Tips for people who hate cleaning (and how to get better at it)

If no specific cleaning and organizing method seems to spark joy, try this instead.
Close-Up Of Vacuum Cleaner On Pink Background
Doing one tiny thing every time you enter or leave a room can help avoid those marathon weekend cleaning sessions. Surapong Thammabuht / Getty Images/EyeEm
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By Dana McMahan

How many systems or hacks have you tried to keep your home clean? How long did they last?

Not long? No wonder. The reality is cleaning just sucks. Author Rachel Hoffman makes no bones about that with her new book “Cleaning Sucks, An Unf*ck Your Habitat Guided Journal for Less Mess, Less Stress, and a Home You Don’t Hate.”

“It’s an important realization that if you’re going to have to do this forever to find a way to make it suck a little less,” Hoffman told NBC News BETTER. With this journal, which reads like a super understanding friend encouraging you to get yourself together for you, she hopes to help readers shift from making cleaning a “giant monumental task” to looking at it as momentary inconveniences from time to time.

It’s a matter of finding ways to incorporate habits in a way that doesn’t take over, said Hoffman, as opposed to spending a whole weekend on a cleaning marathon. “You should be able to maintain your house without giving up your free time,” she said.

Wait. Really?

Really.

And Hoffman gets it. “I understand this is difficult for people, you don’t like doing it and would rather not be doing it,” she said. So “I built a system around the assumption that it's never going to be your favorite but there are ways to incorporate it into a busy life.”

If you haven’t had success with other methods, that’s not surprising, Hoffman said. While “most people have no problem doing any routine or system for a short period of time ... if you don’t have that foundation for good skills and habits you’re back where you came from” as soon as you lose motivation. And some are just too much to begin with.

Does it spark giving up?

Without naming names, “thinking of one of the more popular ones which is ‘take everything out of your closet and deal with it,’” Hoffman said, “there are so many people for whom that’s completely overwhelming and if you can’t ace that one thing you throw up your hands are are back where you started.”

“I try to look at it more holistically than just ‘take these steps,’” she said.

Woven throughout the book is a vibe, said Hoffman, of “convincing yourself that yes you deserve this, even if it’s not your dream home, even if you’re not entertaining every weekend, you deserve to enjoy the place you live.”

And to get there, “sometimes you just have to reframe how you look at cleaning, she said. “Most of us have the experience of a big top to bottom all at once, and the reality is that doesn’t work for most people. It’s not fun, it takes forever, it gets really bad in between all of that. So the tiny ‘doing one thing’ keeps it constant but in a way that’s not invasive.”

The book serves up how-tos, but first there’s some homework, like identifying roadblocks that can keep you from a clean house. Here’s where you know Hoffman lives in the real world with the rest of us: one option I checked as a roadblock was “just don’t feel like it” (truth!). Among other options you might also choose disability, chronic pain/illness, living with someone who makes it difficult, or fill in your own.

She encourages introspection about how your home makes you feel, how you’d like it to make you feel, and what your endgame is, setting you up for some of the concrete steps to follow. Like starting where you are by choosing one thing that stresses you the most and setting a timer for 20 minutes to do what you can. I tackled my out of control closet. A prompt asked how I felt afterward, and amazingly after only 20 minutes, I wrote “I feel relaxed and can breathe easier.” Maybe the whole house wasn’t done, but that one achievement really did matter. (Also? You might be surprised how little time those dreaded tasks actually take, Hoffman said.)

Bribes work, too

Hoffman fully embraces bribing, with a page for brainstorming ways to reward yourself for completing a task. “It’s the most effective way to get stuff done,” she said. “We have this Puritan mindset of you’re supposed to just do it, but it makes it a lot better if you know you’re going to get something.” So just do it! “Bribe yourself, there’s no sense in being depriving yourself. If you’re going to do something you don’t enjoy you should get something out of it.”

Keep on keeping on

She also encourages giving yourself a break when the going is rough — but that means not assigning blame. It doesn’t mean we just stop. A section called Things You Can Do On a Depression/Pain Day (I told you she gets it!) urges you to find ways to adapt, or to identify small tasks you can do on especially bad days, just to keep the momentum going.

“Mentally, it’s important to know you can do something very half-assed and it still counts,” she said. “If you’re on a depression day to say ‘I can still get something accomplished even if I feel like garbage,’ ... when you’re on the other side of that episode you're not cursing past you for leaving this giant mess for you to deal with. It’s also worthwhile because you don’t lose habit building.”

The nitty gritty

Building on the foundation of the To Think About section the book continues with concrete suggestions. Hoffman’s underlying system is built on the 20/10 approach; clean for 20 minutes, take a break for 10, or whatever time increment works for you. It’s not the specific amount of time that’s as important as the working with an endpoint. “It’s important for people to know they can stop,” she said, “because you need to know that you don't have to do this all day. You can do it and stop and go back to what you’d rather be doing which is probably anything else.”

She has some key tenets, as well, such as her rallying cry of “wash, dry, put it away dammit.” Why does this matter so much? “You don’t realize what a big difference it makes putting laundry away until you don’t have those big piles,” she said. The same goes for dishes, too.

Also? Hoffman really, really wants us to make our beds. An unmade bed just invites more chaos, she points out, while a straightened one helps establish habits that will influence the rest of the house. (If you tell yourself, like I did, that leaving it unmade helps “air flow” she has news: “the best prevention for dust mites is washing your bedding regularly and vacuuming your mattress periodically,” the book notes.)

Other relatively painless tasks include doing one tiny thing every time you enter or leave a room -- even as small as putting one thing away. “You’re in a bathroom, wipe down a counter,” she said. “It takes seven seconds. When you save up those things to do at once it’s an hour or more.” And on days you can’t carve out one 20 minute session (let alone multiple), employ the Rule of Five, she said. That might be a five minute cleaning blitz on one room, putting away five things that aren’t where they belong, or even washing five dishes. “It’s not a major time investment, she said. “But it adds up. My goal is get people to see you don’t have to do this huge undertaking.”

Your mission, if you choose to accept it

Working your way through the book (which can be done in any order, she notes), will gradually get your home in order, even as you’re creating new habits. She introduces a staple from Unf*ck Your Habitat in the final sections, with mini challenges like conquering the “floordrobe,” and a full weekend re-set, step by step. You can also just skip to the back for checklists both time-based (weekly, monthly, seasonally) and room by room.

Things are not what they appear

But there’s something Hoffman wants you to remember if you have a habit of scrolling through home photos online. “I try to remind people that what we see on social media is very curated,” she said. “You don’t see what’s beyond the camera.”

What’s more, “All of that stuff takes money and time and nobody ever wants to acknowledge that having this beautiful, well-decorated, curated home is not cheap,” she said. “Not everybody is in the position to be able to create spaces like that. So being able to be satisfied with what you have and what you can do, that’s my goal, not to turn people’s homes into beautiful showpieces. My goal is to make people happy with what they have.”

A corner of the internet that’s a little more real lives at a Team UfYH Facebook group, on Twitter, and at a backlog on a (no longer active) Tumblr, and can serve as antidote to the polished imagery that floods the rest of the web.

“It’s very reassuring to know that other people live like we do,” Hoffman said. “We all think everybody else has this perfectly clean, organized home so seeing the reality is a relief … like everybody's house looks like this sometimes.”

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