Acceptance is the first step to cleanliness
For most of my life, my room looked something like this:
On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being when friends or relatives are visiting, and 10 being my room after a weekend of heavy drinking and poor decisions, my room pictured above is a 7. It’s seen better days, but it’s not entirely out of the norm.
I’ve always liked the idea of being clean, but I’ve never actually been clean. Organization just wasn’t a priority in my life. As long as I wasn’t on Hoarders-like level of messiness, I was fine with throwing clothes on the floor and leaving dishes in the sink. This wasn’t a big deal in college – I lived in a frat house so the bar for tidiness was low. But after graduation, I lived with roommates who had a certain expectation for cleanliness, so I had to change.
Despite my best efforts though, I could not stay clean. I left trash in the common area and my room typically looked like a tornado had just passed through. I would spend the occasional weekend furiously cleaning my apartment, promising myself that I would never be disorganized again, but the mess would inevitably return and I would repeat the cycle.
I needed a plan to stay organized. But to do that, I needed to understand why I was messy in the first place.
Why I Was A Slob
1. Too Much Stuff
In my apartment were several Nerf guns, a printer without ink, an inflatable mattress, thirty to forty books, and several old suitcases. While having a lot of possessions didn’t necessarily make me disorganized, it gave me more material to work with. I knew that I should throw things away, but actually getting rid of things was hard. I held onto things longer than necessary because I was afraid of throwing something out that I would need in the future. As my stuff accumulated, it overfilled my closet and spread across my room.
2. I was used to living with mess.
I have friends who, after finishing a meal, will immediately take their plate to the kitchen, rinse it off, and put it in the dishwasher. They make their beds in the morning, and before they go to sleep, they sweep their room for trash. Being clean is ingrained in their lives.
When I finished a meal, I left the plate where it was. If I felt particularly ambitious, I dropped it off in the sink – no rinsing. Trash had become part of my room’s décor and if my bed wasn’t covered by books, I considered that a win.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t clean up after myself, it was that most of the time, I didn’t think to do so. I had become desensitized to mess. Unlike my friends, I had to consciously decide to clean. I could maintain a state of tidiness in the short-term but as soon as I let my guard down, dishes would start piling up in the sink.
3. A vicious cycle of messiness and procrastination.
If I did notice my room becoming messier, I would be in the middle of something - middle of reading, middle of watching TV, middle of heading out. Even if it just meant throwing away some empty Snapple bottles, I would tell myself that I would take care of it later. And then I would forget.
Next time I noticed the bottles, the mess would have spread. T-shirts would be on the ground and a random assortment of coins would have appeared on my desk. It required more effort to tidy up than before, so I would continue to delay cleaning by telling myself that I didn’t have time. This pattern would repeat itself and before I knew it, my room would devolve into an uninhabitable state.
5Sing My Way to Organization
In summary, messiness was rooted in my lifestyle. My large quantity of possessions made it easy for me to start a mess. I would then be oblivious to or put off cleaning the mess until it spiraled out of control. Most online articles just offered tips and tricks on how to be clean. I needed a system that would actually hold me accountable.
My mind jumped to 5S.
For those of you not versed in the joys of lean methodology, you are missing out. 5S is a workplace organization method commonly used in manufacturing. There are 5 steps, - all coincidentally starting with the letter “S” - designed to keep the workplace organized and free from distractions. The concept was popularized in Japan but, like all great Japanese inventions (e.g. sushi and Pokémon), has since spread across the world.
At the core of 5S are a few principles:
1. Sustainability and continuous improvement– Making sure whatever system put in place is long-lasting and continuously improving
2. Visual management – Making it as easy as possible to find what you need through visual cues
3. Error-proofing – Using processes and design to prevent mistakes from happening
The last two points resonated with me. Change is hard – hence why so many New Year Resolutions fail – so I’m a big believer of adjusting your environment to drive new behaviors. Watch this video of a Stockholm staircase motivating people to take the stairs to see what I mean. Visual management seemed like another way to use my surroundings to change how I act.
As for error-proofing, I felt like my messiness was just the result of a series of mistakes – much like my life. Any way to prevent the mess from starting in the first place would go a long way in keeping me neat.
It’s now been a few months since I started my 5S journey. Although my room is far from spotless, the difference between how my room looks now compared to how it previously looked is vast. Given my success, I decided to outline the system so you can apply 5S to your own life.
The 5S Journey
The first step of 5S is sort, which means separating the items you actually use from that McDonald’s receipt from 5 years ago. You don’t need to move your furniture, but remove as much stuff as you can from shelves, drawers, closets, etc., and lay it out in the open in one location. The goal of this step is to take stock of everything you own. If you are organizing more than one room, do this step one room at a time.
When I did this step, I not only discovered a few hidden treasures such as a $25 Amazon gift card, but I also discovered I had an unfortunate habit of keeping the cardboard packaging of every item I buy.
Once your belongings are in one spot, separate them into three group:
One group is for items you frequently use such as headphones, clothing, pens, and notebooks. Room decorations also fall into this category such as books and desk toys.
One group is for infrequently-used items or items you can’t bear to throw out. Items include extra bedding, miscellaneous electronics cords, and that calligraphy set you bought last year and have only used once.
The last group is for items you never use and don’t want. This includes old Halloween costumes, that hideous sweater you received as a Christmas gift two years ago, and plain old trash.
Leave the items you frequently use where they are. You’ll deal with those items later. For the stuff you infrequently use/don’t want to throw out, put them in storage. You can be fairly lax in how you store them because you’re unlikely to use those items in the future. I just dumped those items inside a few plastic containers and put them in my closet.
For the last group of items, get rid of them. If it seems wasteful to throw certain items away, give them away or sell them.
If you’re afraid to throw something out that you might use in the future – mark it with a piece of tape and put it in the infrequently used pile. Next time you use that item, write the time and date of use on the tape. In a few months if you discover that certain items don’t have markings, then it’s safe to throw those items away.
The next step is to create a set location (get it?) for your items when they aren’t in use. The idea is that every item has a “home base” so you know where to put an item once you are done with it.
Designate a location in your room for each item in your pile of frequently used stuff and move that item there. Try to place the most commonly used items in the most accessible and visible places.
For example, I set aside space on the window ledge next to the head of my bed for my daily essentials – wallet, glasses, phone, etc. If you are considering moving larger items such as furniture, you can visually test different room layouts by drawing them on paper or on whiteboard first.
Don’t spend too much time trying to find the perfect location for each item. If you’re not sure where to put something, take your best guess. You can then spend time testing the new arrangement and making adjustments.
Once you are reasonably happy with your room’s layout, formalize each item’s home base. For every item that has a chance to “grow legs (aka could be moved), outline its designated location and label the location with the item’s name.
I used gym tape and a labeler but you can also use scotch tape and a sharpie. If you don’t want your room to look like an electronics warehouse, you can skip the item outlines and just label where each item is supposed to be located. This way if an item is in the correct place, the labels will be covered.
See below for some examples taken from yours truly:
Even though I felt like a kindergartener returning my markers to a labeled bin, creating a visible home base for each item made it easier for me to stay clean. I unconsciously gravitated toward putting every item back in its proper place and I would immediately notice a misplaced item because their home base would be empty.
Shining is just good old-fashioned cleaning. Vacuum the floors, wipe down the tables, make your bed, etc. This also includes taking care of any chores you have been putting off such as doing laundry and taking out the trash. This step isn’t hard to do, but it isn’t fun.
If you’re like me and have about as much motivation to clean as The Chainsmokers do in making a song not targeted toward teenage girls, commit to doing chores for at least 5 minutes. After the 5 minutes are up, you are free to stop. What you’ll find is that you’ll continue doing chores even after time runs out because it’s harder to start cleaning than it is to continue cleaning.
As you do your chores, write each of them down, you’ll need it for the next step.
At this point, your room should be clean. You can give yourself a pat on the back, but just one. The Standardize step creates a routine to keep your room organized going forward.
Take the list of chores you made in the previous step and attach a frequency to how often you plan on doing each chore.
I divided my chores into daily chores, weekly chores, and monthly chores. For daily-chores, I had tasks such as “make bed”; for weekly chores, tasks such as “vacuum room”; and for monthly chores, tasks such as “wash bedsheets”.
Create a visual checklist that you mark off every time you complete a chore. I have an unnatural obsession with whiteboards but you can also create a paper printout and tape it to a wall.
At first, I was a little skeptical that a checklist would get me to do housework. However, the visual reminder grew on me. I immediately knew which tasks I had to do each day and I felt guilty skipping tasks because the chart was so visible. Once I did a chore two or three times in a row, I also felt compelled to continue my streak because my inner 5-year old loved checking off the box.
If you are splitting errands with your spouse, roommates, or children, consider using the RACI system to assign responsibilities. What RACI stands for is:
Responsible: (Does the work)
Accountable: (Delegates/Approves the quality)
Consulted: (Whose opinions are sought, typically experts)
Informed: (People who are kept up-to-date on progress)
For example, if you are assigning the task of mowing the lawn, a RACI table could look like this.
Responsible: Brian (Child)
Accountable: You (Assuming you are a parent)
Consulted: Another parent/grandparent who is familiar with the machinery and process
Informed: You/Other children
When I first learned about 5S, I was confused about how Sustain differed from Standardize. Then I realized that Sustain was just a polite way of making sure you actually do all the sh*t you planned to do. This means holding yourself accountable to your room’s “set” layout and your chore routine.
Create fixed checkpoints where you audit yourself. Is everything in their designated location? Are there any items laying around that don’t have a “home base”? Are all your chores checked off? I created checkpoints at the end of each month but you can create checkpoints on a bi-weekly, weekly, or even daily basis.
If you’re afraid that you’ll go easy on yourself in your self-audits, consider enlisting a friend or roommate to randomly audit your room. Tell your friend to fine you $10 if you fail an audit. You can also use this method to help you achieve your goals.
If you fail an audit, the Sustain step is also about learning from your mistakes and preventing that mistake in the future. You should employ the “5 Why’s” - literally asking yourself “Why” five times - to figure out the root of a problem.
For example, I failed one of my monthly audits because I had several stacks of paper littered across my room. I asked myself “Why” a few times to figure out how this happened and how I could prevent it from happening again.
Why did I leave these documents laying out?
Because I didn’t put them in the drawer
I was afraid they were going to get lost
The drawer just has a stack of documents
I dump all my documents into the drawer
I don’t have a system for filing important documents
If you’re still not sure how this works, consult your nearest 6-year old.
Once you have determined the root of the problem, act on it. For my littering problem, I bought a small filing cabinet to store important documents that I put next to my desk. You should be constantly looking for ways to improve your system and routines.
I'm Still Clean...Most of the Time
It’s been half a year since I started this experiment and my room is still fairly organized.
I no longer have to think about where to put things because everything has a fixed location and I don’t have to think about what chores I need to do because I have a fixed routine. 5S has ingrained cleanliness and organization into my life and – dare I say it – made it a habit.
As part of the 5S mindset, my journey is not done. I am still looking for ways to optimize my lifestyle and to improve my system.
Hopefully this tutorial starts your organization journey and if you discover any tips and tricks, please let me know.