Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
I wish I wrote this book.
Rachel Hoffman is for real. She's going to say what she means, plainly, as we can tell straight from the title. Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess. It's the uncensored speech that lets us know this is not a pretentious book about impressing people or following rules. You want to clean up your house for yourself, because it feels like time and because you deserve more from your life. This is a very approachable, comforting, and motivating book with enough actual instructional details for the novice.
I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. It turns out that most people are never formally taught how to clean house or cook, just like most of us aren't taught much about personal finance, automotive maintenance, or animal husbandry. Arcane rituals! While we probably wouldn't judge ourselves for not knowing how to rebuild a transmission or adjust our own brakes, we do judge ourselves for our domestic skills (or lack thereof). It's when we moralize on ourselves that we bring in guilt and shame, which not only doesn't solve our problems, but makes them worse. This is why we need Rachel Hoffman.
I have taught many of the techniques and attitudes in Unf*ck Your Habitat and I know they work. Take 'before' photos. Work with a timer and take frequent breaks. Figure out a place for everything. My people have gotten rid of countless truckloads of excess stuff with these methods, and learned to keep clean homes for the first time. There is real pride and satisfaction to be found in doing this for yourself, your own way, on your own time.
One of the best parts of Unf*ck Your Habitat concerns negotiating with housemates. Whether you're the clean one or the messy one, whether cleaning up was your idea or not, these ideas obviously come from hard-won experience. There is also a section on Emergency Unf*cking that will stand the test of time.
Unf*ck Your Habitat should be taught in school. Maybe not elementary school, but certainly by freshman year of college. What a great, smart, and truly enjoyable read, a book whose time has come.
When it starts cascading onto the floor, it's only a matter of time. Sometimes it's a slow trickle; other times it pours. Gradually it forms pools and puddles. Then it's wall to wall. Then the level rises, sometimes to the ceiling. It's not water; it's clutter. Clutter gets backed up and starts filling the house when it flows in faster than it flows out. Draining the house is what we do when we finally realize we're in too deep.
In the normal state of affairs, stuff comes in and stuff goes out. Buy a bunch of bananas, eat them, and compost the peels. Buy a bag of new socks, wear them until they're threadbare, and throw them out. One in, one out. If stuff goes out at the same rate that it comes in, then there's never any buildup. The only need to drain the house is the periodic carrying out of garbage and recycling and donations to charity.
The outflow is faster than the inflow under certain conditions. Moving away. Hopefully the truck is getting loaded faster than anyone is carrying in new shopping bags! Having a yard sale, many of the contents of which may originally have come from someone else's yard sale. Declaring laundry bankruptcy and spending an afternoon at the laundromat. Major space clearing, when we realize that the house needs to be fully drained.
Usually, stuff flows into a house at a faster rate than it flows out. This is the nature of the vast material wealth of our society. Paper that would have been precious to the ancients is foisted upon us in endless drifts of junk mail and coupon circulars. Entire stores specialize in selling goods for one dollar. Others sell recycled/donated items they collected for free. Others are known for handing out free samples. Things are so upside down in our time that poor people can wind up having more stuff in their houses than wealthy people do.
What I tend to find in my work is:
Laundry carpet - so many clothes that they are strewn across the floor, and the flooring itself is invisible. Carpet? Tile? Hardwood? Who knows?
"Why is there a pot on the floor?" - so many dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counter that there isn't enough room, so some have to go elsewhere. On the floor? On the dining table? In the oven?
Mail blizzard - so many papers that they cover every flat surface, sometimes to be moved into bags and boxes so the surfaces can be covered again, like bailing out a boat
Cupboard explosion - so many plastic food storage containers/coffee mugs that the cupboards are too full even when the majority of items are waiting to be washed. So many food packages that cases of food are stacked on the floor for lack of storage space.
Bags in a box in a stack on a pile - so many items of every description that they can't even be stacked anymore. This is when the level starts to climb past three feet or higher.
No free space, either vertical or horizontal - everything flat has a pile on it, unless it's vertical, in which case it's covered by a bookcase or a stack of bins or a bunch of refrigerator magnets. Not so much as a single square foot of blank space to rest the eyes.
The worse it gets, the worse it gets. The deeper the accumulation of dirty dishes, the more dishes are "needed" so that there will still be a clean one, somewhere. The wider the stream of dirty clothes on the path toward the washing machine, the more clothes are "needed" so there will be something somewhat clean to wear, somewhere. The more papers there are, the more magazines with articles on Getting Organized are "needed" to add to the stack. The less comfortable it is to live amongst the rising floodwaters of clutter, the stronger the need to be out somewhere, away from it all, which usually means a manufactured need for a shopping trip. Every trip outward, escaping the mess, tends to result in at least one shopping bag that comes in. Nothing is going out. The floodwaters continue to rise.
A house won't drain itself. Usually it is only initiated by unfortunate external events, like an eviction or a natural disaster. Once I saw a photo some acquaintances had posted of their kitchen after a major earthquake. Quite honestly, it took me a minute to realize that anything had happened, because it looked like any other messy kitchen with greasy cobwebs. "This place looks like a tornado hit it." Mean, but sometimes true. When the piles of clutter get too high and too deep, it becomes impossible to tell if real disaster is going on underneath, whether that's a hidden water leak, toxic black mold, or an infestation of vermin. Then the clutter becomes the least of the problems.
Draining the house voluntarily is a very brave decision. It's hard work. The accumulation of years won't disappear overnight. Usually it starts to look worse for a while even after a lot of strenuous work has been done, exactly like rebuilding after a flood. The detritus has to be cleared away. Usually it reveals stained carpet and damaged flooring, marks on the walls, and damage to various fixtures. Years of deferred maintenance start to reveal themselves. That's why we remind ourselves that we don't have to do it alone. Rebuilding is done in groups. Drain the floodwaters, and ask for help so you don't get in over your head.
Hoarding is a lot more common than people realize. That's because people hide anything having to do with shame. I've worked with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization for twenty years, and at this point I think it affects roughly 20% of the population. Here in the US it does, anyway. Some cultures seem to be somewhat immune to it. It's just so easy for us to bring home excess stuff that it's almost harder to avoid it. I just see it as a sign of the times, that we have food excess and debt excess and entertainment excess and texting-while-driving excess and, also, clutter excess. I don't blame anyone. It just interests me. It's a problem I know how to help solve. So when I find out someone hoards or has an organization problem, I'm never surprised.
Don't feel judged. My friends do, even after I've talked to them about it. Honestly, nobody you will ever meet will be more sympathetic and less judgmental about a little mess than I am. I have seen it all and smelled it all. Granted, if you're suffering, I don't want to see you live that way, but it's not like I'm going to climb in your window and start alphabetizing your socks. I'm here to help, not to boss someone around. I don't even boss myself around.
I'm not the kind of organizer who teaches you to use a perfect little label maker and make perfect little bulletin boards and perfect little... I dunno, terrariums or something. I'm not a Pinterest princess. I can't even really wrap a gift or frost a cake. Everything I try to make turns out lumpy. What I try to do is to find the pain point and remove it. That's all.
What's a pain point? A pain point is the thing that bothers you the most. Shame, anxiety, depression, sure. I probably can't do much about those, but I can help you do something about the situation surrounding those states. Practical philosophy. Also, if you're ashamed of, say, a hoarded room, it's hard to feel that way once the room is just a regular room again. If you're ashamed of an unpaid debt, pay the debt and the shame can go away, like fog burning off in strong sunlight.
Everyone has something, a secret shame. Often it manifests as a stack or a sack, like a bag of receipts and unbalanced bank statements, or an incomplete baby album, or a package of blank thank you notes. Alas, the people who most should be suffering from shame apparently don't feel it at all. Those are the people who wantonly go through life being nasty and hurting people just for the entertainment value. Casters of insults and spreaders of false gossip. They're out there. Think of whatever shame you feel and just mentally wad it up and toss it through the ether toward one of those people. You have more than you need, so just share a little, huh?
I'm never surprised by a hoarded house, just as I'm never surprised by grief or shame or anxiety or depression or any of that. That's because those feelings are nearly universal. All of us are the walking wounded, doing our best to get through the day and feeling alone. Oh, gee, obviously I must be the only one who can't cope. We see so many photographs these days of other people turning cartwheels on the beach or having a big ol' free hugs party, and we wonder what's wrong that we aren't feeling this constantly perfect joy and elation. Well, guess what? Those photos are staged. Personally, I've never turned a cartwheel in my life. If I do have a free hugs party, by all means, drop on by. If you know a hundred people, and each one shares the one perfect photo of the best moment of the best day they've had all month, it does prove that there's fun to be had, but it does not prove that everyone else is having it in a constantly running scintillating stream. Just like a clean house does not prove that other people don't have to wash pots or fold laundry.
I know who you are. If you refuse to let people in your house, you're one of mine. If you refuse to ever open your drapes, you're one of mine. If you offer someone a ride and then frantically try to scramble around clearing off the passenger seat, you're one of mine. The problem here is not what you think it is. The problem is that feeling of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and trying to hide the evidence. Your making it a big deal is what makes it a big deal. Remove the shame, and the situation becomes easy to resolve. You could simply ask for a little help, and one of your friends most likely would step in and help. Some of your friends may just be waiting to be asked. The guilty feeling of being helplessly trapped in procrastination is the thing that separates us. I recognize this feeling the instant I see it, and the only thing that surprises me about it is the strength of its force.
Mess is surely no worse than other common things people do, like drunk driving or bouncing checks. The natural reaction when we don't feel like we measure up is to isolate ourselves to keep the secret. The more we feel like we're in trouble, the less likely we are to speak up and say we can't handle it alone. Sadly, the wider the gulf between our perceived results and those of the people around us, the more likely it is that they know a simple solution to our problems. If it looks easy for them, maybe we just need to ask how they do it. Nobody would want someone to suffer alone, wallowing in bad feelings. Tell the truth about your life and you may find that nobody is surprised.
Whenever I use the term 'man,' I use it in the original sense of 'person.' I am a 'man' as opposed to a pine cone or a lizard. In this sense, I am a Tool Man just as much as many of the males in my life. Mysteriously, tool use seems to be less about what distinguishes hominids from other mammals than about traditional gender roles. Let's talk about this.
Being a Tool Man is extremely useful. It comes in two parts, fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence includes the ability to solve problems and learn from experience. Crystallized intelligence includes training and the lore of how things are done. The difference between the two can be illustrated by the frustration of novice cooks when they hear that someone "doesn't use a recipe."
Someone who has been taught to be a Tool Man knows the names of all the common tools and what they do. He (I'm just going to say 'he' as a shortcut) can pick up a screwdriver and turn it in the correct direction without thinking about it. He knows that certain types of hardware exist, he knows where to buy them, and he has brand preferences. He can do basic repair tasks quickly, because he's probably done them before, or at least stood by and watched. He can tell at a glance when other people don't know what they are doing. He has knowledge and experience. Not everyone who has been taught how to use tools is all that good at troubleshooting or solving problems in novel ways, though. That is a separate cognitive skill entirely.
Interestingly, everyone who is skilled with tool use thinks of it as 'common sense' when it's really more of a guild specialty. It's also a reliable indicator of demographics and social class.
I have a blue collar background, which is why I know how to use tools. For me, tool use is closely bound to the concept of masculinity, even though I don't think of myself as masculine. In my world, people know how to do things. It feels weird to me when someone doesn't have practical skills, such as cooking a meal or pitching a tent. One of the light switches in our house was wired upside down, and this offends my sensibilities in a moral way. When I meet a man who has no ability to use tools and no interest in learning how, it's hard for me to respect him as a completely mature adult. If I can do it, why can't you?
I probably read too much Robert Heinlein when I was a kid. He wrote about the concept of being a representative of the entire human race to space aliens, and it really caught my attention. People should be good at as many things as possible. I learned how to use a sewing machine, change a fuel filter, build furniture, knit socks, tie up a bear bag, care for a baby, do first aid, use a water filter, make pickles, fix a running toilet, and all sorts of other things. The more practical skills I learned, the more obvious it seemed that acquiring practical skills is useful, convenient, and interesting for its own sake. It also felt empowering. Tool use is girl power!
My husband and I are both Tool Men. We respect each other for this. We can both cook and sew and clean house and change diapers, and we can both light the camp stove and chop firewood and assemble furniture and carry heavy loads. We have a joke where I say, "You're the man, fix this!" It acknowledges the burden that is placed on men by traditional gender roles when anything difficult, scary, or strenuous comes up, like removing a wasp nest. We try to meet each other in the middle and not act out negative stereotypes.
That being said, traditional gender roles got that way because they are efficient. Sometimes, when you are both equally good at something, it's more challenging to figure out whose job it is. Sometimes it can lead to a tendency to keeping score. (Actually, more score-keeping would probably be a good idea in some relationships, because it helps us to respect how much our partners are contributing).
If you're not a Tool Man, but you want one, because you think it's the "man's job," then you have to accept the package deal. If you want a man to be a traditional man, then you have to step up and act like a traditional woman. Quid pro quo, baby.
If you expect him to be the one to do all the heavy lifting and strenuous physical labor, then you should be offsetting that in some way. Respect it as a gift. Shoulder massage? Cookies? Find out what he likes, because he's not a caricature. If you take this labor for granted, you'll start seeing less of it. Reward what you want to encourage.
If you expect him to be the one to take on the strain of mental bandwidth whenever there is a complicated technical problem to solve, it had better be worth his while in some way. What are you offering in exchange? If he's the one who has to diagnose engine problems at the side of the road, or troubleshoot leaky plumbing, where is the tradeoff on your end? Also, you are shortchanging yourself if you stand idly by during these episodes. Who will do this stuff for you if he quits one day?
If you rely on him to pay more than half on dates, do all the retirement planning, or earn the majority of your household income, then you'd better have something to bring to the table to make up those discrepancies. Personal charm? Beauty? Good luck with that. The traditional model means that he carries more of the financial load and the female carries more of the domestic load. Financial dependence is vulnerability in a bad way.
My mother taught me traditional housewifery. I have the full complement of June Cleaver-style abilities. I know how to darn socks, sew buttons, iron shirt collars, turn hospital bed corners, clean an oven, and all that kind of thing. I call it "geisha stuff." I can't bear a dirty, messy house. I know how to clean quickly and efficiently, so to me there's no reason to let things get out of hand. I would clean all of the same rooms whether I lived alone or with half a dozen housemates, and it only takes about 10% more work to do it for two than for one. I don't feel oppressed by this labor because I don't see it as "women's work" and I also don't feel degraded by it. I feel that it demonstrates my mastery of my own home. It's a way of marking my territory. Professional chefs clean their own counters.
Also, my husband does his share. We negotiated.
The more you do, the easier it is to ask someone else to do something. A clean house is its own supporting argument. The tidier it is, the easier it is to keep it that way. It explains itself, making it obvious where most things are stored and what 'clean' looks like. It also makes necessary home repairs stand out as urgent problems rather than chronic annoyances.
Nagging doesn't work. In my opinion, one of the reasons that it doesn't work is that it leaves out all the thousand things that the other party is doing right. It fails to acknowledge other types of contribution. It's accusatory and critical, rather than appreciative and welcoming. We often fall into sloppy habits of treating our partners like bad roommates or annoying coworkers, rather than lovers and mates. Another reason that nagging doesn't work is that we put the burden of something we want on someone else. "Fix that toilet!" rather than "Hey, I'm trying to figure out how to fix the toilet," or, "Hmm, why don't I think this is my job?"
A hazard of being in a relationship is that it can lead to arrested development. We get together and we quit learning new skills. We get together and we fall into bad communication habits that a new love (or total stranger) would never accept. We get together and forget what it's like to live alone and depend on ourselves alone. We give up our independence and get little in return except entropy.
I use tools for the same reason that I clean my house: it's what humans do. I master my surroundings. I am the boss of my life. I want to live the way I want to live, and I rely on myself to make that happen. It's great when I have someone else to pitch in, but ultimately, I'm my own responsibility. Knowing that I don't need anyone else makes more room for me to want someone else, to want him for who he is and not just for the practical roles he can fulfill in my life. A Tool Man, not a man I use as a tool.
The check just came. Not only did we get our deposit from our last house back in full, but we also got a discount of six days' rent. We moved out so fast and did such a thorough job of cleaning that the landlord was able to get a new tenant in almost immediately. You can't put a price on a sterling reference, but you can certainly put a price on rent per diem, and another price on your cleaning deposit. If you'd rather spend your money on cool stuff than fines and fees, read on.
I've been living on my own since 1993. Even at the tender age of 18, I always got my cleaning deposit back. I've moved... starting to lose track here... 28? times as an adult, so this represents literally thousands of dollars by this point. I don't know about you, but the only thing I like better than thousands of dollars is tens of thousands of dollars. Whether I like cleaning my house is a moot point. Frame the question like this: "Would I clean my house top to bottom for several hundred dollars?" Really, it's the one and only time you're likely to be paid for such an annoying task, so you might as well make the most of it.
The first consideration is: consideration. Think cheerful thoughts about the tenant who will come after you. This really helps to make the drudgery and scutwork feel like a gift. Having moved so many times, I can tell some pretty appalling stories about grotesque surprises that previous tenants have left for me. Drain-clogging wads of long soapy hair the size of an SOS pad. A piece of bubble gum soaked with kitchen grease. Soap scum on a shower door so thick I had to use a paint scraper. Shelves covered with grease, crumbs, sunflower seeds, and flour. Rusty toilet bowls. Window tracks filled with dead flies. Red splatters on the ceiling: blood? Ketchup? Salsa? BBQ sauce? If you lived here before me, and I had to gouge your filth off a floor or countertop, I am cursing your name.
No paid cleaning service will ever do as thorough a job as someone who actually lives there. That's because it's an act of love and it's hard to put a fair market value on it. In a tight housing market like most of the places I have lived, the owner, landlord, or property management company simply doesn't have to care.
Case in point. The place we rented in 2014 was really gross when we moved in. We wouldn't have taken it except that we were out of time and all the other places we had called on had been rented within a few hours of listing. It took two months to finish cleaning it up and doing minor repairs. When we moved out, I spent three days cleaning it from top to bottom. The property management company tried to charge us a cleaning fee of $150. I sent them an email detailing the work I had done and attaching half a dozen photos of the dirtiest areas left by the previous tenant. They cut me a check the very next day. They should BE so lucky as to have tenants as clean as me. One of my landlords told me, during our exit walk-through: "Jessica, you are a clean machine!"
Okay, so what's the secret? The secret is to have the interior design sensibility of what clean looks like. It's like having good dental hygiene - if anyone notices anything about your teeth, such as a piece of spinach, there's a problem. The cleaner a house, the more a single speck is going to stand out, especially when all the rooms are empty. This probably sounds terrifying, but it's really not difficult to clean a modestly sized, empty house. What makes cleaning so difficult is 1. Clutter 2. Excessive square footage and 3. Never having been taught how to clean quickly and efficiently.
Most people don't give a darn about housework. That's totally fine. Your house, your rules. Live however you want. Personally, I am extremely uptight about unpleasant smells, and due to my parasomnia disorder I need a clear pathway through the house, so I run a pretty tight ship. Routine housework definitely helps make the exit cleaning easier, but it's not necessary. Animal House could still have clean surfaces by the end of June. Remember, this isn't about social standards or impressing whomever, it's about COLD HARD CASH. We're getting paid for this.
Get a broom and knock down all cobwebs from the ceiling. A lot of people miss these because their vision isn't so great, and the lighting may have been dim. It's fair to ask for help, or pay a young person if you have trouble holding a broom over your head. I use a dust mop on an extendable rod. Should take 10 minutes to do the whole house. If you have blinds, dust them, too, while you're at it. I also do any vents in the ceiling and walls, and anything ornate on the doors.
Use a squeegee to clean windows, mirrors, mirrored closet doors, shower doors, and shower stalls. Vinegar does a magical job of removing soap scum. I can do a glass panel (mirror or window) in under a minute.
Get a Magic Sponge and go after any stains on the walls. Also, don't squish bugs and spiders on the wall. If you're good at finding spots, each should only take a few seconds.
Wipe down the shelves and the insides of cabinets. This can involve some climbing for the higher areas in the kitchen, so I label this a "tall person job," although usually I do it myself. Should only take a couple of swipes with a damp paper towel per surface.
Vacuum out the drawers. Our last house had 14 built-in drawers, and it took me about five minutes to clean them all with a hand vac.
Clean the bathrooms. For an exit cleaning, this will probably take 40-60 minutes per bathroom. It helps to quit using all but one in the days before the move so you don't have to do them all in one day. I use a $15 battery-powered scrubber.
Deep-clean the kitchen. This always takes more time and effort than the rest of the house put together. It means defrosting the freezer and wiping down every surface of the fridge, inside and out. Same with the microwave. Same with the oven, alas, and I've never managed to clean an oven in under an hour. Often I buy new burner pans because I can't get the old ones clean enough. Wipe down the cabinets and appliances. Scrub the sink and countertops until they're shiny. Notice how very much jam tends to drip down things, unless your dog is taller than mine.
Spot-check the floors. If you have carpet, I'm sorry. Some leases require that you have a professional service come and steam clean when you move out. If you have bare floors, there may be sticky spots that regular mopping didn't get up. I use the plastic tags off of bread bags for jobs like this. Of course, it helps if you have a dog whose main job is Backup Roomba. Then sweep and mop as thoroughly as necessary.
Deep-cleaning a house top to bottom takes at least a full day. It depends on how grody it is. When we moved out of our last house, we loaded the van and did the final cleaning on the same day, and it took us 13 hours from start to finish. That's for a 728-square-foot house and a 20-foot van. Our previous house was about 1400 square feet, and it took significantly longer. That's why we have podcasts.
Cleaning sucks. We don't do it for the process, we do it for the outcome. I believe it's good karma. Deep cleaning can help you find lost objects, such as earrings that flew into a back crevice of a closet. It burns calories. It's good self-discipline, making other hard and annoying things seem relatively easy. It allows us to claim an uninterrupted 24-year streak of always getting our cleaning deposit back. Most of all, it allows us to claim our nice fat deposit checks and spend them on things we want, rather than just paying an unnecessary fee.
You know how they say sometimes people look like their pets? It's hard to tell whether we choose companions who resemble us, or whether we come to resemble them as time goes by. I think the same thing happens to married people. Live together long enough and you start finishing each other's sentences, referring to yourselves in the first person plural, and wearing matching outfits. That part is a total accident. My husband and I were winding up in color-coordinated shirts before we even started dating. I mention it because yesterday we both wore lavender, and I didn't see what shirt he had on until he got home from work. It's uncanny. As much as we start to merge our tastes and behaviors in certain ways, as much as we pick up each other's turns of phrase, our personal possessions start to blend and merge, too.
An example of this is this particular ceramic travel mug that looks like a paper cup. It has a little silicon sleeve that looks like a cardboard sleeve, and a silicon lid that looks like a plastic lid. I bought it for myself before we got married. At some point along the way, I lent it to my husband, and he adopted it. He's convinced it's his, and at this point, it is. What's mine is yours, babe!
We don't share everything. Maintaining privacy is one of those things that many people let fall by the wayside, but I firmly believe that abandoning it undercuts romance. You start to become more like roommates, or, heaven forfend, siblings. Some doors should be kept closed, both figuratively and literally. It always strikes me as strange when couples share email or social media accounts, especially since they don't cost anything. We need to know which one of you is talking! It's weird! Make a Venn diagram of the two of you and make sure that it doesn't overlap completely.
We're in the end stages of moving to a new place, and this yours/mine/ours division has become more pronounced. There are still a few boxes left to unpack. This always happens; the last ten percent usually takes longer than the first fifty percent. It happens in our case because I'm a professional organizer and my husband is...not. I unpack all of my stuff, all of "our" stuff, and part of his stuff. I'll never do all of it, because he has a lot of high-test electronics equipment, and I don't want to be held responsible for banging it up. Also, if I organize it, he'll never be able to find anything again. It's a mark of respect.
What I've learned in working with chronically disorganized homes is that people often don't feel like they have permission to dispose of certain things - even when they live alone! The boundaries between yours/mine/ours can be quite blurred. 'Ours' might include family heirlooms, adult children's belongings, stuff left behind years ago by former roommates, or even random bits that "came with the house." Almost every time I have taken occupancy of a new house or apartment, there have been various amounts of things left behind, such as cleansers, hardware, plant pots, lamps, or even furniture. This happens when even the landlord is hesitant to make an executive decision and just get rid of stuff.
Someone needs to be the boss of the house. Preferably this is an adult human being. When there is no adult in the alpha role, the leadership position will quickly be filled by a child, a pet, an influx of vermin, or even a relative who drops by occasionally. When nobody is managing, no decisions are being made, and chaos will be the default.
Families generate a lot of random clutter. It just happens. The bigger the household, the more guests and visitors, and the more forgotten books/CDs/headphones/hoodies, etc. All it takes is for each household member to leave one stray item laying around per day, and by the end of the week it's total bedlam. Controlling this does not have to be the job of any one person, but it can certainly be the suggestion of any one person. The best person to catalyze an organizing spree is actually a small child. They love being "bad cop." Pick the bossiest kid. Tell them nobody can watch TV until everyone puts their stuff away. Tell them, whoever finishes first gets to pick the movie/choose the music in the car/sit in the best chair, or whatever is the juiciest prize in your household. Tell them that if everyone can get the job done while asking you zero questions, maybe there will be dessert afterward.
This method only works for items that belong to someone. Either it's yours or it's mine. When it's "ours," things get more complicated. It turns out that almost everything in most homes is "ours." The furniture and appliances. The towels. Everything in the kitchen, including the scary leftovers in the fridge. The carpets and cabinets and tiles and shelves. The lightbulbs, the windows, the blinds, the doorknobs, the light switches. The car. The mailbox. The junk mail. EVERYTHING. When you think about it, everywhere other than your house, there's a facilities manager, a landscaper, a custodian, or a janitorial staff. School, work, the store, the library, the gym, the post office, the park... everywhere else, someone is paid to make sense of it all. We just expect to walk down hallways and stairs that are free of clutter, to use countertops that someone eventually wipes up, to have ready access to chairs and tables put there by some interior designer at some point. At home, nobody manages the infrastructure.
Someone needs to pick up the wand. Someone needs to take charge and make some decisions. Do we even need this? Are we using it? Does it need to be stored right here? How often should this get cleaned? Once a year, or not until we move out? The boss/leader/manager does not by any means need to do all the scutwork. What needs to be done is to delegate. Someone needs to be putting away clean dishes. Someone needs to be cleaning floors. Someone needs to be making sure the washer and dryer are switched over. These don't all need to be the same person, unless of course you live alone.
What helps the most is to cut back on clutter. That's mostly going to be "our" stuff. A cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. Who is going to decide what clutter can be removed, though? What's needed is for someone to take ownership of "our" stuff long enough to make those decisions. This can go, this can go, that can go. Do it as a group if necessary. Life will be easier - yours, mine, and ours.
No matter how many moving boxes I get, I always run out. I have tried and tried and tried to learn to estimate correctly, and I always round up on the most I think I'll need, and I'm always still short. This time it was only by five small boxes. The trouble is that five small boxes of small items can represent dozens of things scattered in every cabinet and drawer. As usual, it's the fiddly bits. For most people, the fiddly bits turn into MISC (the dreaded misc). Don't leave them alone in the dark.
What happens is that we have a moving van that is 90% packed, it's getting late, we have an appointment to hand over the keys, and we're scrambling to fit in the last of the fiddly bits. No more boxes and no time to go find some. We wind up with paper and plastic grocery bags full to bursting and ready to tear or tip over. This time we even had to use a plastic bag from our dinner delivery. It's no fun to pack this way, and it's even less fun to unpack the van this way. After collecting everything that has rolled out, it takes a half hour of extracting the fiddly bits before we can start unloading the boxes and larger items.
With this move, I finally decided to get to the bottom of the problem. I realized that I always had fiddly bits left over because I clean the house top to bottom when I move out. We couldn't pack the cleansers until last. I had never taken the time to evaluate whether I really needed every single bottle at the last minute, or how much space they take up. It turns out to be exactly one box for laundry stuff, and one apiece for the cabinets under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Gee, that's not so hard!
A household move is often the culprit behind a cluttered, disorganized house. There will be boxes taped shut from previous moves, and sometimes for several moves before that. What happens is the standard plan:
1. Household cannot deal with the upcoming move
2. Nothing is packed, cleaned, or organized until the last possible minute
3. Not enough boxes
4. Friends, family, or professional movers help by tossing anything that will fit into any box they can find
5. Every single box is appropriately labeled 'MISC'
6. It's impossible to find things when it's time to move in to the new place
7. No way will everything fit anyway
8. Repeat with next move, only it's significantly less organized than the previous move
The natural tendency is to blame the movers and carry a grievance, while drastically underestimating how much free labor was supplied. Nobody owes anyone free moving help! Pizza and beer are not enough. I priced movers in my area and they earn a rate of $30-60/hour per person. Essentially, if we have boxes of MISC packed for us by our friends, we should feel incredibly grateful, and even more so if they gave up precious free time on their days off.
We've done our last two moves alone, partly because I now have a profound distrust of professional movers packing my things, and partly because we can move ourselves. It's cheaper. We're strong enough. Everything fits in a 20' van. We have a really hard time moving our Cal-King mattress, but that's ten minutes of intense struggle, and we can handle it. Even the time I nearly knocked myself unconscious by smacking my head on the doorframe.
What the heck are people moving? For most households, the kitchen is the problem area. Lots of tiny, sharp, and/or fragile things with odd shapes and accessories. I freely admit that our kitchen is not minimalist. I still have the material capacity to cook and serve a meal for a dozen people. That's down from two dozen. We used to have two dining tables, and we filled them every week. I miss those days, but downsizing has helped me to realize that, guess what? That's what restaurants are for! If we have another get-together for two dozen people, we can rent a picnic area at a park. We keep questioning what we are keeping and what we can let go. Keep the friends, let go of the extra stuff.
Furniture and appliances are big and easy to track. They tend not to be the problem, although certainly they're the last things most people will consider letting go. Most people seem perfectly eager to keep every appliance and large piece of furniture they've ever had, and somehow try to wedge themselves in around the bulk. The fiddly bits tend to consist of:
Paper (junk mail, advertising circulars, catalogs)
Children's/pet toys (LEGO, crayons, tiny accessories like Barbie shoes and action figure weapons)
Office supplies (pens, pencils, paperclips, tacks)
Bits of hardware (nails, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, mystery hardware from various products)
Clothes on the floor in various rooms (laundry area, every bedroom, every bathroom, most hallways, many living rooms and kitchens)
Decorations by the dozens
Every object left on every flat surface (every table, every countertop, every desk, every windowsill, every toilet tank, every refrigerator, every dryer lid, many stair steps, most chairs, some couch cushions)
A box of MISC (the dreaded misc) may thus contain some plastic food storage containers, a handful of junk mail, a child's sock, a paperclip, some pennies, and a book. This box will never be unpacked. It will never be unpacked because just opening it and looking inside could give anyone a bad case of swirly eyes. Nobody is going to spend the five minutes to carry this box from room to room, sorting out the fiddly bits and putting them away.
Thus we start to see that the fiddly bits have never been put away. They can't get unpacked in a new home because they were never unpacked in the original home. They can't get put away because there's no 'away' to put them. How can a friendly mover pack them "correctly" when nobody has ever known where they should go?
The only solution for the fiddly bits is to treat them like weeds. Decide whether this is going to be a showpiece garden, a casual yard, or a nice setting for a haunted house. Then spend a certain amount of time every week scouting around and controlling the overgrowth to the degree that is acceptable for your standards, whether aesthetic or functional. When it comes time to move out, the results of this regular maintenance will be readily apparent, one way or another.
The first thing we did when we found out we were moving again was to start sorting the kitchen. Literally. We had a brief conversation, and then we walked into the kitchen together and started opening cabinets.
Most people probably would not do this!
Moving is different when you've done it so many times that it's made you into a minimalist. This will be our sixth move as a married couple, and we haven't even had our eighth anniversary yet. We've downsized each time. Now, every time we prepare to move again, we just have to ask ourselves, "Have we used this since we moved here?" If not, out it goes.
We started with the kitchen because it's the most complicated area of the house. This is true for most people. All those drawers and cupboards are deceptive! We forget that each shelf and each drawer represents its own moving box. Half the stuff is either fragile or sharp. There are a lot of nesting items that don't look like they take up much volume, until they have to be packed, that is. There are also a lot of things with lids, or things that used to have lids, or lids that used to have things. There is a reason why so many horror movies have a scene in which a poltergeist makes all the cupboards open at once and all the utensils fly into the air. Although, a lot of kitchens look like that most days of the week...
Most people's kitchens are overwhelming on most days. It is the home of the domestic power struggle. A sink and countertops loaded with dirty dishes, sometimes overflowing onto the floor. Trash, recycling, and compost waiting to go out. A fridge full of spoiling food and scary leftovers. Sometimes there is a backlog of at least three hours' hard work before any packing could even be done. THIS IS RELEVANT. If ever there were an area of the home in need of systems, the kitchen is that place. Lack of a system coupled with clutter and excess is the recipe for disaster. Add in food hoarding, and we're back to the horror movie theme again.
We started with the kitchen. We started with the kitchen BECAUSE it's the hardest room in the house. We started with the kitchen because it's the heart of our home. We started at 6 PM, and we were done in time for my husband to cook dinner and wash dishes afterward. By 'done' I mean that the countertops were clear and nobody would have known we were planning to move.
All right, what is it that we did?
We started with a strategy. What do we do in our kitchen and what stuff do we need? When we first got married, our house was bigger than both our bachelor houses put together. The kitchen was ridiculously huge. We both moved in our full bachelor kitchens, and found that there was still space left over. (I filled it). We also had open shelving in the garage, and a bunch of stuff went out there. Partly because we had so much room and so much kitchen capacity, we entertained a lot. We would have as many as twenty people over every week. We wound up accumulating a lot of serving platters, extra utensils, and extra cutting boards, potato peelers, and the like so that guests could cook with us if they wanted. We had two dining tables and enough chairs for everyone, except for the night we had to put a couple of people on our camping coolers.
Then we moved.
I was really emotional about wanting to hang onto all our stuff for entertaining. Just because the dining table filled the ENTIRE dining room from wall to door didn't mean we couldn't still have big dinner parties! Then we moved again, and my ten-top table physically would not fit in our house. Not unless we wanted to sleep on it at night, anyway. I had to adjust my emotional attachments.
Time went by. I started looking at all this stuff with a more analytical eye. I realized that, even when we had two dozen people one Thanksgiving, I still had more serving containers than we needed. What if I only kept enough so that everything we had was in use? Did I really need three gravy boats? We had the space, and most of these things were stored in high cabinets where I didn't see them on a daily basis, but I let them spin in the back of my mind. When we went into the kitchen preparing for our next move, the emotional homework was already done.
I stood on a chair and handed things down to my husband. It went like this:
I decided that we didn't need the majority of our plastic food storage containers. He was relieved. We have various shapes and sizes of glass and ceramic baking dishes with lids that can do the job. We also have dozens of Mason jars for canning that can certainly hold leftovers.
We realized we didn't need four muffin pans, three corkscrews, seven mismatched ramekins, and various other redundant redundancies.
We both pulled out personal items we knew we weren't using, such as my old work Thermos and a coffee mug that was a gift from his ex-wife.
I got down all of the big platters and serving dishes I'd decided to let go, plus a vase and other random items. Most of that stuff was there because 1. We had it and 2. It fit there.
We decided we needed to replace our knives and the pancake flipper.
I pulled out a set of little bowls I use for mise en place, because I have two sets, and he convinced me to keep them because I use them every week.
Suddenly we turned around, and the entire counter was covered with stacks of excess kitchen clutter!
The weird thing about space clearing in a kitchen is that you can usually remove a truckload of stuff, and it won't look like anything is missing. Our kitchen is definitely still functional - we cook together when we're backpacking, and we can do everything we need to do with a pot, a pocketknife, and a portable propane stove. We still have silly things, like an angel food cake pan and a skull-shaped cookie cutter, that we virtually never use. All we did was to get rid of the 10-20% we knew we didn't use at all. It took 35 minutes.
This was the first pass. We do the second pass after we move into a new place, when we are confronted with the configuration of a new kitchen. So far, we've always found at least a few more items that won't fit, and we've never once missed any of them.
Our kitchen system works like this: Six large plates, six small plates, six nesting bowls. Eight drinking glasses. A dozen sets of flatware. Teacups. That's all we need for eating meals. All of these items come from matching sets, so they're all the same size for portion control purposes, they nest, and they all fit into one dishwasher load. This is key. When the dishwasher is full, the cupboard is empty. We run it at night and he unloads it first thing in the morning.
We have a set of pots and pans, one of each size. When one gets used, it gets washed right after dinner, it sits in the drying rack overnight, and it gets put back in the cupboard the next morning. Weird, huh? Three dishwasher-safe cutting boards. A stack of nesting food storage containers in two sizes, for leftovers, but no more than would fill the freezer. Once the containers are full, something needs to get eaten up or there's nowhere to put any further leftovers.
We take turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. We used to alternate, but recently we agreed to trade nights and do our own cleaning, mostly because I cook much more elaborate dishes and he was getting stuck with more of the cleanup. If there are leftovers, either the other person will cook them on their night, or they will sit until the second night. About once a week, one or the other of us will root around in the fridge and freezer, planning a meal with the goal of finishing off a container of something. A condiment, a leftover, half a cabbage, or whatever is there. We've been on a conscious plan of culling our pantry, where most things aren't replaced after they are used up, because we don't need to have 175 different flavors in our pantry every day of the year. They call it a 'store' because it 'stores' things.
The week that we pack and move, we won't cook. We have part of a package of paper plates and bowls hanging around, and we'll use those. We have some compostable forks. I have three days' worth of backpacking meals, and we'll microwave those. We could always go out, but I hate that feeling of having cardboard particles in my hair, being totally exhausted and grubby, and wandering into a restaurant looking like I got trapped in a warehouse overnight.
We're moving again. We started with the kitchen, because every other room looks easy in comparison.
I don't have a table next to my bed. This is more interesting than it sounds. It's a conscious decision, just like the fact that I refuse to have a coffee table because I hate stubbing my toe.
I had a bedside table as far back as I could remember. Usually it was a makeshift item in some way. For a while, it was a vintage sewing machine in a cabinet. I've also had an old suitcase, an IKEA nightstand I assembled myself, a dresser, and a floating shelf. I had to have something, because otherwise, where would I put my books?
Books, a lamp, water glasses, a box of tissues, lip balm, hand cream, more books, my journal, a pen, hair ties, scented candle and matches, etc etc etc.
One night, when I was in high school, I had what I did not realize at the time was a night terror. I yelled, flung my arm out in my sleep, and knocked over the two-foot-high stack of library books on my nightstand. They toppled into my wastebasket, knocking over a plastic Super Big Gulp cup of water, which spilled all over my face and chest. The entire family woke up and started shouting at me. I woke up soaking wet, freaked out, angry, and confused. As usual, when my habits resulted in annoyance and inconvenience for myself and others, I ignored it and carried on with those same habits.
Why did I have a two-foot-high stack of library books next to my bed? 1. I guess I thought I could read them all at once, 2. I guess I thought the library would close or all the books would vanish, 3. There was no room on my bookshelves. Clutter expands to fill the space available.
The result of having a nightstand, for me, is reading in bed. That works great for a single person, or for someone who shares a bed with another nighttime reader. I'm a night owl married to a lark, though, and it's unfair for me to keep the light on. It's also a bad idea, because my bedtime starts shifting later and later and I can't sleep well during the day. The first time I stayed up until 6 AM, I was twelve. I heard my dad's alarm go off for work during my summer vacation, and I thought "UHOH!" The next night, I melted the shade on my plastic book light.
The great sorrow of my life is that I can't read 24 hours a day. I can't seem to read any faster, either. I will die not having read anywhere near one percent of all the books ever written. If there is any justice in this world, heaven is a library.
I actually have found a way to read more, which is to listen to audio books while I do chores and cook and exercise and walk to the store. Often I am on my feet longer than I would have planned, because I want to finish a great read and sitting makes me restless. This has been a really effective trade for reading in bed at night. Sometimes, if I can't sleep, I keep listening to my book until I get drowsy. No light to keep me awake or bother my honey. I keep my phone in my pillowcase, which I would do anyway in case of emergency.
Why don't I have a nightstand anymore? Three reasons. The first is that our current house was built in 1939, and the bedroom barely fits our California King mattress. There's just no room. My side of the bed abuts the doorframe. If we tried to put some kind of shelf or storage headboard up, there would be no room to walk around the foot of the bed. It's cozy, but there's no room for extra storage, so we try not to need it. The second reason, of course, is that I want to discourage myself from my counterproductive bedtime reading habit of yore.
The third reason has to do with what happened on my side of the bed when we first got married.
I've moved nearly thirty times in my adult life. My mom was always big on rearranging the furniture when I was a kid. Due to this, I hadn't really experienced what happens when furniture is left in the same position for more than a year. Dust accumulation. I had started having respiratory issues, sneezing, coughing, and wheezing when my husband and stepdaughter weren't having any problems. It got marginally better when I found and removed a coating of dust on top of the kitchen cabinets, closets, and and exposed beams in the house. Then I took a closer look at my nightstand. It had two shelves and a drawer, and the contents thereof would have filled two moving boxes. I started going through it and realized that the entire thing was coated with dust, as was the carpet underneath and the wall behind it. I wound up getting rid of the whole thing and replacing it with a one-foot-square floating shelf. There was only enough room for my phone and a box of tissues, and that was enough. The Roomba could vacuum underneath it - problem solved. I haven't had a wheezing, sneezing problem in any of the years since.
Everything that I used to keep in my nightstand is still accessible to me. I just interact with it before bed. Lotion stays in the bathroom. I write in my journal in the living room. I try to drink two-thirds of my water before lunch, and avoiding water at bedtime helps me sleep through the night. I read before bed, but there's no reason I can't continue doing it on the couch. When I go to bed, I'm going to bed.
Since I got rid of my nightstand, I sleep about two more hours per night. There are several other factors involved, but it's definitely salient to the transition. Sleep procrastination is an issue for a lot of people, and staying up to read ONE MORE CHAPTER ONE MORE CHAPTER can be a big part of this. It's hard to accept that we'll never have time to read everything we would like to read, but the lifestyle upgrade of getting significantly more sleep is worth it.
I don't miss having a nightstand. Even if I had the space, I wouldn't get another one. I see it now as an attractive nuisance, an irresistible clutter magnet. It's one more surface to gather dust and piles of stuff. It's a place to bonk my head and a place to knock over toppling towers of stuff. It's a way to mess up my photos. It's one more item to pack and haul the next time we move. For some people, it's one of the few private spaces where they can store personal belongings in a crowded house. Acknowledging this, I choose to make the space next to my sleeping head a free space, and to claim personal territory elsewhere in the house.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.