Ask LH: How Can I Live With A Slob?

Ask LH: How Can I Live With A Slob?

Dear Lifehacker, I love my roommate, except for one thing that’s starting to drive me crazy: the messes he leaves everywhere and the hoards of stuff he’s collected to the point where I feel our house is only filled with clutter. And he doesn’t do anything to help tidy up. How can I make this work?Signed, Felix Unger

Photo by Diego Cervo (Shutterstock)

Dear Felix,

Sadly, your situation is pretty common, because in any relationship one person is going to be neater and more organised (in this case, you) than the other (your roommate). It’s frustrating for both people, especially for the neater one who tends to do the cleaning and may feel resentful or may resort to nagging, but also for the other person who just isn’t as naturally organised as you are (consider that in another relationship you might be the messier person — yes, hard to believe.)

Here are some tips you can use to improve your situation:

  • Don’t nag: Nagging is counterproductive. It treats the other person with disrespect and, at the end of the day, it just makes you feel worse. When you catch yourself in the act of nagging, just stop — not worth it. In lieu of that, have conversations and establish ground rules about what needs to be done around the house (see below).
  • Talk about what needs to be done: This may sound boring and uncomfortable, but it’s important to set up some ground rules so you both know who is responsible for what — and be specific. Saying “I want the house to be clean” will not get the house clean, but specific tasks like washing the dishes and vacuuming the stairs will. You can spice things up with Chore wars and even automate some chores if you need to. As long as you have a dialogue and aren’t doing everything yourself and then sitting on a pile of resentment or resorting to passive-aggressiveness, you should be in a better place than many neat/messy pairs of people.
  • Remember that dirty and messy are different things: Be aware of your neat freak tendencies (if you have any) or, alternately, your packrat habits. When it comes to dirt, it should be obvious and both of you should agree when and how to handle that. In terms of messiness or what’s considered clutter, however, that may be more open to interpretation. Real Simple suggests discussing your comfort level with each other. Be open to compromise — when it comes to mess, but not dirt.
  • Use a shared to-do list: Dividing up chores and making a plan of action with clear routines and time limits may make sense especially for roommates. Or simply asking sometimes “can you take out the garbage while I wash the dishes?” might help. You can even do chores together (a playlist timer might even make it fun).
  • Focus on key rooms: Pick your battles. The shared, public rooms, like the kitchen, living room and bathrooms should have priority over the bedrooms when it comes to cleaning schedules. If your roommate’s got a sloppy desk but no one sees it, who cares? Let it go.

Consider also whether you just need more organising tools/storage space or a decluttering day (or week). Maybe a day of cleaning out your closets to get rid of clothes clutter will help, rebooting your kitchen to store things more efficiently, or digitising all your paper is the solution.

As with dealing with bad roommates, the bottom line is about respect. As frustrating as your packrat, slob of a housemate’s habits may be, don’t let these relatively minor household issues ruin your relationship. At the same time, don’t sweep your frustrations under the rug. (You see what I did there, right?)

If worse comes to worse, you can both invest in a housekeeping service.


P.S. If you’ve been in this situation before, as either the messy person or the neat one, what have you done to keep the peace?

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  • My old housemate wasn’t so much of a slob, but had no idea about chores. We had to put together a roster just for him, and he still couldn’t get it right… In the end I gave up, and he moved out – win-win, I say!

    It’s important to set the ground rules straight up, but some people just don’t have a clue – it took me nearly 12 months to get him to clean the toilet properly, until I finally took him into the bathroom and physically showed him how to do it (that brush isn’t just there to get the tricky bits off your backside). Still, after about a month, he returned to just pouring a bit of bleach in there, flushing it and forgetting about it.

    I think it’s important to stress that common areas are common areas, and you don’t leave your crap in them. That’s what your room is for. I usually use the “what if we all did that” phrase – sure it’s only one used cup sitting on the bench for a week, but if we all did that every day, by the end of the week, there’s be 21 cups there – therefore 1 cup is just as bad.

    Not only do you need to set your ground rules up front, but also admit that you might be a bit of a neat freak, and you don’t expect them to take on your habits – i.e. if you like the silver polished every 2nd day, say to your room mate “I like the silver polished every 2nd day, but that’s my thing – I’d like you to polish it every now and then, because you use it, but I’ll keep my OCD to myself” – that way you’re acknowledging a kind of compromise.

    At the end of the day, you can always evict or move out.

  • Also remember that everyone have different standards on ‘neat/messiness’ and it’s easy to apply your on standards on someone else. It is common for the neater person apply their standard of ‘neatness’ on the messier person, and think that the messier person is deliberately pissing them off by making a mess. But in the same way, the messier person will also be applying their standards on the neater person, thinking that ‘if I’m not concerned about the mess, why should you be?’ In the end it’s all about communication of standards. If the parties involved have enough consideration, then they will find a common compromise. If all things fail, there is always the option to move out.

    On the other hand, messing family member are a completely different thing…

  • I’ve been the neat person in a house a few times and the best trick for common areas I had was a ‘crap’ box. Just a box in the corner that I filled with people’s crap left around the loungeroom/kitchen etc. That way I’m happy as everything is away, and housemates are happy as they know where their stuff is.

  • Fairly easy one this. Get a cleaner. $40 per week and it’s all done for you. Agree that they pay for it every fortnight, and you clean the other week. They’ll prefer it, you’ll prefer it.
    The thing with having a cleaner is that you have to clear the clutter before the cleaner comes, or else they won’t actually clean, so it encourages them to keep on top of it and not get behind. It’s a good price for the service, you can find nice cheap cleaners usually flyer every so often.

    It’s absolutely worth it – just think, for $10 per person per week they clean better, faster and save you time. I got an old Korean couple, they’re lovely, friendly, very trustworthy, and the kitchen floor is clean enough to eat your Kimchi off.

  • +1 on “get a cleaner”.

    I’m a chronic clutterer. It is how I work/live/play most efficiently. Hide my crap in drawers or folders or boxes, and I waste too much time looking for it, taking it out again, spatially arranging it in an efficient manner, etc. However, I hate dirt, because I have allergies.

    I lived with a chronic non-clutterer who placed no value on lack of dirt in the house.

    At the same time he was complaining about a towel I’d left on the bathroom sink, and the case of soup cans I left sitting in a corner in the kitchen because the non-infested cupboards were all full of his stuff, I’d spent 2 hours that day washing baseboard moldings that as far as I could tell had not been cleaned since he moved into the place a year before I got there. And also, while he was complaining, there was a nasty dirty fry pan sitting on the stove, which he cooked breakfast (yes, with various proteins in it) in every day… AND NEVER WASHED. Did I mention we lived in Queensland and bugs were CONSTANTLY going after his fry pan, his rice cooker full of day-old rice, etc.? (see: prior comment about “non-infested”).

    The point I’m illustrating here is that these things are very subjective, and fall into the realm of personal taste. I’m sure my roommate thinks he keeps a much cleaner house than I do…. conversely, I’m quite certain that is not the case. 😉

  • Just remember how easy is it is to fall into double standards. If you think of yourself as a neat, organised, clean person and get to think of your housemate as messy, dirty or a slob… you will tend to notice things that support that. You might leave dishes at the sink and never imagine that its ‘mess’, because you know that you’re a ‘neat’ person and you’re going to wash it up just as soon as your schedule dictates.But you will notice every time your ‘messy’ housemate leaves a cup somewhere for more than 10 seconds, and thnik ‘Tsk… always leaving mess.’ because you think of them as messy. They might not do it as often as you, but you’ll start to forget or ignore it if the ‘messy’ housemate EVER cleans up, while you’ll remember in minute detail every time you swept, or wiped a benchtop because you’re thinking, ‘bah, its always me doing the cleaning.’ Or if you are the more relaved housekeeper, you’ll notice every time your housemate gently tsks when you leave your stuff strewn everywhere, and think ‘god, he/she’s so OCD, gimme a break…’ and proceed to be oblivious to how often they calmly and quietly put up with or clean up your mess. Before you tsk, ask yourself whether you’re seeing your housemate clearly, and try to be fair.

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