True confession: I’ve never been a very good housekeeper.
In the dorm, my roommate and I regularly failed room checks, as our floor lay buried in books, clothing, and Snickers wrappers. When I graduated to apartment life, nothing happened unless it absolutely had to—when company came, when the refrigerator so overflowed with food far past its prime I was forced to make room in it, when rings around the tub and toilet finally drove me to shamefacedly pick up a scrub brush. To this day, I rarely dust.
It was finally when my family had grown from two children to five, then six, and finally seven, with no corresponding adjustment in square footage or number of bathrooms, that I realized it was time to grow up and get busy (dusting excepted).
Ten years later, I’ve learned that going from bad housekeeper to even just a decent one is a process. I’ve learned that, like losing weight or adopting a regular exercise regimen, this transformation happens in fits and starts and, especially, over time. And I’ve learned that it’s easy to slip back into old habits.
“If you’re kind of feeling like your house is in an overwhelming state, just remember it’s a process,” says Melissa Ringstaff—like me, a self-described horrible housekeeper in her 20s—whose blog, AVirtuousWoman.org, focuses on the spiritual aspects of homemaking.
Ringstaff regularly blogs and hosts online classes around the subject of housekeeping—an issue she says younger generations of women often struggle with as they juggle work outside the home or a busy schedule of child-related and volunteer activities, often both.
“When we feel overwhelmed we get stuck, and we just don’t know where to begin,” she says. “My approach is to develop little habits. Gradually teach yourself to do things differently. Have a routine where you do things every single day, so you don’t have to spend your weekend playing catch-up.”
More about the how-to in a minute. First, let’s consider why it matters at all.
A Healthy House
When it comes to the importance of basic cleanliness, it’s pretty clear that making sure our homes are free of grit, grime, and grossness tends toward better health. Most of us know it’s important, for both appearance and hygiene’s sake, to regularly mop floors, scrub bathrooms, launder linens, and sanitize kitchens.
But we may not be doing as good a job as we think. In a recent National Sanitation Foundation’s report on “germiest places in the home,” the kitchen, of all places, is the most likely host of coliform bacteria, a nasty combination of bacteria that includes salmonella and E. coli and serves as an “indicator of potential fecal contamination.”
In a study of 22 homes, scientists found the bacteria cocktail on more than 75 percent of dish rags and sponges, 45 percent of kitchen sinks, 32 percent of countertops, and 18 percent of cutting boards. Coffee reservoirs were also on the top 10 nasty list. By comparison, in bathrooms, the germs were located on just 27 percent of toothbrush holders and 9 percent of bathroom faucet handles. And, contrary to urban legend, keys, money, computer keyboards, and game controllers aren’t primary real estate of concern.
The other primary aspect of home upkeep is one many find more challenging: clutter.
It’s a subject that has gotten attention of late with books such as The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Pinterest posts on capsule wardrobes and storage solutions, and a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of keeping our homes neat and orderly.
One highly publicized study out of Indiana University showed that people who kept clean houses were healthier and more physically active than those with messy ones. In one 2010 study of 30 spousal couples, wives who described their homes as “unfinished” or “cluttered” reported more depressed moods and experienced shifts in levels of cortisol production, which have proven detrimental to long-term health. Another study out of Princeton University showed that clutter made it harder for participants to focus on the task at hand.
The relationship between housekeeping and health have been found in unexpected places too. Making the bed, for example, is associated with a good night’s sleep. Other research shows that organizing and planning make it easier to achieve long-term goals.
The reasons our lives end up dirty and cluttered can be as simple as life’s busyness or as complex as a personal history that leaves us clinging to material things. Hoarding is considered a psychiatric dysfunction and can be associated with life trauma.
“The emotional trauma we have contributes to the emotional needs we have, and we need our stuff,” says Ringstaff.
First Steps to a Cleaner,
I can credit my own shift toward better housekeeping with a plague of bedbugs, which necessitated a scorched-earth policy on possessions. Most of our goods and clothing went into bags after being frozen or laundered. We had to toss books, furniture. But even during this stressful time, I realized I breathed easier in the resulting emptiness, relaxed in the space that this enforced debriding provided. I didn’t really miss my stuff.
The crisis was followed shortly by a family move, after which I took the opportunity to evaluate what must be kept and what must go during the unpacking process. Each organized set of closets, each trunk load taken to Goodwill, each room checked off the list served as encouragement to keep on forging ahead. I reduced outfits to what we all required for a week of wear—both reducing the amount of laundry and ensuring that I kept up with it. Same with kitchen items—if I only have two baking pans, one set of pots, I can’t just let them keep piling up in the sink. Same with the linens.
I had chosen the chaos of a large family, so I realized the chaos of stuff had to go. I liked the spareness, breathed in the space, rejoiced over fewer knickknacks to collect dust and less collectibles to arrange. I enjoyed my husband coming home each evening and complimenting the clean house.
The newfound sense of order brought with it greater personal calm, automatically reduced my housekeeping time, and gave me the confidence that I could truly keep up—which is half the battle. It also prepared us for a move three years later to a 1,000-square foot smaller house, which happened with minimal fuss or long hours packing.
While mine was a forced epiphany, the shift toward deliberate, quiet housecleaning can be more subtle.
Ringstaff advises her subscribers to adopt doable daily habits in small increments. Need to declutter? Aim to fill one bag a day. Tired of facing a weekend of laundry? Do one load a day. Make a list of daily chores that can be accomplished in just a few minutes—and don’t go to bed without doing them.
For example, Ringstaff starts each morning by making her bed and doesn’t turn in for the night without cleaning the kitchen and starting the dishwasher.
“Develop little habits,” she says. “I couldn’t prepare breakfast, and I couldn’t get on with my day if my kitchen was a mess.”
Kids and Such
A clean and tidy home has benefits for children too. A national survey and study by Clorox linked childhood cleaning habits with the ability to study better. It showed kids who had chores also had greater empathy and were more willing to help others. And here’s one for you: “The likelihood someone is happier than average increases by 53 percent for every additional hour that they clean in a week,” the report stated.
“Let all things be done decently and in order,” Ringstaff says, quoting 1 Corinthians 14:40, KJV. “That tells us that chaos is not God’s ideal for us.”
With younger children, cleaning assignments require more hands-on involvement from parents—designating toys to be returned to a specific container, or allowing kids to help sort and deliver laundry. Older children should be taught to do more complicated tasks, with proper supervision and follow-up, Ringstaff says, so they learn, for example, how to thoroughly clean a bathroom or sweep and mop a floor. Or dust.
If it’s not been part of the routine, “have a family meeting,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m struggling with this. I need your help.’ Lay out expectations, assign chores, and explain what’s expected. Then follow through—establish consequences based on whatever motivates your kids to perform.”
At the same time, Ringstaff says, don’t make the standard impossible to meet. Life is life, and kids are kids, and by making housekeeping too much of a focus, it’s possible to make a clean home as stressful as a messy one.
“My goal is neat and tidy, not perfect,” she says.
Larisa Brass, M.P.H., is a homemaker and writer who keeps company with her husband, dog, and lots of kids in Knoxville, Tennesee.