How to Live with a Packrat

February 12th, 2013 posted by Debbie Williams

by Debbie Williams

For those of you who take pride in your organizational skills, I congratulate you. And for those of you living or working with a packrat, you have my sincerest sympathies. As the wife of a “collector” as he prefers to be called, I share in your struggle for an uncluttered life. I too dream of a neatened living room, a straightened bookcase, and an invisible trail of paper in the office. Is there hope of ever surviving this challenge? Can you overcome the obstacles thrown in your efficient path every day? The answer is a resounding YES, and I’m living proof that it works. After almost 17 years of marriage to a packrat, I can honestly say there is light at the end of the tunnel, but if you want to know my secret to success, you’ll need to leave your dream of a highly organized home and office behind – it’s just not going to happen! // But first let’s discuss a few organizational myths, and then we can best determine how to tackle your own clutter bug dilemma.


Living with a clutter bug is like any other relationship, and setting out to change the ways of your spouse or coworker is about as futile as forcing religion onto a heathen-you can talk until you’re blue in the face, but until you show your convictions by example, your words are meaningless. For one thing, it’s not your place to change anyone; each of us has the right to our own sense of style, and we all sort and organize in different ways. Setting out to change your office mate or roommate is not only unfair, but probably isn’t going to happen. Early in my marriage, I thought I could get my husband organized, and train him to be the wonderfully organized individual I knew he could eventually become. Over the years, I’ve tried every filing system and purchased every organizing product known to humankind, but nothing worked. Until one day I realized it just wasn’t my place to impose my system (or standards) on him. Yes, the dirty clothes trail got shorter, and was confined to the bathroom instead of throughout the house, but the turning point was accepting his “in between” laundry system and working with it. I hung a shaker-pegged rack, named it the Tween Rack, and now he hangs his sweats and tee shirts on the rack if they’re not yet ready for the wash. Although this system of his still remains a mystery to me, I respect it, and work with it rather than fight it. It’s one less battle of the wills to be fought.


Of course your mother and father knew best, and as a child you respected that. But the person sharing your office or living space is not a child and is not your responsibility. It’s simply not your place to change his or her undesirable behavior. However, with a lot of patience and a little training, you may be able to modify that undesirable behavior to a level you both can live with. Rather then imposing your organizational tools (and styles) upon your partner, inform him of your ideal system for paper management, and ask if this is something he feels he can do for you. If not, lower your expectations a notch or two, bringing yourself down to a middle ground. You’re not lowering your standards to his level, and he’s not raising his comfort level to meet yours; you’re both meeting on middle or neutral ground. For instance, one of my clients hates clutter of any kind on his desktop. His personal style is “out of sight”, and he prefers all files and office supplies tucked neatly away in drawers. His wife, however, likes everything out so she is reminded of her “to do’s”. Rather than an “all or nothing” system in their workspace, I helped them create a new system that worked for both of them. We filed active works-in-progress in vertical folder racks on top of her desk – easy to see and within reach. His folders were stored in his desk drawer, where they could be quickly retrieved by either of them. Office supplies were neatly stored in clear acrylic boxes – neat and tidy but clearly within view. A solution both could live and work with during their workday.


Often when an organized person works so closely with someone who has an opposite view of things, one or both parties simply give up and stops trying. Resentment builds, tempers flare, and neither one are happy. This usually occurs as the result of one trying to change the other, or impose their particular system of clutter control or paper management onto the other, which we know doesn’t work. Remember Felix and Oscar of the Odd Couple? When they cooperated, things ran much smoother and they were happy. Anytime Oscar tried to be something he wasn’t just to make Felix happy, things ran amuck. By the same token, if Felix gave up and became a slob (totally against his true nature), no one was happy either. It takes all kinds, as they say, and in life as in work that is just the way things go. Don’t give up; just keep tweaking the system until it works for the both of you. Lower your expectations of yourself and your coworker, and lighten up. You just may learn something about yourself and your partner that you didn’t know before – that no one’s perfect and sometimes “good enough” is just fine, too.

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Debbie Williams (21 Posts)

Debbie Williams, is an organizing strategist and the author of five books for organizing the home and office. Since receiving her bachelor's degree in education in 1981, Debbie has taught time management and organizational skills to people of all ages, and is currently a freelance writer for numerous professional publications.

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