Monday, November 25, 2013

Organized Home: Where To Start When Cleaning Overwhelms You

I feel fairly qualified to write this post, not because I am naturally highly organized and tidy, but because I used to be one of those people who was so overwhelmed by the mess and chaos, I felt too paralyzed to start. By the grace of God, that's not me anymore... and my husband is very thankful for that! 

It can be hard to explain to someone who finds maintaining a home to be easy-breezy just how difficult it can be for some folks. In the first few years of marriage, my husband just could not understand why it was such a tough task for me. I mean, just get up and do it, right? Do what needs to be done! It's simple!

But it wasn't like that for me then. I felt broken. Why didn't it come naturally to me like it did others? Why was it such a battle?  I wondered, "Am I just being lazy?"  The reality is I didn't have the tools I needed.  My mom was a naturally tidy person, so, back then, she didn't really know how to handle someone with a "creative spirit" such as mine.  Mom's mindset seemed to be, "It needs to be done, so I do it," and she had a specific routine (although I did not realize that when I was young) that she went through so that our home never looked dirty.  Toilets and tubs never had rings because she knew how to maintain cleanliness.  As I've mentioned in other posts, my brain did not work that way.  I knew something needed to be clean when it was very obvious because it was soooo icky-dirty.

Now, I'm not saying I am now the cleanest person on earth, but my house is never in complete and utter chaos these days because I have learned some key ways to maintain it and even to attack areas where things pile up (you know, that chair in the bedroom where clothes get tossed).  Over time, I gained the tools because I knew I desperately needed them to fulfill my duty as a wife and mother.  The reality is a chaotic, messy home can be really tough on a marriage, and I didn't want that to be a factor in mine as it had been.  I truly desired to please my husband (and still do, of course), and I hated feeling like we couldn't have people over because of the mess, so I sought out information and tools that would help me become a better keeper of the home.  These tools have been so valuable to me that I have taught them to my children as well, and I want to share some of them with you today.

I don't know where to start!

When your whole home feels like one big mess, that paralyzing feeling can set in.  Where to begin?  What to do?  My old way of doing things was to stare at it bug-eyed and try to figure out how in the world I was going to get it all cleaned up.  Then I would begin picking up a few things here and there, but I wouldn't see much progress so I would throw up my hands and feel helpless. Sometimes I would feel inspired to "get it together" and think, "Well, if I organized the closet, that would help!" so in the midst of the chaos, I would begin organizing the closet, pulling out more stuff and making a bigger mess, then growing exhausted and.. well, you can figure out how that went.  There I would be with an even bigger mess. I would have bitten off more than I could chew.  

While it may seem overwhelming right now, the truth is, starting is not as difficult as we assume. 

The 10-Minute Tidy

When I first started this journey of learning how to maintain my home, the timer was my best friend. It made cleaning a bit of a game.  How much can I get done in ten minutes? Knowing I only had to focus for a set amount of time (especially for someone who can be highly distracted) made me feel like it was doable. I started with small increments of time, and I found it so easy to focus and get so much accomplished that I would do 10- or 15-minute tidy sessions throughout the day (often at least three times a day).

The key to doing a 10-minute tidy is to focus on one area.  Previously, in my attempts to clean house, I would be all over the place. I'd pick up some trash by the bed, put a book away that was on the couch, take a dirty mug to the sink.... and even if I worked for thirty minutes or an hour, since my home was in such disarray and I failed to focus on one area, when I finished it didn't really seem like I had accomplished much.

If your home is in chaos, then a 10-minute tidy needs to be on one particular zone. Maybe that means you focus on washing dishes during that time, or you spend ten minutes scrubbing toilets and tubs.  If you use this tactic, you will find yourself encouraged because you will be able to see a major difference in that one zone, which will likely inspire you to keep on going rather than leave you discouraged.  You will see what a big difference ten minutes focused on one area can do!  (Often, you will find that it takes less than 10 minutes to do the task because you were able to stay focused and were not all over the place!)

If you have children, get them in on the tidy times.  I sometimes call a 10-minute-tidy session throughout the day.  Sometimes I ask all of them to focus on the living room— put away shoes, books, art supplies, toys, etc, and then vacuum.  Other times I may ask one child to focus on the living area, one to tidy the kitchen table, and another to rinse a few dishes in the sink and put them in the dishwasher.  As a team we can accomplish a lot.  If you don't have older children, many of these tasks will fall on your shoulders, but a toddler can help pick up toys or stack books.  They can also put away shoes or at least pile them into a bin for you to put away.

Again, the key to the 10-minute tidy is to 
1. Set a timer.
2. Stay focused on one specific area.

Maybe you want to make it 15 minutes or 20.  Whatever the case, keep it a small amount of time so you don't find yourself overwhelmed.  Take a break afterward. Have a cup of coffee. Read a blog post. Maybe write down what you've accomplished in a journal.  I found it very encouraging to be able to cross things off a "to do" list.

If your house is already fairly clean, the 10-minute tidy can be used to keep things maintained. This is how we use it in our household now. Years ago it would have taken me the whole ten minutes to clean off the kitchen table!  Now 10 minutes can accomplish a lot.  I can often clean my whole bedroom and bathroom in ten minutes! (I'm not talking about deep-cleaning, I'm speaking of tidying so that things look nice- putting clothes away, making the bed, doing a quick scrub and wipe-down of our toilet, wiping down the counters and sinks, etc.)

Maybe you want to spend 15 minutes organizing your book shelves. Spend 15 minutes wiping down doors, door trim, and knobs.  Set a timer for ten minutes and make it a race to see who can pick up the most trash throughout the house (this is for a home that is already fairly tidy).  There's various ways to use this tool, and I bet you will find it one of the most helpful tools in your homemaker kit.

Tidy As You Go

This seems like a fairly simple principle, but it's often one that does not occur to us scatter-brained types.  I have been teaching my children this one for a long time, and they are still having a tough time catching on, but I am determined to keep repeating it and helping them learn it because it will save them a lot of time and trouble!

As you move and work through your home, tidy as you go.  When you walk through the living room, don't step over that discarded tissue! Pick it up and throw it in the trashcan! Don't just shove those abandoned toys to the side with your foot! Put them back where they go!  If you see something out of place, put it away rather than pass it by.  It typically only takes a few seconds, but it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

When I was first starting out and trying to put this into action, I had a bin that I kept in the livingroom.  Those of you with large or two-story homes will especially find this helpful.  If a toy or piece of clothing was out of place, I would toss it into the bin.  Later, I would do a 15-minute-tidy to put all the items away.  When my children got a bit older and were more capable of helping me, I would have them put the things in the bin away. 

If you are getting a glass of water and see a few things out on the counter, put them away.  Again, it only takes a few seconds but a few seconds here and there will save you from having to do a massive clean-up later.

As part of this principle, you must also learn to put things away immediately after you use them.  When you come in from outside and take off your shoes, put them in a designated place.  While we do keep our shoes in our closet, I also have a tray for shoes by the front door.  This way the kids can slip in and out of their shoes— since they are in and out of the house multiple times a day—without leaving behind an obstacle course of boots, flip flops, and such for me to trip over.  This doesn't mean that they don't leave their shoes on the rug, just inside the door. They do, daily... but I can easily tell them, "Put your shoes on the tray!" and, bam, done.  They are learning to do that more often.  Don't be discouraged when these things aren't immediate reactions even after years of doing them. We've had the some of the same routines for years, and our kids still forget and require gentle reminders.

This also means when you finish reading a book, you put it back where it goes.  Maybe that means it goes on your bedside stand or in a backpack or in basket on the coffee table.  When you get out materials for a project, everything gets put up before you walk away from it.  Often we get in this mindset of, "Well, I'm not done, so I'll just leave it here and return to it later."  But, the reality is I don't have a craft room, so I can't leave things on the kitchen table indefinitely, and I may get caught up in something else, so it's best just to put it away, even if it means I'm going to get it back out in an hour.  Besides, I can't ask my children to pick up after themselves if I don't pick up after myself!

Clean as You Cook

This one can fall under the same category as above, but I think it deserves it's own section.  Cleaning as you cook (or bake) will save you a ton of time and work down the line. As you work, rinse off things you are done with and either set them to the side of the sink or put them directly in the dishwasher. While meat and veggies cook on the stove top, wash your knives and cutting boards. Rinse beaters and utensils immediately.  Clean out the batter bowl right away.  If you let these things sit, it will require more elbow grease to clean them, but if you rinse them right away, chances are food and goo will rinse off under the stream of water with minimal work on your part.  For example, raw egg on a whisk that has been left in the sink without being rinsed with become like cement, but if rinsed immediately after use (or shortly after) it will come off under the facet, no big deal.

Young children can be big helpers in this area, especially those who love to play in the sink.  Fill the sink with warm soapy water and let your toddler stand on a chair and scrub things as you place them in there. (Obviously, keep knives and other such things away from her!)  Bigger kids may get a big kick out of using the sprayer to rinse things off. I know my kids LOVE using the sprayer. It really is the little things. A helper can stand sink-side to rinse things off as you use them.  Please, please, please allow your children (if you have kids) to help.  They need these tools as much as you do!

Do not fall into this mindset of "I need to let it soak".  For people like you and me, that may mean it will sit for a day or two or three.   In reality, even if something does need to soak, 2 or so minutes in hot, soapy water is typically long enough.  There were times I let things "soak" so long (a week!) that the smell coming from the sink was awful. Soaking is a delay tactic. Don't do it!

Cleaning as you cook may mean that, while your children set the table for dinner or rush off to wash their hands, you quickly rinse off dishes and utensils.  Maybe you set them aside for the kids to load, or maybe you load them right away. Whatever the case, having that job done before you sit down for the meal will make the post-meal-clean-up a lot less of a chore.  Even spending two or three minutes rinsing things after mixing up the meal will be helpful.

20 Item Pick-Up

This was one of my favorite "tools" when I first started out. It kept me from getting overwhelmed, while still allowing me to get a good bit done or at least take baby-steps forward in a big task.  Say your closet is a complete mess. You don't even know where to begin. Rather than pulling everything out (and making a huge mess that you may not be able to clean up without overwhelming yourself further), commit to putting away 20 items.  Maybe that means you hang up 20 shirts and pants. Maybe that means you pick out 20 items to donate.  I would often challenge myself to do 10 or 20 more items just because I was on a roll and it felt good!

This is also a great idea to implement with your littles.  Children can easily be overwhelmed by cleaning their room or play area. Asking them to put away 15 or 20 toys "where they go" helps them focus on a short-term goal.  As you can see, both the 20 Item Pick-up and the 15-Minute Tidy help us to focus by setting short term goals.  This helps us to whittle down the chores little by little.  As we see things get accomplished, as we begin to realize the fruits of our labor (and our husbands will notice too), we will find ourselves encouraged to keep on going.

When there is no focus and we are all over the place, we won't get much accomplished.  We may pick up 20 things all over the house, but when we sit back, it doesn't look like we've done much of anything.  Again, as with the 15-Minute Tidy, when your house is in chaos, it is important to use this "tool" in one specific area.  Maybe that means starting in the corner of the bedroom.  Maybe you decide to begin with the center of the livingroom, around the coffee table, and circle out.  By focusing on one particular area, you will be able to see progress, even if it is only one small tidy corner.

Inspire Yourself

One of FlyLady's ideas that really helped me in the beginning was this principle of "shining your sink".  The idea is that you begin by cleaning out your sink- put away all the dishes and shine that baby up.  Wipe it down and make it sparkle. I found this helpful because, after shining my sink (and having all the dishes put in the dishwasher), I would feel like, "Hey, I should clean off the rest of the counter!" and then that would inspire me to mop the kitchen floor.  Before long, my small apartment kitchen would be clean, and I'd look out over the bar and see a mess in the dining area and think, "Well, that won't do!" so I'd begin tackling that as well.  One clean area would inspire me to clean another area!

At one point, we were living in a home with a really ugly sink. I mean, it didn't matter whether I shined it, it was still ugly, chipped, brown porcelain. The task of sink shining that had once been so useful in jump starting my cleaning now felt pointless.  Then one day my husband brought me flowers. I put them on the bar (which divided the kitchen from the dining).  I looked at that beautiful bouquet and my eyes were immediately drawn to the mess surrounding them. So I began tidying the bar counter. I stepped back to admire my work, but all I could focus on was the crowded kitchen counter.  So I tackled that project.  As I stood in my kitchen, admiring my clean counters, I peered past the flowers on the bar and into the dining room and living area. Hmm. Not so lovely.  So I set my timer to tidy for 20 minutes and began working.  I felt so motivated that I ended up working 10 minutes longer and the whole common area of our house looked amazing!

Sometimes, when I just don't feel motivated to clean, a bouquet of flowers inspires me.  I set the flowers on the table or counter and clean around, expanding out.  Grocery stores often have inexpensive bouquet or you can make pretty little table settings out of things you already have (candles, baskets, pine cones, etc) to inspire you to tidy your home.  When one area of our home shines, it can motivate us to make it all lovely to match.

A Load a Day

I've mentioned this in other posts, but it is worth mentioning again.  A load of laundry a day keeps Mount Washmore away.  And, should the laundry pile up, just keep plugging away. A load a day. A load a day.  When you get up in the morning, start a load of laundry.  Set a timer or alarm on your phone to go off in an hour or two so you remember to switch it over.  Even if you only do a load a day and it doesn't seem like you're making much progress with the day-to-day laundry, at least you are keeping it from getting completely out of control. For those who tend to get overwhelmed with household tasks, simply doing a little a day to keep things from spiraling even further can go a long way.  (For more tips on taming the laundry, check out my post on Large Family Laundry.  Even smaller families can benefit from these tips!)

Stock Products You Love

This is one I have found helpful for me.  Several years ago, my husband bought some cleaning products that really stank. I mean, they gave me a headache, and I didn't even want to walk in the room after I had cleaned and scrubbed it down.  If your cleaning products cause headaches, get rid of them. I have actually enjoyed cleaning more now that I make my own products.  I can customize the scent of my all-purpose cleaner by using various oils.  I genuinely enjoy the smell of my cleaning products because they are not overwhelmingly strong, do not cause headaches, and don't spur on asthma attacks. Also, because I can use one cleaner on so many things in my house (my countertops, floor, sink, appliances, etc), I can get a lot more done.  [You can check out my blog post on Super Simple Homemade Cleaners to find my All-Purpose Cleaner recipe, among others. The Basil Lemon scent is my favorite!  It's so gentle but mighty that I even spray it on my upholstered chairs and rugs to refresh them. I may have even sprayed it on the dog once.... (What! He smelled!)]

I highly recommend that you make your own products. I have some recipes here on my blog.  It's not only cheaper, it's healthier too, and it doesn't take a lot of effort at all!  Plus, there's just something fun about using a product you made yourself!  But, if that's just not your thing, or not something you can process through right now, then take the time to buy good quality, healthier products.  Most grocery stores now have a section with more natural cleaners, many of them scented with essential oils and such.  I like the buy the pretty containers (many of these healthier products come in prettier packaging too).  I like to leave my all-purpose spray on the counter so it's easier to clean up spills, sticky messes, and such (I have five children, so messes happen frequently), so I like simple, clean packaging.  Maybe you want to purchase a pretty glass jar with a pump for your kitchen soap, or buy fancy spray bottles for your cleaning supplies.  If it helps you enjoy cleaning more, then go for it.  You can even buy a pretty pair of cleaning gloves and "designer" brooms and such at Hobby Lobby!

Keep Cleaning Products Handy

I have learned that it is very, very helpful to have a set of cleaning supplies for each area of the home.  That means each bathroom has its own set of all-purpose cleaner (homemade), scum-buster spray (also homemade), and toilet cleaning supplies (we have both homemade and store-bought).  For the children's bathroom, I have included a container of cleaning wipes to make their job easier.

I also have cleaning products in the kitchen.  This way, no matter where I am, there are cleaning products nearby, especially in the areas which need to be cleaned the most.  You can buy inexpensive bins, spray bottles, and scrubbers at the dollar store so it doesn't have to cost a lot to stock each area.  I know my boys have found it much easier to clean the bathroom now that they have all the supplies they need in one bin.  When it's time to clean the bathroom, they pull out the bin and start cleaning.  Then they put everything back in the bin and set it back under the sink.

Bedtime or Evening Routines

Ultimately, it's great to have various routines set up throughout your day, and a Home Management Binder can help you with that. But, for beginners, an evening routine is a great place to start.  The purpose of this specific routine is to prepare for the next day. In the beginning, I found it helpful to do a 15-minute tidy. At that point, I had two little bitty children and no big kids, so it all fell on my shoulders.  My husband was often generous enough to help, especially since he could see that I was genuinely trying to love him by tidying our home and was seriously putting forth some major effort to change my messy ways.  If you can get a little bit of help, that's great, but realize that it might not work out that way (my husband has been working pretty late and is exhausted when he comes home, and I actually prefer to have everything already tidied when he walks through the door so our home is a welcoming, relaxing haven for him).

A typical evening routine may include a 15 minute tidy, a "hot spot" focus (like, cleaning off that chair in the bedroom that "grows" clothes), 5 minutes spent in the kitchen making sure things are put away and the dishwasher is started, and a few minutes in the bathroom, wiping down the counter after you've brushed your teeth and putting dirty clothes in the laundry bin.

My children have their own evening routine which involves walking the dog one more time, getting ready for bed, tidying their room and the common area (where they do most of their playing), and stuff like that. 

The main point of an evening routine is to get things done so that the following morning can flow as smooth as possible. I mean, no one likes waking up to a sink full of dishes.  I hate walking out of my bedroom to a mess all over the livingroom. It makes me want to run back under my covers!  Waking up to a tidy house is refreshing.  Waking up to a dirty home is like waking up to a long to-do list.  I feel discouraged before the day has even really begun.

An evening routine should be about 30 minutes to an hour long, depending on what all it includes.  If it includes rotating children through the bath tub, then it will take longer. (Our children don't get baths every day, so our evening routine differs in lengths day-to-day.)  If I know we are going to be out late one night (maybe at a fellowship gathering or dinner with family), I will ask the kids to get started on their evening routine before we leave (even if it is only 2pm). This means I don't have to walk in to a big mess later that night.

Consider creating an evening routine and posting it on your fridge or framing it and placing it somewhere you can easily see it.  I have a small chalkboard on which I have written down the morning and evening routines (in white paint pen) so the kids can see it and refer back to it regularly. (Years later, they still forget what to do!)  I also have a white board where I write morning greetings, add extra things for them to do, write lists for them, or have them write down things I want them to do.

I hope you have found these tips helpful. They've been helpful for me, and I still use them regularly!  Next time you feel overwhelmed, remember that you don't have to stay in that place.  A 10-Minute Tidy or a 20 Item Pick-Up can get you started and on your way to a cleaner home!

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erin.themom said...

awesome awesome post! i am sitting here as i type, wondering how i'm gonna pull it together to clean up this tornado, uh i mean house. this just gave me a lot of encouragement, so thank you mrs. mcmandymom :)


Green Eyes said...

Have you ever done a list of your favorite books on here? I just finished The Excellent Wife because had talked about it in an OD entry. I also just got passionate housewives desperate for God for the same reason. I'd love to see what other good books you've read. :)

Courtney Lee said...


THANK YOU!! I struggle with being overwhelmed, disorganized and easily distracted. (but you already know that about me) I really appreciate these tips. Especially the idea about the flowers or other inspiration. I remember why we get along so well, our brains work a lot alike!
I miss talking with you, glad you are doing well.


Clarissa said...

Hi I found your blog by searching for "large families in small houses"... :) and have enjoyed reading several posts. We are expecting our 8th child in May (but lost our 5th 88minutes after birth, so 7th living child) and live in a 1000sqft rental going on 3 years. We lost our 1400sqft home that we built on 20acres to foreclosure and have learned to live within our means since then!! Anyway, WS are now hoping to get a few acres with a fixer house or build a small house someday... but probably won't happen soon. I found your blog very interesting, but am wondering why you haven't posted recently? I'd love to hear about your small home, etc! I blog at Counting Our Blessings... God bless! said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for sharing! Messes in my house can overwhelm and almost paralyze me sometimes, I've been searching for helpful solutions. Thank you!