13 Tricks that Help Me Keep My House Clean(ish)

A couple of weeks ago, a few people on Instagram (on a post I cannot even seem to find, because I’m just that on top of my life) asked about how I keep my house clean while also not ignoring my children or spending all my time cleaning.

Let the record show that I am not even remotely the world’s best housekeeper. And every household functions differently and what works for one family might be a disaster for you. This is just what (mostly) works in our house.

A few weeks ago, on Young House Love Has a Podcast, John and Sherry talked about how most people are either Scrubbers or Tidiers. As you can imagine, people who are Scrubbers care more about cleaning and get more satisfaction out of tasks like cleaning toilets, mopping the floor, or wiping down baseboards. Tidiers are more likely to enjoy (a relative term, to be sure) organizing, putting away, and straightening up.

I am 100% a Tidier. I’ll can’t stand random things strewn around and I love a good organizing project. But I’m way less bothered by dusty baseboards or a speckled mirror.

Bart, thank heavens, is a scrubber. Which is why on Saturday mornings, I usually gather up all the random stuff that’s accumulated in the wrong places and put it away, while he cleans the bathrooms (much better than I ever would) and mops the kitchen floor.

Anyway, both of us like clean and organized spaces, so it’s a priority for us to make sure things stay pretty decent around here. Here’s what I’ve discovered about keeping our house clean:

  1. It is easier to keep the right-size house clean. I feel like the world is obsessed with minimalism right now and there’s so much talk about how much easier to keep a tiny space clean. For me, that is not true. When we lived in a two-bedroom apartment with two children in Texas, I could NOT keep that place clean. There was just not enough storage or space to put things and it just always looked cluttered no matter how hard I tried. Then we moved into a four-bedroom house in North Carolina, and I was AMAZED at how relatively effortless it was to keep it looking decent. Things weren’t piled on top of each other in closets, so you could get things in and out without destroying everything. Things had places to get put away and it was just so much easier. I’m sure you can swing too far to the other end where your house is just too big to keep clean without Herculean effort, but I think too-small is just as difficult, if not more. (Of course, this isn’t helpful if you’re stuck somewhere tiny, except to say, “if you can’t seem to keep your teeny apartment or house clean, it might not be all your fault.”) 
  2. Don’t let it go too far. I really don’t want to spend much of my life cleaning and picking up, so I try not to let things get too crazy. We do the dishes after every meal so that it never takes forever to do a giant sink full. I vacuum every couple of days (usually a couple of rooms at a time). Bart cleans the bathrooms almost every week. 
  3. The right tools make a huge difference. We had a mega-cheap vacuum for the first 7 years of our marriage. It didn’t work very well, it was super loud, and switching between floor vacuuming and hose vacuuming was an enormous pain. So I just didn’t vacuum that often. Then, when that one finally died (three hours before house guests arrived, naturally), I finally sprung for a better vacuum. I have the Shark Navigator Lift-Away (this is the best price I’ve seen for it) and I LOVE that thing. It’s so effective, it’s not too loud, you don’t have to buy bags, and I can switch to the hose with no hassle at all. I pull it out 10x more than I ever did my other vacuum. I was noticing this tool issue the other day because our bottle of Windex is leaking when you spray it, which makes cleaning the mirrors a total pain. So guess how often I do it? (Practically never, would be the right answer). 
  4. Pick daily times when you clean up. Cleaning once a week doesn’t really work for me because I don’t want to live with a filthy house all week until Saturday morning. We do more of the deep cleaning and some general pick-up on that day, but I have two basic times a day when the girls and I pick up and get things back in order. One is right after lunch, before naps and quiet time. I clean up all the dishes (because I LOATHE coming out of my two-hour work sprint and returning to a bunch of gross dishes) and we put away homeschool stuff, toys that have been drug out, and any other random stuff. And then after dinner, while Bart does all the dishes, we clean up the family room, clear off the tables and counters and get things put away so the house stays clean for the rest of the evening after the girls are in bed and is looking good when we wake up in the morning (because I also despise waking up to a dirty house).
  5. If you can do something fast, just do it immediately. I really try to live by the one-minute rule about doing things immediately that take a minute or less. I sort my mail on the way into the house so I don’t have random grocery ads hanging around for days. I put things right into the dishwasher instead of into the sink. I put my clothing directly into the laundry hampers. I put my makeup away as soon as I’m finished for the morning. I want to spend as little time as possible making second rounds to do things I could have easily done the first time I was touching those items. 
  6. A decorated room is easier to keep clean. I’ve noticed this more than ever in this house. Ella’s room was SO abominable when we moved in that I could hardly even be bothered to clean it because even clean it still looked terrible. Now that it has new paint and carpet and furniture that actually fits the room,  I’m way more motivated to make sure Ella makes her bed, puts her toys and art supplies away, and that it stays clean. Because when it’s cleaned up, it actually looks great. Same with our room that basically resembled a college frat house two months ago, sans empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. Even with the bed made, and everything neatly organized, it still looked awful. Now, even before I make the bed, it still looks quite excellent. Our basement is completely undecorated and it’s just impossible to make it look very good, even if things are put away.
  7. Pick systems you can actually maintain. How many of you have seen toy organization systems that no child is EVER going to stick to? (I’ve seen a million of them). I try to keep our organization as easy as possible so that they can be maintained with little effort by the whole family. Each of my girls has a basket in their room for toys. They can dump things in and pull things out and it’s super quick and easy for anyone to clean up (it also helps that we don’t have tons and tons of toys). When we reorganized our closet a few months ago, we divided up our drawers in a way that it was easy to put things away neatly and get things out without destroying the whole system. It’s so tempting to have some elaborate and beautiful organizational system, but if it’s not user-friendly, it’s useless. I want organization and neatness to be built right into the design and decor of our home so that it’s as mindless as possible to put things away and get out what you need (my hall closet is raising an eyebrow at me right now, wondering when I’m going to make IT organized in a way that STAYS organized.  
  8. Identify problem areas and then find a solution. Pay attention to what piles up or what you never get around to dealing with. In Ella’s room, I knew that her art supplies were a major problem. So when we redecorated, we moved up this table with a drawer and cubby, hung shelves on the wall, bought containers for her various marker and pencil sets, and bought magazine holders to corral her paper. Now it’s much easier for her to keep her room clean because she knows where things are supposed to go. Similarly, we have one counter in our kitchen that is a major dumping ground, so when we get around to redoing some of the kitchen things, making solutions for the paperwork, odds and ends, and office supplies will be a big priority. I also have noticed that I have no good place to keep my keys/sunglasses/purse when I come in or out of the house, so I need to fix that because they end up strewn everywhere. 
  9. Organizational tools and products make a big difference. I love Gretchen Rubin so so much, but every time she says not to buy organizational products, I cringe a little. I mean, I understand her point about most of the time you can just get RID of a ton of stuff instead of buying expensive products to organize it, but once you’ve pared down your belongings to stuff you really need, it makes a huge difference when you have places to put things. I bought some two-dollar drawer organizers from IKEA for Ella’s desk drawers, my desk drawers, and Bart’s desk drawers. That as $14 of bliss right there because I’m no longer digging through trying to find my checkbook or thinking, “I’m SURE I owned extra staples. . . . ”  We upgraded to a nicer (read, $20 Walmart) filing cabinet when we moved into this house and having a cabinet that sits in one place that doesn’t have the top blocked by thing stacked on top of it means I’m SO much more likely to file things away than I have been in the past. I tend to hate spending money on those kinds of extra things, but it makes my life so much easier and cleaner because it’s so much simpler to put things away. A random jumbled drawer makes me way more likely just to toss more things in, and a pile of papers makes me want to just add a few more papers in instead of dealing with anything. 
  10. Pick the things that make the house look messy and focus on those. Every house is a little different, but our current layout has a totally open kitchen/eating area/family room design and the sink is in the island, which means that if there is a pile of dishes on the counter or sink, they’re basically sitting in the middle of the living area, rather than tucked away against a wall. So dishes being done make a huge difference in our whole house feeling clean. If you have a ton of carpeting, vacuuming can be the best way to spend 10 minutes that perks up your whole house. 
  11. Decide what’s livable for you and don’t kill yourself to do more. These super long paragraphs make it seem like I’m obsessed with cleaning. But really, I’m not. I basically know what annoys me (scattered toys, unvacuumed carpet, rings in my toilet bowls, unwashed dishes, and piles of papers) and I stay on top of those. I don’t care about my baseboards and I’ve dusted my (very dusty blinds) exactly once since we moved in. I don’t want to spend more than about 20-30 minutes a day cleaning up, so I focus on the things that make a big difference to me, and I ignore the rest.
  12. You can make a huge difference, really fast. I’ve noticed this over the years whenever I have company coming. If I have ten minutes until the doorbell rings, I don’t scrub my baseboards because the chances of anyone noticing those are small. I do my dishes first, sweep the floor, then clear off my counters, wipe down the bathroom mirrors and counters, and vacuum the living room and family room. When you’re under the gun and not distracted, you can get a LOT done in 10-15 minutes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and would just rather not do anything (this would be me every single night when Bart is traveling and I’m like. . . “Why isn’t he home to do the dishes and help me pick up the family room?”), set the timer for 10 minutes, clean like someone’s about to show up, and then be done. Whatever you got done, great. Other stuff can wait. 
  13. Don’t feel like it’s all on you. Unless you live alone, the other people in your house should be helping to keep the house clean too. Bart is extremely helpful about cleaning up (and he never makes me feel like it’s my job to keep the house clean; he often comes home to a pretty good pre-dinner disaster as I use half the dishes in the kitchen and the girls are pulling out every library book, Lego, and doll we own) and we try to involve our children in keeping the house neat too. They aren’t awesome at cleaning up after themselves before moving on to the next thing, but I’m trying to do better about. It’s just so much easier and faster, usually, to do it myself, that I haven’t been as good as I could be about making sure they recognize their role in both mess-making and clean-up. 
You guys, I cannot believe how long this was. Apparently I have MANY MANY MANY thoughts about housekeeping. 
If you read this whole thing, you deserve a cookie (as long as you don’t get any crumbs on my carpet). And if you have brilliant tricks for keeping your house clean, I would love to hear – and steal – them all.

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  • Reply Rebecca August 29, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    I'm totally with you on #1. Our 2 bedroom apartment was so hard to keep clean because we were living in every single inch of it. Now, we're in a 3 bedroom house, but we're looking forward to moving, because the only place we had for a play room is right in the middle of the house, so I'm walking through a minefield 90 times a day. Part of me want to start keeping some of the toys in my kids' room, but that would end up being just another room we have to clean, and I like having the mess contained to just one room.

  • Reply Rebecca August 29, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    I'm totally with you on #1. Our 2 bedroom apartment was so hard to keep clean because we were living in every single inch of it. Now, we're in a 3 bedroom house, but we're looking forward to moving, because the only place we had for a play room is right in the middle of the house, so I'm walking through a minefield 90 times a day. Part of me want to start keeping some of the toys in my kids' room, but that would end up being just another room we have to clean, and I like having the mess contained to just one room.

  • Reply Shanon August 29, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    The number one comment people make about my house is how clean my baseboards are. I am not a baseboard scrubber (we've been in our house almost 10 years and I have scrubbed the baseboards maybe 2 times and it was only the baseboard behind the kitchen garbage because someone spilled something). The only reason I can think of that my baseboards are clean (besides the fact that they were brand new when we moved in) is that every time I vacuum the house, I pull out the hose and vacuum the baseboards. There you go….my one and only cleaning tip. 😉

  • Reply Lucy August 29, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    We are very similar in the ways we attack cleaning. The only thing I would add: every time I leave one side of the house to go to the other side (and this could apply to going upstairs or downstairs if you have stairs) I take something with me that belongs in the opposite location. I never like to go somewhere in my house empty-handed.

  • Reply Chelsea August 29, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    I don't know if my comment was published or lost so I will re do it, just in case. But with our kids we've found being specific in their responsibilities will help. Like when tackling the crazy you room, we tell them to focus solely on the doll stuff and then come back and get their next mission. Or we pay then a penny per Lego to clean up Legos…and that goes fast. Or we just tell everyone to pick up 20 things in our great room that don't belong and put them away. All of these methods help make the tasks a little less daunting and manageable.

  • Reply Chelsea August 29, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Oh and I also have days for each bigger task. Like Mon and Thurs are my laundry days, regardless of how much laundry we have. Tues I do my main floors (mopping), on Wed is bathroom day and vacuum upstairs (it's also our only midweek movie night so my kids have to get toy room cleaned before they get movies so it's a convenient day for me to vacuum it), and Fri is kitchen and office clean up…like clean all my major appliances and touch up mopping the kitchen floor and waxing my granite countertops with carwax (makes them easier to clean the rest of the month). Then on Sat we don't have any big or regular cleaning projects and can play more.

  • Reply Kristin @ Going Country August 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    I had one of those houses that was too big to keep clean, but an even bigger problem with it was that it was too OLD to keep clean. Any house with 150-year-old floors and walls is never going to be clean, I don't care how much you scrub. When I swept for the first time in our new (built in 2013) rental house, I was AMAZED at how easy it was to sweep–the broom just glided over those smooth new wood floors, whee!–and how it actually looked clean when I was done.

    There are some things about our historic home that I miss (namely, doors to close in each room so my sons' shrieking doesn't echo throughout the entire open-plan house), but cleaning? My life just got a lot easier.

    • Reply Thais August 29, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      Yes! Our NYC apartment is from the 1920s and our floors… I'll just finish mopping and if I take a clorox wipe to it, it'll come out black. It boggles my mind!

    • Reply gabbi bump September 2, 2016 at 6:42 am

      I feel like there should be a blog just about keeping old houses clean… Although there probably is! My favorite is always how uneven those floors are – so no furniture is ever exactly level, nothing round ever stays still, liquid always runs, and brooms and vacuums always catch!

  • Reply Kayla FrecklesinApril August 29, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    As a fairly clean person, yes to all these things. I'm always amazed at how much I can get done in the 10 minutes before someone comes over.

  • Reply Erica August 29, 2016 at 4:23 pm

    I just listened to the scrubber vs tidied podcast yesterday and Gretchen Rubin is another favorite of mine. Care to share other podcasts that you enjoy?

  • Reply Shadrach Anki August 29, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    When it comes to #9, I think the key is mindfully choosing organizational tools/products that fit an identified need. It can be tempting to buy a thing because it seems like it could be useful, even though you don't have a definite use in mind. And yeah, sometimes you might get lucky, but I find more often than not if I get an organizational tool/product without a pre-identified need I just wound up adding to the problem rather than getting a solution.

    Also, the layout of your home plays a huge part in what organizational systems are even viable. I love drawer organizers, but I cannot use them in my current kitchen. It has exactly *one* drawer that opens out onto a counter (I have no clue what they were thinking), and said drawer is narrower and/or shallower than any of the organizers I have found. So it remains a frustratingly unorganized collection of kitchen tools, and our silverware lives in bamboo trays on the counter.

  • Reply Thais August 29, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    I'm a tidier too!! And THANK YOU for #1. I always feel guilty bc my house is so cluttered in comparison to other members. We live in NYC in a one bedroom apt about 650sq ft. We have two girls and two dogs. We have been married for 12 years. We don't keep things at the inlaws so literally everything we own is in this apartment. We just did a big de clutter and we had an entire 2×4 Kallax system that had old journals, yearbooks, pictures and memories that we just can't get rid of, but we'll pack it up and put it into storage. The girls moved into our bedroom and we just purchased a murphy bed for the living room. i'm really trying to minimize the visual clutter in our place and find a home for everything, even if it's not here but away in storage.

  • Reply Linnae August 29, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    Yes, these are great tips! In my marriage, I'm more the scrubber and my husband is definitely the tidier. I'm learning to be more tidy, though, because I know he really appreciates clear surfaces when he gets home from work.
    Our chore system has been working well so far (knock on wood). The kids rotate days being my dishes helper (because 3 helping at once is no help at all), then in addition to that they choose a chore to do each day and initial the chart. So all the main stuff gets done at least once a week.

    • Reply Jon and Laura August 30, 2016 at 12:09 am

      Linnae- I'm interested to hear what your "choose a chore" chart includes. I'm in need of a new "system" and that sounds brilliant. Please share! 🙂

    • Reply Sarah November 10, 2017 at 11:29 am

      Also very interested on what’s on your “choose a chore” list! I have a 7 year old girl and 5 year old boy and it usually seems like it’ll take me just as much work (if not more) to have them do the chore than if I just do it myself! But, I also want them to learn they need to help out!

  • Reply Paige Flamm August 30, 2016 at 12:55 am

    I've been thinking about this post all day (I'm a dedicated, "read Janssen when I wake up, and comment when I get to it" reader… I don't know if that makes me creepy or not…) but, I'm totally a tidier. And I loved what you said about living in a bigger house versus smaller spaces. In NC it felt impossible to keep our 700 square foot townhouse clean and organized because there was no where to put anything. Since being in Georgia, both of our houses have been 1800 sqft (the first one with 5 bedrooms, and our current one with 4), and Derek and I both agree that we need at least 4 bedrooms to make our house function properly for us. On the other side, we feel like any larger than 2000 sqft and we'd never be able to stay on top of it all, and it would be more than we need as a family of four. We also do all the tidying during the week, and then on the weekends we typically deep clean the bathrooms, vacuum bedrooms, and do the bigger things then, but we set a timer for an hour and whatever we get done in an hour great, anything left gets done the next weekend. I've also been a full convert to the one minute rule since your post on that, and it's been pretty life changing.

  • Reply dragonfly August 30, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I too am a tidier! I try to squeeze in cleaning up during those random 15 minute windows that happen in the day.

  • Reply Sherry September 1, 2016 at 4:19 am

    I have been thinking of the scrubber vs. tidier since you posted this. I'm a scrubber, and Eric's a tidier. But I'm actually more mindful of where stuff actually belongs, so sometimes I cannot find things that Eric puts away in his need to clear clutter. But oh, how I get satisfaction from a handprint-free stairwell railing!

  • Reply Momina Arif September 1, 2016 at 10:43 am

    The second last one about doing only as much as you can, is something I feel I really have to learn. Thank you for sharing this

  • Reply Annie Trypus September 1, 2016 at 4:38 pm

    Great and helpful tips. I've read some of them in various "organize your home" type books before (that I can never manage to get through) and you are spot on. It's all about motivation for me. I know what to do and I can spare the 20 minutes but how I do not want to! Even with family help. I found this site looking for a Blue Apron review, yours was perfect, and realize you are now someone I cannot live without. And book recommendations? Are you the waaaay better version of me?? Yes, yes you are! Thank you.

  • Reply diana September 2, 2016 at 1:05 am

    I'm definitely a tidier although I can get strangely excited about random scrubbing tasks too. This is basically our plan too! Keep things tidy and do the basic cleaning. I have a schedule so I clean the bathroom on a certain day every week, clean fingerprints off the front door another, etc. Keeps the house relatively clean with not a lot of work on any single day. But really, keeping things tidy is the biggest thing!

  • Reply Meghan September 15, 2016 at 2:58 am

    I love this post…….. it really alleviates my stress to live in a home that is tidy and clean.

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