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Is she naturally organized or is it something else?

For those of us with chronic clutter (aka, the living room was clean yesterday, so why does it look like a hurricane hit by the following night?!), it can be hard to identify where all that stuff is coming from!

Trying to answer that question, I started watching my friend go about her day. (Yeah, this was pre-Covid. The good ol’ days.) She is one of those people whose sink is always empty, toys not in active play are put away – in other words, my polar opposite. Her home is always tidy, even when she’s exhausted from a long day.

Thank you to one of our Decluttering School coaches, Danielle Smallwood, for this article!

How does she find the energy to wash the dishes as soon as dinner is over? How does she force herself to put away the blocks before pulling out markers and paper? Does she just think cleaning is fun? (She does not, as it happens.)

And then it finally hit me: she’s using neither willpower nor extra energy.

My friend’s finishing point for activities is just several steps later than mine.

What do you mean by “finishing point”?

My friend doesn’t consider dinner over until all the dishes have been washed and mostly put away. That’s her finishing point for dinner – the moment her brain defines as the final step of any activity.

So if your finishing point happens to include the steps to clean up that activity, guess what? With no extra decision making, no superhuman willpower needed, you just naturally take that extra few minutes to finish the activity without really giving it any extra thought at all.

Let’s look at a few quick examples of finishing points:

You just finished a card game, and are ready to start cooking dinner. Where are the cards?

Me: On the kitchen table where we were playing. We’ll probably shove the cards to the middle of the table so we can set the plates out.
My friend: Back in the box, which has been put back in the drawer where card games are stored. She just picked them up, and put them away while we were still chatting about the game.

You returned from a week’s vacation yesterday. Where are your suitcases?

Me: In the front hall. They’re open, at least, because we had to retrieve toiletries, not to mention running downstairs to grab clean clothes out of them this morning.
My friend: Emptied, back in storage. She brought them in the house, never even set them down in the front hall! Then took them to her bedroom, pulled out toiletries, etc. It took about 10 minutes.

You went grocery shopping this morning. Where are the reusable bags?

Me: On the floor in the kitchen, still filled with non-perishable items we were too tired to put away. We’re really hoping the deli meat isn’t hiding under the chips again….
My friend: Nested inside each other, empty, of course, back in the trunk of the car. It took about 10 minutes longer, which is 15 minutes less than the 25 minutes it took me to run back to the grocery store to replace the deli meat a few weeks ago. Not to mention the wasted money.

You get the idea. No extra decisions, so minimal extra mental energy required to keep clutter from building up from simple everyday activities.

(Also, to appeal to our logical brains, I want to take a moment to point out that most extra steps to actually tidy as you go really don’t take nearly as much time to do right away as they do later. Just in case you’ve never timed yourself unloading the dishwasher, folding a load of clothes, etc. Because this is motivating to some people. But I digress.)

Are you sure you’re not just describing someone who’s “naturally organized”?!

Of course I am!
I’m just refusing to believe that you’re either born organized or you’re doomed to wade through clutter.

Here’s the deal:
Our brains like to finish an activity, but once we feel that we’re done, our brains want to move on to the next exciting thing, not engage in more decisions and effort.

Example: If I feel that Monopoly ends when we’ve counted up our money and declared a winner, then I’m either going to a) leave the game right where it is or b) reluctantly make myself clean it up like a nice responsible adult would do. (Notice the self-judgment there? Ouch.)

If, on the other hand, I’ve decided (truly believing this in my brain, not just empty words) that Monopoly ends when everything has been put away, then after determining the winner, we’re sticking money back into the slots in the box, folding up the board, and sticking that box back up on the shelf, without making any extra decisions, and without feeling like we’re engaging in drudgery after the fun is over.

In short: One of the biggest differences between people who appear effortlessly organized and those of us who struggle with clutter is as simple as how we define the finishing point of any activity.

I’m dubious – how can I actually change my finishing point?

Welcome to the power of visualization.

Pick an activity that you know results in clutter buildup in your home. Maybe it’s bringing in the mail? Getting clothes into a hamper after a shower? Cooking dinner?

First, clearly imagine what would be needed for that activity not to create any new clutter or mess.

Then, picture yourself doing that activity, every single step. Start with the moment you begin your routine now, and

Take something as simple as changing into pajamas in the evening. Picture walking into your bedroom, opening your pajama drawer, grabbing the clean pajamas, changing your clothes.

Don’t stop your visualization while your clothes are still are the floor/bed/etc! If you struggle with clutter like me, you are probably thinking, “But I’m finished changing my clothes! I’m in pajamas, and my favorite TV show is about to start!”

Nope.

Continue your visualization.

Picture yourself pulling your pajama shirt on, then reaching down to pick up the clothes you just took off, walking over to the hamper, and dropping them in.

Now picture your floor clear of clothes as you run to catch your favorite show.

Be sure to take your visualization from where you begin your existing routine, all the way to the start of your next routine, and repeat for any routines you’d like.

Does this work overnight? Nope. But it does work over time, and your brain will thank you for having fewer decisions, and less clutter-stress in the future!

Final, very important note: There is no universally right finishing point!

Your definition of the finishing point for an activity is exactly that – your own. For my sister, dinner isn’t over until every dish or pan has been dealt with. For me, I’m happy when the dishes are cleared and mostly into the dishwasher after dinner. The rest are dealt with later, and that works for us.

The goal is to find places where your current routines are not working for you, and visualizing what will work for you.

You can draw inspiration from what works for others, but never let yourself be judged based on what works for someone else.

So, one last time for those in the back: there is no right “finishing point.”

Danielle Smallwood is part of our professional Decluttering Coach Network. Learn more about working with Danielle here.

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28 thoughts on “Is she naturally organized or is it something else?”

  1. Nice, I’ve been working on this myself. Just take 20 seconds and put away that game, dish, project, and then it’s done.

    Reply
  2. That’s great with one person but what if the finishing point for the rest of the family is messing up what you just picked up?

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    • Not sure how to help, can you be more specific?

      I just don’t see how, if dinner isn’t done until the dishes are done and you do the dishes (either by hand or put in dishwasher and run it) that the rest of the family is messing it up. Are they taking the dishes out of the dishwasher mid-cycle?

      If it’s them leaving their things sitting on the table, you’re the mom — take charge. They have to put it where it belongs or you take it and own it until they pay the ransom (I’d charge them $10 — you’ve go to make it hurt.) I’d do it with homework assignments as well. Kids are experts at finding loopholes, don’t give them any.

      Otherwise, it kind of sounds like you’re just making excuses for why this can’t work. (And, maybe this won’t work for you — but it’s definitely worth trying.)

      Reply
    • I agree. With two young kids who dont seem to grasp cleaning as you go, I’m always 3 steps behind on ‘finishing’ anything. If we’re all playing together, no problem. Clean up the game and put it away. If I leave them to play, there are things (play food, half a board game, couch pillows, My Little Ponys, rain boots, craft sets) all out at once. They aren’t destructive, just playing make believe games.
      Anyway, I dont know how to train them to see a new finishing point. It’s not as easy as just taking there things away until they start cleaning, as was suggested by someone else. And I dont think it’s just an excuse. It’s constant and I can feel like I’m drowning. Cleaning all day every day.

      Reply
      • One thing I learned from someone else- when instructing kids on cleaning up, you have to break it in little pieces, one at a time so it isn’t overwhelming: first, let’s put the pillows back on the couch. Great! Now, put the books back on the shelves (see how specific), and so on. It isn’t magic, but it’s a start.

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      • Melissa, I hear you. I’ve worked in childcare for 40 years, and that’s what I deal with EVERY DAY. Little kids are not naturally tidy, and just telling them to clean up doesn’t work. Like Susan said, you have to walk them through it step-by-step, day after day, and you’ll wind up doing the majority of the actual clean up. It is exhausting, but keep modeling the behavior, keep reminding them (“If you’re through with the ponies, put them back in the bin, please”), make putting things away very easy (open bins, clear homes for each kind of toy), and praise them lavishly when they help. IT WILL TAKE YEARS, but one day they’ll get there. (Mostly. We all slip up sometimes.)

        Reply
  3. I’m more like you than your friend. Not liking clutter or half finished projects I now look at doing tasks ’til done’. ’til done’ is seeing the task through until completion and putting away whatever is needed to accomplish the goal. This is so much better than starting a dozen projects and never able to complete any of them in a timely fashion. As I am working on an item I often repeat to myself, “’til done’ do it ’til done'”. It’s working. Your post is a confirmation I’m on the right track.

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  4. As I continue on my decluttering journey, I am finding this to be true, and I am doing more that has a finishing line that is farther out. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it!

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  5. Thank you for putting this concept into words “finishing point” so I am able to imbed this principle as I continue to learn to establish & practice it!

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  6. “Aha” moment: just realizing that some sources of internal & external conflict with family members & maybe co-workers have been differing views, misunderstanding, or changes in the “finishing point” of tasks or chores. Thank you.

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  7. I really like the “finishing point” idea. I’ve never thought of that. Now I will! I know it will take about a month to form a new habit, so the trick is, visualizing what needs to be done. As you pointed out!

    Reply
  8. ???? yikes! This ‘Hit the nail on my head’. Only ONE of many reasons why my clutter has taken so many years to finish. So glad I have gotten advice from Sarah – and now this. Ordered her book and this helps too. THANK you both. I have been sharing too.

    Reply
  9. This is brilliant! Actually, that is why Kitchen Zero works for so many! I now know why some of my resolves are simply easy and others are not! This points out that my finish time is what is working for me! Thanks for pointing it out to me!

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  10. Excellent article thank you very much! My two key take-aways: Change my finishing points and Use visualization to make the changes.

    Reply
  11. My struggle is feeling bitter when my finishing point is after my family’s finishing points. I always hated growing up watching all the women clean after dinner while the men sat and talked and watched tv. I always found this infuriating. Now, I’d like to sit and enjoy my time after dinner too, but I begrudgingly clean up. Or I don’t, and have to deal with the mess later…

    Reply
  12. This is an interesting concept. I’m a rubber stamper. When I’m finished stamping I always make sure my stamps are clean before I put them away. I don’t do the same with the rest of the stamping clutter. I think I can put this to use in my stamp area. Clean the stamps and put away, clean up any scraps of paper still on the table and take it all the way back to tidy so it is ready for the next time I stamp. I’m going to work on this. Thank you.

    Reply
  13. In our house the winner packs the game away. The winner never seems to mind these, they are in too good a mood. To some family members it was obvious but some family members were happy to just put the game away in the box, and had to be reminded to put the game away in the cupboard and replace the runner and tray that usually live on the coffee table.

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  14. Marie, this is a hard thing to negotiate with other adults, for sure, but it might be worth having a conversation about how they can make things easier. For kids, you can certainly enact new rules in the house: “from now on, everybody scrapes their own plates and helps load the dishwasher” or “once you’re X years old, you’ll get put into the kitchen cleaning rotation – these are ALL the things you have to do to clean the kitchen when it’s your night.” You’ll have to teach them how, of course, and give them some leeway while they’re learning, but eventually they’ll get to be useful, or you can set penalties for not completing the job to specification. These are things they’ll need to know how to do in life, after all.

    Reply

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Welcome. I’m Sarah!

 
Sarah

I’m the creator of Decluttering School (formerly known as Early Bird Mom), lover of organized spaces, encourager to women and mom to four boys. Click here to read more!

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