An answer to our most frequently asked organizational question

What if…?

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me some variation of the question: “What do I do if my spouse is a slob,” I’d be a rich woman indeed.

Sometimes the complaint is related to dirty dishes that never get put in the dishwasher, other times to laundry basket blindness. Occasionally it has to do with the detritus of hobbies or notebooks from high school piled up in the attic, unused, but somehow untossable.

Regardless of what (dis)organizational habits your spouse or roommate has, learning to co-exist with someone who doesn’t share your need for a buttoned up space can be tough.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of the wonderful writer and minimalist, Leo Babauta, about this topic. He’s the creator of one of my absolute, favorite blogs, Zen Habits, author of The Power of Less, and creator of Mnmlist. In addition to all that he’s married with six children, living in San Francisco.

So he knows a thing or two about cohabiting with others and still remaining Zen.

First off, I have to ask because you’re a man and all, what is it with guys not seeing the hamper?

Well…that’s sort of a loaded question! I’d have to say that it probably comes down to a matter of conditioning. Guys in general (and there are a lot of exceptions to this generalization!) they may not see the hamper as something important to them.

If their boxers and t-shirts litter the bedroom floor, it’s because it’s not a priority for them to get their clothes where you want them to be. It’s nothing personal, just a conditioned habit.

We all have these kinds of habits that we’ve built up over years and years. It’s easy for someone to say, “sure, I’ll change,” but because it’s so ingrained, it’s quite hard to change. A habit is definitely not something that changes overnight. It takes a lot of focus.

Now, putting my laundry away is a habit I have cultivated in myself because I don’t like having a messy house. So I tend to put things where they belong.

Okay, all kidding aside, is it possible to bring someone around on something as fundamental as an organizational habit?

It is possible. But the thing is, other people are always going to have their own priorities and desires. Imagine if someone came to you and told you that you needed to start standing on your head for an hour every day. And that wasn’t something that interested you. The harder the other person pushed you to stand on your head, the more you’d dig in and resist their call. Right?

You see, when you ask someone to be more organized in any area, you’re effectively imposing an outside priority on them. And they might or might not like that. They might resist the request because they didn’t decide that this was something they wanted to do themselves.

Instead of using that model, which is a recipe for disaster and frustration, I recommend doing the following.

Lead by example.
Do what you’re asking the other person to do yourself and talk about it with them. Show them what a great thing this change is for you, how it has helped you and made you happier. Show them how excited you are about making the change yourself.

Ask them for help
Another critical component is to get the other person to help you make the change. If they’re in on the decision-making, they might decide to join in. So, for example, if you wanted to declutter your house, rather than going and doing it yourself and eventually barking at your spouse, “You have too much stuff! You need to get rid of it!” you should get them in on the process from the very beginning. Don’t make it seem like you’re trying to change them, but that you just want their help in making your change. Share the blog posts you’ve been reading with them. Get them involved in the research, planning and speculating on how you’re going to make the change.

And what if after all of that, they still refuse the call?

Well, it’s important to realize that there are parts of your life that you can change and parts of your life that you can’t. That’s always going to be true. Even if you get this person on board, there is always going to be someone else down the road who doesn’t want to do what you are asking of them.

That’s just part of life. There are always going to be people that you can’t change. So you have to focus on the parts that you can. And the good news is, there are a lot of those!

So, for example, if you have a spouse that is a clutter-bug and you are trying to simplify, find ways to carve out a clutter-free space for yourself. I call it a zone defense. You keep a clutter-free space of your own where you don’t necessarily have to align with the other person’s values.

If you give someone space and time, sometimes they come around to your point of view. For example, I became a vegetarian but my wife, Eva was not. I can be pushy sometimes, but I didn’t force her to adopt my approach. I’d ask her if she wanted to try my tofu sometimes, and eventually she did and came to like it. Now she’s a vegetarian too.

I gave her the space and time and she came to it on her own.

And what about your kids? Are they on the minimalist bandwagon with you?

Not as much. One thing we do is try to give them their space in their rooms where they can have what they want. But they are open to the concept of reducing clutter. Let’s say a birthday or a holiday like Christmas is coming up. We’ll say, “Where are you going to put all your new stuff? You might want to make some space.” And they agree. They’re okay getting rid of stuff they don’t play with or haven’t used in a long time.

One thing we have sold them on is not needing to get toys and “stuff gifts” on Christmas and birthdays. We give them experience gifts instead, which they love.

That’s great. But how did you start the conversation with your kids?

That’s a tough one. But I will say that the kids usually bring up the opportunities. They’ll say something like, “Oh, let’s go buy this!” It’s usually a toy they’ve seen. And that statement is an opportunity to start talking about it.

The key is not to have a canned lecture, but to ask questions that will encourage them to think about it. Examples might be:
– What happened to the last toy you bought? Isn’t is sitting in a heap in your closet now?
– Where does the money come from to buy this product you want so badly?
– How long do we have to work to earn the money for it? Is that how we want to spend our time?

Another thing that works is simply taking them outside where you don’t need anything. Outside you can use your imagination, make up games and bring to life the point that you don’t need stuff to have fun.

And with kids, you don’t have to have the answer. Just wondering aloud in their presence is pretty powerful. It gets them in the habit of thinking things through by themselves, rather than relying on you to hand down the answers in some lecture.

Don’t be afraid to start a dialogue that’s open ended. Explore it together as a family.

Wise words, indeed. Thank you, Leo.

Have you ever tried to get your roommate, significant other, or spouse to change their disorganized ways? If so, what worked? What didn’t? Share the wisdom of your experience with all of us!