Micro-Cleaning to Keep the Mess At Bay
Or: what if we assigned a weight to our mess?
Mess is an unavoidable part of life. No matter what you do, and no matter how well you clean, you’re never going to have a house that stays clean without additional intervention. It’s impossible.
Everything we do (and some things that we don’t do) creates mess in some form.
If we eat a home-cooked meal, we’ve created a mess of cooking pots and dishes. If we get a meal delivered, we have packaging to dispose of.
If we do nothing at all, but simply exist and wear clothes, we’re still generating dust (lint from fabric is one of the more prominent components of dust), and we’re dirtying clothing that has to be washed.
If, like me, you have a full-time job and need to eat and wear clothes every day, you may find yourself with more mess than free time.
I’ve lived in homes on both sides of the cleanliness spectrum. I’ve lived in homes that were only cleaned about once a quarter (usually when company was expected), and I’ve lived in homes that were cleaned every single day.
The home I have now houses two adult humans, three cats, a dog, and a bird, so it is under a constant onslaught of mess. Most of that mess is generated by beings that will never pick up a broom in their lives. In fact, my bird Viktor is terrified of brooms, for some reason.
It’s a bit unfair, but the same sort of thing happens when you have children. The mess is always piling up, and as The Adult, it’s your job to do something about it.
The first nugget of advice that I have is: the less stuff you have in your home, the easier it is to clean. Get rid of all your stuff. I mean it. You don’t need all that stuff. This sounds extreme, but it is the best advice you’ll ever get regarding home maintenance.
Fortunately for you this isn’t meant to be about minimalism, so you’re off the hook. For now. I’ll harp about minimalism another time, but keep that in mind as a first step.
Instead, I want to introduce a metaphor. What if we thought about cleaning like it was weightlifting?
For the sake of this metaphor, imagine that each bit of mess is assigned a weight. Those crumbs that you left on the counter when you made a sandwich? Those are a dinky little half-pound weight. A stain on the carpet left by a muddy dog? That’s a 3-pound weight, because it’ll take more “lifting” to clean it up.
Imagine that each day, as you live your life, you’re adding weight to this grand equation. Some things, like the slow accumulation of dust, are miniscule. You can barely even notice them, day to day. Other things are a great 45-pound barbell plate, like an old couch that you’ve needed to take to the dump for the past six months.
I think weight is an appropriate metaphor for mess for a number of reasons, but the most important is that mess actively weighs you down. Every time you see it, it tugs at your thoughts and reminds you that you have responsibilities.
It’s also appropriate because many people approach cleaning as an all-or-nothing situation. They try to lift all 100 pounds of weight out of the room at once, and it exhausts them. Maybe they even pull a muscle, and are unable to lift anything for a week afterward.
As a solution to mess, I want to propose micro-cleaning. Make cleaning in small bursts a part of your daily effort, so you only have to clean a little bit at a time. Lift the small weights out of your home, before they can pile up.
I have no idea if anyone has coined the term “micro-cleaning” before. I’m sure someone has. This is the internet, after all. I do know that the FlyLady Method is very similar, with the core idea being that you can keep your whole house clean in just 15 minutes a day if you establish good routines.
It seems sensationalist, but I generally agree with the core idea. I think the concept is sound, but that the “15 minute” rule of thumb would vary wildly person to person.
Extending the “weight” metaphor, everyone is adding more weight every day, just by existing, but some people are adding more than others.
People with dogs, or children, or sloppy significant others are going to be adding more to their mess each day.
Some people also have a running balance that is much higher. If you live alone and have generally good habits, but you haven’t cleaned your apartment in the past year, you might have stocked up 40 pounds of mess even though you’re only adding a half-pound at a time.
The key is to identify how much work you need to do to balance out your additions each day. Then, you can either do the bare minimum to maintain a presentable home, or you can do a little bit more to whittle away at the existing mess.
Weigh Your Mess
Before you can make a plan, you’ll need to figure out your baseline. This doesn’t have to be a mathematical process (though, it can be, if you’re a huge nerd like I am). Think about your daily routine.
- How many meals do you eat at home, on average?
- How many changes of clothes do you go through?
- Include any children, or other creatures who are unable (or unwilling) to clean up after themselves.
- What types of clutter are lying around on the floor
- Where did the clutter come from?
“Prevention is Better than Cure”
The thought exercise of taking stock of your mess might reveal some things that you can do with little effort to prevent racking up more weight.
If one source of daily mess is that you or your children throw clothing onto the floor instead of into a clothes hamper, that’s an easy fix. Get a clothes hamper, or move an existing one into a more convenient location, and build the habit. From that point on, your floors are immediately cleaner than they would be otherwise.
I live in a two-story home and often eat food upstairs. The easiest option is to just leave the dishes on a desk when I’m done, but if I take those dishes down to the sink immediately, I’ve prevented a pile from forming and cluttering up the room.
There will be some tradeoffs to consider here. It might not always be worth that additional effort. There’s probably a reason you were doing things that way, and that reason is not always “laziness”.
You may have already heard of the “two-minute rule”, which dictates that you should do something immediately if it takes less than two minutes. It’s a fine rule, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide what is worth doing and what isn’t.
Use your best judgment, and remember that cleaning usually sucks a lot more when the mess has had time to steep.
Make a Payment Plan
We’re stretching our “weights” metaphor out past its limits and into a money metaphor, but the next step here is to make a plan for paying back that weight debt.
At this point, you should have a rough estimate for how much mess your household generates each day, and come up with some ideas to reduce that mess naturally.
Unless you are a creature made of pure thought and living in a simulation, there’s still going to be some active cleaning required.
Now is when you figure out how much you can do per day to keep your net mess near zero.
If you know that your family uses enough dishes to fill half a dishwasher each day, you can calculate that in order to keep up with the dishes you’ll have to run the dishwasher every other day, at least.
Go through all the types of mess that you identified in your thought exercise and try to estimate how often that cleaning needs to get done to stay near balance 0.
If there are types of cleaning that you don’t currently do often enough to notice a difference, just come up with a frequency that you think you can handle and adjust later.
Remember that most types of mess don’t have to be cleaned in one session, as long as you break them down.
You can wash a few dishes (or put them into the dishwasher) without gathering up all the dirty dishes in the house. You can wipe down a single counter, or sweep only the entryway to your home, or just take a few minutes before your shower to scrub out the tub.
You can lift as little or as much weight out of that room as you want to and it will go toward your balance.
Be consistent, and adjust when you need to
As with anything, the results of these small actions will only become apparent with enough time. But, if you can chip away even one tiny percentage of your home’s mess each day, it adds up.
If you go a month and you’re still not happy with your progress, adjust your routine so that you’re doing just a little bit more.
For the past four months or so, I’ve made it a goal to clean at least one thing each day, no matter how small it is, and the result is a house that is presentable most of the time.
The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that “piles” are not a thing in my house anymore. I used to suffer beneath “cardboard mountain” for months at a time. Bits of recyclables would pile up near the door, waiting to be taken to the bin outside. The dishes would pile up in a similar way, or stacks of mail, or clumps of cat hair on the carpet.
Cleaning in short bursts each day cut off each of these piles before they could form, before they could become a “big task”, and the house feels so much cleaner for it.
I’m not winning any awards for having the cleanest house on the block, but I would feel okay having people over on short notice.
If that isn’t a vote of confidence, I don’t know what is.