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Get Your Housemates On Board The Simplification Train

As Published In Professional Organizers Blog Carnival
Get Your Housemates On Board The Simplification Train

I have a client who is trying to simplify her life, and she would be succeeding at it beautifully, if it weren’t for her family! Sometimes, it can seem like your housemates are hell-bent on making your life more complicated — bringing in tons of unnecessary clutter, expecting you to pick up after them, and creating chaos in your schedule. For a simplicity strategy to really work, the whole team has to be on board.

Learn Where To Draw The Line

Clients often ask me what they can do to “make” their loved ones join in on their simplifying efforts. The cold hard truth is that you can’t MAKE another person act differently if they don’t want to. You can only create positive incentives (rewards) that encourage certain behaviors, and/or negative incentives (punishments) to discourage others. Whether these incentives work or not depends a great deal on how consistently you apply them — and this is especially true for negative incentives. It’s fairly obvious, but I’m amazed at the number of people who overlook this phenomenon in their own lives — creating rules and making threats over and over and over again (without ever following through) will achieve the  exact opposite of the desired effect. Your family members are going to realize pretty quickly that they can do whatever they want without experiencing any negative consequences.

When this happens, don’t get mad at your spouse and kids — you’ve trained them to behave in this way, and you have to be the one to draw the line! If you want your family to take responsibility for themselves, you must STOP doing everything for them. Of course, I’m not suggesting that someone with an infant leave it unfed and crying with a dirty diaper — but if your people are old enough to be picking up after themselves and managing their own schedules, let them! The only reason they rely so heavily on you is that they have gotten into the habit of EXPECTING you to handle all of life’s little details for them. If you weren’t around, they would have to take responsibility. So why can’t they do it with you there?

Getting Serious About Your Boundaries

Sometimes a radical shift in perception is required to make a point — if you really feel that you are being “taken advantage of” by your family, consider going on strike. One of my clients (who felt as though she had been turned into a housekeeper and chauffeur by her husband and teenage son) did this with amazing results. She decided that, for one month, she was going to focus on herself — and told her family that she was taking a “sabbatical” from her job as mom. She stopped doing everyone else’s laundry, cleaning up their messes, reminding them of to-dos that needed completed, arranging transportation, and cooking their meals. She explained that she would be in her office, writing for most of the day — and that while her door was shut, she wasn’t to be disturbed. This might sound harsh, but why shouldn’t a 45-year-old and a 17-year-old be capable of caring for themselves without “mom’s” help?

To make a long story short, the drawing of this line had a profound and lasting impact on her family. When her son asked, “Mom, did my baseball uniform get washed?” — the answer was, “Only if you washed it.” After three games of wearing a filthy uniform (and being picked on by his friends for smelling), the kid finally learned to do a load of laundry for himself after each game. When her son came to the door saying, “Mom, I need a ride home from practice today” — she said, “Well then you need to arrange a ride with a friend.” He didn’t take her seriously, and found himself sitting around on the bleachers for a half-hour after everyone else left, then walking home (don’t feel badly for him — it was less than a mile). But after that, he made sure to schedule a ride in advance. And her son wasn’t the only one who learned a bit of self-sufficiency — dad found out that he might actually bear some responsibility for handling the incoming mail (which he had always just piled on the counter for his wife to deal with), and that you will eventually run out of clean dishes if you just keep putting them in the sink without washing them!

It didn’t even take the full month before my client’s family came groveling at her office door, contrite and prepared to be more involved in taking care of the household. For the first time in their lives, this group is functioning as an actual unit, with each person accepting responsibility for his or her own personal space, and everyone sharing in the communal responsibilities. That’s what true simplicity is all about and it’s a beautiful thing to see! But nothing would have changed (and my client would have remained trapped in a situation that prevented her from being able to simplify at all) if she hadn’t put her foot down and refused to continue enabling the bad habits of her housemates. You can bitch and complainand say that you wish your life were different, that you wish you actually had time for your priorities and an orderly space in which to live — but what are you willing to do to achieve that goal? Are you ready to really rock the boat, truly change the way your family functions, in order to bring about a simpler existence?

Time For A Little Re-Education

Simply letting your loved ones know that things have to change isn’t enough — you need to create a new set of systems that will make it EASY for them to become more responsible for themselves. Bad habits aren’t going to go away spontaneously, they must be replaced by good habits. Look around your life and pinpoint those problem areas that are complicating things for you — then ask if there isn’t something that can be done to prevent that problem before it starts. The solution could involve the purchase of an organizing tool, or it might mean re-vamping the way your family communicates, or it may even require the creation of a daily routine. But I have yet to see a simplification challenge that was insurmountable!

Do your kids come home and dump their school gear in front of the door, creating a mess that you trip over? Put a set of cubbies or shelves in the entryway, where they can neatly store their bookbags and other “paraphernalia” out of the way. Does your husband take off his work clothes and drop them on the floor, seemingly incapable of making it all the way to the closet? Get him a “valet” where he can store his suit, shoes, tie, belt, and pocket contents all in one place. Do your kids pop with last minute demands on your time that disrupt your schedule? Have a family meeting once a week and record each person’s schedule on a master calendar — if it’s not listed, it’s not your problem!  You don’t have to put up with one more bit of chaos, if you are willing to lay down the law. Playtime doesn’t have to mean a mess if you require your kids to spend 15 minutes putting everything away before bed time. Meal preparation doesn’t have to fall entirely on your shoulders if you assign each family member a task and refuse to feed them until it is completed. And you CAN have time for your own projects — you just have be steadfastly unwilling to let other people take over your time. It’s not selfish to teach the people in your life about boundaries — in fact, you’re doing them a disservice if you don’t!

Pick Your Battles

On a final note, simplifying your life requires a certain degree of flexibility. If you’re going to get into a knock-down-drag-out fight over every little bit of clutter or any time someone in your household inconveniences you slightly — not only are you in for a rough ride, but those people who love you the most are going to grow to resent your nagging. Not good!

However, notice that I said flexibility, not compromise. Flexibility means understanding that some issues are important, while others aren’t. Compromise (at least in this context) is giving in on a deeply-held principal, biting your tongue and keeping silent about something that really bothers you just because it’s “easier” than sticking to your guns. Simplicity isn’t necessarily easy in the short-term, but it is makes life infinitely easier (and more enjoyable) in the long run!

So the real key to simplifying your life is knowing what is a priority and what isn’t. Perhaps you could live with the fact that your kid doesn’t make his bed every day, but you absolutely insist that he put away his video game mess (that is cluttering up the family room) each night. Perfect! If there’s something you don’t really mind doing that another family member can’t stand, offer to take that job on in return for them handling a task you loathe. Work with your housemates to reach a state of balance, one in which each person bears some responsibility for the family, but no one feels put-upon or burdened. It is possible, as long as everyone is willing to take the other person’s needs and requirements into consideration. It’s all about give and take — you have to figure out which battles are willing to lose in order to win the war!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream. Learn more at and RamonaCreel.com.

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2 Responses

  1. Miriam Ortiz y Pino says:

    Great post! Wish I had written it. I find teaching others to implement boundaries the hardest part of teaching simplicity.

  2. Janet Barclay, Organized Assistant says:

    Great points, Ramona! If I hadn’t learned to be flexible, I never would have survived having teenagers!

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