The doorbell rings—it’s your new friend, who just happens to be in the neighborhood unexpectedly. You can’t leave her on the doorstep so you invite her in.
You’ve been working on a work deadline even though it’s your day off. Your kids are watching cartoons. You can’t really see the floor for the toys and dirty laundry baskets. The trash smells, there’s no food for guests and there are dirty dishes in the sink.
You power through, pretending that nothing is wrong, and get your friend out the door asap. How did it get this bad?
It’s not just you
Everyone has crunch times when they just aren’t put together. Sometimes crunch time even becomes the new normal.
How can you nevertheless keep life on track so that you can host a friend unexpectedly, or just live your life without chaos?
Even if the mess has become a way of life, you CAN take steps to make it better and take a load of stress off yourself at the same time.
The key is to work on small steps; first make visible changes that give you momentum, then change your perspective, put together systems to make it easier, and get help from the people around you.
Starting small gives you momentum. Once you give yourself some breathing room with small but visible gains, you’ll be able to think about the bigger picture.
1. Build anchor habits — things that always get done
Cleaning guru Flylady uses a “shiny sink” as an anchor for a clean house. An anchor is the starting place and other tasks flow from there. What would work for you to act as the anchor for the rest of your house? For me, it’s clean counters and a tidy family room.
2. Add microhabits
What small things can you do that make a difference? A good microhabit should be so small that it’s easy to make it automatic—brushing your teeth is an example. Other examples include swishing the toilet bowl in the morning and going through the mail as soon as it comes into the house.
3. Pick one thing ahead of time
Deciding what to do first can be the biggest barrier. Overcome the barrier by deciding ahead of time what to do next; decide what’s next the night before, on your way home before you walk in the door, or when you look around the room before you get out of a chair.
4. Pay yourself first
It’s easy to spend your time on other people’s priorities and needs. If you need a calmer and cleaner environment to feel good, then spend your first 15 minutes of available time on your own home goals and then feel free to pay attention to someone or something else.
5. Pick a time commitment you can stomach
While 15-20 minutes is my go-to chore timer setting, sometimes I just can’t make myself do it. If you can’t imagine 15 minutes, what amount of time would work? Even 2-5 minutes can make a difference. Getting started is the hardest part.
6. Practice low-grade clutter busting
Some rooms in my house contain too much stuff. Those rooms will never be clean as long as that is true. Removing clutter as you come across it—not a big declutter campaign—will make it easier to clean when it’s cleaning time. Set aside a box for items to donate or recycle and make it part of your weekly errands to take them where they go.
7. Stack it
My boss came into my office and said how clean it looked, even though the only thing I’d done was pile all the loose paper into one big stack. It’s true—things that are stacked neatly look and feel better.
8. Address the pain points
Everyone has different things that bother them the most. These are “pain points” and you can identify them as you go through your day. One of mine is having the dishwasher full of clean dishes, which means dirty dishes pile up. Fixing the pain points makes everything better with minimal effort.
9. Focus on living things
Pets, plants and other living things have an outsized impact on your space. What needs to happen so that all the living things are fed, watered, clean and hygienic?
10. Keep your hands full
The house will stay tidy if you scan for things that are out of place as you go. Move misplaced items closer to where they go, say the door to the garage or basement or bottom of the stairs and then put them away when you go that way.
11. Know that it looks worse than it is
Messiness looks worse than it is. A few minutes spent putting things away, stacking and straightening things and making piles to be moved elsewhere makes a difference for the whole house.
12. Do a sniff test
How does the house smell when you walk in? Take out the trash, clean the litter boxes, empty the compost bucket, air out the rooms and life just got a lot better.
13. Rotate from one chore to another
When you have multiple fires to put out, it helps to rotate from one to the other. Set a timer and work on multiple fronts, whatever is bothering you the most. You can rotate from laundry, to kitchen clean up, to tidying or paying bills, whatever is going to make you feel better. Rotating keeps you from hyper-focusing on one thing while the chaos rages elsewhere.
Take the quick wins
These actions lead to quick wins with a big impact. Perfect is the enemy of the good and done is good enough.
14. Make your bed
You will sleep better if your bed is neat. It only takes a moment to give future you a head start on a good night’s sleep. If you get up earlier than your spouse, just make your side. Do it to take care of yourself.
15. Put your clothes away
Pick a time of day to put clothes away, maybe before you leave your bedroom in the morning. Clean clothes get put away, dirty clothes go in the hamper and “clirty” clothes go in a designated place for the next wearing.
16. Do laundry for 15 minutes a day (tops)
One load a day takes about 15 minutes start to finish. If you are caught up on clothes and towels, then wash sheets, shower curtains and slipcovers. A load a day keeps most households on top of the laundry.
17. Walk the house
Put things away daily with an end of day house walk. This could be before bedtime or before downtime; whenever you have the best odds of having enough energy and the most family participation.
18. Shut the door
Shut doors look better. Train yourself and you family to close cupboards and drawers and closet doors. In an emergency, close the door to the very bad, no-good storage room. No one needs to know what’s in there.
19. Use commercial breaks
Perhaps you see commercials during sports games, or perhaps you have a minute between Netflix episodes. Use those times to load dishes in the dishwasher, move stuff where it goes or start a load of laundry.
20. Bin it
Have some attractive and strategic storage bins to corral clutter. In my house, bills to be paid go into “the white box” until it’s bill paying time. Keys and wallets go in a basket. Where would a strategic bin make a difference in your life?
21. Spray and mop
An easy way to spot mop is to spray water on the worst parts of the floor and mop with any mop or towel at hand. Focus on the high traffic areas; you do not need to get the edges, corners and under furniture to make it better.
22. Quick dust
You don’t have to dust every knickknack every time to keep your house dust free-ish. A quick swipe with a fiber cloth will keep large surfaces clean enough for most purposes. Save the detailed dusting for 15 minute deep cleaning sessions.
Get your mind right
Once you consistently do something, anything at all, your thinking will automatically start to shift. As you keep going, you will learn to catch common thinking traps and substitute thoughts that help you instead.
23. Remember that any time is better than nothing
Catch yourself if you think “I don’t have time, so I can’t even get started”. In fact, devoting any time at all will get you further down the road and help you think of yourself as someone who cleans. All big jobs are made up of a series of small jobs.
24. Know that you don’t have to do it all yourself
Even if you need to be the leader, you don’t have to actually do every single thing yourself. Kids can pick up their own toys and spouses can make their own side of the bed. Doing it all yourself until you feel like a martyr is not worth it.
25. Accept that done is good enough
Some of us have learned that “if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right”, which now means we won’t vacuum unless we have time to vacuum underneath furniture. Don’t fall into the perfect trap; do a slapdash job now and hyper-focus later when and if you have time.
26. Recognize that it takes less time than you think
I looked at a filthy air vent in the family room for years, literally, thinking it would take hours to clean. Turns out it took just15 minutes to get rid of that eyesore. What could you take care of today that’s been bothering you for years?
Increase your motivation
All habits originate in the mind. Your thoughts and emotions can be shaped to keep your home desires front and center, even when you aren’t actively cleaning or organizing.
27. Watch “Hoarders”
Watching the TV show “Hoarders” is a perfect way to learn to catch yourself making clutter mistakes. Every time you think “I was going to fix that” or “That was a gift from my great-aunt” you’ll remember why it’s important to keep going.
28. Listen to podcasts
There are lots of podcasts that provide inspiration and strategies for cleaning, decorating and decluttering. Search your favorite podcast platform for “organizing” , “simplify” and “decluttering”. Spend your downtime being inspired, then act when you’re home.
29. Remember your last vacation
When I spend time in well-run Airbnbs, it inspires me to work on my own home. While a vacation is not real life there’s no reason not to aspire to a home that is as comfortable as your last vacation stay.
30. Schedule a party
There’s nothing more motivating than having people over. Bonus if you’d like to be more social. If scheduling a party is scary, start by hosting family and close friends and work up from there.
31. Hold the vision
Keep an image of your dream house somewhere you will see it. You might keep pictures of inspiring and cozy rooms by your nightstand or bathroom mirror, or keep a Pinterest board or screensaver on your computer. What one thing can you do to get closer to your vision?
32. Be nice to future you
If you consider “future you”, the you that hates a dirty kitchen in the morning, it’s easier to get off the couch and wash the dishes. Keeping future you in mind makes it easier to do all the grown-up things that aren’t fun in the moment.
33. Track your progress
Pick one habit to track and give yourself a gold star or a mark on your calendar to note that you did it. As the gold stars add up you’ll be more motivated to keep the chain going. When that habit is automatic, pick another one.
34. Keep a master list
If you take the guesswork out of what to do next, it’s more likely you’ll do it. Keep a master list of tasks to do in each zone, including cleaning, organizing and minor repairs to be done. Crossing things off your list is satisfying.
Make it easier
As you go, you’ll see opportunities to make the whole thing easier. Set up systems so that you spend less time and mental energy.
35. Get a good night’s sleep
Prioritize sleep. It’s much easier to work on your house when you have had a good night. Forget about cleaning and get some sleep if that’s what you need. You’ll get more done in the long run.
36. Do a little meal prep
Take one thing off your mind by prepping meal ingredients once or twice a week. If you know what’s for dinner for the next few nights and a bit of the prep is done (wash vegetables, chop stuff) it’s much easier to serve simple healthy meals. If dinner is handled, it’s easier to spend time cleaning.
37. Keep it flowing
It’s easier to keep on it if you think of your house as a set of things that have to keep moving, or else they stagnate. Laundry has to move along, dishes have to get washed and put away, recycling and trash go out, decluttered items go to new homes. If you think of it all as “unsticking” stuck items, it’s clear what needs to happen next.
38. Make it pretty
When you finish a session, reward yourself by making it pretty. Put some flowers on your clean kitchen table, put a pretty dishcloth in your kitchen and use tools that look and feel good.
39. Keep stuff where you use it
It helps to keep cleaning things where you use them. A small jar of scouring powder, a sponge and cleaning cloth in the bathroom makes it easier to do a 2 minute wipe down. A broom and dustpan hung near the kitchen mean the floor gets swept.
40. Use zones
Mentally break your house up into zones, 5–6 areas you focus on regularly. Zones give you some boundaries for deep cleaning and focused work. Spend just a few minutes decluttering or deep cleaning in today’s zone, then relax—you don’t have to deep clean the whole house today.
41. Set limits
Go ahead and pile stuff up or collect things in an area, as long as the area is contained. When the important papers box is full, file and deal with them. You decide what the limits are, and then you are responsible to yourself for honoring them.
42. Use multi-purpose cleaners
All-purpose cleaners work for most applications; don’t let the lack of a special magic cleaning potion get in your way. Soap is soap and homemade cleaners made of vinegar and baking soda work for most purposes. Usually, elbow grease is the only missing ingredient.
43. Build a good defense
Keep mats in entryways, use liners on baking pans and oven shelves, put a crumb catcher in the gap between stovetop and counter, and messes will be prevented before they happen. Set it up once and thank yourself.
44. Use good tools
“Buy it for life” means purchasing things that are high-quality, durable and practical. After going through several cheap vacuum cleaners we splurged on a Miele vacuum cleaner designed to last for decades. It is a housecleaning nerd joy to use. Look for secondhand deals and sales to get good tools that will last.
45. Be prepared for down time
Watching TV, riding the bus, and waiting for appointments are all great times to get something done. If you have already assembled everything you need you can clean out the car while waiting at sports practice, you can pay bills on the bus, and you can sort family pictures while watching Netflix.
46. Use chores as an active break
We all know that sitting for long periods of time is bad for you, so use cleaning tasks as an active break. Every time you sit for 30 minutes, get up and do something that needs to be done, such as moving the laundry along or emptying the dishwasher.
47. Set out your tools
Assembling your supplies where you can see them will cue you to do a task. For example, setting out a sponge on the bathroom counter before bed will remind you to wipe it down in the morning.
48. Set up a cleaning closet or station
Gathering cleaning supplies from all over the house is a drag, and might be enough to stop you. Designate a place for the main cleaning supply depot and stock a cleaning caddy with cloths, multipurpose cleaner and brushes ready to go.
Mobilize the village
Once you’ve built some good habits and done what you can on your own, it’s time to think about engaging the people around you.
49. Be the example
Think of your example as leadership, not martyrdom. Eventually others follow suit. Even if you need to ask others to change their ways, they are more likely to do so if you have consistently modeled tidy behavior.
50. Ask people to be responsible
Ask other family members to take care of their own belongings and messes. This goes best when you are calm, confident, and have taken care of your own things. No one wants to be shamed or nagged into doing the right thing.
51. Assign jobs by preferred tasks
Everyone has jobs they like and jobs they hate. Divvy jobs up so that every person has their own set of preferred responsibilities. In my house, my husband vacuums floors and upholstery and I take care of bills.
52. Be a coach
People do better when told what to do, not what not to do. “Please pick up after yourself before you go to bed” followed by thanks works better than “Stop being such a slob”.
53. Reward yourself and others
My mom used to schedule “work parties” which fooled no one. Not a party. Anyway, after cleaning the house we went to Bob’s Big Boy and got hot fudge cakes. What would work for you and your family as a reward for doing a good job?
54. Call it done when it’s put away
Train yourself and your family to put things away after they are done with them. The goal is to leave no clues about what happened because everything is back in its place. This single habit makes the biggest difference to how the house feels.
55. Find a community
Belonging to a group where cleaning and organizing is normal behavior helps you to persist. Countless blogger facebook groups and online communities exist to share house porn, exchange tips and celebrate successes. Even better if you can develop real life friendships with people who like houses.
56. Put it on your gift list
Asking for cleaning gifts is a good way to involve children who are old enough to do things and have more time than anything else. Projects such as painting a room or organizing all the bookshelves make good presents.
57. Pay for help
If you can, hiring housekeeping help on a one time or regular basis frees you up for the things only you can do. Housekeeping help makes a great present too.
58. Seek a trade
Barter exchanges and organizing buddies can make it easier. Do you have a neighborhood time exchange or a friend who also struggles with cleaning and organizing? If you trade off working together you can make progress and be social at the same time.
59. Offer allowance
While it’s good for kids to do some chores just because they are part of the family, many children will go the extra mile to make some money. Keep a jar full of “extra” jobs that kids can do, along with a description of the quality standards.
New habits come from repetition, not time spent
If you start doing some of these things, the days of cringing when someone rings the doorbell will be over.
The more times you practice, the easier it will become. Start with one small new habit and add another when that one becomes more automatic. Over time, you and your family will be able to keep house and home together even when life is busy. Whenever you’re tempted to let Netflix start the next episode you’ll have the motivation to get up and do just one small thing.
Before you know it, you’ll be able to look back and shake your head over the bad old days while you enjoy your home. Imagine being able to invite your friend in to sit down for a chat in your clean and tidy house, or being able to relax with your family without a list of things you should be doing running in your head. It’s all yours when you take it one step at a time.