6 Things Minimalism Taught Me About Tidying

6 Things Minimalism Taught Me About Tidying

I’m going to come right out and tell you now, I am not naturally a tidy person. I like things to be tidy, but I am less keen to actually tidy them away. What I’ve come to realise is that being in a constant state of not-wanting-to-tidy-but-wanting-it-to-be-tidy means I spent more time thinking about tidying than actually tidying, and if I just went ahead and did the tidying in the first place I’d have far more energy and drive for the things that were important to me. Consequently, I began to embrace the idea of tidying.

These realisations don’t mean that suddenly I learned to love to tidy. Not at all. I would still rather spend the minimum amount of time tidying, but I now accept that it needs to be done, and I’m happier when my home is tidy. In my quest to figure out how to tidy less, the ideas of minimalism, of simplifying, and of letting go really clicked with me. After all, everything we own is something else to look for, find, move, clean, put away, maintain, worry about and probably at some stage, get frustrated with. Less stuff means less of all these things… and more time for getting on with living life.

Decluttering has definitely made my home tidier. The less you have, the less there is to tidy – there’s no arguing with that. But whilst decluttering has made a big difference, my home didn’t transform miraculously into one which no longer needs tidying. I wanted to believe that it would happen, but of course, it didn’t. Decluttering is not the whole story. However, it has taught me a lot about tidying, and made me realise some truths that I probably wouldn’t have figured out if I hadn’t started down the minimalist path.

More or better storage is not the answer to a tidy house

I used to think more storage was the answer, but in reality it was a way for me to hide my clutter out of sight. At first glance my home might look tidy, but inside most of the cupboards and storage boxes it was chaos. The more storage I had, the harder it was for me to remember where anything was, and the longer it took to search.

It’s not just cupboards and storage that we use for storing our stuff, it is whole rooms. Several years ago my husband and I started noticing that our small one-bedroom flat was getting very full. We didn’t have any space for extra storage, so we considered doing what everyone else does – move to a bigger place with an extra room.

But when we thought about it, we realised that we would be paying extra rent for a bigger home (and going through the pain of moving) just so we could store a bunch of things that we probably didn’t even need. We started to get rid of those things that we didn’t need instead… and we got rid of our storage too. That freed up space, and rather than costing us money (in rent), we made money by finding good homes for the things we no longer needed.

We let our spaces dictate to us how much stuff we have. If we have a big shed, or plenty of kitchen cupboards, or a spare room, we let ourselves fill them. More storage means more space to put stuff, and encourages us to accumulate more – and that means more tidying. We don’t need more storage. We need less stuff.

Better organisation isn’t the answer to a tidy home, either

I will say this first: everything you own needs a place. How can you tidy it away if you don’t know where that place is? Beyond that, there’s no need to over-complicate things. There’s no need for complex systems, or boxes with labels and dividers and subdividers and headings, or neat stacks of things balanced precariously one on top of the other. All that means is extra work, and extra clutter… and more reason not to put something away properly. One moment of “I-can’t-be-bothered-I’ll-do-it-properly-later” shortcut-taking and the whole system crumbles.

If you live with other people, this is even more important. The more complicated your systems are means the less likely anyone else will be to follow them.

When it comes to organising stuff, simplest is best.

Someone has to do the work

Houses don’t tidy themselves. This took me a long time to figure out. I would often wonder how other people managed to keep their houses clean and tidy. I thought there must be a secret, and if I could just discover it for myself, my home would be miraculously clean. The truth is of course, there is no secret. They simply do the work. If I want my home to be clean, I have to clean it.

There’s an interesting lesson there, too. If I want my home to be clean, I’m the one who has to clean it. I can’t just nag my husband to clean it for me. Having tried (and failed) on numerous occasions (and yes, I do still try occasionally) I have realised that if I’m the one who wants the tidy home, I am the one who has to do the work.

Everyone has a mess threshold: the point at which the mess becomes unbearable and they have to do something about it. I consider mine to be fairly high – I can tolerate quite a bit of mess before it annoys me. Frustratingly, my husband’s threshold is even higher. Consequently, when I think it’s messy and needs tidying, he is still oblivious… and of course if he doesn’t think it needs doing, he won’t join in (or he will, but very reluctantly and after much nagging).

If I want to maintain the peace, I either need to raise my tolerance levels or accept I need to do the work myself. (Note to husband – I’m still trying to come to terms with this.)

The cleaning will never be done

When I first realised this, it was something of a shock to me. The cleaning will never be finished. There is no “once-and-for-all” with cleaning. I can clean until the place is spotless, and everything gleams, but soon enough everything is dirty and dusty and needs to be re-cleaned. The dishes will need doing. The clothes will need washing and putting away.

Rather than save up all the cleaning until it becomes a monstrous job, and resenting how much time it takes up, I’ve realised that it’s best to accept that there will always be cleaning, and do a little every day. Do the dishes when they’re dirty straight away, and put them away. Do a load of laundry once the basket is full, and put it away. It doesn’t seem so much of a chore this way.

I’m not perfect, not at all, but when I get lazy and let a few loads of laundry build up or the dishes accumulate in the sink, it’s always far more onorous than little and often. Slowly slowly, the lesson is being learned.

A tidy home is all about mindfulness

If you have a messy home you’re probably like me: walk in the front door, drop shoes at the doorway, throw coat over a chair, and drop on the sofa after throwing bag on the floor. Whether my keys go in the bag, or on the sofa (probably falling behind the cushions) or remain in my coat pocket, or get left on the side seems to happen at random. Yet it causes panic and stress the next morning when I cannot remember where they are but realise I cannot escape the house without them. This is the opposite of mindfulness: it’s mindlessness, literally!

What if, instead of the above, I came home, left my shoes at the entrance and then walked to the wardrobe and hung my coat and put my bag away (ensuring the keys are in there)? Really, it takes me a couple of extra seconds at the time, but it saves me having to go through the whole process of looking for where I’ve left things and putting them away later, plus it decreases the clutter immediately.

It shouldn’t be that hard, should it? It’s something I’m working on, slowly. Rather than putting things down to deal with later, thinking about putting them in their final place the first time. I have to say, the less you own, the easier this becomes!

Habits take time

If I know one thing about habits, it’s that they take time to adopt. You have to work at them, and if you practice every day you’ll get better faster. You have to do things consciously until they become unconscious.

Tidying is a habit. As someone who is messy and doesn’t naturally tidy, learning to become a tidy person has taken time. Is taking time! It’s not a case of tidying the whole house and thinking – right, I’m never letting it get messy again! (Has anyone else done that? I used to cycle between this and messiness-to-the-point-of-despair, until I realised there had to be another way.) I have no idea what made me think that I could go from messy person to tidy person following one afternoon of cleaning, but I constantly did!

Realising that I needed to be more mindful and tackle things as they happened was the first step, the next step is making them habits that I do without thinking. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Has minimalism (or decluttering, or simplifying) taught you any lessons about tidying? What tips do you have for keeping clutter at bay? What habits you find most useful? What area of your home do you find hardest to keep clutter-free, and what is the easiest? Are you naturally a tidy person, or are you naturally messy? If you’re messy, have you come to terms with your messiness or do you long to be tidy? If you’re naturally tidy, please give some insights into how you do it! I love hearing your thoughts so please leave me a comment below!

33 Responses to 6 Things Minimalism Taught Me About Tidying

  1. I’m a tidy person who has decluttered my own stuff pretty successfully, but my partner has much higher levels of untidy tolerance and more stuff! As we get closer to moving house, I hope some decluttering will happen, but time will tell :) My current technique is to wait to see where the stuff builds up, then build the room around that – if coat hooks are put where the coat is normally thrown, that seems to mitigate the issue. I also think having a space that’s just yours (whether a room, or just a shelf) that looks how you like can be a nice thing when you have a shared space that requires compromise.

    • Would your partner agree with your sentiment Pip? My husband is always convinced that the mess and stuff is all mine, when quite clearly it is his! That is half my struggle!

      I love your technique – that makes a lot of sense. I’ve positioned the fruit bowl at the end of the kitchen counter to stop anything piling up there, and I’m refusing to get a coffee table – I know it will be another surface for stuff to gather.

      I love that idea too. I’m going to have to figure out where that place is. I think it will be good for my sanity!

      • Have you tried putting away all your stuff while leaving his? Maybe he needs to actually SEE his? Even if you have to point out that you put away all of yours since he likely wouldn’t otherwise notice?

        Yesterday I asked my husband to move a pile of his stuff to the other side of his chair so it wouldn’t bug me when I’m relaxing in my chair. Yes, it still needs to be cleaned around but at least I’m not seeing it all the time. And while he was moving that he put away part of the pile of stuff so now even the pile is not as messy. Baby steps can eventually get you where you want to go.

  2. My husband has a high tolerance level too, but he does love a clean and tidy home. So when I need him to help, I have to teach him how to do it…with lots of patience. But tidy habits help a lot. And he over time has gained quit a few. Finding a place for everything and placing it there as soon as you walk in helped a lot. Great post.

    • Thanks for your comment Carolina! My husband does too… I think we must have different thresholds for different areas and rooms. I hate it when dishes pile up, and he seems unreasonably pre-occupied with whether the communal pathways have been swept… They’re not even inside our home! I guess understanding and accepting this is all part of successful relationships…! And of course, I do appreciate the sweeping. I just wish the dishes drummed up the same enthusiasm.

  3. Great post, especially the mentions of mindfulness. Cleaning can be a daunting task when you have so much stuff, means more surfaces to clean! Also, the abundance of cleaning products that clutter some kitchens; switching to ZW cleaners has completely simplified my cleaning process. I have also been more involved with minimizing and simplifying, which has been…dare I say it….liberating?!

  4. I couldn’t agree more about “more storage solutions” not being the answer. I have one trunk in the basement I’ve had since college which is what we call “the memory trunk” and whenever it gets full I sit down there and purge the things that we no longer know why were so important. Other than that, no storage. A few years back I removed the one overhead cupboard’s doors in my kitchen and it actually made me tidier and more aware of what I have, what I never use, etc. (those martini glasses that look so spiffy but that I’ve not touched in at least a couple of years? On the list for Goodwill I must admit…). I can’t imagine what people in big houses and big garages do – it’d be so easy to just hide stuff! I’ve had to train my husband that if we are creating piles, the solution is NOT to “take it down to the basement” (his favorite) and that if he’s not sure what to do with something, the solution is NOT to “toss it in the junk drawer because junk drawers are awesome” (mind you, it didn’t become a junk drawer until he moved in LOL!).

    While I’m fairly but not obsessively neat, forcing the mess to stay right in view has helped me confront and deal with it right then, rather than avoid it. Right now we deconstructed some old bookcases to build wall-mount ones from their scraps and my husband immediately wanted to take all the books down to the basement and I put my foot down as I knew that would turn into a half-started project that gets procrastinated for months! So I may be seeing piles of books on the floor where the shelves were, but it also will get me to the Rebuilding Center today to pick up some used brackets and connectors to get those pieces finished and on the wall!

    Great post.

    • You do sound organised Aimee! I agree (and love) the idea of removing cupboard doors – there is so much more incentive to be neater when things are on display!

      Hiding stuff is definitely not the answer. I like to keep things in piles rather than shove them in cupboards (where they definitely get ignored) but keeping piles on display but not doing anything about them also frustrates me. Most of that comes from wondering why my husband isn’t frustrated… although as I mentioned previously, he thinks all the mess is mine, so I guess he is frustrated, but is waiting for me to do something about it!

  5. Thank you for the thoughtful post!

    I happen to be a naturally tidy person who doesn’t mind tidying. My husband however has a very high threshold. We are moving from our 1500 sqft home into a 200 sqft Airstream just this week and in preparation we started minimizing months ago. I too noticed the added benefit of a more tidy home when you have less stuff. In the Airstream tidying will be a MUST. So as we move in I am designating a place for everything. Every item we own will have a home. Even my husband finds it easier to tidy when he knows exactly where everything goes ( and he doesn’t have to ever go looking for anything).

    • Thank you Courtney! Oooh, I wish I had those traits! Downsizing that much – that would be challenge. I like that you began downsizing months ago… I would probably have intended to do that, and then left it until the last two weeks and tried to wedge everything in ; ) Have you finished unpackaging yet or still have a way to go?

      Our current issue is plenty of things don’t have a home as we’ve moved and still need to figure things out. We used to have a big built-in cupboard but don’t have that now. I actually think a good declutter is in order… my husband’s stuff, of course! ; )

  6. I’m the person who hates to clean so always wished I could do it once and never have to do it again. If my home isn’t tidy I don’t want any one to stop over out of sheer embarrassment. I went through the storage container phase myself, my containers of choice were baskets because I could find them for pennies at yard sales and thrift shops. The problem was the baskets became a catchall for anything I didn’t know what to do with until the baskets were overflowing because of course I didn’t bother to weed through them regularly when life was crazy busy. Today i have almost no baskets and my house is neater and I feel sane again. Of course it helped that my children have moved out and now I only have my things to worry about.

    • I can relate Lois – but I found that if I invited people over I was more inclined to tidy, so I actually wish I did it more as it’s a great incentive – and also reward!

      And I can relate to the baskets situation too! Any basket, drawer, bag – yep. Best to have as few as possible, then the stuff can’t accumulate. Plus when you’re looking for something, it rules out a lot of options if you don’t have any! We have a bag / basket for library books, a drawer for keys and a box for stuff that used to go in a drawer in the old house but we haven’t found a place for yet!

      I find it hard enough with me and my husband – I couldn’t imagine having to deal with kids (and grandkids) too!

  7. oh sounds like my home :) except the mess threshold of mine is small compared to my wife, she is completely oblivious to the extent when she doesn’t have space to sit.

    • Haha, I can actually relate to your wife! In our old place, for some unknown reason we ended up with quite a bit of furniture… a 3 seater sofa, a two-seater sofa and three armchairs. And it would get to the point where there would only be one spare space (for the two of us)! Now we have only one three seater and a chair – it works much better : )

  8. If this was on Facebook, I would have ‘liked’ every paragraph of this post! It’s exactly what I have been thinking lately. I’m slowly coming to terms with being a ‘stay-at-home’ mum and learning to be more domesticated and tidy.

    Before our daughter was born, I thought I had conquered the ‘junk room’ but it is still there. I have just taken a car load of things to the charity shop which I feel really good about but there is still more to tidy. I have many boxes of ‘arts and crafts’ supplies which I keep adding to but then never actually doing anything with them. I am keeping them out of guilt and anticipation when I really need to give most of it away to a better home.

    The more I read about a minimalist lifestyle, the more it appeals.

    We renovated our kitchen a year ago and installed lots more cupboards and when we moved everything back in, I was in despair. I thought that we still didn’t have enough storage. I know now that we just had too much stuff. And now I think we have too much storage. As an interior designer by trade, I cannot believe I am saying that you can have too much storage but you are exactly right in saying that if you have the space, you will fill it. I read somewhere that maintaining your control over the clutter can be strengthened by keeping a shelf or a drawer in your home, empty.

    • This made me laugh – and thank you! It’s funny that we don’t learn to be tidy and domesticated (well, some of us don’t!) And we have to teach ourselves later on. I was just thinknig today – it took me 34 years before I saw virtue and realised the benefit of making the bed! I have no idea why I thought it was too much effort before – it takes seconds!

      I think with decluttering, if you find it hard or have a lot of stuff, it really helps to do it a trip to the charity shop at a time. I think we all love the idea of dedicating an afternoon, filling a gazillion boxes and then it’s done, but actually it doesn’t work like that for most people. We’re not sure, and it’s a big emotional upheaval, and we need to take our time. Now you’ve taken a load to the charity shop, sit back a little and when you’re ready, tackle it again. Every time you’ll notice new things, but doing it all at once can be overwhelming!

      My kitchen is double (triple?) the size of the old one but it is fairly poorly designed, so there are really big drawers but with standard size fittings (making the drawers pretty useless). There are 10 drawers! I felt like I didn’t have enough space when we moved, but that didn’t make sense to me as I know the kitchen is much bigger. About half my possessions are kitchen equipment and I need to declutter I think.

      I’ve heard the idea of the empty shelf. I don’t have any shelves (except in the linen cupboard) but i think it is a great idea!

  9. It’s actually quite asthonishing how you exactly describe how i feel about tidying. Im a messy person too. It’s just that I don’t have come to the point to declutter my home (some parts I did, others are still waiting). I also don’t have tidying as a habit right now. Dishes can be on the countertop for 3,4 days or almost a week before I do them.
    So you are really inspiring me! When it comes to tidying, it seems you was the same as I am now, so there is hope for me. Thank you for this blogpost!

  10. I really appreciated your post.
    My husbands tolerance for mess is non existent.
    When we had our baby, I used the guest bathroom and he used the ensuite. After 3 months he still hadn’t cleaned it and only cleaned it after I went berserk

    I also have to realise that I need to clean the house but I kind of get resentful while I’m cleaning. Why should I have to always clean ? Something I need to work on!

    Great post – thank you

    • I can relate! We lived in our previous flat for 18 months and my husband did not clean the bathroom once! His excuse (which is valid) is that he is very short-sighted and he takes his glasses off to shower (obviously) so he never notices that it needs cleaning! That said, it looked grim generally. I used to wait and wait until I could bear it no more!

      Resentment is something I’m trying to let go of. Mostly I resent that my husband doesn’t notice the mess and I feel obliged to clean – or I nag, which winds us both up. But from his point of view, he doesn’t see it needs to be done, so he is not actually avoiding it. Leo Babauta wrote a great post about how you need to accept things (and people) the way they are – and not get cross that they are not how you’d like them to be. (I tried to search for it but I couldn’t find it.) I’m trying to learn too!

  11. We do share the same sentiments. I thought of the same things this past weekend, and this post just made me think about it again. But thanks for it made me realize so many things. :)

  12. I’m a tidy person. It was something I was taught. As a kid, I was not allowed to leave things out, they had to be put away once I was finished with it. Our rooms could be messy but shared communal spaces were not allowed to build up with our clutter. The whole family cleaned the house every Saturday, and us kids were not allowed to leave or go play, until we vacuumed, dusted, scrubbed the whole house. And each Saturday we would have to clean our rooms, so it was easier to just keep it clean during the week. We had to fold, iron and put our clothes away. We were taught to be responsible for our stuff and mindful of the spaces we shared with others. I suppose you could say that I’ve got routines that naturally keep the house tidy that I’ve practiced for a loooong time. Sometimes i let things be messy, and thats ok. It’s my mess and i’ll get to it to be put away. My husband was raised completely the opposite. When we first moved in, I would start to clean up after him. But it was frustrating and unfair. Now I never clean up his mess. He eventually cracks and does it himself.

    • Wow I am envious! We were never taught to be tidy (to be fair, it isn’t a skill either of my parents possess, so it isn’t surprising!) but now I can see how much of a difference it can make. I try to get my husband to help clean the house, and when we first moved I tried to instigate a quick tidy once a week, but he doesn’t want to help. We lived in our old house for 18 months and he didn’t clean the bathroom once! I find it frustrating that he will wash up 2-3 times a week (but never the saucepan, only plate and cutlery) and genuinely think that constitutes half (7 meals a week – never mind breakfast, lunch and snacks!). And not even half the washing up – half the chores!

      The solution has to be that I just do it all, because it is me that it frustrates, not him. When I’m working full-time, it really stresses me out though. I’ve been really busy over the last couple of months and I’ve struggled with the mess and having to deal with it. It doesn’t seem fair, but I know I have to deal with that and learn to accept it. I’ll get there!

  13. I find the two most important things to do to help keep the mess at bay, is to wash your dishes and have the sink clean at night before you go to bed; and to make your bed after you get up in the morning. You come out to a reasonable kitchen in the morning, and you have a comfortable spot to lay down for the night. These two things can make a huge difference!

    • I’m totally with you with the dishes! My husband is terrible at dishes so it falls to me, and whenever I’m lazy and leave them, the next morning they stress me out and I’m filled with regret! Plus I work from home, so I have to look at them all day. And doing them in the morning means taking valuable time out of my work day! So yes, do the dishes. It’s a valuable lesson :)

      Nothing like waking up to a clean and gleaming kitchen :)

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