You're busy, things pile up until you can't stand it or all of a sudden you have company coming over — and you have to do something about it right now. Then you go into a mad dash to clean everything. And you hate every minute of it. Does this approach to cleaning house sound familiar?
You're not alone. “Most people want to clean as infrequently as possible, so that translates to 'I'm going to do everything all at once,'” says Rachel Hoffman, author of Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. The thing is, marathon cleaning is the worst possible approach.
It's a matter of shifting focus from 'this entire place is a disaster' to 'those are dishes, I can deal with those.'
But why? “Once you're done with that marathon, sure your house is clean, but you're exhausted and probably frustrated,” Hoffman tells NBC News BETTER. What's worse, “you are now associating having a clean home with all of the stress that comes with marathon cleaning. [While] it might be a good time to say 'keep up with it now,' in the back of your mind you say 'that was terrible,' so you have all these negative associations with cleaning.” And these sentiments likely echo earlier associations, she says. “How many of us when we're kids, you have this trashed room and cleaning it is a punishment?”
No wonder the cycle continues to repeat itself.
Our Notions of Housekeeping May Be Unrealistic
Unfortunately, Hoffman says, conventional housekeeping systems are often written by and for naturally tidy people and people who don't necessarily know how to reach someone who isn't, she says. What's more, they often make assumptions about the people using them.
“They own their house and live there with a nuclear family. [The woman] might stay at home — there's often a very traditional aspect to it,” she says.
While Hoffman doesn't want to exclude anyone who matches that profile, “there are so many people who don't fit into many of those boxes,” she says, “when you're reading something that says 'Tuesday you do xyz,' and you're like, 'I'm at work till 8 and when I get home I'm exhausted.' There are a lot of ways people are living their lives. For me 'habitat' is where you are, whether that's a shared room or a dorm or a whole house to yourself. That's your space and you deserve to love it. My goal is that every one of these people see there is a way to conquer your mess.”
And the way to do that, she says, comes down to a few key concepts.
The 20/10 rule
Start breaking yourself of the marathon habit, Hoffman says, by training yourself to do short bursts of cleaning followed by a break. “Set a timer. When it goes off, you stop and do something else. Sit down with cup of tea or take the dog for a walk or mess around on the internet. If necessary you get right back to cleaning [when the break is over].” That could be 20 minutes and 10 minutes, or five and 45, whatever it takes.
Ignore the big picture
The whole house is a mess? Forget about it. What can you do right now?
“I try to train people to refocus on the small things and how much of a difference they make when you're doing them regularly and over time,” Hoffman says. “A lot of people look at the big picture and get overwhelmed. It's a matter of shifting focus from 'this entire place is a disaster' to 'those are dishes, I can deal with those.' It's a concrete, small thing you can deal with. This is a way for people to say 'I can.'”
Make your bed
And those small things can start with just making your bed. Hoffman's a huge fan of the childhood chore.
“The reason that's a good idea is it's a very small time investment,” she says, “but it immediately makes your bedroom look cleaner and neater. Even if you've got the floordrobe (aka a heap of clothes on the floor), if you've got a made bed it pulls things together a little bit. I know I'm calmer if I'm looking at a made bed rather than a messy one.”
Better still, “it's easily repeatable so as you build that habit it becomes easier to build on and get new habits.”
How much of our mess can be just averted entirely by putting it away and not down?
Put it away, not down
There's nothing new about this one, but for good reason. One of those new habits you build can be putting things away — straightaway. “How much of our mess can be just averted entirely by putting it away and not down?” Hoffman says. It's another small time investment, just a couple minutes, she says, that can reap big rewards.
Do you know where your laundry is?
“When you wash things there are three steps,” Hoffman says. Her rallying cry, often seen in her social media challenges is wash, dry, and put it away. “Everyone forgets to put it away,” she says, so we end up with the “Big Rock Laundry Mountain.” If you've done a load of laundry or washed the dishes, it's not done until they're put away, she says. It's all part of “training yourself to create a habit of putting things away before they can make a mess.”
Bribe as needed
Still can't quite get going? How about a little carrot on the stick? “I'm 100 percent in favor of bribing yourself,” Hoffman says. “It's absolutely the most effective way of getting yourself to do something.” Whether that's a cup of special coffee or the next episode of whatever podcast or Netflix series you're bingeing, it's a thing you love that you can enjoy without guilt if you'll just do this kind of unpleasant thing.”
If you've done a load of laundry or washed the dishes, it's not done until they're put away.
Step away from the phone — or at least swap Instagram for this tumblr
Hoffman has run a tumblr for several years where she reblogs readers' before and after pictures. “The overwhelming response is, 'OMG, that looks like my house,'” she says.
“At this point we're really only seeing very, very carefully curated snapshots of people's lives,” and that includes her own, she says. “If I'm taking a picture I'm clearing everything out of the background. If you went to wide lens you'd be horrified.”
The danger here, she says, is that “by constantly comparing our everyday reality to what other people are choosing to present it's always going to make us feel inadequate because you think everyone else has it together.” In reality, she reminds visitors to her blog — who are all enthusiastically supportive of one another — “there are many, many many more people like us than there are like them.”
If you're raring to go, there's no time like the present. “Go clear off a counter or a tabletop,” Hoffman says, “whichever one stresses you out most.” (And then maybe go have that reward!)