Neatening | Home Comforts




Why some things out of place cause more things to get out of place … New habits to increase neatness … A place for everything and a time for things to be in them … Ongoing activities need not be put away … Temporary holding stations … Hiding things in closets makes the situation worse … Resentment about picking up after others

A friend from India once told me that in her country you would never find a stray piece of string or a rubber band on the street because material goods were so scarce there and people so poor that these would immediately be picked up and used. A modern American home throws away in the garbage every day food and goods that half the world would regard as riches to store and treasure. In this country a century ago, however, people both rich and poor lacked the plethora of movable objects that presently clog our homes: toys, games, magazines, papers, and gadgets of all sorts. The design of ordinary homes and furnishings has only recently begun to provide anything like proper storage for all these goods, enabling people to attempt to abide by the venerable household maxim, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Mess is such a dilemma for so many households that bookstores offer an amazing number of books on closet design and how to reduce clutter, and magazines offer articles on the emotional difficulties of throwing things away. Closet-renovation services are doing a tremendous business; they build all sorts of contrivances into your closets that enable them to hold far more of your goods. Big closets, using space efficiently with a variety of shelves, drawers, and hanging rods; underbed storage boxes; shelves and drawers lining the walls—all these and other storage ideas are worth pursuing. The how-to books and professionals will offer you ingenious suggestions that are genuinely helpful.1

But beyond creating a place for everything and learning not to purchase or retain useless things, achieving basic orderliness depends on learning a new set of habits, habits geared toward living with material plenty, for the likelihood is that your present ideas about how to stay neat were invented in a world that knew only material scarcity. True success involves changing your mind as well as your closets.

Broken Windows

In the hallway between our son’s bedroom and our own, there stands a chair that serves various minor functions. One rushed morning I made the mistake of throwing my bathrobe and newspaper on it as I passed by. That evening, the chair held not only the bathrobe and newspaper but also my husband’s dry cleaning, a plastic replica of the Millennium Falcon along with Luke Skywalker, a tube of antiseptic ointment, one copy of PC Magazine, and five Tinkertoys. (I remember because I recited the entire list to my smirking husband.) Yet this chair had stood entirely empty for the preceding six months.

Modern police successes are allegedly built on a sociological principle called the “broken-window theory.” This theory says that any sign of social or physical neglect in a neighborhood causes people who are pre-disposed to antisocial conduct to feel more inclined to commit various crimes and misdemeanors. If there is one broken window and it isn’t fixed, this suggests to malefactors that no one cares or that no one is in charge—that therefore it is safe to write graffiti on the walls, litter, and break other windows. This in turn suggests to more determined wrongdoers that they could get away with mugging and burglary. The first broken window, if not tended to, leads eventually to total social deterioration. Thus, by making sure that graffiti, broken windows, and “quality-of-life” crimes are immediately stopped or tended to, police have drastically reduced the serious-crime rates in many big cities. At least this is the claim, and there is good evidence that it is true. It sounds like common sense to most people.

The broken-window theory certainly applies to every individual home, and the reason why it does is clear. When people are cooperating in maintaining a household, the domestic equivalent of an unrepaired broken window can result in a chain reaction that eventually sees the home in complete chaos. It happens like this. Someone is reading in his favorite chair while sipping a cup of tea, after slipping off his shoes to get comfortable. His wife hands him an important piece of mail, and after reading it he walks off to make a telephone call, leaving behind the mail and the torn envelope, his novel spread to mark his place, his shoes, his half-empty cup, and the chair looking nicely sat in. He does not return to this chair for the rest of the day, forgetting his tea and novel after the telephone call and getting involved in something else. Now the “window” has been broken in this room. Anyone who walks in will feel entitled to add more disorder because the room is already slightly, even if pleasantly, disorderly. The next person therefore leaves her stack of papers at her chair and throws her sweater on it. After something like this happens four or five times, the room is littered, and the disorder soon spreads to the next room. Or say one person does a lackluster job cleaning up after a meal. Some dishes or pots or countertops are left unwashed. Everyone who walks into the kitchen afterward feels entitled to add to the mess, leaving a glass and plate on the counter or more crumbs on the table. (After all, there are already a dirty cup and bowl; two more won’t matter.) The same chain of events can happen with chores. He did not market, so I will not (or cannot) cook or do the laundry or vacuum. It can also happen when you live alone, and you can find yourself responding to your own breaches of order or routine with still more disorder and disruption. In each case, the household is soon entirely out of control.

New Habits

Simply staying absolutely neat and doing the chores come hell or high water prevents a downward spiral, of course, and this is how things were done until the middle of the twentieth century. But in those days of few goods and simple lives, it was possible to stay absolutely neat without rigidity. Nowadays it is unrealistic, and excessively compulsive, to try to live in a way that avoids any breach of orderliness. Today, basic order is much looser but in its own way equally reliable. What this “relaxation” of the modern household amounts to is a set of habitual ways of containing the damage of the broken window, short of insisting that no windows ever be broken. If there is a secret to neatness in the contemporary home, learning these habits is it.

The new habits sound obvious to experienced people but not to novices in housekeeping, particularly if they came from a home that was old-fashioned. First, as to neatness, your inner standards must be adjusted to permit a certain number of things to be “out of place” without triggering the feeling that a rule has been broken or that the perfection of the room is thereby flawed. Thus newcomers to an area of the house do not feel entitled to escalate, or that “anything goes.” There is still a place for everything, but things are only expected to be in them at certain times. Pickups come at the end of every activity insofar as possible. Otherwise, they happen before bed. You get up in the morning to a home to which order has been restored.

Second, as to what may be out of place: some things but not others. You leave uncompleted activities set up so as to be able to return to them conveniently later on. You leave your newspaper on your reading chair, your mending on the endtable, your mail or half-completed crossword puzzle and pencil on the kitchen table, your income tax calculations spread over the dining room table, a stack of CDs you are listening your way through on the carpet. Children may leave their setup for an elaborate pretend game or construction but not toys and games that they are finished with. Adults, too, put things away when they are finished. Neither children nor adults should leave out materials for more than one activity at a time.

You do not leave food or dirty dishes or glasses or remnants of snacks or meals out, as this is unsanitary. You do not leave wet towels in a heap on the bathroom floor, as they will not dry and then turn sour and get dirty. Nor do you leave the bed unmade or dirty clothes lying around. This makes more work for you, as the bed does not stay clean, and dirty clothes on the floor, which look ugly and are inconvenient, are not an activity but mere thoughtlessness. It is just as easy to put them in the hamper.

Third, you have to establish temporary holding stations for miscellaneous designated goods. These are places where it is permissible to leave things before they are put away. In our foyer we have a closet, a hat-and-coat rack, and a little chest with drawers that is there to hold letters ready for mailing as well as mail newly delivered, mittens, scarves, fliers from school, toys playmates have left that need to be returned, dry-cleaning receipts, and many other things that matter as you are coming in and going out. Before we had this chest of drawers, mail, letters to be posted, and receipts were constantly mislaid. Thus we not only made sure that there was a place for everything by putting the chest there, we also established a temporary holding station for things. The mail is not out of place there pending the time when it will be filed, answered, or thrown away. The toys and the receipts, while they are not in their places, are in the right place to be dealt with. If they accumulate there for a couple of days, still they do not get lost and they do not create a disorderly home. We know where to look for them.

Neat, well-organized homes tend to have a variety of these temporary holding stations. Consider establishing one whenever you see an annoying pattern of mess developing. Clothes hampers are an example of one that you already have: a place for holding dirty laundry temporarily until it is time to do something about it. But although homes have long had the need for clothes hampers, only recently have children brought home so much paper from school that it can take over the house. Many families benefit from establishing a holding station for children’s letters from school, artwork, graded homework, announcements, and so forth. Make a drawer for them in your own hallway chest or in the kitchen, or establish a corner on the kitchen counter or in your desk, or put an attractive lidless storage box in a convenient spot. Periodically go through the box and throw away what is old and not worth keeping; put in a permanent place the artwork or compositions that you would like to save. (You might want to have a permanent large envelope for each grade for each child.) We have a book-shelving station in our home, just as libraries do. Without it, we found that there were books everywhere, growing dog-eared and in constant danger of mistreatment, while we could never find the ones we wanted. Many homes have magazine racks that work the same way. A junk drawer in the kitchen or elsewhere is both a temporary and permanent home for all the strange little plastic gadgets, rubber bands, and pieces of string that you cannot use or identify and think you might want someday. We have a shelf for holding old newspapers, and we empty it only once or twice a week. This keeps the papers around for a few days, which we find is useful: we often want to share an article or clip something but haven’t time on the morning it comes.

Every temporary holding station has to go along with a day of reckoning, a time when you actually do sort the mail or the school papers, shelve the books, wash the laundry, and recycle the old newspapers. Otherwise the messes will begin again. Perhaps you will need to sort the school papers weekly, the mail daily. Even the junk drawer has to be sorted once or twice a year or you will not be able to open it.

The sad story of my friend K—may bring this lesson home. She read in a magazine a rather extreme suggestion about how to produce quick order in your home, one that bears a misleading cousinly resemblance to the idea of temporary holding stations. The author suggested that when company is coming and your home is untidy you grab a shopping bag and run around throwing everything that is out of place into the bag; then store the bag in a closet for later unloading. When K—found herself with eight shopping bags full of litter bulging out of her closets, she realized that this was really no solution for her. There were many problems with the plan. It came with no habit or plan for unpacking and sorting. It placed the litter out of sight so that she was never reminded to do something about it. It did not provide for keeping things in places where they could be found (in the way that you know your dirty laundry is in the hamper and I know the newspapers are on the shelf), and the problems it created were more painful than the messy apartment. For weeks she couldn’t find things in the bags, and when she finally unloaded them it was an exhausting all-day chore.

Finally, it helps to develop a habit of neatening. When you go upstairs, carry up with you something that belongs there. You also promote neatness in your home, indirectly, when you keep to your household routines. When you neglect them, the sense of disorder and the out-of-control feeling that develop quickly lead to deterioration in basic orderliness and neatness. When you must disrupt your routines, keep chaos from developing by maintaining a reserve of whatever each routine provides—food, clean laundry, fundamental cleanliness—enough to keep things together until you can get back on schedule.

These are habits that will enable you to keep a neat and orderly household even though your home is filled with too many things and even though your schedule is unpredictable. When these habits are adopted, the place looks lived in—as though real human beings spend their time there doing serious, pleasant, and curious things. They do not live for the home but in it. It is not there for display but for comfort, rest, and the various activities of private life.

Picking Up After Others

Most of us resent having to pick up anyone else’s litter, and as a general principle each member of a household should be responsible for picking up after himself or herself. Children can begin picking up toys and putting their clothes in the hamper as two-year-olds, and each year they can learn to do a bit more. (See the advice books on how to teach a child to put things away. When my son was a preschooler, I found Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care and Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child from Birth to Age Five helpful.) I myself, however, always permit an ongoing imaginative or constructive play activity to stay out, since I notice that putting it away destroys it, and I like encouraging elaborate games and constructions that last for days or even weeks. If you live with someone who is careless with her belongings, you might try establishing someplace where you put her things pending her putting them away herself. My husband and I both have home offices. When either of us is neatening and finds something belonging to the other, we put it inside the door of the other’s office. This does not require us to put the other’s things away, but order and harmony are preserved.

“UHT” means “ultra-high temperature” pasteurization. UHT milk, if unopened, stays fresh for many months on the pantry shelf, but refrigerate it after opening. Check freshness dates on packages.



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