The Power of the Tiny Tidy

Is tidying and cleaning a form of procrastination?

It certainly can be.

If you’re spending hours of your day, dusting, picking up bits of fluff off the carpet and scrubbing floors, then yes. You’ve got a bad case of procrastacleaning.

Put simply, you’re avoiding living.

As professor (and expert on procrastination) Tim Pychyl says:

“Procrastination is an existential issue of not getting on with life itself”.

Life is for living

When I was at university, I had a friend whose parents were hardcore house cleaners. They spent a huge amount of their time cleaning.

Their house had a distinct chemical smell: Pine O Cleen.

Like a hospital surgery room, everything was so neat. So immaculate. So sterile.

The backyard was the same: brick paving as far as the eye could see. No trees. No flowers. No birds. No life.

One day, out of the blue, I received a phone call from my friend. She was really upset. She had just received the terrible news that her mum had late stage cancer.

I remember my friend saying things like, “Mum isn’t ready to die”, “There’s all these things mum still wants to do” and “Mum wanted to go travelling . . . ”. But her mum was now too sick to do anything or go anywhere. She’d missed her chance.

Meeting the Bohemian family

Not long after that phone call, I became friends with a Bohemian family. And oh boy, did they know how to live!

I would go over to this family’s house and we’d do things like pick olives in our muddy gumboots, trample back into the house and sip on cups of tea surrounded by piles of books, academic papers and trinkets gathered from various adventures.

In this Bohemian household, no one cared about mud on the floor or decluttering. What mattered most were projects, ideas, relationships and good food!

So I decided cleaning and organising was a waste of time. I embraced a life of mess and clutter.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not easy being a slob.

It’s fun being a slob up to a point. But then life becomes really hard work. Much too hard for a slob to handle. For example:

• You waste time running around the house looking for things (e.g. your car keys and assignment sheets)
• You buy things you don’t need (you forgot you already have the item or something similar)
• You feel mentally chaotic being surrounded by piles of work and clutter
• It’s much harder to focus on one thing at a time
• You lose track of all the things you need to do
• You feel like you don’t have enough time to do everything (because you don’t have a clear mental picture of what needs to be done)

A slob comes clean with The Tiny Tidy

I soon realised I had to strike a balance between the hardcore cleaners and the Bohemian family. When I started working on my PhD, I knew it was time to break my slobby, pack rat habits and get organised to complete this big project.

I didn’t want to spend hours of my precious life energy cleaning. And as a poor student, I didn’t have the money to hire a cleaner.

So I embraced the power of The Tiny Tidy.

What’s a Tiny Tidy?

A Tiny Tidy is an intense three-minute tidy-up session. It delivers quick results and leaves you feeling more optimistic about your life.

In his excellent book Tiny Habits BJ Fogg explains how to execute the strategy as follow:

“Go to the messiest room in your house (or the worst corner of your office), set a timer for three minutes, and tidy up. After every errant paper you throw away, celebrate. After every toy you toss back into its cubbyhole – you get the idea. Say, “Good for me!” and “Wow. That looks much better.” And do a fist pump. Or whatever works for you. Celebrate each tiny success even if you don’t feel it authentically, because as soon as that timer goes off, I want you to stop and tune into what you are feeling.

I predict that your mood will be lighter … You will be more optimistic about your day and your tasks ahead. You may be surprised at how quickly you’ve shifted your perspective. I guarantee that you will look around and feel a sense of success. You’ll see that you made your life better in just three minutes.”

The celebration part of the Tiny Tidy is essential. Don’t bypass it. Every item you deal with must be followed with a “Woohoo!”, fist pump or celebratory dance move. This is what helps wire in the new habit of doing the Tiny Tidy sessions.

I have found doing a Tiny Tidy session once a day keeps chaos at bay. As Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg state in the The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:

“Tidying and filing, if you do them in manageable doses can be very soothing activities and can give you a feeling of control.”

Learning to live with some mess

Life is short and there’s lots of stuff to do and explore. Who wants to spend all their time cleaning?

Famous artist Margaret Olley was well known for her cluttered, messy house. And she had a great philosophy when it came to cleaning. She said:

“I’ve never liked housework. I get by doing little chores when I feel like them, in between paintings. Who wants to chase dust all their life? You can spend your whole lifetime cleaning the house . . .”

Her advice was simple:

“If the house looks dirty, buy another bunch of flowers”.

My advice is save your money. Don’t buy any flowers (pick some from the garden and put them in a jar) and try a Tiny Tidy in between study/work sessions.

It’s a good idea to do a couple of Tiny Tidy sessions over the weekend so you can start the week with some kind of order.

To sum up

Trust me, three minutes here and there adds up. Before you know it, you’ll be looking at a very different work/living space and feeling way more in control.

So whatever it is you want to do in life, go do it. Remember, life is for living (not for cleaning).