Keeping our homes orderly and free of clutter is a struggle for many of us, especially if we’re not naturally organized. If you fall into this category, there’s definitely hope — you just may need to change your habits. Before you roll your eyes and shrug off that idea as impossible, let me tell you what has helped me keep a tidier home.
I tried a concept called the “habit loop,” which is described in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the best-selling book by Charles Duhigg. The habit loop consists of three steps: cue, routine and reward. The cue is a reminder that initiates the new behavior. The routine is the behavior itself. The reward is the benefit you get from implementing the new behavior.
Duhigg says that during the first two weeks of developing a new habit, it’s important to give yourself a treat that you really enjoy right after you complete the new behavior. This will teach your brain to enjoy the new routine. While I’m a professional organizer and really do enjoy decluttering and organizing, I also have an extremely busy life and like to do a lot of other things besides organizing my house. Using the habit loop really helped me get into daily, automatic tidying habits. Perhaps this approach could offer a fresh, effective way for you too to conquer clutter in your home. Here’s how I use it.
Tackle Your Own Spaces First
If you want to form new no-clutter habits, it’s usually easiest to begin by dealing with your own possessions in spaces you don’t share with all family members. Personally, I live with some wonderful but messy people, so if you’re in the same situation, I recommend you start with your bedroom and bathroom.
Duhigg says there’s no precise time frame for how long it takes to form a new habit, but other researchers report it takes 21 to 66 days or even longer. Personally, I needed 21 to 45 days of the habit loop to form a new habit, depending on what the routine was. After that, the behavior became automatic.
1. Make your bed. No matter how messy the bedroom is, a made bed makes it neater. To create a cue for making the bed, pick something you do without fail every day, such as turning off your alarm. It’s best to do the new behavior as soon as possible after the reminder. (I sometimes get distracted if I don’t make my bed right after my cue, and then the bed might remain unmade all day.)
After you make the bed — or, for that matter, after you do any new task you’re trying to make habitual — be sure to reward yourself. Your reward can be as simple as a silent “Good job!” you tell yourself or as ritualistic as brewing your morning cup of coffee and then enjoying sipping it. Just remember to give yourself a compliment or perk for working toward your tidy-house goal.
2. Clear your bathroom counters. Brushing my teeth has become the cue I use to trigger my habit of clearing my bathroom counters both morning and night. Each morning after I brush, I put away my makeup, hair products, blow dryer and toothpaste. Then I wipe off the water that has collected on the countertops. I repeat the routine at night, putting away my lotion and other nighttime beauty products. Then I congratulate myself on a job well done.
Though I didn’t get it right the first few days, within 21 days I knew I’d managed to develop this habit when I automatically began clearing the counters after brushing. For me, coming home to a clean bathroom is the greatest reward!
3. Put away your attire after wearing it. On most days I wear two different outfits, one for work and one for exercise. If I’m not paying attention to where I put my things, a mess can quickly build up. So I decided that removing my clothes would be the cue to place dirty clothes in the hamper and those I’ll wear again neatly in the closet.
If you share a closet with a partner who doesn’t want to participate in this routine, you have a couple of options: You can put your partner’s clothes away or leave them out, knowing that at least half the mess is put away. Since nagging or brooding rarely changes other people’s habits, it might be better to give yourself a reward for cleaning up your own mess and move on.
Tackle Common Rooms Next
As you move into the common areas of your home, prepare for potential barriers to establishing tidy habits since you may be dealing with other family members’ messes. While this can be frustrating, if family members aren’t cooperative I recommend simply focusing on clearing your own mess. Hopefully, your new habits will eventually rub off on your family. If not, well, your home will still be less cluttered than it was before your new habits.
4. Unbury coffee and end tables. Your cue for clearing the tables in your living room could be turning off the television or putting down the book you were reading. Remove cups, glasses and bowls from the room’s flat surfaces and place them in the dishwasher. Put magazines back in their rack or recycle those you’ve finished reading. Place remote controls in a basket next to the television. Put away books and papers and anything else left cluttering the room. Then congratulate yourself. Your living room will look great in the morning when you start your day.
5. Clear the kitchen counters. Mail, school papers, ear buds, cellphones, vitamins, dog treats, receipts, tissue boxes, keys and more can litter kitchen countertops, making food prep difficult. Plus, this type of miscellaneous debris makes the kitchen look messy and disorganized even if cooking surfaces are cleared.
My personal cue for clearing my countertops each night is closing my dishwasher door after I load it. I then scan all the miscellany on the counters and quickly sort and put everything in its place. This may take me an extra 10 minutes, but by doing it each evening I find it is easier to keep the counters clear during the day.
I then reward myself with a small piece of chocolate since this habit is much harder to implement than others! My other reward is coming downstairs in the morning to a clean kitchen.
6. Tidy your front hall. I walk through my front hallway on the way to bed and use the walk as my cue to tidy up the space. We have a hall closet where I can store shoes and coats, and each family member has a basket in the closet for personal items. If you don’t have a front hall closet, you might consider storing catchall baskets under a decorative table. I tell myself, “Great job!” before I head off to bed. It’s wonderful having a clutter-free front hall, especially when unexpected visitors stop by.
Develop New Habits on What You Bring Into Your Home
7. Manage your mail. Mail is a major source of clutter in many homes. To cut down on the volume, you might want to receive bills and magazines electronically. There are also tools available for unsubscribing from catalogs and unsolicited credit card offers; visit DMAchoice.org or Catalogchoice.org for more information.
Even with these steps, mail still has a way of piling up and causing a mess. One relatively easy habit to develop is sorting your mail before you enter the house. I collect my mail from the mailbox and walk directly to my recycling bin, where I immediately place advertising circulars. I then open unfamiliar envelopes (which usually are ads) and toss them in the bin. Since I receive most of my statements electronically, I’m left with very little to bring inside. Remaining items go into an inbox for incoming mail. I then give myself a pat on the back for preventing clutter from entering my house.
8. Be intentional with your purchases. Another habit to consider implementing is being mindful of your purchases. I’ve developed the habit of thinking seriously about the clutter factor of every purchase before buying. As I reach for my credit card, I am reminded to stop and consider whether I already own something that will suffice. I also think about where I’m going to store the item or what I’ll get rid of to make room for the new purchase. For example, when I’m considering a new pair of pants, I ask myself what I have in my closet that might be similar. If I already have too many similar items and don’t want to part with any I already own, I skip the new purchase.
I use a similar approach when considering household and kitchen items. My purchases are always intentional because I’m working hard to live in a clutter-free home. I deserve a big pat on the back for working on this habit. I’m not only reducing clutter but I’m also leaving more money in my bank account at the end of the month to spend on things I truly want or need.