What to clean if you only have five, ten or 20 minutes

Organizational guru, Rachel Hoffman, says cleaning in short bursts can help you build the habits you need to keep your home clean(er).
Cleaning kitchen stove.
By using small increments of time to make small, incremental improvements to your mess, it’s far easier to build the habits that’ll keep your home clean.gilaxia / Getty Images
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By Dana McMahan

You've probably learned by now that marathon cleaning is not sustainable. Lengthy, exhausting cleaning sessions can become a vicious cycle where you associate cleaning with the stress of those frenzied housekeeping attempts, according to Rachel Hoffman, author of "Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess", so you just … don't clean, until it's an emergency (say, unexpected company). Rather than interspersing cleaning droughts with a frantic and doomed attempt to clean all the things, a more realistic — and helpful — approach is to tackle the job a few minutes at a time, Hoffman said.

How much good can you do with just a few minutes? A lot, actually, said Hoffman. And it's about more than checking off the task at hand. “By using small increments of time to make small, incremental improvements to your mess, it’s far easier to build the habits that’ll keep your home clean,” Hoffman told NBC News BETTER. “Knowing that you’re only investing a few minutes at a time, as opposed to a whole day or weekend, makes slow, steady progress an easy reality.”

This one piece at a time approach is behind the entire philosophy of UfYH, she said, which is based on “consistently making little changes, and building habits that’ll eventually make cleaning up more of a reflex than an overwhelming chore.”

And you might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in a those small chunks of time. Been putting off dealing with that pile of clothes growing ever larger on the chair in your bedroom (the “chairdrobe,” Hoffman calls it) because it's going to take forever? Chances are it won't take nearly as long as you think it will. “In general, we way overestimate how much time tasks take,” Hoffman said.

Knowing that you’re only investing a few minutes at a time, as opposed to a whole day or weekend, makes slow, steady progress an easy reality.

Rachel Hoffman

So why not find out? “Setting a timer before doing your regular cleaning tasks gives you an idea of how long each one realistically takes,” she said. Knowing that the dreaded chore actually takes literally three minutes can make you much more likely to just do it.

To get you started, here are three things each you can do in one, two, five, 10, and 20 minutes. Hoffman recommends using a timer as you're working, especially if you have a competitive streak. “I love timers because you're always trying to beat them,” she said. You can also use her app, which comes with built-in random timed challenges (it's available for Apple or Android).

One minute

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You can find a minute while you wait for coffee to brew, or your shower to get hot.

  • Throw away a few pieces of trash
  • Wipe down a counter or surface
  • Make the bed

Two minutes

You can find two minutes while you let the dog outside (in your fenced yard, of course!)

  • Sweep/swiffer the floor in one room
  • Put away a few items of laundry
  • Put ten things away that aren’t where they belong

Five minutes

You can find five minutes while you fill the tub or wait for the water to boil for dinner. Or, while you're binging Netflix, as the intro plays.

  • Clear off one shelf, counter, or table top
  • Empty the dishwasher or dish drainer
  • Clean the toilet or shower/tub

10 minutes

You can find 10 minutes in between binging episodes (bonus, it gets you up and moving!). Or, plan to take the time right after work, before changing into your comfy clothes, or maybe in those few minutes while you wait for your partner to finish getting ready before you go out.

  • Collect and wash dishes
  • Vacuum one room
  • Put a load of laundry away

20 minutes

This is a time to actually schedule, Hoffman said. Set it aside at, say, the beginning of weekend. “Saturday mornings are great,” she said. “Do it early so it's not looming over you.”

  • Deal with the “floordrobe” (or “chairdrobe” or “bedrobe”) and put all clothes away
  • Clean the bathroom
  • Do an in depth clean of one room. (Don't know where to start? Download the checklist on Hoffman's website: Basic Cleaning for Almost Any Room)

Inspired to do more after that 20 minutes? I know I usually am, once I get going. It's just as important to take time in between the 20 minute sessions, Hoffman said, lest you spin back out into a marathon session. Sit down with a cup of coffee or, hey, no judgment, scroll through Instagram for five minutes. If you're still motivated and find yourself looking for things to do (stranger things have happened!) check out Hoffman's Ten Things You Forget to Clean checklists for inspiration. But if you don't feel like going back to cleaning after your break, no worries. You'll find a few minutes somewhere else today.

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