I'm A Totally Obsessive Neat Freak, And Here Are Some Expert Tips On How You Can Be One Too

Clutter is nothing more than a series of deferred decisions.
Publish date:
November 7, 2013
organize, closet, neat

I’ve always been organized. Maybe it’s something I learned from my mother or it’s a sensibility that developed on its own, but somehow being neat and clutter-free comes somewhat naturally. And when I try to go against this, try to buy into whatever the new study says about the link between a messy desk and creativity or whatever, it’s a hopeless effort -- comically so -- and such a waste of mind energy.

Like in high school, when I tried to rock with the messy-book-carrying look. It was an all-girls Catholic school -- let’s put that out there right now -- and ninth-graders were regularly walking the halls gripping their books against them as if they had just run out of a burning building, grabbing whatever the could. My foray into the sloppy-stacks thing lasted a week.

I couldn’t properly answer the question, “But why, though?” And even back then as a teenager -- when it was basically required to do things just because -- it felt like an absurd use of my time. It actually took a minute to “organize” the books to look a mess.

When it comes my closets and the rooms in my house, I follow the same logic: Why have things looking a wreck? How’s it helping me? So I keep it neat around here, or as much as I can with a 4.5-year-old boy child being a 4.5-year-old boy child. (The LEGOs just look better on the floor, according to that guy.) It’s not a museum or boutique, but all the things do have a place and they go back to their rightful slots when not in use. It’s easy to fold up the throw I was just snuggled under, and drape it over the sofa’s back again. It seems sensible to put my sweater back on the closet shelf with others just like it. Why fling the thing on the floor instead? Again, no legit answer there.

The point is I simply function better, optimally, when there’s a sense of order.

I can always find a pen or the plumber’s biz card or a pair of scissors because they are all in the same top drawer in the kitchen. My keys are where they always are: in the wood caddy near the door. Yoga mat? Cupboard in the mudroom next to all the other sporty stuff. White cotton tank? No problem. Second dresser drawer right side, with all the white tanks and t-shirts. Freelancer receipts? Cake. Those are in that cheap, but cute purple accordion mini file, divvyed up into the same categories I use on my Excel spreadsheet come tax season. No time wasted rummaging or spinning in circles retracing my steps trying to find something.

Aside from a few “neat freak” jokes from my older sister, my close circle appreciates that this is how I do. And I know that neatness isn’t knee-jerk for everyone; I pass no judgments on those trying to curb the chaos and the clutter and get their shit together, grown woman style.

One of my good friends -- we’ll call her Betty -- asked me to come by her apartment to help with organizing her hostile closet. I couldn’t make it out there, but it made me think about how to help from afar. You know, something more substantial than sending her links from Real Simple magazine.

This is when I called up Andrew Mellen, an organizational expert and the author of Unstuff Your Life. The thing I like most about Mellen is his straight-no-chaser take on getting organized. He’s not bringing any fluffy tips or easy tricks for cleaning up clutter. “It’s not Hints from Heloise," Mellen says. “I’m talking about the fundamentals of getting and staying organized. It doesn’t get any simpler.”

He calls the mental shift from messy to neat The Organizational Triangle, and the three elements involved are:

1. One Home For Everything: For example, your keys and only your keys go in a dish at the door. “Either the keys are in your hand or they are in their dish home,” Mellen says.

2. Like With Like: Bringing like items together helps you see the volume of stuff you have. “You’ll literally see that you own five pairs of scissors or 14 red cashmere sweaters,” he says. You start thinking: Actually, I only really wear three of those sweaters. Or, what the hell do I need five pairs of scissors for?! And you’ll see the immediate need to get rid of the extras.

3. Something In, Something Out: “You’re replacing, upgrading, swapping -- whatever you want to call it,” Mellen says. “But you’re no longer bringing home random things just because they are pretty or shiny or cheap or a bargain.”

Clutter is nothing more than a series of deferred decisions. That ratty chair in the corner that you keep promising to get fixed -- are you holding on to it because it was the first thing you bought for yourself out of college? “Then schedule an appointment to get it reupholstered,” Mellen says. “Make it an action item and do it -- or let it go. Get out of limbo and get rid of it.”

He gives the same advice for the super-fab thing that’s forever hanging in the back of your closet because you never wear it. Chuck it already. And don’t bother starting your story about the crazy money you spent or saved on it. Mellen has heard it all before and he’s not here for it. “It’s not the last sale item you’ll ever buy. There will be more bargains! And, hopefully, it won’t be the last splurge either.” Donate it. Hit up a consignment store with it. Sell it on eBay. Either way, time to let the thing go.

For the organizational expert, it boils down to asking yourself one question: “What do I want to spend my time doing?” It’s not cleaning. It’s not dragging around excuses for why your room/desk/closet/home is a mess. It’s probably something fun, meaningful and important. The clutter, it’s standing between you and that thing you’d rather be doing. So get rid of it and get on with real life.