Code Red: The Warning Signs That Your Home is About to Get Out of Control

updated Oct 3, 2023
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(Image credit: Lana Kenney)

It’s a vicious cycle, this whole “being an adult and keeping a tidy home” thing. One day your home is spotless—like maybe the night before friends or family visit—and worthy of a shelter magazine, then the next, it feels like life has taken hold of your space again.

So… things are messy. And you’re busy. And you feel a little overwhelmed, so you don’t tackle anything at all. Which is fine—you should take a break when you need it. But life doesn’t take a break, and so things get messier and messier until your clutter reaches a fever pitch.

But there’s good news: You can interrupt the cycle. You just need to take note of those moments when your home is telling you, in it’s own way, that things are getting a little out of control.

There’s no room to cook in the kitchen, or eat in the dining room.

If you find yourself having to shuffle things around just to find a place to put the cutting board so you can finish prepping dinner, it’s a sign that your kitchen has become a clutter collector. Same goes for the dining room table.

How to stay on top of it: There’s not a lot you can do to stop the flow of stuff when the kitchen or dining room is the heart of your home, but you can stick to a few rules that help keep surfaces clear when you need them:

→ 3 Hard-and-Fast Rules for a Cleaner Kitchen, All the Time
3 Ways to Make Sure Your Dining Room Table is Always Clear for Meals

Bins and shelves look empty.

You have a place for everything, so when everything’s not in its place, it means… it’s cluttering some other area of your home. Like when you go to grab a glass of water and find a cabinet that’s mysteriously empty, or pop into the playroom and see a toy bin missing its toys. You might not see the mess if it’s dotted around your whole house (two glasses on the nightstand, a few on the patio…), but just know it’s about to be a problem.

How to stay on top of it: When things start to clear out, make it a mission to bring everything back home. Grab a basket and go from room to room corralling the glasses, toys or books that usually live on your shelves.

(Image credit: Julia Brenner)

Lots of empty hangers in the closet.

An empty closet is a symptom of a backed up laundry workflow. If the clothes aren’t in the closet, it means they’re in the hamper—or in the dryer waiting to be folded, or maybe folded but still sitting on the coffee table.

How to stay on top of it: First, you have to take care of the problem by setting aside some time to clear out your laundry log jam—there’s no way around that. But to keep things flowing in the future, I find there is one thing that helps: Set alarms on your phone to remind you when the washer or dryer is done so you don’t leave your laundry mid-cycle—they’re harder to ignore than the appliance’s beep or sing song chime, but can be snoozed for 10 minutes if you’re busy at the moment. And when you’re folding clothes, place the folded items straight into a basket instead of letting them collect on a counter or table.

The garbage lid won’t close.

“I’ll do it later.” It’s the rally cry of clutter. But eventually, things hit a fever pitch and you find that your garbage lid isn’t closing and boxes are piling up around the perimeter.

How to stay on top of it: Take out the trash. (Boom! Easy.) If this seems to be a really frequent problem, consider reducing your waste, or at least buying a bigger trash can. And make it a rule to always break down boxes for recycling as soon as they’re empty—keep a pair of scissors or box cutters near the trash can.

→ The 5 Best Ways to Reduce Household Trash

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

Getting ready in the bathroom is easy—too easy.

Picture this: You’re getting ready for a night out and think to yourself—”tonight is the perfect night for that dark red lipstick I almost never wear.” So you start to look for it, and… there it is, right on the counter. Where it’s been since the last time you felt bold enough to wear it. Along with all the other things you use daily, weekly, and once-in-a-blue moon.

How to fix it: You want your vanity area to be accessible, but in an organized way. The things you use infrequently can be tucked into a drawer (and make sure they make it back there after each use). But if you find you’re leaving the things you use every day out on the counter more often than not, maybe that’s where they need to live. Scope out some countertop or wall-mounted organizers designed for makeup and grooming products to keep your oft-used merchandise close by, but looking tidy.