So you think you ought to clean today: A systematic approach, part I

June 8 | Guest post by Allison

Allison wrote a post for all of us who need to learn to clean house. Today, she'll talk about the skills you need to learn. Tomorrow, look for more specific "it worked for me"-style tips. -Cat

Before we begin: I write this as if you, by yourself, are responsible for cleaning your whole domicile. The issue of how to split chores fairly (and what "split chores fairly" even means) is outside the scope of my advice-giving skills, because there are simply too many variables to consider: your relationship with the person/people you're splitting chores with, everyone's personal skills and preferences, time spent outside the home, etc.

Day 203: How to scrub
Photo by madmolecule. Used under Creative Commons license.

Cleaning is not a talent — it's a skill. A skill you can acquire. I am not a "naturally" clean person. I didn't grow up expected to do a lot of chores, and definitely not on a schedule (I grew up being told, "Today we're cleaning," not "On Wednesdays it's your job to take out the trash"), and I didn't grow up in a house where everything was spic-and-span. I taught myself, as an adult, how to be neat and how to clean, and I learned that I liked my house better when it was clean.

When people say "cleaning," I find they often mean one of two things: tidying up (i.e. putting things away), or actually cleaning things. Some people prefer one or the other — they feel that one is more important, or they're naturally better at one. I think of them as steps one and two — no point in cleaning if your stuff's not put away, and once you've put it all away, why not actually clean everything?

My absolute number one tip for making cleaning easier is: have a place for everything. When you want to put stuff away, every single thing should have a place to land. There are two ways to accomplish this:

  1. Put things away when you're done using them.
  2. Have less stuff.

Look, I know. If you have even a small amount of disposable income in the first world, having too much stuff is a very easy problem to have. I struggle with it. My boyfriend and I moved in together in November. We had both been living by ourselves before that. We both had full apartments. The process of combining and downsizing is ongoing. And frustrating. And depressing. But it's worth it — not just because it means I have a cleaner house, but I spend less money — part of "have less stuff" isn't just getting rid of some of your possessions, but not bringing new stuff in. I can find things I want to put my hands on, and the stuff I have really means something to me.

I like to use William Morris' guidepost for thinking about your possessions: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

Putting stuff away as soon as you're done using it is tricky for a lot of us. It's something you have to make a habit. I know when I get home, actually putting my shoes away, instead of just kicking them off by the door, FEELS like a tremendous challenge — but it's not. And it's less of a challenge than parting the sea of shoes to get OUT the door next time. (Note: depending on the number of spoons you have, putting stuff away right away may actually constitute a tremendous challenge. Apply this to your life as it makes sense for you.)

But it's a skill, a habit. Cleaning is not a magical talent that either you possess or you don't. It takes time to develop. Decide on a level of cleanliness you personally want — something that balances what you'd like your house to look like vs. the amount of time you're willing to invest in maintaining that — and go with it. And change it as you need — as you have more or less time, or more or less desire to keep your home at a certain level. There is no magical right amount of time to clean. (OK, the WRONG amount is where your home becomes unsafe, but you know, that leaves a lot of right amounts.)


Okay, good start, guys! This is a lot to take in from a blog post, so we'll keep moving in tomorrow's post: So you think you ought to clean today: Part II, in which we'll cover stuff like, Okay, but, like, what about when I NEED to clean but I'm just too damn TIRED?!

  1. Glad you mentioned the spoons issue, when I get home from work it's a huge effort not to just fall flat on the kitchen floor and stay there. Some days I'm lucky to get my shoes off let alone put away.

    I grew up in an obsessively clean home and rebelled by not being clean, but I'm starting to appreciate that carpets are more fun to walk on when they don't crunch. Looking forward to the rest of these articles!

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  2. Spoons! Spoons are important. It makes me happy when I see that story pop up. I've sent the link/retold it to so many people.

    Also, 1a. Make it easy to put things away. For example, have a bench or something to sit on to take off your shoes near where you come in. Now if only I could talk my husband into the idea…

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  3. I love these cleaning posts. My family has a good cleaning schedual that works for us, but we've found that with our new baby we're having a little more trouble (duh) keeping on top of the "extra" things that don't need to happen every week.

    A HUGE thing we've learned about cleaning is that it's a habit. Once you get in the rythm of putting your shoes away when you walk in the door or cleaning the bathroom every Sunday morning it just comes naturally. The best part about having cleaning be part of your regular habit is that it takes less time! I would so much rather spend a quick 15 min cleaning my bathroom because I do it every week than slog through it for an hour because it's filthy just once and a while. And since you're already in the habit of being tidy when you need to clean you just can, instead of cleaning up to clean.

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    • TOTALLY agreed about the habit. I would also rather do 15 minutes more often.

      Yay new baby! Best excuse for a messy house ever. ;)

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  4. Spoons are important. I have a hard time with the spoons. I've found it helps a lot if I make putting things away easy. Like I tend to dump my purse and shoes on the floor just inside the door, so we put a shelf for shoes and a nail for my bag just inside the door and it works better now. Not perfect, but better.

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  5. My policy is simply to make it harder NOT to put things away: There's nowhere to put my handbag down EXCEPT where it's supposed to be.

    Often, houses are designed counter intuitively – the coat cupboard is by the back door, so you have to walk all the way to the other side of the house just to put your coat/bag away. The trick is to notice if it's not working for you and work out how to rearrange, reorganize or remodel so that your house works for you, not the other way around.

    Also, kudos for talking about the spoons. It's all too often unmentioned.

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  6. I love a clean and tidy house, so much so my fiance thinks I'm OCD, which I'm not! I do admit I am a bit of a hoarder, so sometimes putting stuff away or getting rid of things can be something I find tricky! I'm a big advocate of flylady. I was pretty organised at cleaning before but if you're not, she's a great help.

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    • I'm sure Flylady works well for many, but personally I find the tone there very condescending (and tailored for the stay-at-home wife or mother, which I am anything but). I'm glad to see some offbeat cleaning and organisation tips.

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      • I felt the same way about the flylady. Also, her site is very acronym heavy and feels exclusionary unless you read her massive glossary and FAQ of what all of those letters mean. Also, I'm not putting my shoes on to clean. That seems dumb.

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      • I find a lot of her individual tips pretty good (particularly about not starting tasks unless you have time to finish them right then), but the tone of her site is kind of off-putting. Also, hell no I'm not wearing shoes at home; that's why it's *home*.

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        • LOL, I often don't even wear shoes when I'm *not* at home. I am a flylady fail, apparently. Which is odd, because my house is crazy clean.

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        • I went to look around her site, just because I've never heard of it, and wow. This is exactly what I thought. Where I live, you just don't wear shoes in the house, and you take them off when going into other people's homes. "Well you do now" harrumph. And shining your sink? Whaaa? I didn't even know sinks were supposed to shine.

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  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for mentioning the Spoon Theory! As a woman with a disability, my house is often a bit more unorganized/messy than what I'd like it to be (coming from a non-neat freak). I know if I got into the habit of short bursts of cleaning, it would be easier and less stressful on the joints in the long run.

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  8. Another person chiming in to say I'm glad you mentioned spoons.

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  9. Great tip from William Morris: everything having a home is fundamental for the easiest tidying.

    Thanks for the Spoon shout-out! I went from being a compulsive clean+tidy home-keeper, to developing systemic lupus. I've learned to choose my battles, and leave others for days when my joints aren't swollen!

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  10. Having a place for everything is the biggest thing, and our biggest issue. We have a small house with very little storage and even less intelligent storage.

    We're working on some various solutions for this issue, I'll definitely be sharing as we make changes to make things work for us. I can't wait to have somewhere to put my shoes away!!

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  11. I have fwded this to a few of my friends – it sounds silly and common-sense, but sometimes you just need to see these words in front of you to inspire you to do things. I am all inspired right now and it's 7.30 at night!

    I think what resonated most with me was: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

    I make an effort not to call myself a 'hoarder' because everyone thinks of the TV show and assumes I sleep in a pile of my own faeces, but I do have a problem with 'stuff'. It's this problem that leads me to not only accumulate crap, but to find that the crap starts to hide the beautiful things I own.

    Also, with regard to the early comments about husbands putting shoes away as they come in – my partner DOES put his shoes away every time he comes in — right on top of mine! with soles leaning up against the wall!!!
    Ah well, baby steps!

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