Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cleaning a Messy Home: restoring order without losing your sanity

A couple recent conversations inspired me to write about how to clean your home without going insane. When I get into an no-chores mode that lasts awhile, clutter starts to accumulate all over the house. Dust, grime, and dirt build up on the floor, countertops, showers, mirrors, and other surfaces. Small piles of dirty laundry eventually turn into mountains. Looking at a monumental mess can smash my motivation to start dealing with it, which means the house becomes a place of barely controlled chaos and my mood gets correspondingly bleak. This is a familiar story to most moms of small children.

It is possible to tackle this problem, but it takes methodical discipline to pull it off without losing your mind and exhausting your energy. The trick is to divide the huge problem into a few smaller problems, and then take a systemized approach to each smaller problem. Focusing on one thing at a time keeps your energy up, allows for efficient use of time, and provides a sense of accomplishment when each task is done. Here's a practical summary explaining how to get a messy house back under control.

Clean the kitchen

If the kitchen is a total disaster, it is best to focus one day of your cleaning efforts on getting it back together. Tackle one subtask at a time, and take breaks in between tasks.

Go through the refrigerator and throw away spoiled food. Put away any clean dishes, then deal with dirty dishes. Wipe off the range hood and the stovetop to remove buildup. Wipe the microwave and other small appliances inside and out. Wash the countertops. Wipe down the front of the fridge, oven, and dishwasher. Finally, sweep up the floor, then mop with water and vinegar, sopping up excess liquid with an old towel.

Clean the bathrooms

Deal with one bathroom at a time. Spend no more than one continuous hour cleaning a bathroom before you take a break (preferably outside or in a wide open space).

I find it easiest to temporarily box and relocate items on the countertop, shelves, floor, in the shower, etc. so they won't get in my way. This lets me clean efficiently without stopping to constantly move things. Clean one fixture or surface at a time, starting with whatever looks the grossest. Save the floor for the very end. Replace and organize all the items you removed.

Deal with accumulated dirty laundry

Walk through the entire house with a laundry basket and collect the dirty clothes and towels. Throw them all into one pile. Sort the pile into individual loads, and start the first load.

Set timers to remind yourself to keep the laundry moving forward. It's harder to ignore your personal timer than it is to ignore the built-in buzzer features on the machines themselves. If you can't deal with the laundry when the timer goes off, set a new timer to go off in ten more minutes.

Lay clean clothes out flat as soon as they are dry. Create separate piles of clean laundry for each family member, rather than one huge mixed up pile. When all the laundry is done, move the piles of clean clothes into the appropriate rooms. Fold and put away the clothes in one room at a time.

Put clutter into boxes and deep clean each room

To deep clean a room, it can be helpful to put clutter into boxes to get it out of the way. Repurpose some old shipping boxes if you have them, or buy a couple packs of file boxes if you don't. Go into a room with boxes and a trash can.

Before you start working, set a timer for a relatively short amount of time (15-30 minutes). Stop working if the timer beeps, walk away, and do something else for awhile.  Used properly, the timer will prevent you from spending too much non-productive time engaging with your stuff. Do not walk around the house to put things away during this step.

Box any clutter on the floor or horizontal surfaces. Worried you won't remember how to arrange things on a shelf? Snap a few pictures with your phone.  Throw away anything that is obviously junk. Dedicate one box to truly critical things (if applicable) -- stuff like unpaid bills that absolutely cannot get lost without serious consequences. Label the boxes with the name of the room. Label the critical box, ideally with a brightly colored marker.

Once the clutter is out of the way, use a duster to remove cobwebs. Dust the ceiling fan, light fixture, door frame, window sills, all horizontal surfaces, and the baseboard moulding. Start with the highest features in the room and move down to the lowest. Use a damp rag to wipe up spills and gunk on horizontal surfaces. Also wipe off the door handle, light switch, and any finger prints on the door or near the light switch. Clean the mirrors, windows, and any display screens (monitors, TVs, etc).  

Vacuum the carpet, or sweep and mop the floor. Replace any furniture or large items that were moved during cleaning. Return the boxes to the room. If trying to clean the entire house on a timeline, only unpack the critical box and save the others for later.  

Unpack the boxes and organize your stuff

When all the rooms have been cleaned, start unpacking one room at a time. Additional boxes can be helpful during this step, enabling you to sort and group items more appropriately. Sometimes it becomes clear that new organizational structures are needed in a room:  shelves, bins, drawers, and so forth. Write down the needed organizers on a list. In the meantime, boxes with specific labels (e.g., "children's books," "crafts," "winter clothing," etc.) can be used to group similar items. When the more permanent organizational structures are installed, unpack those boxes.    

Things that don't really belong in a given room (kid's toys, miscellaneous paperwork, etc) should be sorted into a separate box for relocation. Finish unpacking the room before you start running around the house to relocate those things.


Approach a huge cleaning project by breaking it down into small pieces. Time is precious and distractions are constant for a mom, particularly a working mom. Use tools like timers to provide motivation and to control the amount of time spent cleaning. It is much easier to talk yourself into 30 minutes of cleaning than it is to talk yourself into a whole afternoon of continuous drudgery. Use boxes to help yourself pick up and contain clutter quickly. Tackle each room one task at a time. Try to avoid running around the house. The key is to work efficiently in short bursts, channel your energy into a specific task, and let each small success motivate you to take on the next small task. Before you know it, the whole house will be clean.

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