“The state of your room reflects the state of your mind”

I have never been a neat person. Ever. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to declutter or organize, like the way I can’t do home improvement projects or figure out maps. A gene has to be missing, or perhaps a wire’s gotten detached.

When I was living at home my mother used to say to me, “The state of your room reflects the state of your mind,” which I found impressive for its stunning accuracy. There really was alot on my mind as a teen and my inner world often prevented me from being able to process my outer world, like that of my desk, closet, bedroom or, later, apartments.

The first time Max visited my parents, to “ask” for my hand in marriage, my mother sat him down in a tearful one-on-one in the next room, which I eavesdropped.

“Ceci is a very good person, but I need to tell you something about her.”

My mother’s voice cracked toward the end and the room stayed silent. I could picture Max watching her intently, worried about what she was about to reveal just as he was planning to pledge his whole life to me.

“She’s – she’s -” The sobs started to come out.

“She’s…she’s very messy.”

Max let out a small laugh before stifling it.

“But I need to ask you to please try and forgive her. Because she’s a good person.”

Max is not a total neat freak, but he does, for example, have a specific system for our linen closet and dressers. Early on in our marriage I came home from work one day to find my panties and socks color coded in my drawers. My goal, on the other hand, is to simply make sure that our clothes make it off the floor.

Max has tried hard to remember my mother’s words. So much so that for much of our 9-year marriage I have been able to get away with being me. But there was one memorable episode, perhaps in year two of our marriage, when Max was vacuuming and in a shocking burst of anger, grabbed my clothes off our bed (and perhaps the floor) and threw them into another room. “I am sick and tired of you leaving all your stuff around!”

As a person who isn’t wired to see messiness it is hard for me to truly comprehend how my habits could bother another person. I love a neat room and I am always amazed at how great I feel psychologically when I do something as simple as make the beds or wipe a bathroom counter. The problem is that, most of the time when I walk into a room, I don’t see the piles of papers that need to be dealt with, or the different outfits I had strewn on the bed that I decided on not wearing. I am not sure what I see, because when I walk into a room all I am aware of is what I’m thinking. It could be what I have to do next for work, or what post I’m going to write about, or how I’m going to track down that other mother volunteer who was supposed to get back to my email. I just don’t…see. At least not until my stuff is piled up so high (and so everywhere) that I can’t avoid noticing. But by that time Max’s blood is already near boiling.

Yesterday was one of those days. There has been definite tension, and it made me guilty enough to drop the novel I was reading to instead check our bedroom to see what could be done. I changed the sheets, and that’s when I also noticed that the towels Max had put in the dryer were already done. So I folded those and put them away. Shortly afterwards I picked Fred up from school, and I proposed to him that we tidy up the house through a game. (We’d write down various tasks on pieces of paper and throw them into a box. Whatever task we picked out, we’d have to do.) Fred whizzed through the livingroom picking up all his origami and Bakugan balls, and stacked my magazines in a neat pile. Within 30 minutes our livingroom and diningroom had undergone a major makeover.

When I finally saw Max after his work some time later, his mood was light and happy. What’s gotten into him, I thought? And then it dawned on me. The house looked nice. I’d put in some effort. I’d showed that I cared.

It’s truly embarrassing for me to be reflecting and writing on this at my age, because you’d think I’d learned by now. I don’t think that there is anything horrible about being comfortable with clutter (I am not a hoarder, I should make that clear ;-)), but in my mind it is infinitely better to be neat. It saves time in terms of looking for keys, documents for tax filing time, etc. It also just feels so much better psychologically. And, being in a family, clearly my actions impact the emotional state of another person and the quality of our marriage. Finally, and this is perhaps most important, I need to model a better way for my child. My parents are very neat people, but early on my father had told my mother that there was no point in asking my brother and me to put away our toys when we would only take them all out again anyway. They’d argued about the merit of this, and my mom gave in reluctantly. And so here I am now. I am crippled in terms of how to both get and stay organized (papers, toys, random accessories like photos), and I see Fred following in my muddy footsteps.

For those of you who are neat and organized, how do you do it? Do you have tips, suggestions, advice, consultation services 😉 ?  

17 thoughts on ““The state of your room reflects the state of your mind”

  1. Don’t let us clean freaks fool you. Notice that you are working while there is laundry unfolded, or water pellets on the bathroom counter. I “can’t work” if there is a mess, which is code for “I will bring a Q-tip to a bathroom tile to fight mold before I will buckle down and get to the work I am avoiding!!!” I will pull out the tax forms in an effort to file…then I see dust on the shelves and lint in the carpet…the house squeaks clean, while the IRS screams overdue.

    You don’t need to make the non-hoarder point clear! You are quite tidy, and a minimalist. There is nobody with experience living in Japan sized living quarters (blog fans, refer back to her recent Japan sejour rental) that can be a pack rat! There is a fat line between clutter and filth. My husband believes he is neat, and well, he stacks things neatly and does not like clutter. Yet underneath his hospital-folded clothes lies inches of whoknowswhat he dragged in. My papers may be strewn about, but underneath that could-be-piled in 30 seconds mess, is a Ms. Clean shine.

    I giggled (OK roared) when you described Max’s neat streak. You are referring to the individual that was clearing snow on his own volition in the 50 (?) unit condominium parking lot at 9 am one Sunday (at least one that I witnessed).

    I like that you made it a one team game with Fred. The idea might come from him next time. I’ll have to try that in our house too. I have to prep for tomorrow’s classes now (so where did I put the Windex?)…

  2. I grew up with two parents obsessed with maintaining a neat and tidy house and neat and tidy children. Not just content with keeping the main living areas of the house clean my father (thanks to military training an expert organizer) would come to our bedrooms periodically, haul everything out of every closet and reorganize. Beds were made every morning, etc.

    So I am the same way – except in my car, which gets messy. Interesting that by the time I owned my own car I had left home 🙂 But around the house, I am obsessive about being tidy, clean and organized. I cannot sleep in an unmade bed. I never thought about it as you describe it before, but I am clearly someone who “sees” the mess, I was taught to see it that way and regard it as not acceptable.

    I think there is a happy medium and I wish I was not quite as much a neat freak as I am.

  3. My husband and I each see different messes more. Stuff on the floor kills me, as does bathroom/kitchen mess, but he only notices the tables and counters. Neither of us are great, but we both feel better in uncluttered settings, so we work on it.

    I am instituting a put it away after you use it or lose it rule with my girls. I have to help, but if I start now, maybe it will be a habit. Cleaning house isn’t so bad, but tidying all the flotsam and jetsam is overwhelming. That and laundry.

  4. I like to think that I am a clean person. But I am a hoarder. And I don’t *see* the mess either. I am not a hoarder by choice. My parents are hoarders, and as much as I try not to be, it just keeps coming back.

    I love the cleanup game idea! And I also think it was such a sweet gesture toward your husband.

    Good luck getting organized!

  5. Great idea about the cleaning game!

    I love to organize (I know that’s weird), but I detest cleaning. So our house is not messy, but the wood floors may not have been mopped for a month.

    Cleaning is such a pain because it just has to be done again and again. What a waste of time and energy!

  6. Thanks everyone! I sometimes read your blogs and see the photos and think, wow, I need to be like that. Well, I am trying to be “in the moment” more now and to really “see” what’s around me. Yesterday I tidied up all the stuff that we had stuck on the refridgerator. What a mess, and how easy it was to just clean that up. Glad you all like the clean up game. My son is the one who now initiates it when I say “Let’s clean up” 🙂

  7. Cecilia I read this last week on my road trip but couldn’t comment. It made me laugh though – the part where your mom sat Max down. I can totally see that in a movie but it’s real life!

    My mom is a neat freak so we’ve had many fights about my messiness but I really just think she’s “too much” and her impossible standards are hard for me to follow. While I was a messy teenager, somehow, her influence rubbed off on me as an adult with my own place so I kept a neat apartment – made my bed every day, fluffed my pillows on the couch, tidied the apt frequently but that was all before baby.

    After Little Miss became mobile, it was becoming a daily losing battle, trying to clean up after her. Now there’s a sock in the hallway, a stuffed animal on the couch, Amazon boxes in the office and I hardly notice them anymore. But My Guy has remarked on how I never put my clothes away in our bedroom and it piles up on whatever structure that can hold them so he gave me an advice he read someplace which I’ve been following lately and it makes such a huge difference! He said, if something takes less than 2 mins for you to complete, get it done because as things escalate, trying to find a chunk of time like an hour to clean up is much harder than just taking the initial 2 minutes to put the stuff away.

    And he’s right. That really helped me. But I’m still nowhere near my mom’s standards. That will probably never happen. 🙂

  8. I love your mom’s quote, “The state of your room reflects the state of your mind.” As a child, I could block out the mess, I think, because I was consumed in my own little world.

    As I have matured and become more conscious of my self as it exists within a larger world and of how my surroundings do play a role in enhancing or deteriorating my mental state, I have changed. I wouldn’t say that I am the most organized person in the world, but I do try.

    I can be a control freak at times, so cleaning is, in some ways, my act of regaining control over the seeming chaos in my larger surroundings (world), and, thus, mind.

  9. I hate losing too much time cleaning and so I´m super minimalist. I really have little stuff to be cleaned and I make sure my daughter has not so many toys as well.

    Sometimes I´very good with my GTD approach on cleaning the house, meaning that everything I see that will take me less than two minutes gets to be done right then. This means that I clean as I go, as I go to the bathroom if I see something thrown in the living room floor I pick it up immediately and put it back in its place.

    But as organized as this is, I realize it makes me a bit mental too. I can´t just sit and let something be out of it´s place for too long. Sure I have times when I forget all the GTD rules and let the place be a mess. We all have our ways to clean and organize and much of them come from our backgrounds and personality, there isn´t much we can do to change.

  10. I am a neater person that my husband, but his tolerance for clutter is much lower. I get mad at his sloppily “folded” clothes, and he gets mad at my piles on the counter. Then we clean it up together and move on to the next thing, which usually involves changing an explosive diaper, refereeing fighting siblings, or removing crusts from sandwiches. Which leaves no time for cleaning and leads to more sloppily folded clothes and piles on the counter … Ah, the vicious cycle!

  11. Hey I hope you get this message and please don’t take this the wrong way. Growing up I had all the same problems, I couldn’t see messes do maps, and couldn’t comprehend how people were neat. When I was 20 after some things I was diagnosed with something called a visual perceptual disorder which means you see things differently. I was able to go through intense therapy and it radically improved my life. I did have a wire missing and had all the problems you had. Now you can dismiss this if you want but it is something to look into. Getting the therapy for it changed my life for the better and if you have it too which it sounds identical to what I had, it can change your life too.


  12. I think this very much has to do with temperament. People need to learn to work with each other’s temperament. No one temperament is better than the other. We can all learn to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of the other temperments.

  13. I could have written this article and would not have a single word changed. Our house is exactly same. I was not that bad initially but found that working at a job outside as well as at home with two kids, time has lot of time management problems. I was always yelling at my kids and husband to clean things which took 40 minutes for me to pick up all the cloths or make their beds but if everyone can clean their own stuff it would be only 10 min each. My husband was the calm one and nice guy in my kids’ eyes and I was the monster. So finally once I told my husband to take my job of making the kids do their household chores. For next few days my voice was unheard and I was the smiling buddha while my husband started shouting and arguing with kids. But then slowly he could not take the strain and left. But he understood and never blamed me for yelling at kids or him. So finally we both left them be for our own peace of mind. Interestingly my son became a real slob while my daughter is very organised and she kept the house clean most of the time till she is gone for studies and left home.

    Though my husband and myself do not see the mess when some outsiders visit (my family is used to the mess though critical and my one or two close friends start cleaning right away after giving me few curses) suddenly we actually the mess though somebody else’s eyes and miraculously everything is cleared. In fact occasionally we call friends so that we start cleaning the house. We have a maid cleaning utensils and house every morning, bed is always full of cloths exactly for the same reasons you described. Unfortunately I am a hoarder too so one can imagine. When I clean it to the end which is very exhausting and I never touch the job for several months. My friends keep telling me to clean in bits and pieces which I could never follow seriously and end with doing all in one go which is why I dread starting.

    My one very organised and clean neighbour/friend who was a staunch criticof my ways and actually would sit through my cleaning once in a while left the flat for few years and rented it out to a family which I felt was very clean. When this family left, my friend returned and called me to see the cobwebs of several years in every nook and corner and behind the fridge etc. It was astonishing to see years of neglect in such a seemingly clean family. My friend kept shouting with anger ‘dirty’. Then I wondered if I am also dirty. The answer (shouting again) she gave me I remember till the end- “You are not dirty. When you are free I saw you cleaning and dusting but you are the most mismanaged person I have ever seen but THIS is dirty!” By the way she taught me how to dump all the important papers in a box so that they do not go missing and can be found when we need in one place. now I extended it to most of my cloths by dumping them in trays and later fold them if and when I have time.

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