Feature Article: 4 Principles to Keep Your Space Neat and Tidy

There is a distinction between being “neat” and being “organized.” For example, the Denver Water Board, one of my clients, brought me to organize a “National Clean off Your Desk Day” (yes, there is such a day!) contest. This “holiday” always falls on the second Monday of January each year. We had three categories: most organized, most improved, and messiest office. I took “before” photos of each person’s office. Next, I gave a seminar on getting organized and putting systems in place. Contestants had one week to get organized. Then I took an “after” photo. We posted the “before” and “after” photos on the employee cafeteria wall, and employees voted on the “most improved.”

I, however, was the sole judge of the “most organized” and “messiest office” categories. I went to the office of a woman who was competing for the “most organized” office. Wow! There were no papers on her desk—or anywhere for that matter. Files were out of sight, and everything looked neat and tidy. I remember thinking, “Is this the right office? Does anyone work here?”

I walked over to her overhead bin and opened it…and a pile of papers came crashing down upon me! She had simply taken her piles of papers and stuffed them into cabinets and files. Her co-workers peeked in and began to tell on her. “She’s really not like that!” She just cleaned up for the contest!” Cleaned up? The title is for the “most organized,” not the “tidiest” office. There’s a big difference, isn’t there? Just because it’s neat doesn’t mean it’s organized.

But it is important to keep an area neat. By eliminating items from surfaces, it forces you to get the area organized. Putting things out of sight gives your home a peaceful, rather than chaotic, feeling. Cluttered surfaces quickly remind you what requires your focus in order to maintain your systems. Here are some ideas for keeping an area neat and free from clutter:

1. Put an item closer to where it belongs. John puts his credit cards receipts in my office in-box so I can get them to my bookkeeper once a week. The kids know to put their school papers or nifty artwork on my office desk for safekeeping. They’ve learned that if it’s on the kitchen counter, it’s eligible to be tossed, so if they want Mommy to look at it, they put it on her “safe zone.” If I see toys out of place, I’ll toss them in the playroom as I wander by. The second time I have to touch a toy, it goes into time out. After all, the kids have an entire room for their toys; they know how to throw them in there and put them back on the shelf. They also know not to expect Mommy to do it. 

2. Use a stair-step system. Our three kids have bedrooms upstairs. If I had to run up and down the stairs each time I wanted to return Johnny’s stuffed elephant to his room, I’d have fabulous thighs but a lot less time. So we’ve designated the bottom stairs as our “catch all” place, and we all put things on the stairs that are headed that way. As the kids leave various items around the house¬—books, stuffed animals, socks, or anything that belongs in their rooms—I place them on the stairs. Each time I must go upstairs, I grab something and toss it in the right room (that each person must keep clean). The children check the stairs before they go up and take anything with them that’s theirs. I’ve been known to withhold a dollar of allowance because an item ended up on my living room floor instead of the stairs. Because the kids know it’s an “interim” place, they are less resistant to putting it there. It means they don’t have to run up both flights of stairs—at least for the moment.

3. Neat doesn’t mean fancy. When John and I were first married, I was a single mom. I only had to worry about Meagan’s schedule, my speaking career, and the house. I actually had much more discretionary time than I do now with a husband, a bigger house, and two more children. In those days, I made up my bed every day with eight (no exaggeration) pillows. After marrying John, life got more complicated, and I no longer had time to maintain my pillow ritual. “What happened to the fancy pillows?” John asked one day. “Oh, they’re only kept around for pillow fights,” I replied as I threw one across the room at him. Making the bed doesn’t require fancy pillows to make it look neat. Now I stick with a comforter, and I can toss up the bed in no time.

4. Don’t put things down “just for now.” How many times have you put something down “just for now,” and that item still sat in the same place a week later? Temporary places too often become permanent places. It’s better to put something away while it’s in your hand than allow the clutter to accumulate in large piles. If clutter does build, take a moment to straighten rooms as you leave them. It sounds simple, but if you devote a few minutes each day to putting stuff away room-by-room, it will prevent a whole house session later. 

Make it a productive day! ™

(C) Copyright 2007 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. 

This article may be reprinted provided the following credit line is present: “© 2007 Laura Stack. Laura is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc. and the bestselling author of Find More Time and Leave the Office Earlier. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or www.TheProductivityPro.com.” The link to Laura’s website must be active.