Taking control of your housework involves sticking to a plan, says Andrea Mara
A year ago, when I finished up my full-time job and began working as a freelance writer, my biggest fear (apart from failing miserably, being penniless, and regretting the decision for the rest of my life) was housework. Finances would no longer allow the luxury of a cleaner, but my small window of time each morning was needed for paid work, not housework. So when would the house get cleaned, I wondered? Study after study shows that housework causes stress — and can even lead to divorce — so the stakes were high.
One year in, and it’s been hit and miss; I have laundry on my laundry, and there’s a permanent pile of stuff at the bottom of the stairs. But I have discovered a few tricks, and some of them are even backed up by experts.
Less is more, I realised, soon after going freelance that not having much time to spend on housework isn’t such a bad thing — in fact it might even be a good thing. My husband and I spend one hour every Saturday evening blitzing the house, and actually, it’s plenty of time to get everything done — especially with the incentive of a glass of wine beckoning. The reality is, no matter how much I do, the house never feels 100% clean and tidy, so the more time I spend, the more unnecessary cleaning I’ll do. Housework abhors a vacuum, so to speak.
“Housework is like email. It can expand to fill all available space,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of time management book I Know How She Does It. “There are lots of ways to be more efficient, but the best is to simply decide to give it less space. Give yourself a small window of time for chores and you’ll quickly figure out what needs to be done and what is non-essential.”
Professional home organiser Sarah Reynolds agrees. “Parkinson’s law says work expands to fill the time you have,” says the founder of OrganisedChaos.ie. “So setting a time limit for tasks is a good idea because you can be more specific, and prioritise.” Becky Rapinchuk of US blog CleanMama.net says you only need to spend ten to 15 minutes per day on housework.
“I have four simple tasks that I do every day — check floors, wipe counters, declutter, plus one load of laundry — and then I complete one weekly task for each day of the week.” 15 minutes a day? That’s an approach I can buy into.
Feeling initially overwhelmed by work, school-runs, personal admin, and the house, I started to make a daily list of five things I really needed to do — emails, appointments, plus one piece of housework. So if on Tuesday, the list says, ‘put on a white wash’, that’s what I do. If I notice that the kitchen floor could do with a mop, it doesn’t matter — because it’s not on the list. I’ve created my own personal bureaucracy, but one that works in my favour.
And experts agree that lists are good. Bestselling time management author Brian Tracy writes on his website (BrianTracy.com) that every minute you spend in planning saves ten minutes in execution – that seems like a solid investment.
“Yes, a checklist takes the thinking out of it,” says Reynolds. “It means you just get started and get everything done; a checklist for any task will help you get it done more quickly.” Professional organiser Maeve Richmond (MaevesMethod.com) says you have to drain your brain.
“Before you get started with cleaning, get what’s in your head down onto paper. Of course, then you get the good feeling of checking things off the list.” And there are apps to help us order our overwhelmed minds. “Going around with all your tasks and responsibilities in your head is a recipe for disaster,” says Ciara Conlon, author of Productivity for Dummies:
“You can use a task management app like ‘Remember the Milk’ or ‘Todoist’ to capture all the things you need to do.” Lower your standards and take all the shortcuts. My house will never be spotless, and I’m OK with that. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott came up with the idea of the ‘good enough’ mother in 1953, and I think he’d approve of the ‘good enough’ house too. Even if I cleaned for eight hours a day, I’d still find nooks and crannies that aren’t quite perfect, so at the risk of sounding defeatist, why keep trying?
“Perfection doesn’t exist,” says Reynolds. “It’s very important to get comfortable with getting things done to a good enough state, so you can move on to doing something else.” This is truer than ever when you have kids – and the perfect parent doesn’t exist according to Ciara Conlon.
“Productivity Guru David Allen has a quote that defines my life: ‘You can do anything but you can’t do everything’. It’s not possible to be the perfect parent, have a successful career and have a clean house; I haven’t personally met anyone who has mastered it.”
But to speed things up, you do need shortcuts. I’ve started keeping a pack of disinfectant wipes in the bathroom, so I can clean down the surfaces every few days, giving the illusion of something more thorough. And when I go to the trouble of taking out the hoover, I suck up everything I can – vacuuming cupboards, ceilings, and even the oven. One of my favourite tips comes from TheClothesline.ie — don’t try to sweep up bits of pasta while they’re still soggy — it’s much easier if you wait for them to dry.
The experts have their favourites:
“Keep a small cleaning caddy under the bathroom sink: if you have children, wipe down counters and toilets while they’re taking a bath,” says Rapinchuk.
“Follow the waiter technique,” suggests Reynolds, “You never leave a room without taking something with you.”
“Make yourself useful when making tea; while the kettle boils you could clean out the microwave, wash the tiles behind the cooker or clean down the counter,” is Conlon’s tip. “And if financially possible, pay someone else to do your housework while your children are small. Time is better spent playing with kids than washing floors.”
Finally, don’t compare yourself to other people advises Richmond. “It’s about finding a standard that makes sense for you. Once we start comparing ourselves with others, we set ourselves up for failure.” That sounds good to me. Just don’t inspect my skirting boards.
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