By Amelia Bartlett

5 Lessons in Tidiness from a Tiny Home Dweller


How to streamline your life and home to reduce the clutter.

Ready to tidy up?

When Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up came into my possession, I felt like I held the key to success. I thought, “This is it. This book is going to help me be tidy forever and then I won’t have to think about it anymore.”

Now that it’s a successful Netflix show, even more people are getting on the tidy-up train.

But for me, like anything that seems to good to be true, it was not the life-changing solution I had hoped it would be.

I have ‘KonMarie’d’ my house multiple times, including two moves and one serious wardrobe purge to cement my commitment to the ‘capsule.’ But no matter how much I got rid of, I couldn’t seem to keep my house tidy for more than 24 hours.

The truth is, things come into our lives. They come into our lives unexpectedly as gifts and serendipitous finds. They come in even if they aren’t wanted (though often they are!), and oftentimes, they come in with us even when we have the best intention to keep new stuff out.

Last year I moved from a 600 square foot house into a 250 square foot converted school bus. No matter how much I got rid of, the clutter problem remained. So I took tidiness into my own hands.

Over the last few months, I’ve learned some valuable lessons on living tiny and trying my hardest to become a naturally tidy person. I imagine the naturally tidy person to have a place for everything – and not a junk drawer or tangled box of cords shoved under the bed. No, this naturally tidy person has a lovely, aesthetically pleasing and accessible place for everything.

Is that me? It could be.

My mission to become a ‘naturally tidy’ person is still in progress, but I want to share the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way. These lessons help me feel closer to my goal than ever, and some of them truly surprised me when I became conscious of their importance.

1. Everything needs a place

When an item is used, it needs to go back to its place, always. Sometimes the place is a box, shelf, tote, bag, or basket. But, a place should never be a pile. A place is a confined space in which things cannot escape out of the sides or bottom.

Some tips to keep in mind when defining the place:

  • Choose a place that makes sense for the function and lifestyle of that item. Consider: f it is often moved, or if it is always stationary, if someone must sit to access it, or if it is used in conjunction with other items.
  • Make sure the place is not obstructing regular traffic or function of other areas or items.
  • Ensure that every person who interacts with the space understands its purpose and is satisfied with its existence and visual appearance.

Obvious as it is, this lesson still eludes me often. There is a pile right here on my desk as I write. This is a spot that is prone to clutter and will most likely need a stricter system of storage in order for me to keep things contained.

Things that get unpacked every day (study supplies, purse contents) – It’s tempting to unpack things onto the dining room table or another easy surface. It feels temporary, like it’s not a big deal. However, by doing this every day you are committing to clutter and not solving a recurring problem. If you regularly unload keys, reusable bags, etc at the end of the day, get baskets or hooks to stow these items when you’re not carrying them around town.

Small loose items like stationary, office supplies, or hobby supplies – Small, loose items are sure to get messy quickly if they don’t have a space where they can not only rest, but be kept from jumbling about and into the wrong space. This is why junk drawers are awful. No space should ever require digging! Again, invest in a real container and throw things you don’t regularly use either away or in deeper storage.

Jewelry and small accessories – Items you only wear occasionally mixed with items you take on and off everyday are a recipe for daily stress. Setting a specific place for your daily-wear accessories, apart from the designated space for precious personal artifacts will smooth your morning routine and keep your accessories from getting tangled.

Items to be stored – It’s tempting to hang onto things that we might need someday. Nope. Get rid of anything you haven’t touched in months (a 6-month cutoff is a good timeline for things you’re really not likely to miss) and even things you may need someday but not now.

Certain things are kept and stored:

  • Investment pieces, like expensive adventure gear and auto accessories
  • Seasonal clothing and shoes, though I pared down to the necessities and forwent keeping duplicates simply because I liked to ‘have options.’
  • Collections: books, dried herbs and medicinal supplies, and art supplies I only use rarely.
  • Spare linens and winter blankets.

2. Create “drop zones” for new items and daily use items

No matter how streamlined you make your life, there will still be stuff you need every day. Instead of cramming your phone charger into a random drawer where you can’t find it later, start creating designated zones for things you need every day.

Having neutral drop zones near entrances/exits in your home is an easy fix for items that primarily live with us, and otherwise wouldn’t have a specific place. Drop zones can be a unique wooden bowl, a set of hooks near the door, or a sectioned wall-mount organizer with small hooks, a mail slot, and a chalkboard.

3. When purchasing something, imagine where it will live in your space

When you’re out shopping for clothes, pantry items, new toys and accessories, are you considering where they will live in your house? Too many times have I purchased something I loved only to have to shove it somewhere messily to keep it from cluttering my living space.

Visualize the exact spot where you will put something, and know if its displacing other items when it moves in. Then be ruthless. Don’t buy it if it doesn’t have a spot — or decide what you will get rid of to make space.

Consider this a minimalist trick, as I learned it from my foray into minimalism: As you assess an item you’re about to purchase, ask yourself:

  • Do I need it? What problem is it solving?
  • Do I love it? How often will I use it, and for what?
  • Do I have space to keep it? Where?
  • Do I have space, or a time and place, to use and enjoy it?

After continuing this practice over a period of time, the questions will become subconscious and you’ll learn to hone your purchasing habits.

4. Efficiency and accessibility is key – “storage” is not your friend

One thing I will thank Marie Kondo for validating is that STORAGE ≠ TIDY. When you are storing something, you’re putting it away, out of the way, so that it doesn’t distract your daily life. If you are continuously entering your storage areas for items, you’re at risk for untidy behaviors: digging for items, pushing items around and out of the way to get what you need, and leaving the area more disheveled when you found it.

Rather than investing in storage, consider investing in ways your items can become part of your decor and lifestyle. Consider displaying your art supplies as a vignette on a shelf. Line your pantry shelves with teas, herbs, glass jars filled with grains and cookies, and baskets that hold just a single layer of like-products.

When using a box, basket, or other deep-dish item as a place for other items to live, trying to keep it at a single layer. Display your blankets in a basket, but rolled up so they are all accessible from the top. Keep your cords in a box, but try keeping them rolled tight with a twist-tie and using a cigar box, rather than a plastic tote.

Your main goal of transitioning from “storage” to cohabitating with your items is accessibility. If you don’t need to access an item on a regular basis, or if the storage container and its location are conducive to accessibility, that’s what counts.

Interacting with your items, as well as locating and protecting them, should not be a stressful situation. It should be seamless, as using a blender on the counter or a computer at a desk might be.

5. Tidiness is subjective, and expectations must be communicated

For those of you living alone, count the blessing that you may tidy however you feel and no one can tell you otherwise. But many of us are sharing a space and items with another person whose idea of tidiness is likely quite different than ours.

This can be a problem.

Making tidiness a mutual priority for all people living in your home is the secret sauce to being naturally tidy. When you, your partner, your kids, and whoever else is keeping their things at your place are on the same page, tidiness is no longer than uphill battle. It’s a team effort.

Talking about tidiness is no easy feat, and I absolutely understand why. Shining a light on the messiness or tidiness of another person is almost always seen as confrontational, personal, and uncomfortable. Who wants to be told they’re a slob? Or, who wants to be made feel bad for being called (maybe affectionately), a neat freak?

There are a lot of ways to communicate with our loved ones on sensitive topics, and while I’m no communication expert, I’ve learned a few tips that make it easier to have the tidy conversations as they arise:

  • Don’t talk about tidiness in the middle of a stressful clean-up. When you feel it’s time to have the conversation about tidiness, give the other person notice in advance. Let them know you’ve been thinking about or reading about cleaning up and getting organized and that you’d like to pursue it together. Keep it easy, keep it neutral, and keep it collaborative.
  • Come into the conversation prepared to compromise. Not getting your way is completely fine when it comes to tidying, because any progress is progress.
  • Avoid “calling the person out,” recounting the score of times they’ve broken your (most likely unspoken) cleanliness rules, and making tidiness seem one sided in either direction.
  • Ask the other person what tidy, clean, and organized means to them. Invite them to create a visual moodboard, or write down words, or share examples of what their ideas of tidiness actually look like.
  • Create a plan together that is SMART:
    • Specific: Tasks, who will do them, and how they will be done.
    • Measurable: Try before + after photos and get a shock when you see just how tidy you can be.
    • Achievable: Sign your names at the bottom. Commit to the art of tidying the way you committed to being under the same roof together.
    • Realistic: Talk about each line item on your plan and be sure that everyone involved sees this as something they can accomplish and that will be reasonable to complete in the time that they have. No one wants to spend 15 hours a week cleaning, so being realistic (and thorough in your planning) will help communication and follow-through.
    • Time bound: This is where people get tripped up – everyone needs to know when tidying happens and the mutual expectations of completion. If you want the house cleaned Saturday morning but your child wants to watch cartoons until noon, there’s already a disaster brewing. Be realistic, but stand committed to the times you choose for tidying, major cleaning, and daily touch-ups throughout the space. Put your tidying in your calendar!
  • Set a day + time to check in our your collective tidying progress. Share how you feel about the space and what has been successful. Bring up any drawbacks or issues you’ve encountered and collaborate on solutions. Consider regrouping on the state of tidy in your space on a recurring basis until you feel you have a routine in place.

Make tidying fun

Being orderly and organized doesn’t have the suck the life out of your day. Rather than seeing tidying as an act of drudgery, make it fun! Put on good music, have your checklist ready, and reward yourself with a fresh cherry or whatever fruit is in season as you tick off your items. Light a candle or incense stick when you’re done and bask in the coziness of your space.

And, thank those in your house for going on this tidying journey with you. Despite each of our varying expectations and opinions on what being tidy actually looks like, when everyone feels heard and accepted, we can enjoy a tidy space together.