I get a lot of calls from frustrated family members. Often it's someone who wants me to come into their home or business and "fix" their spouse, partner or another loved one. For the record, it's about equal parts wife vs. husband vs. adult child (disorganization is most certainly an equal opportunity problem). It can be dangerous territory to tread, because emotions typically run very high when a person who loves completely clear countertops and desk surfaces lives with someone else who feels having lots of knickknacks around is cozy and comforting. Parents of children sigh, "I bought him color-coded toy bins, so why won't he use them?"
One person's junk is another's treasure, and so on...
Alas, most all of us have to learn to live with other people. In the spirit of the "you can lead a horse to water" school of home organization, I'm offering three pieces of advice for dealing with someone you love who is clutter-challenged:
1. Keep the anger in check. I do not recommend going into your loved one's closet, garage, workshop, office, kitchen, etc., when they are not around and starting to pitch everything in a fit of fury. This approach is a recipe for disaster and deep resentment. I had a potential client call me and get pretty heated because I would not agree to come to her home while her husband was on a business trip and "get rid of everything" in the basement. She had pretty much had it (perhaps with good reason), but after some more discussion I realized that many of the items that bothered her were things that he actually used for business purposes. Perhaps they weren't arranged or stored properly, but throwing them out was clearly not the answer. While she might get some immediate satisfaction from the initial purge, it wouldn't fix the underlying problem (and might well make it worse). If the items in question are interfering in your life in negative ways, take a deep breath, cool down, and then...
2. Have a calm conversation. It's possible that the disorganized person in your life doesn't realize how much the situation bothers you. Do a little homework beforehand so that you can present some clear and reasonable facts about why the clutter is affecting your lives negatively. Money talks. Are you misplacing important paperwork like bills and tax backup (think late fees and lost time)? Have you replaced something expensive (camera, watch, smartphone) you thought you'd lost, only to find it later? How much money is tied up in "collections" that were going to be worth something someday (like those baseball cards, Madame Alexander dolls and Beanie Babies)?
If the money doesn't get their attention, perhaps pointing out the excess stress will. When you're trying to get your kids out the door to the pool and no one can find their goggles, and no one ran the towels through the wash, and there's no gas in the car, and you're all late,...doesn't everyone feel the intensity of the situation? Wouldn't it be nice to just gather what you need, walk out the door, and enjoy the afternoon? Having a family meeting about clutter and disorganization can open up lots of possibilities, like talking about responsibility, delegation and time management. It's also possible that some family members would secretly like to have a more organized existence, but they just don't have the skills or tools - so offer to help and give them some direction.
3. Create some zones. Draw some boundaries with regard to the areas of your home that are more or less your territory. Any home, no matter the size, should have some spots where the people who live there can claim a little space. It can be a reading corner, or a desk, or a man cave. Explain (nicely) that certain areas should be kept clutter-free and under control. If you have a spot where you work, and your children have their own spot for homework, there's no need for them to be messing around your desk. If you have a workspace in the garage, there no need for a spouse to come and cover it up with the magazines they can't bring themselves to get rid of. Understand that this agreement works both ways - if they can't mess with your space, you can't tell them how to keep theirs. Sometimes that's hard, but a deal has to be a deal. Common living areas need to be worked out together (see "family meeting" above), and as always, communication is really important.
Certainly these aren't the only possibilities, but I believe the resolution usually lies in the attitude you take towards the problem. You need solid communication, a little compromise and some patience to get some new habits going. Have you recently worked through an organizing issue with a family member? Share what you did in the comments, and we can all learn and benefit...
*This post is not meant to address organizing issues related to true hoarding situations. If you suspect a family member of hoarding, you can find resources to help from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, http://challengingdisorganization.org/
Sara Skillen - Certified Professional Organizer®, Certified Organizer Coach®, wife, mom, and serial list-maker. Learning to trust my intuition more every day. Shall we work together?