Other People's Clutter

This is a chapter from my new book, Uncluttered.

My husband came home one Friday at the end of a busy week, took his shoes off, and left them sitting by the front door.  He took his backpack over to the dining table and left it on the floor behind his chair.  Then he asked what plans I had for the evening.

How did I greet him?

  • Did I give him a kiss and say, "Hi, honey, I'm glad you're home"?
  • Did I tell him I'd been thinking we could try a new restaurant for dinner?
  • Did I notice the shoes and backpack and ask him to please put them away?  (After all, it would only take a minute.)
  • Did I notice the shoes and backpack and simply put them away for him myself?  (Only a minute, remember.)

Unfortunately, my choice was "none of the above."

I immediately launched into a tirade about the fact that his shoes didn't belong on the floor by the front door and his backpack didn't belong in the dining room.

Of course, he got a bit huffy when I berated him, and so we began our evening with an argument.

To explain a bit (since he is usually very good about putting things away), it's been raining lately, and when it rains I keep a mat near the door where we place our shoes to dry before putting them away.  It wasn't raining on that Friday, but I suppose he was still operating in that mode.

Additionally, one of the reasons it had been such a busy week is that report cards had just come out.  My husband teaches middle school language arts and science, so recently the dining table had been stacked with student essays, journals, and exams he had been grading for the end of the trimester.  His backpack and computer had lived in the dining room since the previous weekend.  It was a bit of temporary chaos that he had only cleared away on Thursday morning.

But I "needed" my newly-cleaned house to be "just so," and I reacted badly.

"What can I do about my spouse's/roommate's clutter?"

It's a common question when people begin decluttering and living a simpler life.

Once you've started to pare down your own belongings, and you're able to organize, create tidiness, and enjoy a bit of calm and open space, Other People's Clutter (OPC) can seem more irksome than ever.

I can tell you from experience what you shouldn't do.  Sadly, I have at times had all of these reactions:

  • I have complained about "some people's junk."
  • I have signed audibly while moving their stuff out of my way.
  • I have asked how they can stand to live with so many piles, or told them that if I weren't around to pick up after them they'd just "live in squalor."
  • I have decluttered their things for them.

These reactions don't make me popular, and they don't make minimalism or decluttering a popular option either.

So what can we do instead?

6 Ways to Cope with OPC

1.  Focus on your own clutter.
Continue to curate your own closet, drawers, personal care items, books, etc.  If you do most of the cooking, focus on decluttering the kitchen (but don't touch his favorite sports team mugs).  If you do most of the home repairs, donate duplicate tools.  Clear your own spaces.

2.  Have a conversation.
Talk to your housemates about what is important to you in a home, and ask them what is important to them.  Maybe together you can agree on certain principles, such as keeping hallways unobstructed and cleaning up the kitchen and bathroom after using them.  Perhaps you can agree to keep one area clutter-free, such as the dining table, entry hall, or bedroom.

3.  Set a limit.
If your wife's side of the closet is chaotic, let it be.  It's hers, after all.  But you can ask that she respect your space by not letting her stuff spill over into it.  You can ask that clean laundry not be piled on "your" living room chair.  Your husband's storage shed might be piled to the rafters, but it shouldn't overflow into the yard.

With your children you can develop firmer guidelines.  You can insist on certain standards, such as no clothes, towels, coats, backpacks, or sports equipment on the floor.  You can expect them to make their beds each morning (they don't have to be up to boot camp standards), and to place their dirty dishes in the dishwasher rather than on the counter or in the sink.  You can set up a toy rotation (or even help them reduce the number of toys they own) so that they have fewer to put away each evening before bed.  You can do all of this while allowing them to keep their closets and personal spaces in whatever condition they prefer.

4.  Do it yourself.
If you don't like a cluttered car, get rid of the garbage and return scattered items to their homes yourself.  Deal with the junk mail yourself.  Return grooming items and wipe up the bathroom counter yourself.  Don't complain about it.  Most of these jobs only take a few minutes, after all, and who knows?  Maybe your habits will rub off on your roommate.

5.  Make it a game.
Francine Jay, author of The Joy of Less and Lightly, suggests a Family Decluttering Day.  Challenge each member of the household to purge their own things, and declare the person with the biggest pile of castoffs the decluttering champion.  Offer a prize, like a movie or restaurant gift card, if you need more incentive, or make a little money with a yard sale. 

6.  Be happy.
Is living clutter-free a chore or a relief?  Are the habits that keep clutter at bay simple or onerous?  Are you generally more relaxed and peaceful since you simplified your life, or are you on uptight clutter patrol?  If minimalism doesn't look attractive on you, no one will see it as a positive lifestyle.  If you can show that your days are smoother, your chores fewer, your energy greater, and your outlook brighter, the changes you've made will look appealing to others.

Remember that minimalism is not about being meager or obsessive.  It's about handling your belongings in such a way that the energy of your home and your life is vibrant and flowing rather than dull and stagnant.

Photo by Taylor Hernandez on Unsplash


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