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:
- 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.”)
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.