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Ten Steps to Guerilla Neat-Freakery

I am a neat freak, though you’d never know it to look at my house. Since marrying, having two children, and welcoming various cats, fish, birds and a guinea pig into the home we share, my borderline OCD-level drive to clean and organize has gradually eroded to the point where a properly alphabetized DVD collection seems no less ambitious a goal to me than refinishing our hardwood floors with an emery board and bottle of clear nail polish.

Gone forever are the Halcyon days of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” My once orderly, minimalist approach to home storage has been utterly decimated by attack closets that lie in wait to smother the unsuspecting visitor in a projectile avalanche of clothing, linens, sports equipment and small power tools. The only time I’m completely happy with my home’s appearance and functionality is on the Monday afternoon of a three-day weekend, during which my husband and kids have all made plans to be elsewhere and I’ve cleaned, organized, grouped and disposed-of to my heart’s content. When I’m done, I sit and bask in the neatness, intoxicated by the once-familiar scents of furniture polish, bleach and scouring powder. Then my husband and kids come home, and it’s all over.

I do manage to maintain the semblance of spic-and-span household between those long-awaited weekends, but it takes considerable effort, and even a little subterfuge. Herewith, I present my ten-step guide to guerrilla neat freakery.

Minimize horizontal surfaces
There is no coffee table in our living room. This choice has nothing to do with feng shui and everything to do with depriving my family of more flat surfaces upon which to heap outerwear, mail, magazines and partially-eaten food items.

Dispose of things on the down-low
You know your husband will never repair that circa-1972 hand mixer, and even if he does, you’ll never find a replacement part for the one beater that’s missing. But anytime you ask him if he’d mind getting rid of that broken artifact of the Cretaceous Era, he takes it as a personal attack on his handyman capabilities and vehemently assures you he’ll be repairing it shortly. Another year passes, and it’s time to have the same argument all over again. Throw it away when he’s not around to catch you in the act. This is one case where it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, because he’s never likely to notice it’s missing in the first place.

Employ a modified FIFO policy
FIFO, or First In, First Out is a manufacturing-sector mantra that basically means finish tasks in the order they were assigned. Applied to guerrilla neat freakery, it means old stuff has to go out the back door to the trash, recycle or charity bin before new stuff comes in the front door. Any time some gift-giving holiday rolls around, my family knows the deal: if you want to keep that brand new, shiny whatzit, you’ve got to hand over something of roughly the same dimensions for disposal first, so the new thing will have some space to occupy in our already overstuffed domicile.

If the dress don’t fit, dispose of it!
Okay ladies, time to swallow a bitter pill. Most of us maintain three separate wardrobes: one for the size we are right now, one for the size we’d like to be, and one that can only be termed our “fat clothes.” With the possible exception of pregnant women, the presence of a large collection of size-we’d-like-to-be clothes only causes us daily guilt and frustration. Mistily eyeballing that size 6 cocktail dress each morning isn’t doing anything to get your days off to a good start, and even if you move enough mountains to get back down to a size 6 someday, by then the dress will be hopelessly out of style anyway. It’s fine to keep one or two carefully-selected pieces to use as motivation when you’re actively trying to get into better shape, but no more. As for the fat clothes, again, it’s fine to have a few survival pieces for post-holiday mornings after, but by keeping an entire wardrobe of them you’re granting yourself permission to be that size again -- and stay that size long enough to wear all those clothes. Next thing you know, your size-I-am-right-now clothes become your size-I’d-like-to-be-clothes, your fat clothes become your size-I-am-right-now-clothes, and your jeans are mighty tight by New Year’s.

Believe me, you have enough boxes, bags, ribbon, and wrapping paper
If you have no idea what this one means, move along to the next item, there’s nothing for you to see here. But if you’re the one who collects all the boxes, wrapping paper, bags and ribbon to take home with you after any party you attend, you know exactly what I mean. Next time, take a deep breath and step away from the pile of gift-leavings. If you’re feeling really courageous you can help the hostess carry everything out to the recycle bin, but let’s just take things one step at a time.

Six months is the limit
With the exception of things you’re only supposed to use occasionally (i.e., Menorahs, Easter decorations, Halloween costumes, etc.) and tax or financial records, anything you haven’t used, worked on or even thought about within the past 6 months is something that will never be missed after it’s thrown away, recycled or donated to charity. Of course you had every intention of finishing the handcrafted dollhouse you began constructing while pregnant with your daughter, but now that she’s headed off to college it’s probably time to let the dream die. And when you bought that ice cream maker you fully intended never to buy another pint of Haagen Dazs, but after spending nearly a hundred dollars on ingredients and accessories just to get a single batch of grainy, thin vanilla, you lost all enthusiasm for the project. Don’t even get me started on the infomercial exercise equipment. We’ve all been there, but now it’s time to pass those exotic appliances, workout contraptions and too-demanding craft projects on to the next generation of gullible suckers.

Plan a reward and finance it with a yard sale
Your son says you’ll have to pry his collection of VHS martial arts movies from his cold, dead fingers—never mind that you haven’t owned a cassette player in nearly three years—and your husband is certain he’ll have a need for that cement mixer again someday, but you’ll be amazed how quickly their stories change when tickets to the big game or a year’s subscription to a pay cable channel is on the table. Every member of the family will suddenly “remember” countless things with which they’re willing to part when there’s money to be made. Just make sure the reward isn’t something that can be brought back into the house or garage!

Not every inheritance is an heirloom
Family silver, complete sets of china place settings, bibles and hand-embroidered linens are absolutely worth saving for the next generation. Cartoon character glasses from fast-food establishments, melamine dishes, warped Tupperware and incomplete board game sets, not so much. And one more thing: don’t just store those bona-fide heirlooms, use them! How else will your family and friends get to marvel at Great Grandma’s facility with a needle, or feel like British nobility when you serve them tea?

Domestic extortion: Look into it
They want you to cook dinner tonight, you want a clean kitchen. Surely you can come to some sort of “arrangement.”

When all else fails, leave
When you can’t stand the mess one minute longer and tacks number two through ten just aren’t happening for you, there’s no shame in taking a sanity break. Vacate the premises for an hour or two to take in a movie, go for a stroll, or soak up the cleanliness of some unmarried, childless, pet-less friend’s home.

By April L. Hamilton for VibrantNation

Photo courtesy of VibrantNation