Small Space. Big Life.

My housekeeping problem is a scheduling problem

In my life up until yesterday, I had a straightforward and, I suspect, pretty common approach to housekeeping: Take care of the routine cleaning first, address long-term projects (like decluttering or organizing or substantial yardwork) in the time left over each day or week.

In general, this approach means that we have the basics covered pretty regularly. These are, in no particular order: clean clothes, clean dishes, regular home-cooked family dinners, basic animal care (litterbox, yard, food and water), grocery shopping, paid bills, cleaned bathrooms and vacuumed/swept floors.

I get these basics done pretty well (full disclosure here: you would not want to eat off my kitchen floor, although the dog doesn’t seem to mind, which may be part of the kitchen floor problem) and with a minimum of effort because I’ve put them into routines that I don’t have to think about. They’re established as patterns and not doing them would take almost more work than doing them does. As a result, they get done and I’m not exhausted by the constant decision-making that accompanies trying to decide what to do when you don’t have a set pattern.

Now that I have them in a solid routine (it took me a while to figure out I needed one and then to get it set up), I had planned on using some of my spare physical and psychic housekeeping energy and time to address longer-term issues such as the clutter buildup in our house or the dust on the wooden blinds. It was my thought that by adding a few minutes of this sort of work to the tail end of the larger tasks I’m doing, I could chip away at it and over time accomplish some of the decluttering, deep-cleaning and organizational goals that I have for the house.

I’ve been trying this, on and off, with limited success over the past year or so. I’m not making solid progress. I spent some time feeling frustrated and some time avoiding the issue. And, to be honest, I let a lot of time go by when I didn’t think about it at all; because it wasn’t part of my routine (yet) it got forgotten, even while I continued to be frustrated by the amount of stuff building up in our lives and the work-arounds I’ve created to deal with it until I had time to actually deal with it.

But because one of the main rules of being a grownup is that ignored problems don’t go away, this issue has been in the back of my mind, where I’ve been mulling it over. Then, yesterday, while reading through the archives of Cal Newport’s blog Study Hacks (when I should have been grading papers, but I justified it as looking for study tips that would help my students, so my procrastination was noble), a thought struck me: What if I radically changed the way I allot my time to housekeeping? Is it possible that I would actually make more progress towards a cleaner, more welcoming home if I actually stopped doing as much traditional housework and instead focused on addressing those areas of our home that I haven’t been able to yet?

I went to bed with that idea percolating in my head and woke up this morning (well, to be honest, I haven’t fully woken up since it isn’t 9 a.m. yet) with two major realizations:

1. The housekeeping areas I’ve identified as long-term problems (clutter, organization and yardwork) actually make my traditional housekeeping more difficult and time-consuming. (It’s hard to vacuum a room when you have to pick up stacks and stacks of books and papers each time; putting laundry away into a crowded closet is a hassle). This leaves me with little time after a regular cleaning session to work on them.

2. Tagging these tiring and overwhelming tasks on at the end of a routine cleaning session means that I don’t have a lot of energy or focus for them and therefore will not be as effective in making meaningful progress. For me, this is major: I can take the long view of something, but it’s a lot easier for me to keep going on a project if I can see some tangible results early on.

Looking at these two thoughts, I’ve realized that my housekeeping problem is a scheduling problem.

That, I can deal with.

My new plan: Put the long-term goals in front of the routine activities. Clear some of the junk out of my closet, even just a small amount, before I put the laundry away. Clear the paper clutter from the TV stand before I vacuum the living room. Do a part of the planning for our master bath remodel before I clean the vanity countertops.

Clearly, I’ll need to spend some time deciding which of the clutter / organization / yardwork tasks I need to deal with first, so that I can move through them in an efficient manner and spend my limited housekeeping time in a way that will provide the most benefit the most quickly (I want to get that quick return on effort that will motivate me to keep moving). So today my housekeeping task is to catalog the top five issues I want to deal with and break them down into smaller tasks that I can attach to my housekeeping schedule for the next month or so.

We’ll probably see a short-term drop in cleanliness standards with this method, since the daily cleaning will get relegated to the backseat. But over time, as these problem areas are dealt with, I’m hoping that we’ll see a snowball effect. The time I would normally have had to dedicate to working around the clutter or organization issues is suddenly freed up. I’ll get more flex in my housekeeping time budget, and more time to address traditional things — like scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush.

Well, maybe not that much time.


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