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Advice for living with a disorganized person

Whenever I give a seminar on home organizing someone inevitably asks the question,

How do you live with someone who seems to be incapable of staying organized?

If your standards of cleanliness and organization are higher than those of the people you live with, I feel your pain.

Having obsessive organizing tendencies can be helpful. But living peacefully with others is not one of the perks of this personality. We often get upset with the disorganized person we live with. And on top of that, they often resent us for being upset with them! It’s not fun.

Basically it feels like our choices are to either clean up after everyone and feel the resentment rising like a thermometer, or live in squalor feeling anxious and antsy.

How do you feel?

Luckily, those are not our only choices. It’s up to us to train ourselves to re-frame our situation — to think about things a little differently.

Notice how both of the negative choices I just mentioned have the word “feel” in them? We feel the resentment and we feel antsy living in clutter.

The trick here is to work toward changing our feelings, which is hard, but totally within our control. On the other hand, whether or not the adult we live with picks up after themselves is decidedly NOT within our control. So, logically it’s best to stop obsessing over their habits and start working on our own thought-life.

In this video I talk about the idea that a disorganized person has left things askew out of disrespect for me and my organizing system. Surely they have left a mess because they know that I will come along and clean up after them! How rude!

This is hardly ever true. The truth is, they don’t even see the mess we see! Little imperfections are not on their radar at all and it has nothing to do with us.
Let me say that again.

It has nothing to do with us.

If you can remember that is has nothing to do with you, you’ll have a much easier time curbing your resentment and frustration about a disorganized person and their mess.

I remember living with a very disorganized person and being completely aghast at how they could leave the kitchen and bedroom drawers open (or even just cracked) after they were done retrieving things.

messy sewing area

My strategy

First I thought I’d be Super Roommate and close all the drawers for them. Won’t they be pleased and so thankful? I thought to myself as I closed the drawers every day.

Then I started to get bugged because they weren’t pleased or thankful. In fact, they didn’t even notice. For WEEKS they didn’t notice.

Next I started to believe they were messing with me. They were used to my straightening things up so I assumed they must be leaving them askew just to piss me off! They must be. Right?!


So, now when I see something trivial that upsets my aesthetic and I am compulsively drawn to fix it, I fix it. But I fix it without the backstory because SHOCKER There is no backstory! No one hates me. No one is tricking me by leaving their towel hung up backwards. No one is taking my help for granted.

A disorganized person has a different standard or a different system and that is okay.

If you have already mastered the art of tidying up after those you live with without resentment or spite, now it’s time to move on to leaving others’ mess alone.

But that requires some advanced therapy and will have to wait for another day.

For now try to stop yourself from doing anything out of spite — even just a millisecond adjustment done in anger is a waste of your energy. Instead take a deep breath, remind yourself it has nothing to do with you, and ask yourself if you can live with it the way it is. If you can, great. You move on. If you cannot, that is okay. You are not weird. You greatly prefer order. So, put the object in order for yourself — for your own peace of mind — and enjoy the result.

Thanks so much for reading and for trying to understand what makes our housemates tick. Hopefully they will do the same for us!



More reading

Fun, personal essay about living with and loving someone who loses everything:
Trying Our Best

Some ideas about getting your partner to help with housework:
Captain America does my laundry: 5 tips for your Honey Do List

And finally:

Can a Professional Organizer Fix Your DOOM Piles?