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Home Rule

Cultivating the Habit of Picking Up

April 23, 1987|BONNIE McCULLOUGH

You either have it or you don't--that is, the habit of picking things up. If you don't, it's worth cultivating.

In my disorganized days I read in an article, "A good homemaker picks up the house before she goes to bed." I had preschoolers at the time, and by 8 p.m. I was ready for the sack. To think that I would have to summon enough energy to go through the house again was overwhelming. I could not do it and felt like a failure.

Then one night, after watching the 10 o'clock news, I thought, "I don't have enough energy to pick up the whole house again, but maybe I could make this one room a little better by picking up just five things on my way out." I did, and it really didn't hurt.

Thus, I created for myself a new policy: Before I go to bed, I will give the last room I am in a little pickup. I could handle that much, and I did it almost every night. I straightened the afghans and pillows, tossed the newspaper in the trash, and took the shoes and socks with me.

A Pickup Habit

About 10 years later, I was lying in bed one night, thinking over the day, and realized that I had picked up the whole house before I went to bed. Somewhere, between the time my children were babies and now, I had acquired the pickup habit.

Whenever we try to initiate a new habit, it takes great effort and concentration. Eventually, though, it moves from the side of the brain that creates thought patterns to the side that directs unconscious effort. It happened to me, and it paid off.

Whenever I go into a room, if I see something out of place, I put it back. I can enjoy this silent helper the rest of my life. What are the benefits? The house looks better, it's easier to find things, and I spend half as much time cleaning. Even if it took you five years to retrain yourself, the effort would pay off.

The habit of setting things down before they are where they belong is a rationalization, a self-defeating thought pattern: "I will set this down just for a while because I don't have the time or energy to put it away now."

Temporary Spots

Very seldom do you save time putting things down in temporary spots. Let's compare. Suppose you and your twin walk into the house with a box full of books that are to go to the basement. You take the box directly to the basement and set it on the shelf. Your twin, however, is in a hurry, and sets the box on the chair by the front door because there is no time to put it away now.

The next day your twin moves the box to the stairs, hoping someone will take it down when he goes. Several days pass. No one thinks to carry down the box, even though it is passed by 26 times.

On the weekend, or just before company comes and there is a rush to clean house, the box is hustled downstairs and set by the shelf to wait again. The rubber-band habit that makes you put things away as soon as possible is so much more rewarding than the I'll-do-it-later theory.

The closure principle is a psychological term that has to do with a person's intrinsic drive to finish things. It's the urgency to return your neighbor's rake and the promptings to put away all the clean clothes. It's the desire to get the dishes done or to keep a room straight. Why? Because people like to be done with a task; it makes them feel relieved to check it off their list. Organized people have this trait; disorganized people can learn it.

The question is not how much time it takes to put something away where it belongs. Rather, it's the emotional and mental effort that has to be exerted each time you must deal with the same item.

Some of us don't do things until we've given ourselves several reminders. In the example above, the twin had to psych himself four times into picking up the box. If we multiply that example by the number of things we use each day and don't put away, you can imagine the clutter and stress. There would be coats everywhere, books, shoes and socks, empty dishes and glasses, pop cans, dirty clothes, towels, books, gloves--everything that is used.

It's not unusual for a home to have 300,000 items. In any one day you get out, use, and handle hundreds of things. If you don't cultivate the do-it-now habit, your house will always be a mess.

Clutter causes confusion; it gets in the way of doing things; it destroys self-esteem. Make what you have look as nice as possible--that is working smarter.

When I started my study of home organization, over and over I read, "Work smarter, not harder." To me, it was an ambiguous statement, with no real meaning. Now, with a few years experience, I understand.

To work smarter means to work so that your efforts show, so that your accomplishments last longer, and so that your work takes less time. You want to smooth out those peaks and valleys between tidy and messy so recovery won't be so hard. Working smarter has to do with how you tackle a job, how you decide what to do first. Concentrate on improving pickup and do-it-now habits.

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