If space is being used by more than one person, it’s important to establish who is responsible for disposing of what.
In a home, for example, the husband might be given responsibility for post and newspapers, while the wife is accountable for clothes, food and things to do with the children. An alternative approach would be to allocate responsibility by area, rather than by item.
Similarly, in the workplace it’s good to establish who’s responsible for the spaces beyond individual desks.
1. Divide responsibility by items
2. Divide responsibility by area
Strategy variations in practice
1: DIVIDE RESPONSIBILITY BY ITEMS
Newspapers, flyers, magazines; post (bills, mailshots, adverts, catalogues, etc.); books
Let’s say a husband has responsibility for disposing of newspapers. This doesn’t mean that he automatically disposes of every newspaper he sees. It means that when unwanted newspapers have been lying around for a while, it’s up to him to get rid of them.
If, for example, there’s a newspaper on the living-room floor and a couple hasn’t fixed their respective responsibilities, then there may be confusion – each might think the other still wants to read it, or get irritated that they have read it but not thrown it away. Worse still, they may not even notice it, so that it lies untouched for days on end.
Allocating responsibilities averts this situation. In this case, the husband will wonder whether the newspaper should be discarded. He’ll check the date and, if it’s yesterday’s, he’ll ask his wife if she’s read it. If she has, he can throw it away there and then. If she hasn’t, he’ll say ‘Do you want to read it? If not, I’ll throw it. If you do want to read it, then could you throw it away afterwards?’
Of course, if the wife notices a newspaper on the floor, she should be able to suggest throwing it away. She shouldn’t feel it’s nothing to do with her. But the main responsibility would be with the husband.
I have included newspapers, post and books in this section because responsibility for these items might easily be taken by anyone. Disposal of most things in the house is often down to women – clothes, shoes, socks, general household goods, etc. But I think it’s a good idea to have at least some division of responsibility.
In the workplace, there are often a lot of people, so allocation of responsibility is even more helpful.
Take magazines for example: say A is responsible for weekly magazines and B for other magazines. In this role A has established a rule that all weekly magazines should be disposed of after two weeks. If anybody wants to keep one of the magazines at the end of that period, they tell A. They can do so by leaving a message to A in the magazine. If, after two weeks, A sees a magazine belonging to the company lying on someone’s desk, it’s his role to pick it up and dispose of it.
2: DIVIDE RESPONSIBILITY BY AREA
The kitchen table, the lavatory, the hall, the livingroom table, the staircase
Let’s say the husband has responsibility for the kitchen table. Whenever he looks at it, he’ll wonder whether anything can be discarded. He may see his wife’s credit card statement, some printouts from school or flyers from the morning paper, and he’ll ask if they can be thrown away. This will be an opportunity to discard things that have been put there ‘for now’ and have no real purpose.
In the living room, kitchen and other large, well used spaces, I recommend that responsibility is set according to category of item rather than place. Just as with the house overall, the burden of having full responsibility for these rooms is too great. The person will feel resentful and arguments are likely.
Why this strategy works
Making responsibilities clear will enable you to avoid situations where everybody thinks someone else will act, but nobody does. It takes effort to make and implement decisions, and people are only too pleased if someone else assumes responsibility. So they leave it, and things that should be thrown away stay put.
Issues of responsibility came up repeatedly in my survey: ‘I’m living with my boyfriend now and some things that are necessary to him don’t seem necessary to me, and vice versa’ (female, aged twenty-four); ‘Now I’m living with someone else, I can’t just throw away things like credit card statements’ (twenty-something female). In these cases, things proliferate because people think they don’t have the right to discard them. Another respondent had no such problem with her husband’s things, however: ‘When you marry, you’ve suddenly got twice as much stuff around you. I have no problem discarding other people’s things, but I can’t throw away my own’ (female, aged forty). (This last example reminds me of myself when I got married!)
All of these people would benefit from clarification of responsibility. The first two would then have the right to ask if they can throw something away, while the third would be encouraged to think she must discard her own things in the same way that she discards her husband’s. Dividing responsibility in the home by room can help to avoid disputes, as
the person who has responsibility for the room in question clearly has the right to ask about anything in it.
But I’d like to express just one important caution for the sake of a peaceful life: don’t be too interfering.