers a great deal of wisdom along with specific recommendations on how to simplify your life and deal with those around you in a positive, constructive way.

Getting organized can be challenging. Getting others to go along for the ride can be even more of a challenge, but in the long run, everyone benefits!

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