How a packrat and a minimalist compromised in organizing

Guest post by Sharon Wilks
minimalist-house-3 © by hahatango, used under Creative Commons license.

What happens when a minimalist mom living in a small trendy downtown apartment meets a country boy packrat? Well, if it was a sitcom, hilarity would ensue. Reality? A little stressful. After the initial shock of overstuffed closets, clothes that dated back to high school, and a kitchen bar that doubled as a paperwork graveyard wore off, I vowed to get our family’s things ship shape and charged full speed into the attack.
That didn’t work.

Helping someone get organized who had lived on his own and on his own terms for quite some time was like trying to get a small child to eat vegetables… lots of digging in of heels. So how did I do it?

I started with the bar of paperwork

I had to come to grips with the fact that my new husband is a fan of paper and extremely visual.

He hasn’t quite grasped the digital age so I needed to find solutions for paper: I bought letter trays and an inclined file organizer and set about clearing off the counter. He realized he could still see the paperwork, coupons, brochures etc., which gave him the security of everything at his fingertips and in view AND gave us back the counter — while alleviating my fear that we may be featured on that hoarder TV show.

Currently I am tackling more paperwork that has overrun the desk. A good old fashioned file cabinet should fit the bill. Soon a file cabinet is going to appear with everything neatly labeled. This will happen on his overnight shift with me working like a thief in the night or an organization fairy…only without a pink tutu.  

Next up was the mountain of clothes

Rather than chastising or poking fun, I simply pointed out that I normally donated our gently used stuff to a shelter nearby and was planning a trip soon. The subtle technique must have worked because before too long I had a pile of clothes to add to my donation bag. 

And then, the ongoing little things…

As we’ve gotten accustomed to each other, I’ve learned more about dealing with my new packrat.

  1. We routinely go through paperwork and items that accumulate on counter tops, kitchen tables, coffee tables and side tables. Throw away anything that is not needed anymore and file the items that are.
  2. Do a closet check every six months for donatable items. Good rule of thumb? If you haven’t worn it in six months you probably aren’t going to. When you buy something, donate something. Keeps the closet from getting out of control.
  3. Photos laying around? Use an online service (I use Flickr) and upload them, pack them up and store them sealed. Or if you are really brave and really minimal you could throw them away. I had to go with the baby step version of storing them nicely in a tote. Bonus? Since they are stored online and in the cloud, they are easier to share. 
  4. And speaking of photos, rather than having endless picture frames on the wall of kids’ school pictures or artwork, you can purchase a digital picture frame and have a rotating gallery all in one frame. They will hold up much better than the paper version over time.

As with anything, dealing with your packrat is a work in progress and the path to organization is best tread lightly. But IT CAN BE DONE! With patience, some subtle technique, good ideas, good intentions, and love, you can have the more-minimalist home you are more comfortable in.
Now on to the garage.

Anyone living with packrats want to offer their tips for learning to compromise?

Comments on How a packrat and a minimalist compromised in organizing

  1. I am going to take these tips and use them for us 2 pack rats trying to make it work. Sometimes it stinks that neither of us is naturally organized….

  2. -Patience and communication are key! I was angry a lot when we first got married – never at him, but at the stuff. The thing is, he didn’t have a clue because I didn’t talk about it. One quick, easy conversation opened an on-going dialogue about things much bigger than “stuff”.

    -He is a couple years younger than myself. This means that while I have lived on my own for a number of years prior to our marriage, he lived at home then went to college and moved between a series of co-ops. No real world experience, so to speak. He really thought that he had to keep EVERY credit card statement he had ever received, just in case. And his seven year old statements are nice and organized, but then there was no room for the last two years, so those are in a pile on the floor. A bit of gentle education about what paperwork is important to have access to, and what you can shred has helped a lot here.

    -My husband has his own office in our house. ALL the things he likes to keep for reasons I don’t understand eventually land there.

    -The clothing though, I can’t break thru that one. He has clothing that is well over a decade old. The peculiar thing is that his old pants fit him again due to recent toning, but he now refuses to get rid of the pants that are too big. Just in case…

    For all his mess, I love my husband dearly. It took awhile to not want to just pack it all into garbage bags and get rid of it secretly, but we’re making headway. He is slowly working thru boxes of old stuff that he recognizes is actual garbage that he packed hastily years ago, and I am adjusting my organizational methods to better meet his needs. And his love of things makes me even more aware of the things that I personally need to get rid of or organize.

    • The paperwork thing may be a case of mis-information. When I first got a bank account in my name I was told by multiple adults that it was very important to keep all my statements and any other correspondance specific to my finances “just in case”.

      It wasn’t until years later when I complained about not having space for them that anyone bothered to tell me that wasn’t strictly true. Even then it was amended to “you should ideally have 10 years worth, most people have about 7”.

      These days I keep stuff going back about 5 years, made considerably easier because as soon as my bank offered them I switched to paperless statements so it’s only really important stuff they send me.

  3. We’re a couple of pack rats, so this might be helpful. I have craft supplies all over, he has origami everywhere. We just went through our clothes and donated a bunch, packed away winter clothes. We’re even getting rid of some drawers because we found a better replacement. IN days past I would have kept both!

  4. I offered to frame a piece of his 1980’s Star Wars pillowcase, and he agreed to let me get rid of the comforter, case and sheets that had been sitting in our closet for years.

  5. I’m happy you and your husband found something that works for you. However, I’m a bit disappointed by the title of this piece because I was wanting to hear about compromise and this is more about one party encouraging another party to change.

    • Stacy, I definitely get what you’re saying here. As the more organized person in the relationship, I really (and I mean REALLY) struggle with how to handle my beloved packrat because it feels like EVERY solution or suggestion is just what you said – me encouraging him to change. It seems to him that as the more organized person, I don’t have to make any changes to live with him. But this really isn’t the case. I know that living in a home less organized than I would like, getting things cleaned up and accomplished on a much slower timeline than I would like, looking for the value he sees in many objects I consider worthless, and accepting the things he chooses to keep even when I have wracked my brain and can STILL see no worth in them are all compromises. They have all been difficult for me to make, but they have been good for my relationship.

      At some point, though, I have to point out that his packrattitude, if left to run rampant, makes it impossible for me to enjoy our home, while a reasonable (note: not obsessive or compulsive) amount of organization and cleanliness doesn’t harm him any. Compromise for us means we have more THINGS than I would have alone and less than he would have on his own, and it means we organize the THINGS so that they are not in my way but they are easily accessible for him to enjoy. That is not an easy balance to strike, but it’s something good to aim for.

      I would love to hear others’ ideas on how to approach a packrat partner lovingly and how to make them feel they aren’t being attacked or forced to change.

      • I agree with both Stacy and Jenna. Husband and I organise things quite different, and it’s not consistent across parts of the house (he folds his not-quite-dirty-yet clothes while I dump them on the floor. I pile all my paper work, while he spreads it across the desk).

        Things that either of us feel strongly about are points of change. Seeing paperwork sprawled across my work area makes me anxious and stops me from being productive. Keeping the clothes in order is one of his points.

        So I suppose the crux of it is *how* much of a problem is it and talk talk talk about it. I think Jenna met her partner half way, but it *looks* like more change for him rather than her. I hope he’ll see the benefits of laying off pack-rat tendancies quite so much.

      • I think this is a good conversation. I tend towards the packrat end of the spectrum and am very uncomfortable in super organized or minimalist spaces for extended periods of time. I do not feel like I have an unhealthy attachment to things, as I tend to be able to donate/toss if need/want be. I have been in situations where I felt pressured to completely change my living style to please the other person. That was very unpleasant. However, I have also been in relationships that were based on a mutual give and take. We were aware of our differences and discussed our needs and wants before moving in, along with a viable plan to keep track of how well we were melding.

      • As a packrat and messy person who lives with a very neat, tidy, minimalist boy, I’d say that the most important thing is to pick your battles and find solutions that work for both of you. I notice that you point out that the paper solution works for BOTH of you – he can still see all of the stuff like he wants to, but the space is also cleaner and more organized. When this can happen, it’s great. When my boyfriend finds these kinds of solutions, I’m happy, he’s happy, nobody feels attacked.

        Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work like that. For example, I need to keep my vitamins in a very visible spot on the counter in the kitchen, or i forget to take them. This bothers his minimalist sensibilities, and he keeps saying, “can’t you just keep them somewhere else? This looks so messy.” Sometimes, he’ll just put them in a cabinet without asking me.

        Similarly, I do a lot of yoga, and I like to keep my props and mat in a tidy stack next to the place where I do yoga. I can put them “away” in their stack every time. He wants me to put all the props up in the closet every day, and get them out again the next day or whenever I want to use them. This doesn’t make sense to me, it feels inconvenient and silly.

        Those are the kinds of things that he views as sensible, reasonable requests, things he feels I should be happy to do as they would make the space cleaner and I’ve already told him that I usually like a cleaner space, but they aren’t good solutions that make everyone happy. They’re things that raise the space’s livability for him but, at the same time, decrease its livability for me.

        Because the tidier person usually views him or herself as the person with the “right” point of view, it’s really important for that person to make sure to really listen to the messier partner’s concerns and completely, non-irritably back off when a minimal solution really won’t work. After all, there are probably twenty ways that the packrat is consistently modifying his life to make the space hospitable for you – you can afford to consciously do a few for him.

        • Maybe something you could try that might work for you: a fancy bottle for your vitamins or a basket to corral them so they don’t visually “read” as clutter? Maybe an umbrella stand could accommodate your need to leave the yoga stuff piled in the hall, while keeping them from appearing untidy? I sympathize…it’s just me and the dog, but, while I prefer to come home to a magazine ready, gloriously decorated and clean space, I work long hours and tend to have too much “stuff”. So I cheat the system; I get inventive with where I place things, and make sure that everything I need to function also has a pleasing form for the eye to rest on. Vitamins go in a cute (tinted!) glass decorative bottle, or get priority in the med. cabinet. I’m rarely sick, so medicines actually go in a bin in the closet. It just works better for me that way. If an umbrella stand won’t work, those wooden cubby style cabinets hide a multitude of sins, and you can always use furniture for a different purpose than it was intended for…I currently have a double coat hook by the bed for my tablet to rest on (and easel for watching shows!), a fancy curtain rod holding my necklaces, and curios hung to house my sunglasses.

    • I had the same impression– I’m a bit of pack rat, and I don’t really want to change that– minimalist design/everything being in order makes me uncomfortable in a home space. I can understand, as Kathryn said, picking the things that really bother you, and that might actually be what this story is about (“I don’t mind your packrattishness, but the piles of clothes and papers are really bugging me”) But the piece read more as a “trying to turn my packrat into an organized minimalist” rather than “learning how to bend some of my standards, since I’m asking him to bend some of his”. I’m not saying that’s not happening in this relationship, I just would have liked to see more of that come across.

  6. My man and I have got a pretty similar sitch.. he’s more the ‘wait til it gets unbearable and/or smelly’ and I’m more of a ‘do a little every day’ cleaning personality. It’s hard for me to not get a little resentful of, what I think of as, the chaos. And I know he feels that sometimes I’m a total nag.. it sucks and can totally bring a relationship down! Ive decided to pick a couple things that are really important and compromise, letting some of the other stuff go.

  7. Living with a partner who is more clutter-prone than I am, I’ve found it helpful to just let certain spaces go. As long as I can find what I need, it’s okay if his desk is piled high with random stuff (that I set there if it gets left elsewhere) or the basement holds all sorts of stuff that I find unnecessary.

  8. As a packrat, I know I have to keep an eye on the way my things pile up. I try to go through my belongings every six months or so. I know some people don’t like the idea of one person changing another, but being a packrat is not a good thing. Having someone gently prodding me to keep on top of my mess is really helpful. Not all packrats realize they have a problem, and those people end up on hoarders with dead cats underneath their piles of garbage. If you love a packrat, helping them stay organized is the best thing you can do for them. Most true packrats cannot and will not change, but they can keep their lives under control with a little help.

  9. My hubby and i are both bad packrats (i am getting better). One problem is old clothes. We bought a large plastic storage container and put all of our must keeps in there( concert t’s, football jerseys, etc). If it stays it has to fit in there, if it doesnt fit something must go. Small steps for us…

  10. I’m a packrat in most ways, and I think the original poster has it right on the money here – by offering solutions and help to the packrat. The one thing that will guarantee I hoard everything like a hamster stuffing its cheeks is if someone tries to push me into throwing too much away!

  11. Haha, that’s exactly the same reason why my clothes all sit in a pile on the floor in front of my dresser instead of actually in my dresser. I try really hard sometimes to get organized and put all of them away, but they all migrate back to the floor again. Thankfully, my husband is fairly tolerant of this behavior, and just mounds them up when they start encroaching on other parts of the room.

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