When what you’re doing isn’t working and your home feels chaotic

When what you’re doing isn’t working and your home feels chaotic

When what you're doing isn't working and your home feels chaotic

I started blogging about organizing, home management, decluttering and other related topics more than 7 years ago. Back then we had three small children (and then four under five), and I was working full time, but our home ran smoothly, without much clutter.

I don’t know exactly what happened—whether it was the addition of two (soon to be three) more children or their growth as individual people—but our home has felt chaotic lately. Really chaotic. It’s always cluttered, even after a round of ruthless decluttering, and we just haven’t been able to stay on top of things no matter how hard we try.

Getting control of the chaos was already on my “list” for the summer, but with the coming addition of a new little one, it became even more important.

At first, it was hard for me to identify what the problem was, so I spent some time just observing and trying to figure out what our hot spots were so that we could come up with strategies to fix them. Here’s what I’ve figured out:

When what you're doing isn't working and your home feels chaotic

1. Sharing the chores.

My kids have always had chores and chipped in as part of the family, even from a young age, but somewhere along the way we stopped scaling up with their age and skill level. That left Sean and I doing all of the dishes, all of the laundry, all of the cooking, and all of the deep cleaning.

For the past month, we’ve been ramping up the chores. Some of these are part of their daily “just because you’re part of the family” chores and some are individual paid jobs, but it’s made a huge difference to have everybody pitching in in more concrete ways:

  • Our oldest now does all of the girls’ laundry, start to finish, because trying to have them sort and put away their own laundry was just not working. (“Those aren’t MY socks!”)
  • The 7-year-old does 90% of the dishes, loading the dishwasher and washing any smaller pots and pans by hand.
  • Our 9-year-old empties the dishwasher and cleans up the foyer/front closet, although I want to focus on getting everybody to just put things away in the proper place when they come inside so that second job will soon be unnecessary.
  • We bought 1 plastic plate and 1 plastic bowl for each of the kids because our regular set is extremely fragile and was getting chipped every day. Now they use one and wash it by hand right away so it’s ready for their next meal.
  • The girls take care of the animals (a cat, a dog and two fish) every day.
  • I am still deciding how to assign cleaning the bathrooms and dusting each week, but I’m looking forward to having a regular rotation for those.
  • Once a week, I ask someone to go empty all of the trash cans in the house.

Taking a few of these chores off our plates has freed up Sean to once again work on house projects (he felt like he was spending all day doing dishes) and kept our house cleaner overall.

Ironically, I think the new floor that we put in a couple of years ago actually makes our house feel dirtier. We spent two weeks living at my parent’s house last month (while they were on an Alaskan cruise), and even though we ate the same number of meals and the kids and dogs were in and out just as often, the house stayed cleaner. Here, we clean, sweep and mop, and within 5 minutes the floor feels disgusting again. Sean said it has some kind of static technology that’s supposed to make it easier to clean, which sounds great in theory, but I think it actually attracts dust and dirt. (And it’s dark, so everything shows.) As ridiculous as it sounds, we’re looking forward to replacing the floor again at some point because it makes the house feel so dirty all the time.

When what you're doing isn't working and your home feels chaotic

2. Too much stuff.

Here’s the thing: If you were to look at the possessions of any one member of our family, we’d probably look like extreme minimalists. But multiply that by 8 (because all of the baby stuff I had prepped for consignment is still sitting in the basement waiting for this new little one to arrive!), and it’s a lot of stuff.

I am very, very cautious about how I approach decluttering with my kids. I want to teach them good habits, good strategies, and good limits, but I don’t want to leave them feeling more possessive over their things because they never know if it’s going to be decluttered out from under them. Honestly? I haven’t found a great balance, and that means they each have more stuff than would like occupying their beds, which is their personal zone.

Because I’m feeling a little lost in this area, I finally picked up Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up yesterday and immediately started devouring it. Now, there are some weird principles in this book, for sure, but in the first chapter, she promises over and over that once you follow her system, you’ll never find yourself repeating the cycle again. That’s appealing, y’all! So my goal in the coming weeks is to work through our home one area at a time (I know for sure that our priorities are going to be clothes, books, office/school/art supplies, and then whatever else may follow) to get it under control again and hope that these principles make a lasting difference for us.

Clothing is my current nemesis. After feeling like our minimalist approach to clothes was leaving our kids without anything to choose from (and that most of what had been handed down through multiple kids was starting to look ratty), I bought a bunch of new clothes for everybody this spring. But 10 outfits per kid times 5 kids is a lot of clothes! And there are tons of random socks, belts, and clothes that don’t get worn cluttering up those spaces. (To put this in perspective, all four of our girls share one dresser and one small hanging bar; it’s not like we really have a lot of excess here. But the number of kids just makes it much more overwhelming!)

I’m halfway through my pregnancy now and ready to embrace a capsule wardrobe for the remaining 5 months rather than keeping clothes for every stage of pregnancy hanging in my closet (which is just overwhelming). My hope is that if I start experimenting with this now, I’ll be better able to repeat it for those first few postpartum months and beyond!

Other kid stuff
Art and school supplies abound in this house, and they easily turn into a mess. I don’t know what the permanent solution for those are (or even if they’ll be addressed in Kondo’s book), but I’m determined to figure it out.

Our book collection (which is clearly not minimalist) has never been fully organized because our shelves are still under construction (see previous note about Sean finally having time to work on house projects…these are definitely on his list!), and they’ve gotten pretty messy over the last couple of months. That said, I’m pretty sure this is just a matter of taking an hour or two to straighten and reorganize; it’s not really a persistent problem.

Funny enough, I don’t feel like toys are a huge issue. There are a few we’re probably ready to declutter, but for the most part we have a fairly small number of toys that all get played with. I firmly believe that the solution is not more organizing doodads, but we do need some new boxes/baskets to contain a few sets, especially on the baby’s shelf downstairs.

When what you're doing isn't working and your home feels chaotic

3. Setting things down

One of our biggest issues is people setting things down wherever they happen to be standing rather than putting them away properly. I’m guilty of this as well, and—again—I don’t think it’s that we’re all slobs who never put anything away. But when 6 different people are setting things on the counter or the foyer table or the steps, it adds up quickly and makes it always feel messy. We can quickly knock these things out at night during our 15-minute clean up, but I’m trying to be a little more proactive about this myself and also reminding the girls to put things away right away or take something upstairs when they go so that we’re not living with the clutter all day every day.

4. Schedules & to-do lists

Besides physical clutter, one thing that was making our home feel chaotic was the lack of solid routines for making sure the have-tos get done each day. I’ve used various printed checklists in the past, but I recently reread Sarah Mackenzie’s post about her spiral notebook system, and something clicked. Taking a few minutes to write the girls’ checklists each day—to think about which chores they really need to do that day and who needs a shower, to remind them to get dressed and brush their hair and teeth right at the beginning of the day, and to be able to see what they’ve actually gotten done at the end of the day—is making a big difference. We haven’t perfected the system yet, but I’m looking forward to continuing to practice it this summer before we add in additional school work to their load.


By the way, despite Marie Kondo’s assertion that if you “tidy up” the right way, you’ll never have to do it again, I was relieved yesterday to see that Jen of IHeart Organizing has been feeling this way as well. She’s currently hosting a four-week “wait no more” challenge, with a fun printable to help you get things back in order, so if you’re looking for some accountability, be sure to head over there!

Have you read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up? Anyone else out there feeling like things just aren’t working anymore in your home and it’s time for an adjustment? Please tell me I’m not alone!

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Kondo’s book has been on my brain for the past few days. I think I may pick it up too. We try to keep stuff to a minimum too, but deal with the feeling of a messy house all the time. I know we’re on the right track because it doesn’t take too long to fully pick up the house and it looks good when we do, but I know we could improve.

  2. I keep hearing about that book from different bloggers and it definitely seems worth checking out. We just finished a major purge of four different closets and a transition making the former office into a girls’ room (we just found out that our youngest is getting a sister this fall!). The piles and piles of stuff around our house this past week waiting to be sorted or taken to Goodwill or the dump made our house seem almost unbearably messy, but it’s finally getting back under control.
    I like the idea of each person having one cup and one plate. We have a similar issue with feeling like all day there are dishes waiting to be washed.

  3. I totally feel your pain on this right now, and am also working to get our home back under control. I read Kondo’s book in January and loved it for a lot of reasons – one of the biggest ones being her method for folding clothes – our three kids share a room and clothing storage is at a premium and I was able to fit everything into two drawers for each kid and a small hanging bar. Changing the way we fold and store their clothes really was life-changing!

    BUT, I was pretty disappointed that she doesn’t really cover kids toys and stuff in depth. She suggests that kids have their own room, which just isn’t a possibility for us right now. So, I’d love to hear more about how you work through your kids stuff, especially because I know your girls also share a room. And I just find it to be really hard to simplify with 3 kids in one (small) room.

  4. Yeah, it would be great if she actually had children because I can personally attest that organizing principles are different with and without children and at different ages and depending on how many you have.

    I’ve been thinking about the folding thing a lot because I’m not 100% sold on telling our oldest that she has to fold clothes a certain way to put them away. So we’ll see if we actually follow that advice for the kids or not.

    And I absolutely disagree that kids should have their own rooms, so I’ll just have to ignore that part! I’ll definitely be updating our progress (good or bad); hopefully we’ll figure out something that works!

  5. Just had a long conversation with my best friend about this. We both have three kids, but she homeschools and my oldest two are in school. She was saying with everyone home all the time (or all away together) it’s just always messy. Always. Because they are using it. Which is obviously why we have houses. (Let our homes work for us, not us work for our homes.) This also seemstrue for your family. I do feel blessed that in the small window where only the messy two-year-old is home, I have the chance to quickly clear the clutter, and feel like I’m winning the battle more than she does. Though now that everyone is home all the time for summer, even my husband who is a university professor and mostly working from home for the summer, I get it. Mopping as people are walking in from a water gun fight outside – dripping and dirty – just feels defeating… And without the order and schedule of the school year, allowing the kids to relax and have fun, it feels hard to also always be reminding them of picking up. Hoping more of a habit sets in soon, so I’m not such a summer nag.

    Also, I liked Kondo’s book (especially because a friend warned me before starting some parts were a little out there), but she basically addresses none of the issues of having children at home. And she especially doesn’t talk about the difference between the things we as adults see as clutter, that our children view as “treasures.” (Always a battle.) Thinking
    that you’ll never have to tidy again is also not taking into account the ways kids grow and change constantly. But having good systems in place for the current stage means we are able to clean up much faster. And I have been able to tell myself that sometimes the purpose of something was simply realizing you don’t need it – which makes it easier to purge something we never use but is still in great shape. Letting go of the “maybe, somedays…” Hope you keep us posted on your solutions as you go!

  6. Oh, I’m so glad you’re reading the book! It has totally changed how we do things here. I feel like I’ve left some kind of fog that I’ve been living in for 12 years.

    As far as the kids go, we moved all toys from their room to make one general play area – and we only kept toys that were open ended or something they really loved. We sold soooooooo many things.

    Sure, some of her ideas might seem a little odd, but I’m glad we’re able to “chew up the meat and spit out the bones.” 🙂

  7. I’m worried about this recommendation, LOL! The girls’ room is the biggest room in the house, and it’s also somewhat insulated, so it’s great for them to play in there in the mornings or during nap time when the baby is sleeping downstairs. I am 100% sure that getting all of the toys out of there would help, but I’m not sure I even have room for their Lego table or doll house anywhere else, and I’m not sure I want them spending all of their time in the main area of the house either (ha!). But it’s definitely food for thought, which is what I want—what we’re doing isn’t working, so it’s time to consider other options!

  8. Excellent tips!!!! My kiddos worked on their rooms today….boy 13 and girl 16. The girl has made some HUGE progress on Part I of Clean-a-palooza. Boy? Not so much. Took two big bags of stuffies and some toys to the charity thrift shop. We’ll try again next week. 🙂

    I learned to just ask them to do chore type things when I think of it. Most will only take a few minutes and it won’t kill them (I don’t think).

    Yesterday, it was “Go snip off the dead peonies.” They went right out and were done in 10 min.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this too for the past couple of weeks. I feel like I’m spiraling out of control. I need new systems set in play to keep me feeling like we are moving in the right direction. I loved the “4 Simple steps to Stress- Free Homemaking” videos. I’m working through those now. My issue is just doing things to completion. I get distracted which is not hard to do with kids in the house.
    I also love Sarah’s checklist idea. I have been using that since January and it has made such a difference. I slowly add new chores to the list for the kids as they master them, plus school work.
    I have The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on my “To Read” list so we will see. I am also looking forward to seeing how you deal with the capsule. I’m thinking of doing this with the kids.

  10. I think there are so many things (ie systems) in our homes that need regular re-evaluating. What works in one season may not work in another. What works with young children is different from what works with older children. I think that is the challenge right there. That said, I want to really tackle our house from top to bottom this summer and get rid of all the “stuff” we aren’t using or truly don’t need. Good luck, Mandi!

  11. Marie Kondo definitely has some unique ideas, that’s for sure! Things have slowly been falling apart here in our home and it’s time for us to get back on track, too. Our problem is that we have to move by the end of July (but don’t yet know where we’re going to go – yikes!), so incorporating organization and homeschool/homemaking schedules and systems is kind of tough right now. As we move into our new home, however, I will be running a tight ship from the start!! Just wish I could get started now…

  12. #1-I can’t let hubby see this post b/c you said things got chaotic AFTER three kids. 😉 LOL It feels chaotic enough here with 3!

    #2-I’ve been on a slow decluttering of the house since last fall. I’ve gone one room at a time but have not done the Kondo method (nor have I read the book yet). I know I can’t start now since we leave for Costa Rica in a couple weeks, but I am really, really interested in reading it and using her method when we get back! One HUGE area we need to cut down on is books. We are overflowing with books.

  13. I’m glad you said that about Kondo not really addressing how her system works with children. I haven’t read the book (and am honestly not sure I want to, for various reasons 🙂 ), but there are so many seasons in my life with kids that I just literally *can’t* keep up with regular routines. There are nights when I prioritize sleep over dishes and am the better for it the next morning. But then sometimes those dishes start an avalanche of un-done homemaking chores, and a few days later we have a pigsty on our hands, and it takes awhile to clean it up. “Tidying up” as an adult in your own space and “tidying up” as an adult with kids seem to be very different things and take different strategies 🙂

  14. LOL! I don’t remember it feeling this way with 4, just in the last year or so. 🙂

  15. Someone I only know through Facebook recommended that book to me and I’m so glad I read the reviews before considering it. The ideas in it are more than a bit out there in my opinion, they’re downright ludicrous. Learning here that the author doesn’t even have children is all the more reason not to try out the ideas. I am perfectly capable of keeping MYSELF organized and on task, it’s the rest of my uncooperative family that I need help with, and I’m certain that help will have to come from someone who has experienced child rearing.

    If you find some good help in it, I do hope you’ll share. It was helpful to know that others are experiencing the chaos I feel also. Thanks for sharing!

  16. I am a mother of two with my third due in August. I read Kondo’s book several months ago, and found it to live up to its title. My home environment is far more tidy, sparkly, peaceful than it was prior to applying what I read in her book. She speaks to our more unconscious patterns about why we may be mentally and emotionally holding onto things and how to move through that. I think folks need to remember when reading it, Marie is not American, her spiritual views are Eastern– this doesn’t mean she is “out there”, but she is from an entirely different culture. I found her ideas tremendously helpful and novel, despite the fact that she does not cover living with kids. I think as a reader, you must use your own powers of creativity and adaptability to transfer what you read to your own life.

  17. I read Kondo’s book and didn’t like it. There were some helpful tips, certainly. But her approach is a very individual-focused one, I would say leaning toward selfishly perfectionistic. I am an extremely tidy and organized person by nature and often get comments about the order in my home (including systems for kids’ items, etc). I wouldn’t have much trouble implementing her system for myself. But imposing Kondo’s principles on my family members seems very restrictive and crazy-making. It feels to me that aiming for her standards in the context of many people sharing a home would cause a great deal of conflict and result in the focus being on achieving a perfectly curated home, rather on enjoying that home together.

    I’m always looking for good organizing ideas, but her book added stress and an ideal that seemed askew from the values of family life, rather than helpful information for family life.

  18. I completely agree! I was going to leave a comment with my honest opinion of this book, but you’ve covered it all! Definitely a good book for a single house dweller, but not too much in there for family living. In fact, she wasn’t able to implement her fantastic approach until she no longer lived with other people. Still, here are a couple good tidbits I could (or have already) put into practice.

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