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Transforming a Messy Household: How to Clean Up Your Act

Updated on June 13, 2014

The Why's

Learned Habits

Not everyone is born with the clean gene where they like everything in a particular order. To those who are, good on you. There could be many reasons why some adults never picked up the best cleaning habits. It could be because their parents were messy. It could be because their parents were the opposite of messy and had to clean everything themselves. In my case, I had plenty of chores (I of course hated them), but by the time I was a teenager I held down many extra curricular activities, a job, college classes, and friends, so my parents didn't force housework on me. I'm thankful for the opportunities this provided me, but I just never got in the habit of anything other than putting my dirty clothes in the hamper. That's only one of several good habits that an adult living on her own needs.

Why did it get so messy?

There's a recent campaign I've seen across the internet called "Stop the Glorification of Busy." The first time I saw it, I had to think about it. It took me a few seconds to understand what that exactly meant, and it dawned on me when I realized my own glorification of busy. When someone I haven't seen in a while asks how I've been, the first thing out of my mouth is almost always "busy," not only because it's true, but also because it makes me seem successful and maybe even a little popular.

Young people in particular stay in a constant state of chaos. They're building their career. There is a lot that goes into that, including schooling, networking, and self promotion, while still working to pay rent and maintaining a bustling social life. The same can be said for all adults, especially adding children to the mix. Out of all of these things, what falls by the wayside? Well, in my case, it's my home.

In my urban living environment, I'm actually not in my small apartment all that often. I lay my head down at night, but all waking hours are a) at work, b) at social functions, or c) out enjoying the city. It's a great city and a great life, but to be honest.... I never want to go home because I know what's facing me. (Orange Is The New Black season release, notwithstanding.) Relaxation is out the window when there is a pile of dishes in the sink. It's a constant state of anxiety with the crushing weight of housekeeping and tiredness from my long day. What do I do when I'm anxious? I ignore it the problem.

Why is a change needed?

It's been discussed at length that a messy household adds to anxiety more than the actual task of organizing your home will. To clarify my point further, here are some ways that a messy household contributes to stress:

  • Looking for things. Where is my favorite shirt? Are my nice work pants dirty?
  • Blockage. Having extra clutter around blocks doorways, keeps you from shutting drawers properly, and takes up closet space that could be used to organize those things you can't find.
  • Lateness. When you can't find what you need, or have to step over that unpacked box, it slows you down and causes tardiness.
  • Clutter. When you have disorganized clutter the second you wake up, your day is off on the wrong foot.

Messy households have even been linked to depression. Do you need more convincing? What about someone asking to drop by your home and you thinking of every excuse for them not to? We've all been there, right? How do you handle an entire home makeover? That sounds like even more anxiety and stress. Well, it doesn't have to be.

The How's

A lot of the reason why messy households stay messy is because it is overwhelming to think of cleaning up the clutter. It can be a mountain of a task. What all successful projects have is a plan. Breaking up the large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks can ease the weight of the duties.

Here is a sample outline and plan to chip away at. Commit to doing something small every single day. If you have more time a certain day- even 5 minutes- go ahead and do a little more. It will be worth it in the end.

Project Table

Organization Projects
Cleaning Projects
Daily Cleaning
Closet Organization
Thorough Bathroom Clean
Dishes/Kitchen wipe down
Cleaning Floors/ Vacuuming
Winter/Summer clothes swap
Clutter Purge
Dust Purge
One load of laundry
Bathroom Scrub
Holiday decorations
Furniture Accessment
Thorough Kitchen Clean
Clutter Scan
Closet Tidy Up
Allergy Purge/Spring Cleaning

Do you use your kitchen daily?

See results

Daily Cleaning

The first step is to get in the habit of doing a few small cleaning duties every day. Starting out, each small duty might take longer than you want until you get ahead. Once you're caught up, it will be a breeze each day.

  • Do the dishes every day. It's fine to have a few glasses leftover in the sink, but after dinner (especially if you cook regularly,) do a load of dishes. Making this a habit will make each breakfast and dinner prep go much more smoothly. Who else hates having to wash a dish that you need to cook with immediately?
  • Wipe down the kitchen every day. A quick wipe down of the counter tops and stove will keep everything fresh. Particularly if you use a nice smelling counter spray. I love the scents of Meyers counter sprays. This also includes a sweep of the floor if you spilled anything while preparing meals. That takes all of thirty seconds.
  • Do a load of laundry. I'm a childless adult living in a household of two, and keeping up with laundry is a task. I can't imagine how it piles up in bigger households. There are at least two towels a day, gym clothes, work clothes, pajamas, lounging clothes, etc. I re-wear several things (like my lounging clothes) but it still adds up quickly. If you commit to one load a day, it should be more manageable. Gone are the days that I waited until the weekend to tackle laundry. I'd be stuck in my apartment for an entire afternoon! If there is a day that you don't have a full load, lucky you!
  • Do a quick clutter scan. In your cleaning up project phase, this should be a single area a day that you get rid of clutter. Take any dishes to the sink, put any clothes or shoes away, throw away any trash/unwanted items, or put away that box. Looking ahead, when your place is spic and span, this will be a quick walk through to make sure there isn't anything lying around, like mail or headphones, or boxes from that shopping package you just got in.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Isn't this a shining sight?Do a load a day!
Isn't this a shining sight?
Isn't this a shining sight? | Source
Do a load a day!
Do a load a day! | Source

Closet Organization Tips

  • Sweaters and tees should be folded
  • Pants can be folded if there is extra drawers or shelf room, but can also be hung
  • Separate hung clothes by type (dresses, skirts, tops, jackets/outerwear, etc.)
  • Further organize each type by color

Organization Projects

The next step to is to start alternating Organization Projects with Cleaning Projects (more information on that below.) This will need to be alternated because it will be much easier to tackle an area at a time rather than a "duty" at a time. For example, after (or as) your closet is organized, it's a perfect time to clean the shelves and vacuum or clean the floors.

Just as we broke up our larger project into smaller tasks, we will break up each area into sub-tasks so as to not overwhelm you with a larger than life duty, like a complete closet overhaul can become.

Closet Organization

This is the biggest project, and the catalyst for remaining tasks. This isn't just your closet that houses your clothes. Do you have a coat closet? A laundry area? A pantry? That dreaded "throw it in there" closet? It's also extremely important because when you get to the de-cluttering task, you're likely going to need a place to store things in a neat way. Getting rid of unwanted or unused items in your closets will help ten fold. This is also something that will be broken up across a few weeks. This isn't supposed to be completely overwhelming, after all!

Start with your bedroom closet.

Clothes and shoes are my main culprit of clutter in my household, so I like to start there. This will lead to faster laundry, quicker morning routine time, and easier flow at bedtime. Wouldn't that be nice? This is a big project, so you should probably plan to devote a good amount of time to it, maybe on a weekend/day off. It could range from a couple of hours to nearly a day, depending on the amount of items and size of your closet. If you need to do a step at a time, go ahead! This is probably the biggest task.

  • First, you have to purge. I know, this is hard to do for a lot of people. The rule of thumb I use is: If you wouldn't buy it now, get rid of it. Everyone's heard of the "statement pieces vs. trendy pieces" argument and this plays on that. If it's truly a statement piece that you'll be wearing for years on in, then it should fall into the "buy it now" category. I stopped following the "if you haven't worn it in a year, throw it out" rule as a teenager growing up in Louisiana. I did this because a) sometimes I simply forgot I had something and re-discovered it and b) because of the weather patterns, I sometimes wouldn't wear a fantastic sweater in an entire year simply because it had only been sweater weather a handful of times and I had more than a handful of sweaters. That doesn't mean when the next cold front came in, I wouldn't wear it. (This example makes me laugh now, since I live in blustery Chicago, but that was a valid reason to keep a warm piece of clothing several times growing up.) You might think you're dwindling down your hard earned purchases, but you'll be surprised at how much easier it is to choose an outfit with fewer choices in the way that you simply don't like to begin with. Be sure to donate anything that is in good condition. That will help with the process knowing someone less fortunate will benefit from your deed.
  • Utilize shelves. I've lived in several apartments and houses throughout my life, and if there is one thing that I never got down to a science, it's organizing a big open shelf. Most closets have shelving in some shape or form. If it's not easily reached, it can be used for seasonal storage that you'll only fetch a few times a year using a stool. If it's in easy reach, consider folding your sweaters (you're supposed to do this anyway,) t-shirts, and pants. It saves hanging room for your nicer items like dresses, jackets, etc. It also helps with hanger markings and wrinkles. (Less ironing, please and thank you!)
  • Organize shoes. Shoes thrown all over the floor is a hazard and a huge annoyance. How angry do you get when you're late and can only find one shoe? Some people leave shoes in their boxes, or put them in clear plastic boxes. That might be over the top for some, so I like shoe shelves and stacking. Sandals and flat shoes are really easy to stack, and heels are great on shoe racks. Boots need their own little space, but it's do-able since you've gained so much more floor space.

Other Closets

  • Organize coat and storage closets. This is likely where the extra clutter is stored. Most of the items can probably be thrown out or donated. This is where some good storage box purchases will come in handy. A range of small to medium sizes works best for anything other than clothes and holiday decorations. If your storage boxes are too large, it could end up being a black hole of endless small items. Plan to complete at least one closet a week until they're all organized. If you need to break it up in stages and work on it a little at a time over a few days, do so. Just set a goal of finishing at least one a week. Don't try to do all closets in one day, or you will get burned out and leave things half finished.

Clutter Purge

Go through a single room or area per day, at least two days a week and get rid of anything that doesn't have sentimental value, you haven't touched in more than a year, or is something you would not purchase today. Get rid of old magazines and old mail. Utilize the storage in your newly organized closets (while continuing to maintain the organization.) At this point, you will likely begin to find things that don't quite have a place and don't belong in a closet, like books or decorations. Keep those in the same area so once you get farther ahead in your organization bonanza you can consider where to display or store these items later. This shouldn't take more than an hour per room, probably less. If you have a room that has a lot of clutter (how many of you have spare rooms that are now "junk rooms"?) then it might take a few rounds of purging to complete the whole room. The important thing is to commit a small amount of time, even 15 minutes, and space it out.

Other Rooms

Now's the time to organize your rooms, one at a time. Start with small rooms first, like bathrooms, then move on to other rooms. Since you've cleared it of clutter, it's likely much easier to recognize the best places for things that you utilize, and for decorations. This leads directly into the next step...

Furniture Assessment

This is where it will begin to seem like a little more fun and a little less work. Once the clutter is beginning to clear, you might realize that you don't need furniture and accent pieces, or do need furniture and accent pieces, or your current set up of furniture isn't the best. Maybe you realize that you really need another bookshelf, the closet is too stuffed and you need a small dresser for extra storage, or your bed would take up less space in a different area. Re-arrange to your heart's content. It might make you feel revitalized. Begin making a list of furniture and storage solutions that would help you in keeping your household organized. Once you begin to take more pride in your cleaner place, you'll probably want some flair and accents. For example, I rearranged my living room furniture to a more open layout and realized that my current entertainment center isn't the right fit, I now need to consider a coffee table, and my current end tables can go. The purchases are on my running wish list of items that I'll save up for and get when I can or when there's a great sale.


Cleaning Projects

Now that your spaces are organized and clutter free, you need to do a good deep clean of each one. Depending on the area, you can give it a good cleaning after the organization or as you're organizing. (For example, I suggest cleaning your main closets as you organize simply due to the fact that it's much easier to clean when you're rearranging or moving things.) Here are some areas that will need a good deep cleaning:

  • Bathrooms
  • Kitchen- Don't forget your refrigerator and inside kitchen cabinets.
  • Floor cleaning/vacuuming
  • Dust purge- What I like to call those days when you wipe down every surface you can to clear it of dust. I love the Swiffer dusters for this. Don't forget the ceiling fans!
  • Windows (including blinds)

Another option, if you are willing to spend the money, is to hire a cleaning service for a deep clean. Now that your space is organized and decluttered, a cleaning service could easily do the dirty work for you. That might be a gift to yourself for all of your hard work!


Since you're clean and organized, it's a great time to figure out how to seasonally save space. Find a place to keep your winter coats out of the way in the summer, and hide the bikinis in the winter. It's also a good time to consider holiday decorations. You actually have places to put them now! This adds a bit of fun and joy to your newly cleaned home.

It's also a good idea to do a good dusting and vacuuming around springtime for allergy reasons.


In order to maintain your immaculate home, you have to pick up a few extra habits. You've already mastered your daily duties, but need to pick up some weekly responsibilities as well. Keeping it simple is the way to go to maintain good habits. This could be all done on a particular day, like a Sunday, or spaced out if you'd like. Whatever works best for you. Here are some things that won't take much time but should be done on a frequent basis:

  • Cleaning floors/ vacuuming: This doesn't mean you have to do the entire place all at once, but a sweep here on a Monday and a quick vacuum there on a Thursday will help wonders. It doesn't take as long as you might think.
  • Bathroom scrub: This one might seem daunting, but if you keep your bathroom wiped down regularly it will take no time when you do it. For example, I was about 15 minutes early for work one day this week and decided to wipe down the tub and the sink before I got dressed. It took about five minutes, at most. I was still early for work.
  • Quick tidy up: This is mostly as needed, but always do at least one quick run through to make sure everything is in it's place and off the floor. If you dropped your shoes at the door, put them away. If you need to go through the week's mail, go ahead. Set aside about 20-30 minutes to do so once a week.

Another important habit to grasp is to pick up as you go. This is likely the reason your place was out of order beforehand. Maybe you didn't have the time or just thought you'd do it later and then it became a huge task. Go ahead and put your dishes in the dishwasher after dinner. Put the folded laundry away instead of letting it sit on the couch until you need to dig through it for clean underwear. (We've all been there.)

Did you make it to the end? If you feel overwhelmed, just remember- this is over a span of several weeks or even months. You'll only commit a small amount of time for each task as to not work you to the bone and crash out before finishing. You're going to pick up habits along the way, and once it's complete you'll feel like a new person! Good luck!

Magen lives in Chicago and blogs about her Chicago and travel adventures here. She is a cleaning work in progress.


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