The Difference Between Cleaning and Organizing

Office Chaos

Cleaning and organizing are not the same. When you have stashes of stuff spilling into living space not intended for it, you need to organize. When your flip-flops stick to a bathroom floor that’s coated in residual hairspray, you might want to consider cleaning.

Each is a separate task requiring separate actions. To get organized you have to make decisions about what to keep and why. And, decide how to utilize your things and make them work within your environment. To clean means, well, to clean. To run the vacuum, wash the dishes, do the laundry, dust, mop, take out the trash and scrub the tub.

If you can’t find something you need in the kitchen because every available bit of counter space is covered with crusty old plates and empty soup cans, you seriously need to clean. When you are disorganized, you can’t find what you are looking for because you have simply stuffed things into any available space without considering whether it makes sense.

Not dirty, not organized
Some clean people have cluttered environments. Things are are not dirty, but not organized either. This can look “messy” but it doesn’t mean it isn’t clean. Alternately, some people love to organize, but don’t enjoy cleaning. Laura, who has a great blog called Organizing Junkie, says it very well. “Crumbs on the floor wouldn’t bother me but a pile of papers would drive me crazy!”

Laura told me she loves to organize her stuff, but would rather pay someone else to clean. This is an important point. There is a misconception that people who enjoy organizing are anal retentive neat freaks who would come unglued by dirt. Clearly this is not the case. Alex Fayle made a similar comment on this blog in response to someone inferring that as a Professional Organizer he cleaned people’s houses. He noted, “As for cleaning, I don’t even do that in my own apartment!”

Come here, Thor
I had a client who hired a Professional Organizer only to be disappointed when the man would not carry trash bags to the curb and wanted to talk to her about organizing options. She stated, “I wanted more doing and less talking.” What she wanted was a maid or, probably more accurately, a paid helper. She really wasn’t ready for a Professional Organizer. She first needed to clean. Again, that does not mean that I am advocating obsessive cleanliness. Whatever level of clean you need to feel comfortable in your space is what you need to try to accomplish.

Many people mistake cleaning for organizing and believe that by finally discarding a bunch of stuff they have organized. No, they’ve cleaned things out. Professional Organizer Monica Ricci made a great comment in response to U-Haul claiming that renting a storage space would help you organize:

“Storing, containerizing and throwing out aren’t organizing because you can store clutter, you can certainly containerize clutter (my clients do it all the time) and you can for sure get rid of stuff and still not be organized.”

A personal and emotional process
A maid service in my area claims to help you “organize while you are at work.” My initial reaction was, “How will I know where my stuff is?” Organization is a very personal and often emotional process for managing your belongings. How you organize needs to make sense to you and other people in your home. That goes back to the idea discussed in my past posts on Categorizing.

I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I know that cleaning often comes before organizing (and then again after). Resist the temptation to set the unrealistic and unattainable goal of doing both at once. And, resist the impulse to run out and by storage containers.

Start by cleaning and throwing away anything that isn’t useful. Remember, if it isn’t useful, it needs to be considered for disposal either through throwing away or giving away. As you work your way through your home eliminating unwanted things, you will create new storage space. When you are done, take a look at what’s left without a proper place and then decide if you need to purchase container or other organizing aids.

And, don’t hesitate to ask or, if you can, pay for help. It’s OK to get help to clean and get organized, and it’s OK to keep that helper around to stay clean and organized. Do what you need to do to be happy in your environment.

23 thoughts on “The Difference Between Cleaning and Organizing

  • August 4 2007 at 9:42 pm
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    I agree with Laura. The crumbs under my kitchen table don't bother me. But the recycle trash stacked next to the plain trash makes me crazy!! I've already told my husband when he makes a certain income I am hiring someone to clean my house! She just better not mess up my organization! = )

  • August 6 2007 at 11:21 am
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    Good distinction. Crumbs bother me a lot but books piled everywhere give me a glow of satisfaction! Talk about separate.

  • August 6 2007 at 2:34 pm
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    Very good point about organizing being personal. I have pretty much everything in my house put away in it's own little spot and although I am cluttered, it's still organized and I can tell you exactly where everything is.

    My husband on the other hand is always asking me "where did you hide this?"

    It's *not* hiding! It's put away where it ought to be!! Lol. My main goal now is to figure out a system that he would understand as well.

  • March 1 2008 at 11:47 am
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    Amie -
    All excellent points and very well put. I have many prospects that call me and originally think they need organizing services and I end up referring them to cleaning services.

    Organizing is mostly mental and different for almost every client I have ever had. Different systems are going to work for different types of people.

    When I am working with clients, if a shelf needs dusting before we place items back on it, I am not adverse to doing it, but that is not my main focus when going to a space.

    Stephanie LH Calahan's last blog post..Do You Social Bookmark?

  • March 24 2008 at 8:56 am
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    I'm the opposite of Laura, it seems. I don't mind cleaning at all (getting out the mop, cleaning the windows and mirrors, etc), but I'm rather hopeless when it comes to organizing stuff! Unfortunately, that does make it harder to clean sometimes, when you have to clean around things…
    :(

    Caitlin's last blog post..Need Help? Barter For It!

  • April 5 2008 at 8:34 pm
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    I am sooo like Laura, crumbs don't bother me one bit, but if my books on my shelf are not aligned correctly or have been rearranged by my daughter or son I go nuts.

  • April 16 2008 at 6:25 am
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    I don't like having a dirty house & I'm especially upset that I have clutter.
    I can't throw all things away & to top it off now I have a huge german cockroach problem.
    I've had to put everything cardboard in sealed plastic containers to stop them from breeding.
    I also have sticky tape on all my furniture to catch them.
    Clutter who needs it?

  • August 3 2008 at 10:56 pm
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    I have been known to sweep dust & mop, then throw the stacks of paper right down on the floor where they were. Hate dirt, am a chronic clutterer.

  • January 18 2009 at 6:53 am
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    Oh this post was like a breath of fresh air to me, the point that hit home the most being that organizing is personal.
    I hate it when I can't find my jewellery, only after hours of searching, finding out that my 'helpful' husband has put it in the drawer! I need to organize myself rather than someone else do it for me.

    Babbette :)

    Babbette's last blog post..Diamond heart pendant

  • January 24 2009 at 5:36 pm
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    Absolutely agree with having an environment where you can relax in, too much clutter can cause stress levels, which everyone know is a terrible thing.

  • March 1 2009 at 11:01 am
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    I definately agree that clutter and having a dirty house are distinctly different. I feel like if I clean my house and it is filled with clutter it will never feel clean. I believe also that clutter makes you feel anxious and causes stress. I cannot relax when there is clutter.

  • March 31 2009 at 3:15 pm
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    Hi there,

    Enjoyed your blog very much, and i just wanted to say keep up the good work!!!

  • August 5 2009 at 1:08 pm
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    I never knew that people who love organizing dislike cleaning, or they tell other to clean. i m the person who don't like doing both.

  • November 5 2009 at 2:50 pm
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    Cluttered desk clear mind,
    Clean desk clustered mind.

    I have heard that a buch of times from my wife.

    However I disagree

  • November 24 2009 at 10:14 pm
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    I might be one of those anal retentive neat freaks you mention lol. Then again, I was an army brat and grew up in a home where neither was tolerated. I've loosened up a bit as I've gotten older and started a family of my own though. Common areas and shared spaces are kept clean and organized, but personal space is personal space. Works for us, but I cringe a little when I see papers everywhere on my daughter's desk.

  • November 2 2010 at 9:32 am
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    Ay my house we have an interesting array off clutter vs "keepsakes" plus we have added our own continous pile of papers etc. My husband doesn't like me to 'touch his stuff" as he will take care of it? So most times it's a stailmate. I really can't stand all of this stuff all over–my house looks like we are always in the process of moving!

  • November 2 2010 at 9:38 am
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    I understand, Judy! Over the years, I've divided certain rooms into areas. He has an area in the dining room (which is used as an office/studio) and half of our bedroom. I don't touch his stuff if it's in his area. If it's anywhere else, tough luck. :) Seems to work for us!

  • March 23 2011 at 7:31 am
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    Just what I was searching for, thanks for posting .

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  • March 2 2013 at 4:15 am
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    Cassie 2007, I agree with your post. My solution to hubby and kids keeping the status quo is to have a printed list of items. eg. my pantry has a list on inside cupboard. it is an alphabetical list as well as a list of what is on each shelf from left to right! In each of our wardrobes I have a laminated sheet that covers contents and where each item is. I group like items together and coralle them into aesthetically pleasing baskets to which i have attached swing tags. I find home organising to be time intensive, whereas I find cleaning to be labour intensive!!! keep up the good work, Mamamialia

  • March 1 2014 at 5:13 am
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    This article was very welcome by me because :-) My son can't understand how I could call someone to help me clean – we clean for 5 hours together, then there is still clutter around . I hate both clutter and germs but I can keep putting off organizing because it is very time consuming and personal but I will go crazy with nasty floors, bathrooms and kitchen . Grandkids and 2 sons plus husband and myself along with 2 cats comtribute to my having to clean regularly and deeply.The article was forwarded to his email to enlighten him. Thank you .

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