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Proactive Crap Management

Posted by on May 27, 2011

a hoarder's living room

No, this isn’t a post about diapers or potty training. It’s about a Lifehacker post.

How to De-Crapify Your Home: A Start-to-Finish Guide

“While it’s no epidemic, it’s hard to argue that most of us have a little ‘too much stuff’. Whether you’ve got a little or a lot more clutter than you’d like in your home, here’s a start-to-finish look at how to streamline your Spring cleaning.”

I sent this to a friend of mine, and in her response she said:

“The hard part is getting people to put things away. I’ve been in a hotel room with my family, where I had nearly nothing with me, and things ended up looking super-cluttered just because they were not put away and stuff was strewn wherever when folks were done with them.”

The following is an edited and adapted version of my reply.

First of all, I am a hypocrite when it comes to neatness. I grew up in a very messy house, and I have to fight hard against sloppy and lazy tendencies. I would have included a picture of my bedroom in first apartment as proof, but I didn’t have any in digital form. You’ll just have to take my word that it was nearly unnavigable. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Secondly, I’m sure my wife, well aware of my slovenly habits, will be pleased to read this, because she will be able to use it to force my compliance later. ๐Ÿ˜‰

That said, I’ve never let hypocrisy stop me from dispensing advice. ๐Ÿ˜‰

But I digress…

The trick to avoiding clutter from stuff left out is to put things away, washed first if need be, as soon as they are done being used. If you need convincing, and the mere recollection of the “A stitch in time saves nine”/“An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” folk wisdom doesn’t sway you, think of cleaning in terms of opportunity costs, unforeseen consequences, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

By taking time to clean (as needed) and put things back where they belong, little is lost and much is gained. Yes, there is an opportunity cost, i.e., while you’re cleaning up you can’t be doing something else. However, to borrow from Frederic Bastiat, that trade-off is only that which is seen. That which is unseen (until later) is the consequence of leaving cleaning/straightening for another time. As cleaning/straightening is forsaken for other goods (and they be very important goods, like spending time with children!), mess (and possibly grime) accumulates.

As the mess accumulates, life around the house is negatively impacted. Problems include navigating around messes, having to keep kids away from items they shouldn’t touch/have, cats leaving “presents” on possessions, and needing more and more time to find desired items in entropic piles. Eventually, cleaning up becomes a necessity that can no longer be delayed. At which point, cleaning up becomes a major undertaking that seriously disrupts home life until it is completed.

In other words, by not paying the inconvenient but relatively negligibleย  opportunity cost of putting things away as soon as they’re no longer in use, your family is effectively taxed or charged a toll that grows daily, and a very large and painful price must be paid to reverse all of the accumulated entropy in a single effort. The longer entropy reversal is delayed, the greater the price to be paid to do it. It’s either that or get used to living like a hoarder. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Putting things away as soon as they’re no longer in use (or at least no later than the end of the day they’re used) may seem like a pain in the tuchus, and when children are factored in, it may seem a darn near impossible ideal, but that perception is short-sighted. In the long run, daily maintenance requires less work and less suffering for everyone involved. Clearly, cost-benefit and expected utility analyses favor prevention or early intervention over remediation.

That said, if you fall behind on keeping your home in order, don’t despair. Use the 15-minute rule for cleaning up. It beats trying Clean House without the prizes and extra manpower. ๐Ÿ˜‰