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How I did it: Learning to keep a cleaner house.

by Meagan Francis on January 21, 2014

In the spirit of the new year, this month I’ll be sharing a few successes I’ve had in beating bad habits or introducing new, healthy practices into my daily life – and how I did it. I hope my “how I did it” stories inspire you to try making your own changes in 2014 – or to share your own success stories in the comments!

housekeeping, cleaning, advice

A few months ago, my sister-in-law Jenna and I were hanging out in my living room, when she remarked, “You know, you sure are a lot cleaner than you were in college.” 

I might have been insulted by that remark except that Jenna was also my college roommate and every bit my partner in slovenliness. A massive laundry pile dominated our dorm-room floor the entire year. Mugs with dried cocoa and bowls cemented with oatmeal rolled under the bed and desk and were never seen again (until we moved out, that is.) There were probably bugs, but they were buried under so many layers of crap we never saw them.

If there was a song title that best described our living conditions that year, it would be Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell.” Our dorm wasn’t just messy, it was downright gross.

I’d like to say that I grew out of my sloppy habits as soon as I moved into my first “adult” home, or even after I had children, but that wouldn’t exactly be true. It took me several years to get a handle on the mess a family of small kids could create in a small apartment. 

The first time I maintained a truly clean-enough (by my standards, anyway) home? The year or so when Jon and I were separated and divorced. Living alone (well, without another adult, anyway) taught me a lot about keeping up with a house by myself, and forced me to figure it out and take responsibility for the state of my surroundings.

And even though my home still gets messy from time to time (right now, the bedrooms could really use some help…) I no longer feel the sinking sense of panic I used to feel, like I would never get on top of it again. Because now I know that I can, and I will. 

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to keep a cleaner house:

1. Stop resisting.

I figure I have two basic choices: drag my feet and resist every this-is-what-it-means-to-be-a-grownup task that comes my way, like doing the dishes or changing another diaper or getting dinner on the table…or, I can accept that the sooner I roll up my sleeves and get it done, the less fuss I make, the easier the job is in the end and the quicker I can get back to what I really want to be doing. 

At some point I decided to stop hating the fact that I had to clean (and then re-clean and re-clean). It’s a fact of life. Doing it makes my surroundings nicer. I’m not exactly dancing around with a dust mop over here, but I don’t waste energy grumping about cleaning up anymore – which means I also don’t allow things to pile up and make me more overwhelmed in the end.

Embrace the endlessness. You’ll never be truly “done” cleaning, so try to find a way to accept it.

embrace the endlessness

2. Don’t wait around for someone else to make your home the way you want it.

I’m a big fan of delegation. I also believe that male spouses should take responsibility for helping to keep a household running. But I learned that waiting around for somebody else to do the dishes, vacuum the rug, or make the bed is a sure-fire way to grow angry and resentful while also having to live in an increasingly messy house. 

Instead, I’ve embraced the realization that having my house function in a certain way is much more important to me than it is to Jon, just as updating software on all the family’s devices, while also a valid and worthwhile task, is more important than Jon than it is to me. And if something is really important to you, you need to take the responsibility for making it happen. (This is why Jon updates the software on all the family’s devices.)

That doesn’t mean I do every single cleaning-the-house-related task. I just accept that either I manage the delegation and oversight of said tasks…or, I accept that they won’t be done as often or as well as I’d like. And I choose #1 because living in a neat and functional house is important to my wellbeing. 

I should mention that, in my house, part of delegating means hiring part-time cleaning help. I first hired a service when I had three young children, was pregnant with Owen and freelancing from home full time, while Jon was working in another state. We definitely didn’t have a lot of money, but I was desperate, so we canceled the cable and made it happen.

I don’t “need” help in the same way as I did then, but I really like not having to do the floors, deep cleaning the bathrooms, and dusting (I never seem to notice dust until it’s taken over.) I definitely still have to do a lot of cleaning, but it’s nice to know I can mostly focus on tidying, laundry, the kitchen, and bathroom touch-ups.

Sometimes just taking a few tasks off your plate can make the rest of it seem much more manageable. If you can’t delegate or hire help, you might choose some things that just aren’t as important to you and put them on the “don’t do now” list. If you know you don’t particularly care about dusting light fixtures, you can focus on the things that really make a difference and are more manageable for you now. 

clean, dirty, window

3. Stay in motion.

I shared once here that there is no secret to keeping a clean house. It’s more a matter of accepting the job and taking action. And once I did that, I realized that my former #1 obstacle to keeping things under control was inertia. I’d avoid, avoid, avoid until I faced down an epic mess that would take me an entire week to clean up. Then I’d avoid, avoid, avoid again until the next time I got desperate. 

Now I just keep moving. If I’m walking from the living room to the kitchen, why not make a few trips and return all the empty cups while I’m at it? If I’m bending down to pick up a toy in my path, I might as well repeat the action and pick up those abandoned socks, too. 

I like to veg out on the sofa as much as anyone, but I find that once I’m down, I tend to stay down. So before I settle in, I try to make a few laps around the house to tidy up, load the dishwasher, or throw in a load of laundry. Then I can really enjoy my break…and the much neater house around me.

You know what’s funny? Looking at my list above it’s clear that what transformed me from a total slob into a decent housekeeper has nothing to do with complicated organizing systems, speed-cleaning tips, or buying new products. It’s all about attitude. 

Which means anyone can be a decent housekeeper, right? 

Trust me: if I can do it? So can you.

top photo: Carissa Rogers, via Flickr Creative Commons
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Erin January 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm

This really resonates with me — I’m in a similar place in this journey! Along with just accepting the work, I also tried to find ways to make it a little more tolerable. So listening to a fun podcast or turning on what I call a “mindless tv show” (usually HGTV or Food Network) works for me.

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Clover January 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm

It didn’t take a divorce, but my husband working out of town for months on end for me to realize that I actually kept my house cleaner when he was away. I wasn’t wasting energy wishing he would do something, I just did it. And while I never want to be in that situation again, returning to that time in my mind helps my perspective less skewed.

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Meagan Francis January 24, 2014 at 3:27 pm

“I wasn’t wasting energy wishing he would do something, I just did it.” Exactly!

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Olivia January 21, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Some of it for me is I think just maturity and realizing that doing small bits makes the cleaning seem easier, but it really took quitting my job and staying home full time. When I worked I wanted my time off to be only for fun, but now I have time for fun and cleaning.

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Susan January 22, 2014 at 6:02 am

I cannot seem to keep this house clean! My solution right now is two things: 1. I’m on a major declutter mission. Less stuff, less to return to its spot, more time and space to clean. I have one large room and a closet left to declutter and I may be able to breathe a little easier. Number 2: enlist the kids. My husband isn’t home too much, and yes he contributes hugely somehow to the mess (if I could just get him to follow the rule “if it’s trash, throw it away” it would be oh so helpful), but I don’t want him to just clean when he’s home, SO I finally put up a new chore list for the kids. They’re always responsible for their rooms, but I’ve added ONE chore for the week….something that takes up my time and is always happening all day….so one kid does the laundry (I fold, but they wash, dry, and put it in a pile); one kids unloads the dishwasher; one kid clears and sets the table for meals. It has been a huge help.
I agree with your steps, too! But it’s hard to accept that it’s a never ending job…sometimes I sing the song from the movie ‘The Never Ending Story’ while I’m cleaning…heehee.

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Dayna January 22, 2014 at 7:15 am

I love this article. Is there hope for me? Maybe :). I agree with the comment above (Erin) about making boring task more tolerable. I listen to audiobooks. A lot of libraries offer free downloads. I “read” the entire Harry Potter series that way and got a lot done.

The other thing I do is talk to my best friend on the phone while I do chores. She lives about an hour away. I put in a head set and get going. She has young kids and I have kids in school. We meal plan, cook, clean bath rooms, fold laundry, vacuum, and much more together. I am better at all things cooking and she is better at all things cleaning. So we have plenty of tips for each other. If I am sitting down drinking coffee when she calls I usually get up and start doing something. It is just my habit now.

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Kelli Oliver George January 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

I love this post. I am still trying to find a happy balance and there is some inspiration here. We recently replaced our entire upstairs flooring and are in the process of getting the downstairs flooring replaced — Feb 5th it will all be done and I have a mark in the sand for MYSELF to get my act in gear.

Thanks!

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Amy January 22, 2014 at 7:46 pm

Thank you!! Over and over again, I read posts from women who are ‘neat freaks’ or ‘a bit OCD’ and ‘couldn’t handle living in a messy home’. I feel like I’m the only one who doesn’t care too much about a bit of clutter. In the last six months I’ve gotten exceptionally good at doing the dishes EVERY SINGLE NIGHT without fail (going to bed with a clean kitchen DOES feel really good!), but my friends look at me oddly when I proclaim my newfound skill.

As my children get a little older (now 4 and 2), I’m finally starting to realise that life with little babies is HARD. Really hard. And that for a few years, just coping with life and focusing on happiness is just fine- the rest of the skills will come.

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Meagan Francis January 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm

The confessional neat freaks can really get you down, huh? I think we all have a different level of tolerance for mess and that the important thing is living in a home that feels functional TO YOU. Little things like going to bed with a clean kitchen really give me a boost, but other things don’t matter to me at all. I’m sure people who are naturally messier than me probably think my house is very clean, while those who are neat freaks probably think I’m a slob!

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Susie January 23, 2014 at 9:28 am

Great article! Because of you I am a lot cleaner too, you had a article similar to this a couple of years ago and I started unloading dishes every morning then load them as the day goes on and in never feels too messy in the kitchen. we have 6 kids so our kitchen is used all the time!

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Meagan Francis January 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Susie, I’m so glad to hear that! It really does make a difference, doesn’t it?

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Kristin January 23, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Great article, Meagan! I love your honesty. You’re inspiring for all the real women with little kids who don’t love to clean [over and over and over and…]. Now, I’m off to dust my living room! :)

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Jennifer L.W. Fink (@jlwf) February 17, 2014 at 10:23 am

That all about attitude thing — that’s exactly my problem. I hate putting time and effort into my house and would rather do anything but. So I do. And it shows.

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