Can a Messy Person Learn to Be Clean?

Intention counts for a lot

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While some of us prioritize tidiness and organization, others ascribe to the ideal of “bless this mess.” Both are acceptable—what matters most is what bothers you. But, if an untidy person has aspirations to change and embrace a cleaner way of life, is that possible? Can they take steps to reform their messy habits? Yes, as long as they’ve got a bit of intention, says professional organizer Nonnahs Driskill.

About the Expert

Nonnahs Driskill is the founding member of Get Organized Already, a professional organizing service based in Pasadena, California.

1. To Start, Consider Your Intentions

For anyone on a quest to become tidy, it’s important that we first understand why we want our space to feel more organized. “A tidy person isn’t better than a person who tends to be messy,” Driskill explains. But understanding the reason you want to get clean can help with motivation. For example, maybe you feel frustrated by the lost time spent searching for missing items. Or maybe you think it will help you stay focused while working from home. Or maybe you just want to have a space that is always ready for spontaneous visitors. (No last-minute toilet scrub downs required!) Once a messy person identifies their why for being clean, it’s easier to see the forest through the trees.

2. Focus on Small Habits of Cleaning and Organizing

This might mean setting a timer for 15 minutes a day to clean up. You could even get specific here and devote the time to a certain area, like a junk drawer or the medicine cabinet. Or maybe it’s simply a commitment to never skimping on ‘one-minute tasks’ (think hanging up a coat or putting the cap back on the toothpaste). Bottom line: Parsing out cleaning into smaller projects can be a very effective place to start, Driskill advises.

3. Keep in Mind, Messiness Isn’t Always About Mess

Rather, says Driskill, it’s about the feelings that go along with mess. “Some people innately enjoy being in minimal, clean spaces much more than others,” she maintains. “Stress levels vary greatly, not according to the amount of clutter, but according to what you are used to and comfortable in.” This means that even if you don’t care about mess, you might try to put some effort into tidying to see if it makes you feel better or calmer. (Conversely, she adds that if you identify as a neat freak, you could try a day where you don’t rush to refold the throw blanket, just to see if it really causes as much stress as you think it will.)

4. It Is Possible to Unlearn Messiness

The tendency to be either clean or messy is largely a characteristic that we pick up over time, Driskill says. But since cleaning and tidying are a daily part of life, it helps to nail down our cleanliness expectations in tandem with others’, assuming your messy habits have an impact on someone else. “It’s a cop-out for a messy person to say, ‘I’m just messy. I can’t help it,’” Driskill says. The goal should be to remove the judgment and instead focus on thoughtful methods to get more organized, with the understanding that “more organized” means different things to different people.

For example, we spoke with one woman who has successfully become neater over time. To start, she and her husband identified why they had such different approaches to mess. As it turns out, she grew up a sentimental saver; he grew up with parents who abhorred clutter. These insights enabled them to set ground rules, namely they agreed to minimize mess by making instant decisions. (If she can’t find a home for something immediately, she is willing to get rid of it.) She also ritualized 10-minute nightly clean-ups. “Moving from an apartment to a house helped immensely with getting a grip on my messy habits because I had more space. It really is about getting to the root of your approach to organization, but also keeping the volume of possessions you hold onto in line with the amount of space you have.”

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