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A Fine Mess: How to Put Housework in its Place

Ten helpful (and humorous) ways to conquer your home's clutter — and stress less.



Do you sometimes feel as though you’re losing the battle to keep your home as organized as you would like? As Benjamin Franklin so pithily put it, death and taxes are the only certainties in the world.

But Ben forgot about housework. It’s repetitive, physical, relentless and (I can hear my mother here) thankless, and that will probably never change. Maybe the remedy for housework-generated malaise lies in an attitude shift. Here are some strategies for looking at household chores in different way — with a little humor to help.
 


Divide untidy from dirty
There’s a big difference between messiness and uncleanliness. If you lump them both together, they can look like a mountain. Mentally split them into two smaller hills — decide which is which and deal with dirt first. Playtime toys spread on the floor are untidy, not health hazards. In Leslie Thomas’ novel Tropic of Ruislip, Mrs. Polly Blossom-Smith keeps the family hamsters down the back of the couch. At dinnertime, she pours a shovelful of hamster food into the cavity. Now that’s dirty!

Stress less: “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” — A.A. Milne, writer
 


Get over perfection
We know that nobody’s perfect, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to achieve the impossible. Feeling stressed about housework is often because we set our bar too high and overvalue others’ opinions. Ups and downs in our routines require flexibility, the bane of perfectionism. It’s your house — you decide what level of cleanliness is acceptable to keep it healthy and functioning well.

There’s nothing like children, a new puppy or a job outside the home to destroy any notions of perfection. They’re legitimate reasons for having a somewhat ruffled and topsy-turvy home, so own your child- or dog-generated mayhem — and let it go for now. Many people have been there, and no one will judge you.

Stress less: “Perfection is such a nuisance.” — Émile Zola, novelist and playwright
 


Pick a spot
Choose your battles. Are you happier with a tidy, organized office or a spick-and-span kitchen, while the bedrooms can look after themselves for a while? Put your energy — and time — into your priority places first and get to the others in due course.

Cleaning just one room can quickly produce a sense of satisfaction. In my house, bathrooms come first, and I turn a blind eye to the mess elsewhere, at least until time allows.

Related: Bathroom Storage to Cut the Clutter
 


Don’t overcorrect
You may be overestimating the amount of effort needed to keep your house in working order. Try <em>not</em> doing something and see how far you can push it — you may decide that something you habitually do daily needs doing only every two or three days.

Stress less: “Your home should be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.” — Anon
 


My first act of rebellion after leaving home was to not make the bed every morning — and nothing bad happened. Thanks to the duvet, bed making has never been so easy. The fashion for crushed linen-look sheets has also been a boon. Wouldn’t you rather collapse into a slightly disheveled bed like this than one with ironed knife-pleated pillowcases and hospital corners?

Stress less: “No one ever died from sleeping in an unmade bed.” — Erma Bombeck, columnist

Have a fast and effective routine
Set yourself up with these essentials for minimizing mess without going overboard. A half-hour or so with these little beauties goes a long way:
A long-handled feather duster
A handheld vacuum cleaner
All-purpose spray cleaner
Foam spot cleaner
A Swiffer mop with dry and moist cloths
A gorgeous room fragrance

Stress less: “Dust is a protective coating for fine furniture.” — Mario Buatta, interior decorator

Decide what matters
What will your family remember you for? Few eulogies include mention of an admirably clean house. Have you ever lost a friend because your house was a bit messy? Do your kids come home and say, “Wow, Mom, the house is so clean!”? Put housework in perspective when it comes to the rest of your life, and never miss an opportunity for fun and interaction because you feel guilty about a few dirty dishes.
 


Keep the kitchen in perspective
Kitchens are work rooms, not show spaces, and cooking is both creative and messy. Nothing says “home” more than a kitchen that revels in the aromas, noise and, hopefully, enjoyment that make it the heart of a happy household. Cut it some slack — and insist on help with cleanup after your delicious meals have been enjoyed.

Stress less: “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all.” — Harriet Van Horne, columnist


Never say “sorry"
If you find an apologetic “sorry about the mess” on the tip of your tongue when visitors arrive, fight it. It will make friends feel bad for catching you unaware, and if what you call a mess is someone else’s tidy, they’ll feel worse. Take a tip from the late Joan Rivers, who suggests flinging open the front door and saying, “Who could have done this? We have no enemies!”

Stress less: “We labor to make a house a home, then every time we’re expecting visitors, we rush to turn it back into a house.” — Robert Brault, writer

Don’t mop till you drop
The problem with hating housework and mess in equal measures is that martyrdom sets in whenever you tackle a task. Martyrdom leads to heavy sighing and irritation. Try short periods of housework interspersed with a break for a drink, cup of tea, walk in the garden, phone call or reading session — a bit like interval training at the gym, where you cycle like mad and then cruise for a few minutes before getting back into it.
 


Say “thank you” to your home
An alternative to having a house that needs attention is to be without one. I’ll let gratitude guru Nancie Carmody put it her way: “I’m thankful for a lawn that needs mowing, windows that need cleaning and gutters that need fixing because it means I have a home. I’m thankful for the piles of laundry and ironing because it means my loved ones are nearby.”

Related: A New Hamper to Streamline Laundry
 

 

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