How Do You Keep Your House So Clean?

I used to boggle at my mother being able to keep her house as neatly as she does. I always rather had visions of her spending hours sneaking in cleaning when I was at school, or during the summer, when I was at friends’ houses or summer jobs. It had to be that way, because keeping my room neat was such a damn ordeal! When I moved out, I found trying to keep a neat house totally overwhelming, and wished I had the energy to spend those hours and hours cleaning that I thought my mother put in. In the last few years I’ve learned this wasn’t really so. Most of the cleaning I actually saw her doing was the work that was getting done.

My house is quite as neat and clean as hers is these days. No, I don’t spend a great deal of time on the house. Know why? I don’t bloody well have the time to spend hours cleaning. If it took that kind of time, neatness simply wouldn’t happen. Call it an average of 15-20 minutes a day doing actual cleaning, and tack on a few minutes for clutter patrol.

What Mom Really Tried to Teach Me (And I Didn’t Listen)

My mother really did try to teach me to keep a clean house. No, it wasn’t Housewife Training, but more Grownup Training. She tried to teach my brother the same thing, after all. She grew up with someone who kept house the way I used to – let the clutter and mess get so overwhelming that it’s intolerable and/or embarrassing, then spend an effort worthy of the Augean stables only to be worn out and not really into doing any more housework for a long period of time. Mom, who actually learned from that nonsense, did things differently when she became mistress of her own home.

There are four basic principles that my mother tried to teach me, and one I learned on my own that doesn’t quite jibe with the way Mom does things, but works for me. Combined? I get a neat home, and don’t spend a whole lot of time at it.

Put it away right away

When you come in the door, if you habitually take off your shoes, put them on the shoe shelf. Have a place to hang up your backpack and jacket, and put them there right away. Have a place for your keys and put them there right away. Sort mail over the trash can and have a place for the bills if you still do paper bills. If you have a cup of coffee and you’re not going to have any more, either wash the mug or put it in the dishwasher.

Finished with a book? Put it back on the shelf. That pen you used to write a note? Put it back in the pen mug or your desk drawer. Dishwasher washed dishes overnight? Put those dishes away while the coffee’s brewing. See a piece of paper that fell on the floor? Pick it up and throw it away right now. Dirty underwear? You do have a laundry hamper near where you undress for the night, yes? Don’t leave the underwear in a figure 8 on the floor. It takes two seconds to put it in the hamper.

Now, if you’re dealing with a Very Cluttered Home like mine used to be, you’re probably staring at me in astonishment. Put things away? I can’t open the blasted drawer! What’s the matter with you? Hamper? Darlin’, if you could see my Mount Laundry, you wouldn’t be telling me to put my underwear in any hamper right away. It’s overflowing!

Clutter makes things take more time

I used to have a deacons bench that was my toy box. It would get stuffed with crap I tried to hide when Mom insisted I clean my room. Part of the End of Holidays ritual was to clean out my toy box and get rid of toys I no longer wanted. Now, you’d think a kid who had 20 cubic feet of storage space for toys would be able to clean her room just fine, but never got rid of stuff I didn’t use or love except at practically gunpoint.

So, when I was told to dust or vacuum my bedroom, it would take for-blasted-evuh. Did Mom tell me that it wouldn’t take so much time if I would put my stuff away? Yes, she did. I didn’t start doing it until I was in my late thirties. I timed myself dusting my bedroom yesterday. 00:02:34. Two minutes and thirty-four seconds. The whole house took about eight minutes, and I have a pretty good-sized house. (In all fairness, I did skip my son’s room for more or less the same reason my mother didn’t dust mine, I expect!)

It’s not the cleaning chores that take a lot of time. In general, they really don’t. It’s cleaning around the clutter that is so excruciating. Now it’s taken me several years to get my house to what I consider “properly” decluttered.

Cleanup is part of the job

The last step to making dinner is to clean up after dinner. The last step in sewing an outfit is to vacuum up all the snips of fabric and thread and put away the sewing machine (I don’t have a dedicated craft room.) Make your bed on arising. This last was a childhood requirement. I fell out of doing it for a period of time as an adult, and I’m going to have to say that was a Big Mistake. With a comforter and pillow shams, it takes less than a minute to make a bed, and it’s hard to believe how much better it makes a room look until you’ve gotten into the habit.

If you mentally tag cleanup as separate from the activity at hand, you’re giving yourself permission to make “later” “never”. I get it, don’t get me wrong. When I’m finished with an outfit, putting away the ironing board, the sewing machine, all the notions and all that is a pain in the butt. Never mind those projects that take several days to do. But if you mentally tag the job as unfinished until tidying up is done, you find that it genuinely takes less time to keep things tidy.

A good example of this would be laundry. Laundry isn’t done when the dryer goes off, or things are dry on the line. Laundry is done when you put your clothes away.

Take a few seconds now

I had to go upstairs to go to the bathroom while writing this – coffee, you know. My bathroom is right off my bedroom, so as I passed the bed, I saw that my son had delivered everyone’s clean and folded laundry to the appropriate bedrooms. I took about two minutes to put away some socks and hang up some shirts and pants before coming back downstairs to finish this particular section of the article. Could it have waited for me until bedtime? Well, yeah, and if there were a blood or fire emergency, it could wait days. But I am writing. I can think about what I’m writing while I hang up clothes!

This is a serious change from my usual M.O. In the past, thinking I was being more efficient, I’d wait for the household to have Washed All The Laundry before I would even consider putting things away. After all, putting it away in a big chunk instead of load by load saves time, right? It’s efficient.

Sure, if you actually put away that mountain of clean clothes in a timely fashion. If you do, more power to you. I wouldn’t.

There are lots of little tasks like this. Spill something on the floor, wipe it up right away and it’s quick and easy. Wait, and it’s a dried, sticky mess. Take a second while coffee is brewing to wipe off a counter and it’s using waiting time for usefulness. When you walk through a room to another room, scan and see if there’s anything that really belongs in your destination and put it there. You were going into the other room anyway, right? It’s the little minutes that add up.

Break down the big jobs into little jobs

No-one in my family is particularly moderate. Mom comes closer than the rest of us, but even she really isn’t much into the moderation thing. We have no middle gears. If we needed to chop wood for the winter’s heating (yes, we heated with a wood stove), we had to Chop All The Wood. Decluttering my toybox? Well, yes, but we cleaned out my closet, under my bed, the bookshelves and everything until my room was Perfect. The theory was I had a clean slate to Keep Things Tidy From Now On and Forever.

Now, Mom never let the rest of the house get cluttered, so this wasn’t an issue. But I learned something about trying to train yourself into the habit of keeping up on keeping things clean and organized. You gotta pace yourself. Cluttered home? Really, no kidding, commit to a little bit of time a day to do that. It’ll take some time. In my case it was a period of years. Thing is, over those years, the house did finally get decluttered to the point where I only have to do some really quick maintenance decluttering in my regular detail cleaning schedule.

Even now, with a reasonably decluttered home, I certainly am not going to then spend time on marathon cleaning projects. Heck no! That time I spent decluttering (call it 10-15 minutes a day) is now spent on some tiny little detail cleaning project that I never ever used to get to. You know, dusting the baseboards in one room, or vaccuming behind the sofa. I’ve put these tasks (there’s over 100 of them, none taking more than fifteen minutes to do) on my daily reminders in a very long repeating rotation, so they all get gotten to (shaddup, I’m allowed some bad grammar) but it’s never this marathon, “ZOMGWTFBBQ! I GOTTA CLEAN PEOPLE ARE COMING OVER!” nonsense.

Yet guess what?

The house looks good and I don’t spend hours cleaning.

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