The question that brought my home into organizational homeostasis

Guest post by Alissa
Junk Drawer

Wikipedia defines homeostasis as “the property of a system [to] regulate its internal environment and tend to maintain a stable, constant condition.”

Well, my home’s constant condition was chaos. I didn’t want to be a slob; I was very ashamed of it. Yet it seemed no matter how many times I cleaned and organized my apartment, it was only a matter of time — usually hours — before it looked like a disaster again.

I hated living like this, so I would invite friends over because it would force me to clean. I now realize much of that cleaning was merely moving the mess around. The table by my entryway became a dumping ground for random detritus and deal-with-it-laters, until out of exasperation I’d finally sweep everything into a bag to stick in the corner to deal with THAT later.

If someone dropped by unannounced, I’d hurriedly shove the piles to the perimeter of the rooms, close the door to my bedroom, and throw a towel over the pile of dirty dishes that hadn’t been washed in a week… or two…

I looked with envy upon organizing blogs, home improvement magazines, and friends with clutter-free homes. I would try some tips, but they would often result in purchasing organizational tools I’d forget to use, or one tiny island of organization in the sea of chaos. And really, who cared if my tupperware lids were organized if you could barely see the floor among the sea of clothes?

Then one day I came home with something in my arms and paused. Before setting it down, I asked myself, “Where does this belong?”

It seems so simple, but that one question changed my home.

Those blogs and magazines always talked about “putting things away,” and I didn’t understand. Huh? “Away”? Suddenly, it was so clear. The reason I couldn’t keep things clean and organized was that everything didn’t have a place it belonged. And even if stuff did have a place, it was so much easier to just set it down in the pile of homeless stuff.

My old question when coming home after work or when trying to tidy up had often been “Where can I set this down?” or “Where can I put this so it’s out of my way?”

But armed with this new question, I was a woman possessed. I disciplined myself to intentionally CREATE places for each thing that I owned or that came into my home. Remotes live in the drawer by the couch. Library books live on the coffee table when not in the process of reading. All hair-holding doodads go in the box by the mirror. The scotch tape lives on the hall bookshelf (weird, but it works for me!). I finally trashed/recycled/sold/donated stuff that I realized no longer BELONGED in my home.

I only bought one thing in my organizing spree: 3M hooks to hang up my coats. Turns out I don’t need a tupperware lid organizer; I just needed a designated place for my tupperware lids.

I call it organizational homeostasis. If something is out of place, it’s so obvious that I deal with it immediately which prevents the piles building up.

It took me a few weeks of gradual work, but I finally got to a point where everything I own has a place where it belongs. And for the first time, not only is my home organized, but it is STAYING organized.

I call it organizational homeostasis. If something is out of place, it’s so obvious that I deal with it immediately which prevents the piles building up. (Even at this moment I’m aware that I’ve finished drinking my tea, which means that the cup now need to be rinsed and BELONGS in the drying rack in the kitchen. But first I’ll finish writing this.)

Finally, I can sit on my sofa and look around the living room with a feeling of peace rather than clutter anxiety. Cleaning no longer feels like a monumental task in futility. When the cable guy came today, I wasn’t ashamed to let him in. And for the first time EVER, I do not have dirty dishes piled in the sink.

Next step: seeing if I can get my desk at work to organizational homeostasis…

Comments on The question that brought my home into organizational homeostasis

  1. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” was my mom’s mantra when I grew up and couldn’t tidy my room to save my life. I still struggle to keep everything in its place, but your article is a great reminder. Oh and I love the name “organizational homeostasis”.

  2. This was a lesson I had to learn the hard way as well. I grew up in a state of clutter, as did my mom (her parents were both hoarders), so it was generations lacking the knowledge that seems so simple.

    My house now is always fairly organized (not always as organized as I would like). But the reality is that if I make the effort to pick up daily, and put away right away, then do the major cleaning once a week my house remains fairly clutter free.

  3. I believe in everything having a place. I don’t keep a spotless house all the time, and I allow myself to be messier and cleaner from day to day, but when I want things in their place and put away, I can get there.

    Growing up, our house could never truly be cleaned because too many things had no set place. I felt pretty hopeless in that situation, and I don’t want to feel like that in the home I’m making for myself now. I either find a place for something if it’s important enough, or I get rid of it.

    I’m trying to adjust to living with a person who doesn’t share these feelings. He has WAY more stuff than I do, which wouldn’t bother me if it all had a place, but none of it does. Thinking about why he owns an object, how he uses it, and where it should go is torturous for him – he doesn’t get the same sense of calm and contentment I do when I assign permanent and logical places for things.

    It’s a VERY slow process, but we are creating places in our home for all his stuff by building shelves, drawers, and other storage. I’m trying to work with him to slooooowly assign logical places for things that he can still find things after I clean. For now, I live with more stuff out of place than I’d like and he has to appease my need for some kind of progress towards order.

    This was all so much easier when I lived on my own – I had my clean apartment and he had his messy one – and we were each only truly comfortable in our own space. But it’s a good challenge to try and create one space where two different people can both feel at home. I hope we figure it out one of these days.

    • Oh yes, in my slob days I lived with a roommate who was very organized and I drove her crazy. We’re still best friends, but decided we couldn’t be roommates. I’ll have to revisit organization if I ever live with someone again, but for now I’m relishing in finally creating an environment where I can feel comfortable and unashamed. Still working on that work desk thing, though…

      Best of luck to you as your partner try to figure out a balance that works for both of you!

    • You guys, Home Depot has plastic pegboard, it’s black, matte finish, and $5.50 ish per square (1’x1′)…I did a little area in my kitchen for $36 or so and got a multi-set of pegs and accessories, and now have a tea shelf, my pans hung up, and all my utensils arrayed for handy grabbing. Sooo worth it, and it doesn’t absorb paint, so no multiple coats, just pretty, easy to clean black plastic to wipe down. 🙂

  4. AHHHHH!!!!!! i LOVE this post!!!! for years i grew up with “a place for everything, and everything in it’s place” mantra being drilled into my head by my dad, which of course i completely rebelled against and my bedroom was a state of permanent chaos. until i left for college, that is, and it became imperative to my sanity to follow the mantra.

    fast forward 5 years later, and the challenge of living with my boyfriend presents itself. my desire to have everything neat and organized has INCREASED in the past few years, and especially since moving to NYC. the city is a crazy, chaotic place, and in order to maintain an internal sense of calm, i need order in my external environment (my home). this is complicated, because now i’m not just dealing with keeping my stuff neat, but also my boyfriend’s! he takes a much more lax approach to tidiness. but i think the hardest thing for me is getting him to let go of things that HAVE NO PURPOSE or even any sentimental value. like clothes that have been living in his closet untouched for years, magazines gone unread for months, and other random objects that he keeps around “just in case”. part of my organizational mantra involves getting rid of the clutter…when i lived by myself i was a total minimalist ha. any advice homies, on getting him to get rid of useless stuff (short of throwing it out while he’s sleeping!!!)??

    • Put it in a box and stash the box somewhere. You can even tell him you’re doing this. A few months later, point out how he hasn’t looked for or asked about anything in the box and ask if you can donate it. Hopefully, you’ll just get a “yeah sure.” Not being able to see the items prevents him from imaging all their potential usefulness. Also, you aren’t “throwing out” perfectly good things; you’re donating them. Possibly just to a recycling center, but still.

      • We inadvertantly did this when we moved. While “cleaning” to find space for the new baby, we realized we had boxes and boxes and boxes of JUNK and were so disgusted that we immediately did just as you suggest-went through it to determine what we actually NEEDED from the boxes, and threw/donate/sold the rest at a yard sale.

  5. I love this post! I live in a home where 3:4 of us have been diagnosed with ADHD. My youngest child struggles desperately with organization. Just as you said, she can organize something perfectly and actually really enjoys doing so, but within a couple hours it can once again look like a hurricane came through. She has a very creative mind and creates all sorts of story lines for the objects in her life. Giving things a “home” rather than just a place where they get put away just may take the task out of chore territory. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Love this post! I’ve recently come to that conclusion myself as I’ve been slogging through organizing my living space. Interestingly enough, for me, it was realizing how happy I was with how everything looked and was placed in my cubicle at work that made a lightbulb come on about the simple truth of finding a place for what I own. I carried this out last weekend to clean up my computer desk, bedside table and in making myself a new work table – and delightfully enough, a few days later, it still looks very crisp and organized. Next, to tackle the closets and the bookshelves…..that’ll take another couple weekends, I think, lol.

  7. Excellent post. This has always been my issue. I’d go to clean the house, and instantly feel defeated because I had no idea where to put things. And just recently I realized I should probably find a place to permanently store things. Not just temporary places like I was doing before.

    As part of that, I’m kind of creating permanent storage solutions near the places I tend to use specific items, so I have a higher chance of actually putting things back where they belong.

    It’s slow going, but it makes me feel a little bit more in control.

  8. Yes! I’m slowly and surely, trying to find places for things to “go” in my house. It’s all going well apart from one thing…

    Any tips for making my feather brained husband remember where these places are?

    • labels! It can look silly, but all the cabinets in my parents house are labeled. “Plates” “bowls” “big spoons” etc. Since my dad is only their on weekends, this really helps him avoid messing up my mom’s organization by putting things in the wrong place. No reason you can’t do this through out the house. Especially since you can by chalk or white board vinyl stickers on etsy, which would allow you to label baskets and drawers and then relabel them if you want to use them for something else later.

  9. Great post, Alissa!
    I, too, had a similar revelation about a year ago… but quickly realized that I forget about things if I can’t see them. (Like, I completely forgot that I wanted to learn paper quilling and that I had a quilling kit until I ran across it months after finding a place to store it.) Do you have this problem? Any ideas on how to combat it?

    • Oh, that’s exactly me! I was worried about forgetting stuff if I couldn’t see it. The problem was that I left EVERYTHING out so I couldn’t distinguish the stuff that actually had an action associated with it, thus I’d STILL forget.

      Right now I have one, small table that is kind of like an “inbox for stuff”. The only stuff on it is stuff that is actionable: mail this card, take this to work, return this to the store, put this in the car. It’s the only place I’m letting myself put stuff that is “homeless” because it’s in process or in transition. And since it’s a small table the stuff can’t get out of control.

      Also, to be blunt, if I wasn’t using it I got rid of it. I had a big ambition to re-learn piano, but the keyboard sat gathering dust. Craigslisted. I had piles of books I purchased intending to read but never did. Donated to the library. It may mean that I need to re-acquire something later, but that was much better than looking at things every day with a feeling that I “should” be using them. Yeah, it meant losing some money, but oh my the guilt of those things staring me in the face is *gone*. And it’s sooooo worth it. Right now, stuff is only coming into my home if it is intentionally going to be used now, not one day.

      Hope that helps!

      • That sounds all at once awesome and overwhelming, inspirational and daunting…
        I’m just gonna snuggle up with some hot chocolate and ‘Hoarders’ on Netflix and hope I feel like dealing with it tomorrow! 😉

    • I’m a list girl. I got a pretty white-board with a magnet on the back to stick on the fridge. At any given moment, it has to-do lists, shopping lists, don’t-forget lists… A total life-saver!

  10. I’m come close to attaining this in my home office, and the computer itself is very organized…but the rest of the house, not so much. I’ve come a long way, though. I used to be a ridiculous slob as a kid.

  11. The quote “it was only a matter of time — usually hours — before it looked like a disaster again,” really struck a cord with me. I understand how sad that can make a person feel.

    My goal for spring break (woo! last semester of uni) is to get the house clean. My long term goal is to keep it that way. I’m going to use this question to help me meet this goal. 😀

  12. Thank you for your definition, I think it will help my scientist husband and I find some middle ground. I function best with as little as possible and he wants everything he could possibly need handy.

    This morning I was thinking that I would pay someone to come in and help us organize our house together so we can keep it up together.

    Anyone have this job in Minneapolis?

  13. I just a few weeks ago realized that this was my problem as well- with an additional problem: I had no shelves or any way to use all the vertical space in my house. Its no wonder I couldn’t find room for all my books,papers, jewelry, etc.. so I made a wall storage thingy for my sewing room out of dollar store wire baskets, and scoured clearance sections and Goodwill for shelves. Matching set of mahogany shelves for 4 bucks? I think so.

  14. My problem is that while everything in our apartment has a place (this was easy to accomplish because we moved just a few months ago and *had* to organize all of our stuff), I have a crazy, irregular work schedule which means it’s impossible to set a specific time to clean, and it doesn’t help that I hate cleaning, even though I love how it feels to live in a clean space after you’re done.

    So everything has a place, but I can’t seem to regularly get off my butt to actually put it in its place. Right now I’m looking at my laptop case and thinking “that belongs in the second drawer down in our office” and a necklace on the desk – “that belongs on its hook over my jewelry shelf” – and other things – but I rarely actually get off my butt to put the stuff there.

    Sure, I can think it and then do it RIGHTNOW but the doing part is not something I naturally keep up with. The assigning of objects to homes within your home does not automatically mean you’ll start actually putting them away there regularly.

    That said, while the office is cluttered, it is possible to get it to a state of clean. Everything does have a place. A big goal for our new apartment was the living room – the old place was a big living room, entirely separate kitchen with unused, useless space, and tiny bedroom, Asian bathroom (which means a shower with no stall, so the whole floor gets wet). All of the office stuff, all of my jewelry and cosmetics, all of the towels, extra stuff like back-up toilet paper etc. everything that wasn’t the bed, our clothes and the nightstand, had to go in the living room. Even when clean it looked cluttered.

    Basically, the space we had was not conducive to assigning “homes” to our belongings, because we just had the big room, and there are only so many storage units you can put in a room before it looks ridiculous.

    Our new place has a smaller living room but a few more small rooms. Some people don’t like this – a large, open space would suit them. Not us. With some extra rooms that are *not* the living room, we can have a living room where ONLY the stuff we want there is there. The office stuff and Chinese study materials can go in the office – this is huge because we both do a lot of work from home so we have a lot of office supplies. My “girly stuff” is on a shelf in the guest room. There’s a closet for the extra bathroom stuff. The living room is *just* a living room with a dining area. It looks fantastic – like something out of a magazine!

    Having a space that facilitated putting stuff away in a way that suited us has made a huge difference, at least in that one room (and even in the office, it may be cluttered but it’s cluttered with office stuff. Huge difference that.)

  15. Ya know, I am somewhere in between a neat person and a messy person. I am certainly not a dirty person. I use to have this process. I would let whatever happened in my home happen for three days. Then I would take three hours and clean my house. Really clean it. Dust, scrub, the whole nine, every three days. And then… My mister moved in. And he… has no organizational skills and although he likes to “clean” he has no idea how to do it properly. He tries… hes just not good at it. He also works from home and cleaning is a very personal and private thing for me. I know that thats weird. But I prefer to do it alone. It has been a huge adjustment. It has been almost a year and I am just now working it out.

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