by Susan Caplan McCarthy
I remember reading Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit and being amazed by his story of a woman who, at a low point in her life, decided that she wanted to trek through the deserts of Egypt to go see the pyramids. Although she didn’t know what this involved, she decided that she’d have to give up smoking. That eventually prompted her to start jogging which, led her to change her diet and sleep patterns, as well as the way she worked, saved money, planned her time, and so on. Amazing.
For her, quitting smoking was her keystone habit, the habit upon which she built other habits.
I’m not a psychologist, and so I’m very likely oversimplifying the idea of creating a keystone habit since I’m going to focus on how it can help you to declutter.
How a One Habit Becomes Many Habits
When I first read about keystone habits, I thought that they were something that would magically or accidentally show up in one’s life, recognized as a keystone habit only in retrospect. Nope. You can choose your keystone habit.
To create a keystone habit, you select a very specific action related to an area of your life that you want to improve. Let’s say that you decide to choose a habit related to being organized. You select one small, specific location to declutter and you put your focus on keeping that one location organized.
A keystone habit shouldn’t be something that you’re already doing (or sort of doing). Look around your home for a specific location that you always struggle with. As you take things from that spot and put them where they belong, you gradually spread your organizing influence throughout your home. You’re still focused on maintaining organization in that one, original location, but to do so, you end up paying attention to other locations as well.
One – Select Your Keystone Habit
When I asked the question on Facebook about a location in people’s homes where they were always struggling with clutter, quite a few people mentioned their dining or kitchen table.
For my example in this article, we’ll pretend that you’ve decided that keeping your dining table clear will be your keystone habit. First, you want to define what a “clear dining table” looks like for you. Will the table be bare of everything or will you keep placemats and the salt and pepper shakers on the table?
I gave my husband a tray to corral his medications, checkbook, pens, mini screwdriver and other things he uses all the time at the dining table because this is one of two locations where he spends his days in the house. This isn’t a particularly attractive option but an improvement over a bunch of small items scattered over the table. I realized that my goal was to have an easy-to-clear table.
Two – List the Positive Reasons for Sticking with This Habit
If you have a family, and they contribute to the clutter in a spot, set up rules as to what needs to be removed and by when every day. If there will be an exception, define it up front. “Craft projects can stay on the table Saturday nights as long as the supplies get cleaned up by 4p on Sunday.” List the benefits of this new habit and invite your family to add in their own ideas.
Some benefits could be –
Three – Focus on this One Space
After clearing off the dining table, you may be tempted to think that you’ll tackle another location the next day. Not yet. Chances are that you’ll need to work at keeping the dining table clear. So, keep clearing the table and reminding others in your house to put away their stuff.
Remind them of the benefits. “Wasn’t it great that you and your friend had a clean space to work on homework together?” “It was so nice to have someone over for a meal without rushing around to clear off the table before they arrived.
Keeping this one space clear may prove to be an easy-to-maintain change – or not.
Four – Monitor the Process
You may need to do some problem solving if you notice the same things keep getting left in this space. Maybe your spouse drops the mail on the table every evening.
When you ask the question, “What’s the problem, here?” you realize that you don’t have a routine for dealing with the mail. The dining table is nowhere near the recycling bin and you don’t know what to do with mail that requires a future action. You decide that you need the habit of sorting the mail and tossing the junk mail before you set down the rest of it.
And where do you put the mail that you need to deal with later? You find a basket in your living room that’s been a catch-all for coins, paper clips, receipts, scissors and other small things. Now, when your spouse walks in the door, they toss the junk mail in a recycle bin and put the rest of the mail in this basket, with plans to go through it on Sunday nights.
Oh, and you also eliminated a catch-all basket without really noticing that your decluttering efforts were spreading to another location.
Five – Stay Consistent
By focusing on how you want one location in your home to look (as opposed to an entire room), you also engage another aspect of habit formation, consistency. Before, you may have worked at clearing off the table only when guests were joining you or you had a project that required a large, flat space. Now, it’s your expectation that you (and others in your home) return the table to its defined order every day.
Where Will You Start?
Maybe you’ll decide to keep your table clear (remember, you define what ‘clear’ looks like for you); or, your desk; or, the shoes that pile up in the foyer; or, that armchair in your bedroom where you pile your clean clothes. As you work on creating the order you want, you’ll be tossing some items, donating others, and moving some things to other rooms or locations around your home.
You might realize that you pile your clean laundry on a chair because your closet and drawers are so full that you can’t fit in anything new. Keeping your desk clean may be a matter of setting a timer to go off near the end of the day so you have time to file papers, bring your coffee mug to the kitchen, and tuck your planner into your tote bag.
Remember, you are focusing on keeping one very small area of your home consistently organized in the way you’ve defined. What will you be keeping organized? Leave a comment below.
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I help people focus on what's important to them by guiding them through clearing clutter and distractions from their lives. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; courses; speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.