Mr. Messy and Mrs. Clean: A Love Story

Gerhard jokes about being messy. One of the stories that he allows me to tell is that when he was living at home, he shared a room with a brother who was always extremely tidy. To this day, this brother always has his bed made, his clothes folded in little squares, and allows for no clutter. You could have drawn a line between the two sides of the room these brothers shared, the difference was so obvious. When Gerhard moved out, the other brother carefully cleaned and sterilized Gerhard’s half of the room.

I knew what I was getting into when I married Gerhard. He knew, likewise, that I liked to be neat and tidy. Gerhard has told me that he does not care to organize things, but he does not mind following an already organized system. So we devised a plan that has worked for us really well, so far: I have my fun organizing the home, with Gerhard’s input, and we both make small adjustments here and there as time goes on.

What does our home look like?

At the moment, there are messy sheets on the futon, cereal strewn under the table, toys here and there, and Gerhard’s inner tubes for his bike in a pile in the hallway. No, our house is not immaculate. But it is usually tidy and pretty clean. And I do not go crazy because I have a husband who is naturally messy and not to mention two destructive toddlers.

Think Like a Kindergarten Teacher

Some of the best organizational advice that I ever received was from the Seana method: “think like a Kindergarten teacher.” You can also see images of the Seana organizing methods on Pinterest.

This is how I have applied the method to my own home:

1. Everything has its place

Our home gets messy when things do not have an obvious place to go. Maybe the floor never gets swept because the broom is awkward to get to. Every object should have a “home” and all groups of objects should have a designated area. For example, towels are in the linen closet, and so are all other “cloth things” used around the house: wash cloths, table cloths, rags for cleaning.

Things that are usually left lying around and that need a “home”: cell phones and cords, mail, urgent papers, paper clips and pens, scissors, books we are currently reading, journals, newspapers, kids art, thank you cards received. You can come up with some creative ideas as to where these things can go, be it a drawer or a box in your kitchen. Just make sure that that drawer or box is also organized so that things are easy to find and access.


2. Make frequently used items easy to access

Something frequently used is something that is used every day. Examples include this season’s wardrobe, books you are currently reading, utensils and plates, shoes and this season’s coat. Something is easy to access when it only takes one step or less to get at it (eg. by opening a door or drawer without needing a stool or having to bend over). Easy to access also implies that the object is kept near where it is used. This is the reason why we usually find utensils in the same place in most people’s houses—the top drawer. And coats are on a hook near the door. So are shoes. In other words, try to put frequently used items in the most obvious place they could be.

As for cleaning products, they should also be easy to access. I don’t think I’m the only one who sometimes finds cleaning a drudgery, so if you at least have the vacuum in an easy place to reach (no obstacle course) it might induce you to vacuum more. The same goes for the broom (keep it in the kitchen) and cleaning supplies (beneath the sink).

3. Make infrequently used items easy to find

We have a small front closet, so every season we do a coat reshuffle—this season’s coats go in the front closet near the door, and last season’s coats go in the storage closet. We also do a reshuffle with our clothing. Clothes that we won’t wear this season get put into bins and get placed in the storage closet. This simplifying of what we have on hand reduces the stress of those panic moments when we “have” to find something in a hurry.

What we are still working on: all my husband’s sports gear! He has so much of it that I have to put it in different bins. What ends up happening is that I forget how I’ve conquered and divided it all. For example, he spent two weeks looking for his cycling cap, whoops.


4. Your whole place can be tidied up in 5 min or less.

I love this principle. I came across it from my mother. I don’t think anyone likes cleanup, so the less there is the better. For us, a quick cleanup means less toys. I put a few toys out and I hide the rest and rotate them, a trick my mother used with us growing up. She would have bins in the basement labelled “lego,” “animals,” “Playmobil,” and so on. Once we had cleaned up our toys, we could exchange one bin for another. This allowed less of a mess for my parents, and more motivation on our part to clean up.

When everything has its place, everything can be cleaned up quickly. Only the frequently used items are out, the rest is hidden away. And things can be cleaned up quickly when everyone is on the same page as to where things should go.

Watch and Observe

Once you have designed your organizational strategy, watch and observe how your family follows through. Watch your own actions. Here are some adjustments I’ve made to our place since we moved in:

Problem: The toddlers are constantly knocking books off the shelf

New solution: We have two large bookshelves packed with books since Gerhard and I are both big readers. We like to have these books on display and in easy access. To stop having the books damaged by our boys, I moved the more delicate books to higher shelves and the cheaper books to the lower shelves. I put heavy books that are hard to move on the very bottom of one shelf. My mother-in-law suggests packing in the books so tightly that the kids cannot pull them out. On the next shelf up, I removed our books and put the boys’ books there. Now when they go to the shelf, I teach them to pull out their own books, not “Daddy’s books” (because they are mostly Gerhard’s). Now my older toddler teaches my younger one when he goes to reach for the adult books, “Uh oh, no no, Daddy’s book!”

Problem: Clothes everywhere

New solution: We usually get changed in the bedroom, and I noted that clothes usually ends up on the floor. So I put two bins at the end of our bed. A dark bin for darks, and a white bin for lights. Gerhard is usually in a rush in the morning, and when he is in a rush, he rummages through drawers, pulls things out, and pushes things back in (unfolded). My solution was to hang most of his clothes, including sweaters. Above his hanging clothing are three bins: sports t-shirts, undershirts, and socks and underwear. Even if he rummages through his bins, they always look tidy from the outside.

Problem: Things Accumulating on the table (or counter)

New solution: I used to have a shelf that collected clutter, so I moved it to a different part of the house. Now only the kitchen table can get cluttered, so either or I or Gerhard clear it off before we eat. If we’re in a rush, we have something called the “everything box”; a place where we put unopened letters or important documents that need to be addressed in the near future.


encouraging your husband (or messy significant other) to tidy up

I think the trick is to make cleaning so easy and obvious that the messy partner does not feel like it will take a lot of time. You can help build the habit of where things go by cleaning up after your partner and putting the object where it should be. I find this trick helps because when my husband learns that his headphones are always in the “everything box” or that his cycling shorts are always in the bottom drawer, he starts putting them there himself. The point is to be consistent as to where things can be found.

Also consider: if you’ve organized the house, it is “your system of order” that might make a lot of sense to you, but not to your other family members. I find it really helpful to tell my husband my plans for how I’m going to organize especially his items and to get him on board, or to allow him to modify. I tell him, “Does this work for you to put your cycling shoes here?” If he answers yes, then great, if no, then that’s great too—I can save myself the trouble of fighting him to put them away. I ask him where he would prefer them to be. By working it out together “my/your system of order” becomes “our system of order” that we work on together and that we both have agreed upon.

Tidying Up Days

Another strategy for getting others to help tidy up is to create a tidying up schedule. For us, we tidy up the boys’ play things in the evening. Now if I don’t get around to doing it, Gerhard will do it. It’s become a family habit.

We’ve also agreed that on Saturdays, we do some chores. I usually go about it in this way: Friday night I ask Gerhard about his Saturday plans and tell him I would like to tidy and clean. We agree to what else we would like to do and how the day should go. Saturday morning, he is prepared to do some tidying and cleaning. He asks me about it. If he forgets, I remind him. It doesn’t come as a surprise to him, because we spoke about the night before. I make up a (short) list of what needs to be done and we choose different tasks. Everything gets finished in a short amount of time--and no arguments!


I recommend this book, Confessions of an Organized Homemaker, which consequently both my mother and mother-in-law have on their bookshelves. It contains some great charts that help with organizing and cleaning.

Do you have any advice for managing messy kids or working with a messy husband/significant other? Let me know!