How To Take Control When You Live With A Chronic Clutterbug

By Rita Emmett, author of The Clutter-Busting Handbook
(Random House of Canada Ltd., 2004)

Manage messy family members
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What should you do if you find time to prevent clutter but somebody else in your home is not putting things back where they belong? What do you do with your spouse, kid, or other offender? Maybe you've tried nagging these Clutter Culprits, or arguing with them, or yelling at them. If so, you already know that such tactics won't work.

Solution: Bore them to tears. Josh handed his Clutter Culprit (his teenage son) a little spiral notebook, a pen, and a stopwatch, then said, "We have to go identify a problem. Come with me."

They walked to where clutter had accumulated on the kitchen counter. Josh asked his son to time him as he rinsed out and placed in the dishwasher a glass his son had left on the counter. The time was recorded in the notebook. Then they walked into the family room and timed how long it took Josh to pick up a glass, take it into the kitchen, and put it in the dishwasher.

Though he felt like laughing, Josh kept a straight face as they noted exactly how long each activity took. His son found this exercise to be so boring and annoying, he decided he would rather pick up after himself than endure another of Josh's "timing sessions."

Yes, I'll agree that maybe it won't work with your Clutter Culprit, but how will you know unless you try? And it has worked for many people. To find out how long it takes to put things back where they came from can be a startling eye-opener not only for your family, but also for you.

Another solution: When your Clutter Culprit is open to doing some de-cluttering, and he is on the fence about getting rid of something, you can be the Clutter Coach and in a kind, loving voice tell him, "You will have the memory of those three broken doorknobs. Those broken doorknobs can live in your heart forever, but now it's time to say good-bye to them."

If that causes too much separation anxiety, suggest that you pack up some of his stuff and leave it in the basement or garage for a few months. If he is comfortable living without it that long, he might agree to have you dispose of that batch of stuff. Neither of you should look inside the box; otherwise the anxiety will start all over again.

Third solution: Sometimes you can toss out someone else's clutter when that person isn't looking, and sometimes you can't. You've got to figure out this one for yourself.

Shannon, who has had some success fighting stealth clutter with stealth clutter-busting, offers the following advice: Most true Clutter Culprits can't find half their stuff anyway, so when they're not around, you begin to dispose of it -- discreetly. Don't start with clutter that is right in front of them every day. Start with the stuff they can't see that is hidden and buried under other clutter, and remove it gradually.

Sometimes Clutter Culprits will agree to get rid of clutter, but they just don't want to do it themselves or be around when it's being tossed out. Don't force them to be present during the clutter-busting. Otherwise, you'll be tossing stuff out, and they'll be right behind you dragging it all back in.

It doesn't seem fair that you should be stuck with getting rid of all their stuff, but this is not the time to get into "your stuff and my stuff; your job and my job." If you are capable of throwing out clutter and your Clutter Culprit is not, but is willing to let you be the tosser-outer, then seize the moment and start tossing. Sometimes that's the only way you'll ever dig out from all that clutter.

When Juanita's children grew up and moved out of her house, they became Clutter Culprits in absentia by leaving behind boxes, bikes, and all sorts of cluttery stuff.

She learned to say, "I'm trying to do without tons of stuff so there's not clutter everywhere. One way you can help is to remove your [fill in the blank] from my place, or on the fifteenth the Salvation Army is picking up everything." The first time she spoke those words, she had expected to be terrified, but it was not at all as difficult as she had feared.

A fourth solution: We can't change people who don't want to change, and some people just gotta have their clutter. In that case, give them one clutter spot that is all theirs and you promise to keep your hands off. It can be their room or closet, or their half of a room or a closet, or their office. Maybe a section of the basement or garage. They may simply need one place where they can have all their beloved clutter together. You won't clean it, won't nag about it, won't touch it, but that means it has to be a spot where you won't have to see it or step over it.

And if the clutter meanders out beyond the boundaries that you have both agreed upon, you have the right to do with it what you want. For first or second offenses, many people just stash away the captured clutter for a while and eventually return it. But if they have agreed to keep their clutter in a certain spot, and you keep finding it spread all over, you might decide on more drastic measures. The choice is yours.

Excerpted from The Clutter-Busting Handbook by Rita Emmett. Copyright © 2004 by Rita Emmett

Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

About the author
Rita Emmett is the bestselling author of The Procrastinator's Handbook and The Procrastinating Child. She is also a professional speaker whose self-help seminars are immensely popular. Her clients have included AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, and the National Kidney Foundation. Rita Emmett lives in Des Plaines, Illinois.


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Rita Emmett, author of The Procrastinator’s Handbook and The Clutter-Busting Handbook, is a professional speaker who presents Keynotes and Seminars nationwide. She can be reached at 847-699-9950 and email is

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