Podcast 076: Organizing challenges for couples

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This is Podcast 76 and it’s about organizing challenges for couples. I usually work with individuals, but sometimes I work with couples and families too. Even when I’m working just with an individual, there are family members lurking in the background and they have their own wants, needs, agendas, resistances and bad habits that we have to take into account.

Sometimes I joke that I’m a marriage counselor and a personal trainer and an organizer all rolled into one. But it’s kind of true. Anyone who works with people in situations where they feel vulnerable needs to have empathy and people skills to truly help them.

Our homes and even our offices are personal spaces that reflect us whether we like it, or realize it, or not. They reveal our personalities in ways we like, when we display artwork or décor we’re proud of, and in ways we may feel shy about, when people see the inside of that closet we haven’t been able to clear out. I’m grateful that my clients trust me to see both those sides of them without judgment.

With couples, the level of organization and clutter in a home can reflect their shared proclivities, or one partner sets the tone and the other goes along with it, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. When people in that last category call me, I need to make clear that we can’t impose change that’s not agreed to by both parties. I know it would be great to just call in an organizer to fix your messy partner, but it doesn’t work that way.

On the positive side, when both people are willing, they’re often both more receptive to what I recommend than they would be to hearing it from their partner. That’s just human nature. It’s much easier to accept suggestions for change from someone you know has no investment in the outcome, except that you be happy. No hidden agendas, no history, no resentments.

I’m not a therapist; I work with couples as a coach. Sometimes it’s like running a business meeting. Everyone brings their ideas to the table to discuss. When one person finishes presenting an idea, I ask the other to respond, and vice versa. If we come to a stalemate, I try to find out where the resistance is coming from and if it’s something we can talk about and get past.

If that doesn’t work, I suggest scaling back on the project. That’s good advice anytime. Whenever you’re not making adequate progress on a goal, or any progress at all, see if you can make the goal smaller, or make your next step toward it smaller. Downscaling lowers the stakes, lowers the risk, and that in turn usually lowers your stress level and resistance to doing it.

It’s more effective to do a smaller project, like a pilot project, and get it done than to continue to negotiate over a larger one. Finishing something is instructive. You can learn a lot even from a small project. You learn about your own process and you can observe your partner’s. That’s all important information to use as you go up to a higher level, more complicated project.

Another technique I use is to back up all the way. Go back to why they hired me in the first place. At the core, there is something that they both want, which is usually to make their house a nicer place to live, making their lives easier, whether that means decluttering, organizing, rearranging, developing new habits or dividing up responsibilities differently.

This too is a great strategy for anyone. If you’re slacking off on a goal, it could be for many reasons such as feeling overwhelmed, feeling incompetent or feeling guilty. It could also be lack of motivation. If it’s that, you need to remind yourself of why you’ve set this course for yourself. Remind yourself that each task you do, such as clearing out a bin of old magazines, is getting you closer to that goal, even though the task itself is tedious and seems like not a good use of your time.

A third strategy I recommend for couples is “mind your own business.” Or, as my sister might say, “don’t be a buttinsky.” In a shared home, it’s not always simple to figure out who’s business is what. This is where compromise, negotiation and delegation come in. Let’s look at those three.

Compromise is when one partner makes a conscious decision not to be bugged anymore by the collection of woodworking magazines that takes up all that space on the bookshelves. Negotiation is when one partner agrees to take out the trash if the other will clean the bathroom.

Delegation is when both partners agree that one will be in charge of, say, bill paying, for example. Delegating can save a lot of time and headaches and ideally, the person best suited for the job will also want to do it.

It gets trickier for people who like things done a certain way, although it can work if there are just a few areas where this occurs and the less picky partner is in agreement. When it doesn’t work is when the perfectionist partner, because that’s what this is about, wants more things done their way than they have the capacity to actually to get done.

With a couple at home, this often translates into a house full of undone projects and tasks because Partner A intends to do them but doesn’t have time. This causes even the least picky Partner B to get a little bent out of shape.

My advice to perfectionist partners (and any perfectionists) is this: pick your battles. Pick them, fight them and win them. Or lose them. Doesn’t really matter. Focus on the ones that matter most, because everything cannot matter the most. Take action, because action must be taken to make progress even if it’s not exactly right. Let it play out, because without resolution you never win. You don’t lose either, but you never win. Never.

When you pick your battles, you also pick the ones you aren’t going to fight. This means you delegate them. It’s critical to delegate completely; not to micromanage or be critical of the other’s execution. Of course, the other person won’t do it perfectly. That’s a given. The other person also won’t do it your way.

It can be helpful here to step back and look at the overarching goal, as I mentioned before. Let the goal of improving the quality of your living space be satisfied by the task your partner has completed, even if you know you could’ve done it better. Done is better than perfect.

What you can do now: If you’ve got a home organizing issue you need to work out with your partner, pick one of the strategies I’ve given and try it. Try exploring resistance, scaling back, remembering your big goal, and checking your motivation. Also try compromise, negotiation and delegation. Don’t try all at once. Small is better.


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This podcast is based on my book, 52 Simple Ways to Get Organized, available on my website. Each week I go into greater depth about one of the 52 ways. Some weeks I’ll take on different organizing topics and reader suggestions.

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