How to change from being messy to neat

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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.

It’s common for kids of all ages to have messy bedrooms.

Some kids want to be neat but need help with organization.

Being clear and specific on what you expect makes it easier for your child to follow through.

If your child’s bedroom is a mess of toys, clothes, and other stuff, you’re not alone. It’s common for kids of all ages to have trouble keeping their rooms neat.

Some kids may like having a messy bedroom (“I know where everything is!”). For others, it’s a stage, like a child showing independence or a teen overwhelmed by new responsibility. And then there are the kids who have ongoing trouble with organization and need more help.

Whatever the cause, you can do things to encourage your child to clean up a messy bedroom. Here’s how to help kids to keep their rooms neat.

Be specific about what a “messy room” is.

Just saying “Your room is a mess” doesn’t tell kids what they need to do to fix it. Some kids need very specific instructions.

When your child’s room is clean, walk through it together and point out what makes it clean: “There are no toys on the floor because they’re put away. The bed is made. Your clothes are hanging in the closet, not thrown on the floor. Nice job.” You can even take a picture of the room when it’s neat so your child can refer to it.

Be clear about how much mess is OK.

Sometimes your child’s room is just a little messy and you might let it slide. But it’s important to let your child know what you won’t accept. If you can’t stand it when Legos are all over the floor, be clear with your child: “The Legos need to be put away as soon as you’re done with them. You can put them in the special Legos bin.”

Explain why it’s a problem.

Some kids don’t see the point of cleaning up. For them, it helps to explain why neatness matters. You might say things like:

“If you don’t pick up the Legos, you’ll step on them and hurt your feet.”

“When clothes are crumpled on your bed, they get wrinkled and look bad.”

“If you don’t throw away those food wrappers, it may attract bugs.”

Be careful, though, not to nag or repeat yourself over and over, which can backfire.

Use visual reminders.

Some kids need help remembering how areas like bookshelves are supposed to look when neat. Take a picture of the bookshelf when it’s organized, and post it on the wall. You can also include notes, like: “Books go tallest to shortest.” Another helpful tip: Keep a chores checklist on the door so your child can mark off each chore as it gets done.

Get rid of junk and outdated things.

One of the best ways to help kids keep their room neat is by getting rid of clutter. Once a year, go through the closet together to get rid of clothes and shoes your child has outgrown. You can also get rid of old toys, school papers, and anything else your child doesn’t need anymore. This can make cleaning the bedroom less overwhelming.

Have a place for everything.

Kids may struggle with cleaning their room if it isn’t clear where things are supposed to go. Make sure there’s a place for everything kids use and that it’s easy for them to put things back. That goes for clothes, toys, books, sports equipment, musical instruments, art supplies, and anything else they use a lot.

Pay special attention to the study area.

A neat, uncluttered place to do homework and study is important for kids who struggle with focus or organization. Make sure your child’s study area is clean, even if it’s not in the bedroom. Show your child how to keep homework organized in different folders for each subject.

How to Color-Code School Supplies

Be a role model.

If you expect kids to keep their room clean, it’s only fair that you keep your own bedroom clean, too. Asking kids to make their bed when you haven’t made yours won’t go down well. Your room doesn’t need to look perfect, but try to keep it up to the same standards you have for your child.

Praise your child’s efforts.

If you cheer on your child for tidying up, you’ll encourage more of that behavior. Even if kids don’t clean their rooms perfectly, it’s good to praise them for making the effort. “The floor is much cleaner now—thanks for putting away your toys.”

Your child’s room may never end up spotless. But by explaining why neatness matters and supporting your child, you can help get your child’s bedroom in much better shape.

Key Takeaways

Get rid of clutter, like old clothes and toys, so your child has fewer things to organize.

Hang a picture of the bedroom when it’s neat to show what to aim for.

Be a role model for your child by keeping your room neat, too.

Related topics


About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

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How to change from being messy to neat

People always ask me how my house is (almost) always neat. Here is my secret: I never leave a messy room! This is the holy grail of becoming a neat freak. The general rule should be don’t leave a room until it is cleaned up.

How to change from being messy to neat

How to Clean a Messy Room: Never Leave It for the End of the Day

Now, my husband would disagree with me big time on this philosophy. He finds my approach super inefficient. His feeling is you should clean up once, at the end of the day. I disagree. With my approach there is no cleaning or straightening to do at the end of an exhausting day when I’d rather be doing anything but cleaning.

How to change from being messy to neat

Take the kitchen after dinner as an example. After you finish dinner and put the dishes in the sink, you move on to the next activity (kids need to be bathed, bills need to be paid, a load of laundry needs to go in). Once that is done, you’ll want to pour yourself a (second?) glass of wine, and hop on the couch.

BUT, the dirty kitchen will still be hanging over your head! You’ll get grumpy thinking about having to do it now that you are nice and relaxed. Maybe you’ll even decide that you deserve to not clean up anymore today (which is, I’m certain, true!). So you go to sleep, only to wake up to dirty dishes.

Become a Neat Freak by Acting NOW

How do you put this in action? Enter the neat freak approach. If you spend 10 minutes cleaning up right after you eat, load the dishwasher and start it, wipe the counters (even pack lunch for the next day for good measure . . .but that’s for another post), you can then go and relax and never have to think about the kitchen again.

How to change from being messy to neat

Same goes for the playroom. My kids are now in the habit of putting their toys away before leaving the playroom, even if it means breaking down the puzzle they worked so hard on. This clears the way for a new fun activity the next time they enter the room.

The neat freak lifestyle may seem daunting at first, but once you get in the habit you won’t even think twice about it. Try it – it may just change your life!

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Sometimes people who like things clean…are just people who like things clean. The panel describes when the need for neatness could be called OCD.

Everyday Health: "Neat freaks" are often mislabeled as having OCD. What's the difference, and do all people with OCD like things excessively clean?

Jeff Szymanski, PhD (

Some of the confusion has to do with the terms themselves. "Obsessive" refers to a personality trait describing someone who thinks and worries a lot. "Compulsive" is also a personality trait, indicating someone who is hyper-organized, detail-oriented, with perfectionist tendencies. The "D" in OCD refers to "disorder"; this indicates that a person experiences significant, life-impairing anxiety. When obsessive or compulsive preferences are interrupted, it might annoy a person, but not cause them extreme, unyielding anxiety as is seen with OCD.

Jonathan Abramowitz, PhD (

The main difference between "neat freaks" and people with OCD is that "neat freaks" like being neat. They want to be that way because they feel like it helps them and keeps them productive. People with OCD wish they weren’t that way, but feel they have to do their rituals in order to prevent some dreaded catastrophe that is unlikely in the first place. OCD is based on fear. OCD rituals are responses to obsessions. "Neat freaks" do not have obsessions like people with OCD do. Not everyone with OCD is focused on cleanliness. OCD is pretty diverse in terms of its symptoms and everyone has symptoms that are a little different – their own personal spin.

Steven J. Brodsky, PsyD (

As I mentioned, no two cases of OCD are alike, and OCD can take thousands of diverse forms. Obsessions about neatness and cleanliness are experienced by only a fraction of OCD sufferers. As with all forms of OCD or any mental disorder, it has to impair social or occupational function or involve frequent excessive distress to be considered a diagnosable "disorder." Some examples include tardiness, inconveniencing others, social avoidance or disruption, and in some cases the person's physical health can be affected.

Charles H. Elliott, PhD, and Laura L. Smith, PhD (

People who are "neat freaks" generally aren't terribly worried about their so-called problem. They are able to go about their lives without excessive distress. Not all people with OCD are overly concerned about cleanliness because obsessions and compulsions can involve a surprisingly wide array of issues.

Jennifer Iverson, MC, LMHC (

It is a common misconception that "neat freaks" or "clean freaks" have OCD, perhaps because cleanliness and ordering are common types of OCD. But there is a difference between being a "neat freak" or "clean freak" and having an actual diagnosis of OCD. Like many things in the field of mental health, a disorder is a matter of degree. Part of OCD is that the person recognizes the obsessions and compulsions are excessive and unreasonable and they interfere with daily functioning. (There is the possibility of having OCD "with poor insight," in which case the person may not be aware of how excessive and time-consuming their obsessions and compulsions are. Children are also not held to the criterion of having insight into the excessiveness of their compulsions.)

Kenneth Schwarz, PhD (

A "neat freak" is someone who likes to be neat. Of course, having to tidy up may be the neat freak’s way to avoid becoming anxious. That's not such a bad thing. We all have our ways when it comes to avoiding what makes us anxious. OCD, on the other hand, is taking the neat freak thing – the avoidance of anxiety, the anxiety-provoking unwanted thought – to about 14 levels higher. It's a mistake to think that excessive cleanliness is the only symptom of OCD sufferers.

In my definition, the difference is when the behavior interferes with living your life. If you don't socialize because your home isn't "perfect" or if you turn down a social activity in preference for staying home to stay on a restrictive cleaning schedule, the behavior becomes OCD.

Allen H. Weg, EdD (

Here again, degree to which the symptoms interfere with functioning or cause friction with others are deciding factors in determining if the OCD diagnosis is given. Another factor is the degree to which the person can control his or her behavior and decide to not engage in a ritual by choice. While some people with OCD like things very clean and orderly, there are many who are no more clean and tidy than the average person. Paradoxically, if it takes many hours to take a shower because it requires the execution of elaborate and lengthy rituals, or it takes many hours to clean a room because it has to be done perfectly and by following a specific prescribed set of complicated rules, the person with OCD, even when cleanliness is very important to him or her, may forgo these activities because it is just too overwhelming to get started. So sometimes they may not wash or clean regularly to avoid all the hassle of doing things the way the OCD is making them do it.