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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Messy Person's Guide to Staying Organized

organized desk
Christopher Gower/Unsplash

Take it from my old roommates (who used to collect my stuff and put it in a laundry basket outside my bedroom) or my boyfriend (who not-so-affectionately refers to my mess as “Emma droppings”): I am a really messy person. So, I’m constantly on the lookout for easy (and they have to be really easy) ways to stay organized to keep myself, my co-habitants, and my co-workers sane.

There’s tons of information out there on how to get organized, but it’s almost always created by neat people. Although these neat freaks have the best intentions, they just don’t understand how it feels to suffer as a messy person when tidiness comes naturally to them.

So today, I’m going to share my tips on what’s worked for me, a real-life, semi-reformed messy person. Here are a few ways to get a bit more organized, fit for the messiest.

Surround Yourself With Organized People

Trust me: If you surround yourself with roommates and co-workers who are neat, it actually will rub off on you. It’s not just because you’ll see them having a generally easier time in life, but also because they’re really helpful resources.

For example, I can’t tell you how many times an organized friend took pleasure in helping me pick up and straighten out my closet. My mom’s best friend is a professional organizer, and she taught me how to fold my clothes so they’d fit in my drawers.

I know not everyone has a friend who is a professional organizer, but almost everyone knows one or two people who are super neat. So use them! See if your organized co-worker will share the rules she sets up in her inbox, or ask your boss how to make your schedule work better for your other colleagues. Or try setting up a calendar with a neat co-worker that you both share to keep yourself accountable.

Make Sure Everything You Own Has a Place

For years, I’d throw business cards and paperwork on top of my desk. They never really had an official home, so they’d pile up in a random corner, spilling over into the real work I was trying to get done.

Sound familiar? Well, you can reduce the messy explosion if you just make sure that every single item that you own has a place. I repeat: Every single item that you own should have a place. For example, any snack I bring to work lives in a certain desk drawer. Any outgoing mail item lives in front of my monitor so I remember to send it out.

If you find it overwhelming to decide where things should go (like I did), enlist those trusty organized people to help you come up with systems and home bases for your stuff. At home, all my catalogs and magazines live in a mail holder my boyfriend got me.

Turn it Into a Challenge

If you turn cleaning up into a game, you can make the process fun. It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve found this strategy really works (and I’m not even particularly competitive).

For example, my boyfriend and I recently came up with a challenge: When either of us leaves an item of clothing on the floor, we get a tally mark. Whoever has the most tallies at the end of the month has to do the laundry for the next month. We did it for the month of October, and it (mostly) worked. We fell off track after a vacation, but for the most part we were able to keep our clothes in the hamper.

At work, you can easily create this kind of challenge. We have all types of competitions at my office (think pool tournaments and go-cart races), so it was pretty easy to convince the guy next to me to have a cubicle cleanliness contest.

Get Rid of Your Stuff

It’s really hard to stay neat when you have a closet that doesn’t fit your clothes and a drawer in your desk overflowing with greeting cards from your distant cousins.

So, once a month (yes—that often!) do a big purge. Donate the stuff that no longer fits you and recycle the business cards floating atop your desk. “But I might use it someday,” is not an excuse if you want to stay tidy. You do not get to keep the t-shirt from high school for the memories or the thank you note from the conference you attended. You are allowed to have one box of sentimental items at home and one folder in your desk at work, but no more than that. It's the only way to a tidier you.

It’s hard to get rid of stuff that you love, so make the process less painful for yourself by using rewards. Every time I clean out my desk, for example, I get to buy one special new thing to make up for all that I threw away.

Accept That You’ll Never Be Perfectly Neat

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when the mess gets big, which is why you’ve got to accept that you’ll never be perfectly neat—and that’s OK.

Messy people beat themselves up all the time. We don’t have fun being messy—we know that society thinks we’re slobs, and we get really stressed out before we have people over to our homes or our desks.

But this down-on-yourself attitude gets in the way of actually cleaning up. There have been so many times when I’ve slinked around my apartment, convinced the cleaning would never get done. When I actually started cleaning, though, it only took me about 30 minutes to get through everything.

So, cut yourself a break. Even small changes can make a big difference. If you take a little bit of time and follow these tips, you’ll be on your way to a cleaner you. And as a real-life messy person, I promise it’s worth it.