Clean your whole house in 20 minutes a day (even if you're a sloppy work-from-home type like me)

February 23 |
By: WonderlaneCC BY 2.0

I am not a cleaning person. I feel anxious when I'm in a space that isn't clean – more clutter than grime – but I'm definitely the type of person who leaves most deep-cleaning to the week when I move out of an apartment.

However, my husband and I bought a house last fall, and now I work from home. I don't want to feel anxious in the space I'm in all day. Additionally, we're the type of people who like to host things, and keeping the house neat makes it less stressful to do this.

You can see how these two issues are in conflict, right? I'm not a neat freak, but messes make me anxious. It's like a feedback loop of self-perpetuating punishment.

Luckily, I've developed new habits to break the loop — and they can be helpful to anyone who is less-than-eager to scrub the toilets regularly. A while ago I found a post called How to Clean Your House in 20 Minutes a Day for 30 Days. It combines the ways I like to handle cleaning — in short bursts and with timers — and helps me keep up with 2400 square feet of House. If you're ready to embark on a new cleaning experience, I'd advise that you get a piece of paper (or open your calendar, or put it in a Google Doc; whatever will help you look at The Rules every day and keep up with each days' "assignment").

Here are the rules, some outlined by the original post, some added for my own regimen:

  • Clean up after each meal. This only takes a few minutes and is a case of "a stitch in time saves nine." If you spend 5-10 minutes rinsing dishes and wiping down the counter as soon as you're through with dinner, you won't spend 15-20 minutes cleaning crud off the dishes later. Even if it doesn't save time, cleaning up after meals ensures that kitchen is an uncluttered, relaxing, smell-free space.
  • Do a little laundry each day. Or every other day. Or every third day. Whatever works for your household. We're just two people so I try to wash one load and fold the previous load every third day. It keeps the laundry basket from overflowing onto our bedroom floor, and keeps us from searching frantically for a beloved shirt, only to find it at the bottom of the hamper.
  • Set a timer. Most tasks really don't need more than 20 minutes, and it's hard to justify not having time for only 20 minutes each day. So set your timer, and stick to it. Knowing that it's only 20 minutes keeps you from avoiding the task — but if you get in the habit of going over your own boundary you may start avoiding the assignment.
  • Set a date to clean. I do my 20 minutes either first thing in the morning or over my lunch break — being self-employed allows for conveniences like that. Whether you choose to put in 20 as soon as you get home from work, while you're waiting on dinner or early in the morning, making it a ritual makes it harder to avoid.
Mini with leftmost monthnames column
Calendar by Eliazar Parra Cardenas. Used with Creative Commons license.
Next, set aside about 25 minutes to create your monthly assignments. Each day gets one task. Take a look at the original post for ideas — I liked the mix of "light" tasks (surface clean the living room) and deep cleaning tasks (clean out the refrigerator and pantry). However, not all of the tasks are necessary in my house, so I've made my own 30-day assignment list, customized to fit our lives. Put your list somewhere you can easily access it.

Finally, hold yourself accountable but don't fret if you slack off. If you miss a couple days a week you're probably still cleaning more than you otherwise would. Brush off the guilty feelings (I had them pretty much all of January, since I dropped my schedule after Christmas) and pick it up again.

Like many people, I had chores as a kid and was expected to help keep the house tidy. Even so, somehow I didn't learn how to keep house. If the same is true for you, you'll probably find it's very helpful to spend time actually crafting an approach to cleaning.

  1. I love this–the short-timeframes are much easier for me, and it definitely cuts the anxiety without making me feel like housework is taking over my life!

    3 agree
    • Yeah, bite-sized = way easier than "I'm going to clean everything, all of it, right now."

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      • That attitude is my gut reaction. But it doesn't work: I get overwhelmed and VERY tired of trying to vacuum the whole house AND clean the kitchen AND do the laundry AND cleaning the bathroom in one morning (when the house is stinking so hard it cannot be avoided).
        I am going to try this 20-minute a day cleaning!

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        • Ha! I totally thought about that. Every time my husband and I have a conversation about cleaning, errands, etc one of us looks at the other and asks, "What am I? Some kind of fucking wizard?"

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        • I <3 Hyperbole and a Half. I totally thought of that particular post, as well.

          1 agrees
  2. Wow! This is such a fantastic idea, perfect for procrastinators like me :)

    1 agrees
  3. I completely appreciate this. I like things clean but I hate cleaning, so I'm always looking for ways to make it easier and more manageable. Thanks!

    1 agrees
  4. I did so much regimented cleaning as a kid and teenager than I can't follow a schedule now. But I am a pretty organized person so luckily the visual mess doesn't get too out of hand – just don't wipe your fingers across my bookshelf – it will come away with lots of dust. So I sort of let the mess build up and then tidy everything away in 1 hr or 2 hrs on the weekend, listening to my favorite podcasts or a book on CD. Having people over is great for cleaning too – it makes both me and my husband motivated to get the place in shape.

    7 agree
  5. I'm envious of people who find scheduling less, instead of more, stressful. And people with laundry facilities convenient enough to do laundry every couple days.

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  6. "I'm not a neat freak, but messes make me anxious. It's like a feedback loop of self-perpetuating punishment."

    This pretty much describes me to a T! I feel compelled to clean the WHOLE HOUSE every day that I'm not working (which, as of tomorrow, will be every day) even thought I'm 8 1/2 months preggo. Then, after meals and after my husband comes home and leaves his crap spread all over the house like a trail of breadcrumbs, I don't have the energy to clean any of it up. A little bit at a time is a much better strategy.

    5 agree
  7. I needed this post so bad! I, too, have the constant internal conflict of hating both messes and cleaning. I also work from home (as does my husband) so it's really stressful and definitely hinders my productivity to have everything be a mess. This scheduling idea sounds promising.

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  8. *le sigh* I so wish wish wish we had the option of doing a little laundry everyday — when you're heading to the laudromat, it just doesn't make sense to waster 2 hours for one load. I dream about washing machines … and dishwashers. :)

    3 agree
    • i have been using the "wonder wash" from http://www.laundry-alternative.com for about a year now. my washing machine broke and i replaced it with this instead of another washing machine. when i need to replace my dryer, i plan to replace it with the countertop spin dryer they offer as well.

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      • Oh my gosh! I love that thing! 0-o I am so getting one of those if we find a cool apartment without a washer/dryer hookup. Not to mention I imagine that no electricty/low water usage/quick working would work wonders if someone was cloth diapering!

        1 agrees
      • You should write a post about your experience of life without a washing machine– I know I'd be really interested in that! :)

        1 agrees
  9. "I'm not a neat freak, but messes make me anxious. It's like a feedback loop of self-perpetuating punishment." This is like me too. I'm an artist so I'm always engrossed in making something– then I step back and look what I've done to the apartment and want to cry.(I've usually forgotten to eat all day or do the rest of my history readings too)
    I think moderation, cleaning as you go, (and my tidy boyfriend who just moved in) will reform me. He always laughs at how I can just leave things around in the strangest places… and am always scrambling to find my glasses or keys or purse etc. He knows where everything is always. I swear you are either born an organized know-er or a scatterbrained leave-r— and we scatterbrained people need all the help we can get! Good article!

    2 agree
  10. I'm a perpetual procrastinator and struggle with keeping my home clean. I've been following a similar plan for breaking down the cleaning duties into small, manageable chunks of 15-20 minutes each, and my home is actually starting to shape up. If you can get past the way too sugary-sweet-wholesome-goodness language on the site http://www.flylady.net may be a helpful resource, too.

    3 agree
  11. I am for sure going to make an " monthly assignments" list some time soon with hubby to be. I've been trying to muster the troops for a lets clean plan for awhile now and monthly assignments are are great new idea.

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  12. I do daily straightening up, putting toys away when the kids go down for the nap, before my husband gets home and after the kids go to bed. I clean the dining area after every meal, even if it just means dumping everything into the sink to do later. But I have to be pushed to my breaking point to do a deep clean, so that never happens and I'm okay with that, I'm okay with "clean enough."

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  13. Thanks for this post! It's going to come in very handy when I move in with my boyfriend in April.

    I'm just a bit skeptical about the "laundry every day" idea though – it just seems like that would get pretty wasteful in the long run. The poor electric bill!

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    • Yeah, my impression is that laundry's more for families with kids. We two definitely don't need more than a couple of loads a week.

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      • As someone who's done 7 loads in 3 days with at least another 2 to go to clear the backlog, I can really get on board with this! (It's kids washing + husband with work+casual clothes + bedding, ergh. In my defence I think a holiday tipped things completely over the edge into unmanageable – it feels never ending!). We easily do 3-4 loads a week, and spacing them out a bit more would help hugely :)

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    • we had the luxury of having a washer/dryer in our rental unit last year and i did laundry all.the.damn.time. i loved it. we have two kids, who are always wetting their pants, exploding their diapers, spilling paint, spilling food, etc– stuff that gets grody if you let it sit around too long. plus, my husband and i don't have a lot of clothes in our wardrobe, so it was nice to not have to worry about running out of clean clothes!

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  14. Man oh maaan, do my husband and I need to get on this! We let things build up until it takes the whole weekend to make any progress whatsoever, which is never fun. And we keep meaning to get on the dishes-after-every-meal train, but in reality…

    1 agrees
    • Our old apartment was too small for a proper kitchen table, so we always ate on TV trays while watching Netflix. Who wants to stop and clean up when they're cozy on the couch in the middle of watching something awesome? Not us! We would usually groggily plop our dirty dishes on the counter on our way to bed, and I wouldn't be able to wash them until after work the next day. Not a nice thing to come home to!

      We just moved to a bigger place, so we're trying to get into the habit of eating at the table. It's easier to find the motivation to clean up afterward because it's a natural transition between dinner and the leisure part of the evening (rather than an interruption). Plus it's much more conducive to conversation. :)

      4 agree
  15. Ok, so this will DEFINITELY not work for everyone, but watching my weight is helping me clean pretty regularly. (I'm very fat-pos, personal decision, embracing the choice, not compelled by those around me, yadda yadda yadda.)

    I'm able to log housework as a calorie burner on my iPhone app – just enough to make me feel like I really accomplished something that day. It's not as if my mind immediately turns to "oh, I did the dishes! ICE CREAM FOR EVERYONE!!" but it helps me think of household chores as more than taking care of the house – it's taking care of my body.

    6 agree
  16. I love this post! I loathe cleaning and I'm not good at it either. You know how some people are just good at cleaning, or folding clothes, etc? (My sister and my mother are, maybe it's just me lol.) I'm a stay at home mother, which means my house should be immaculate right? Pffft. I love this idea. I have found other similar methods like this through the flylady.com. You clean a certain area really well one week while surface cleaning other areas for fifteen or twenty minutes a day. At least one load of laundry a week and bada bing bada boom, you should be good to go. I have to do more laundry because hubbie+son+me = SO MUCH F-ING LAUNDRY. I'm moving next month to a new apt with a dishwasher! Oh the excitement!!

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  17. My partner and I recently started playing Chore Wars (www.chorewars.com). You each create an avatar with a certain skill set and together put in all the chores that need to be done, ever. For each "adventure" (chore) you designate how many XP (experience points) it's worth, how many gold pieces you might find, and what treasures or enemies you might encounter. As you do chores, you log in and claim them. Your avatar gains a level for every 200 points and gets more skills too.

    The game part of it is fun, but for me the best parts are
    1) I can see what Chris has been doing (or not doing) so I don't have to wonder, which leads to asking, which he hears as nagging, and
    2) It helps me get away from "clean ALL the things!" and feel good about what I do accomplish instead of bad about the remaining mess.

    We've only been playing for a week or so, so I'm not sure how long it will last. But it's been interesting.

    1 agrees
    • Ah, thanks for that link! My husband and I are both gamers so that could be perfect for us!

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  18. I don't allow myself to sit down right when I get home because I know that I will never get back up to do the things around the house that I need to do! I immediately set the kitchen timer for 20 (or 30, depending on the mess in the house) minutes and just go around straightening things up. I have found that after just a few days of doing this, the time I have to spend straightening up gets smaller and smaller because things are already clean from the day before.

    2 agree
  19. I really liked the original article with the complete list of tasks. I saved them in a doc and will be going by it now. I've tried to make a list of chores but I get so distracted simply trying to make the list. Which makes this perfect for me, a well written chore list with simplicity in mind. Thanks so much for posting this!

    1 agrees
  20. This post just saved my weekend… Saturday I'll start my 20 minutes of cleaning instead of hours!

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  21. Oddly enough I was just talking with my wife about this last week and this week is our first week of doing micro-versions of the chores instead of spending hours.

    * Instead of letting the dishes pile up for a week (or more!) I waited three days until there was a decent amount and did them. Being that we rarely have anyone over and it is just the two of us this is probably just about the perfect number of days.

    * I have a few piles of laundry to sort from previous loads but once that is done as soon as the laundry is finished it is getting folded and put away, no more excuses and messy closet floors!

    * Bathrooms: As much as both my wife and I hate cleaning them we'll probably do it each week. While it won't be a completely spotless from ceiling to floor clean it will be enough for having surprise company over.

    There are a list of other things but it will be in babysteps. Reading this post was a confirmation that I needed to just do it already :)

    1 agrees

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