So much goes into keeping our homes tidy that it can be hard to know where to start. But even if you feel overwhelmed, it’s not too late to take back control of your home.
Do you ever walk into someone’s house and just wonder How? As in, how does Aunt Grace/Cousin Anna/Sarah from College keep her house so freakin’ tidy all the time?? Maybe you even surreptitiously open a closet or cabinet, just hoping to reveal secret clutter, only to find it just as tidy as the rest of the place.
You assume Aunt Grace must spend every waking moment dusting tchotchke after tchotchke. Cousin Anna married rich, so surely she has like seven full-time housekeepers on staff. And you’re convinced that Sarah from college is just passing a jetsetting neighbor’s house off as her own. Surely there’s a dingy apartment somewhere she actually calls home, because when you lived with her, girlfriend was allergic to the vacuum cleaner.
In any case, there is a reason why their houses are always tidy and yours isn’t. But that reason probably isn’t of the full-time housekeeper variety (at least not usually. I don’t know your social sphere).
If you’ve been taking notes, you already know what that reason is….habits! Don’t look so disappointed, it’s great news! It means that you too, by adopting the right habits, are capable of keeping your home clean and tidy just like Sarah. It’s also kind of bad news because I’m taking away all your excuses for not even trying. No, you don’t get to wait until Aunt Grace leaves you her robot maid in her will. You have work to do right now.
It won’t be enough
“But Jenna,” you wail, “everything’s so messy. I don’t have time to do anything impactful!”
Nonsense, but I understand the assumption. If everything’s messy, where do you even start? Small, that’s where. If you’re not in the habit of keeping a tidy home, there’s going to be a learning curve. You’ll want to pick a habit to practice, every day, until it’s second nature. And then you add another, and then another. Before long, you’ve created things called routines, which are magical because they require so little brain power to maintain that it starts to seem like your house is taking care of itself.
And in fact, if your home is very messy, it’s all the more important that you start to develop good habits. Yes, even before you declutter or organize. Wouldn’t be a shame to spend time, energy, and money creating a temporarily organized space? Absolutely, and that’s what ultimately will happen if you don’t develop tidy habits.
It’s hard to change, but it’s doable. Here are ten habits that are small enough to get you started, but impactful enough to create a real difference in how your home looks and feels, as well as some strategies for how you can implement them.
1 | Make your bed
The habit: Make your bed. Yes, every morning.
Why it’s important: The habit of making your bed first thing creates a foundation of order in your day, and provides a welcoming bedtime ritual in the evening.
- Utilize habit stacking: As soon as you turn off your alarm and step out of bed, begin making your bed.
- If, like me, you’re the first one up and your spouse refuses to make the bed consistently no matter how sweetly you ask him, stack the habit elsewhere. For example, after I eat breakfast, I head back to the bedroom to shower and change clothes. Since Bill’s up by then, I first make the bed, then I do those other things.
- If a freshly-made bed does nothing for you, maybe your bedding’s to blame. Take my suggestion of a few weeks ago, and invest in a new duvet and a couple of decorative pillows that you really love. Now, making the bed is immediately rewarding and satisfying: you get to admire your beautiful bedding, and your bedroom looks like a magazine (well, the bed does at least).
2 | Keep up with your keys
The habit: There are things you need to take with you every time you leave the house. Save yourself the frantic morning search for your keys/wallet/sunglasses/coat/handbag/hover board charger by putting them in the same exact place every time you walk in the door.
Why it’s important: You know you’ll need these things the next time you leave the house, and is there anything more frustrating than not being able to find a thing you need when you need it? (there is not)
- Do you even have a place for these things? If not, start there. Installing wall hooks and a shelf next to whichever door is your primary method of entering and exiting will create a visual cue to hang up your keys and set down your sunglasses. You’re also reducing friction, because you won’t have to walk out of your way to do it.
- Do you have a place for these things, but nobody uses it? Troubleshoot. Walk in the door with all your stuff. Where do you go first? Where do you set down your bag/keys/mail? You want your organizing systems to follow the flow of the people who use them, not the other way around. If possible, relocate your current system to make it more convenient.
- Likewise, if your system is overly-complicated, people (including yourself) are less likely to use it. If you have to open a closet door, take out a hanger for your coat, stack your shoes on a shelf at the back of the closet, and open a drawer to put your keys inside, that’s…way too many steps. Might I suggest some wall hooks and a boot tray?
3 | You’ve got mail (to deal with)
The habit: Deal with your mail as soon as you walk in the door. Open all envelopes, and only save the what’s inside if it’s important. Immediately recycle the envelope, as well as any circulars, catalogs, or ads you don’t want or need. Have a system for dealing with items that require action (bills to pay, invitations to respond to, a credit card offer to shred).
Why it’s important: Mail can pile up so fast, and it’s a pain to deal with a lot of it at once. Plus, there’s occasionally some important things sent via mail, and if you just throw it in a pile for a week (or month), you could miss an urgent bill or invitation.
- Design your environment to make this as easy as possible. Put a small recycling bin in the mudroom or wherever you enter your home. If you come straight into your kitchen, you’ll have the recycling bin, but maybe you need to have a letter opener and a small letter sorter handy. Make it a goal to open everything immediately and not leave anything just lying on the counter.
- Make it easier by reducing the volume of mail you get. Unsubscribe from paper credit card statements and utility bills. Call the numbers on the backs of catalogs you don’t need and ask to be removed from their mailing list. Opt out of credit card offers by following the process on this website. The fewer pieces of mail you receive, the faster you can process your daily mail.
4 | Outfit your mornings
The habit: Decide tonight what you’re going to wear tomorrow, then gather all necessary items wherever you get dressed.
Why it’s important: To have a better morning, which sets the tone for your entire day. This is especially important if you have a hard time deciding what to wear, and your mornings feel rushed or hectic as a result.
- Habit stack: When you get home from work, take a couple of minutes to decide tomorrow’s outfit before you change into your yoga pants or pjs. You’re already in your closet, so grab a blouse, some slacks, shoes, and underwear, as well as any jewelry or other accessories you plan to wear.
- Make it obvious and create a visual cue: Designate a visible place in your closet, bedroom, or wherever you get dressed in the mornings to hang up tomorrow’s outfit. For example, I use a hanging closet rod to separate my pre-planned outfits from all my other clothes, and I see it as soon as I open my closet. Simply having this visual cue can help prompt you to remember this habit until it becomes an automatic part of your after-work routine.
5 | Nightly reset
The habit: Dedicate a short period of time every evening to tidying up. Don’t declutter or deep clean; simply “reset” areas of your home back to the way they should be. Fold throw blankets and return the TV remote to its home in the living room; hang up coats that have been thrown on the floor and straighten shoes that have been kicked off in the mudroom; return the pile of work papers you left on the dining room table to your office.
Why it’s important: We’re not perfect, and we don’t always clean up after ourselves in the moment. The nightly reset helps pick up the slack of living in and using your home, while creating a tidy slate for the next day.
- Make it easy by using the two minute rule. If you’re skeptical about what you can get done in two minutes, humor me and try it. Again, creating a habit is all about showing up more often than not. If you decide you want to start with a 20 minute nightly tidying ritual, you’re likely setting yourself up for failure. Just focus on doing 2 minutes every single night, until the habit feels natural. Then, if you want, increase the time.
- Make it attractive by using temptation bundling: If motivation is your issue, create a rule that before you get to do something you’re looking forward to, you have to first complete the nightly reset. The temptation will be different for everybody, but try to use something that you already do in the evenings as your incentive, such as watching TV, playing video games, or having your after dinner cocktail.
- Bonus: If you’re a parent, this is a great strategy to use with kids to help them get in the habit of picking up their toys or clothes. Just be sure to start with a very short period of time, and know that in the beginning, you’ll probably need to work alongside them (depending on age). And make it fun! Set a timer and make it a game, or play an energetic song so it’s not something the family dreads.
The habit: When you finish using a thing, put it back where it belongs. Like, immediately. Do not pass go. Just put the thing back.
Why it’s important: This is literally the Number One Thing you can do to become a tidy person. You can have the fanciest, most expensive organizing system in the world, but if you don’t put your things back where they belong, it doesn’t even matter.
Before we move on, I feel the need to address the elephant(s) in the room. If your home is very messy and cluttered, you may be thinking this rule doesn’t apply to you yet. But once you declutter and “get organized”, then you’ll definitely always start putting things back where they belong. False. If you have not trained yourself to return things to their homes, it’s only a matter of time until your “organized” house devolves back into a mess. You can only fix the problem by creating new habits.
Second elephant: What if most of your items don’t have assigned homes? I get that this “put it back” rule only works when things have homes to go back to. I also know that some things in your home, currently, do have assigned places. It’s pretty obvious where your clothes, personal hygiene items, and kitchen tools belong. When in doubt, put items near where they’re used. And again, until you develop the habit of returning the tape measure to the garage when you’re done using it, it won’t matter whether you have a drawer labeled “tape measures”. Build the habit, then optimize by organizing.
- The only way to adopt this habit is to maintain awareness. Notice when you’re about to set something down and ask yourself “does this go here?” If not, take it to its home. NOW.
- If this is really tough for you, practice with one type of item. Does clothing tend to float all over the house? Focus on returning that sweater to your closet or hamper as soon as you notice it on the back of the couch. Do you tend to leave water glasses or plates in random places? Make it your priority to always walk a dish back to the sink when you’re finished using it. You’re training your brain to notice when things are out of place. Eventually, it will be easier to apply this to any item you use.
7 | Do the dishes
The habit: As soon as you’re finished eating or cooking, wash all dirty dishes or put them in the dishwasher.
Why it’s important: Dealing with dishes is one of those things that gets exponentially harder the longer you wait to start. Also, it gets expensive eating off paper plates for the fourth night in a row because all your actual plates are in the sink.
A lot of people struggle with this, but it’s a foundational habit for keeping your kitchen in working order. Dana K White is an author who helps self-identified “slobs” take back control of their homes. Guess what habit she advises her overwhelmed readers to develop first? Doin’ the dang dishes.
- Habit stack: You probably already bring your dishes to the sink area when you’re done eating, so commit to dealing with them right then. Rinse and place in dishwasher, or hand wash. RIGHT THEN. If the dishwasher is full, first, turn it on to wash. Then, hand wash any dishes that didn’t fit. RIGHT THEN. Make it a rule not to leave dishes in the sink.
- To avoid hand washing as much as possible, extend this habit by emptying the dishwasher as part of your morning routine. Before you get to drink your coffee? Empty the dishwasher (I promise it takes less than five minutes. You can do it!)
- Make it satisfying by making the dish-washing experience more pleasant. Pick up some cute reusable gloves so your hands stay dry. Grab some dish soap in scent you love. Play some music or a podcast before you start so your attention isn’t focused (solely) on how much doing dishes sucks.
8 | Don’t go to bed with dirty counters
The habit: Wipe down your bathroom counters every night before bed.
Why it’s important: Again, you’re resetting your environment and creating a clean slate for the next day. You’re also making weekly cleaning a lot easier by wiping down mess-prone areas on a daily basis (dried toothpaste, anyone?). Wiping down the counters also forces you to tidy up any errant makeup or hair styling products you may have left out while getting ready this morning.
Note: This habit also applies to the kitchen, but we’re taking it slow today. Baby steps, people.
- I’m going to assume you have a pretty solid habit of brushing your teeth nightly, so do it then. Habit stack by wiping the counters immediately after you finish brushing (or, if you’re very coordinated, do it while you’re brushing).
- Make it easy by keeping wipes or a towel handy (but please don’t use your hand towel). Keep a cleaning towel under the sink (I use one of those cabinet door towel bars, with the bar facing inside the cabinet). You don’t need to whip out the Scrubbing Bubbles, just mop up splashed or puddled water and bits of toothpaste or hair that are hanging out (germaphobes, feel free to keep Clorox wipes under the sink instead).
9 | Fold it now
The habit: Fold the laundry — all the laundry — as you pull it out of the dryer.
Why it’s important: Dumping your freshly dry clothes into a basket then taking said basket to a second location (say, to the couch) doubles or triples the time it takes you to fold the laundry. Just hang it or fold it as you pull it out of the dryer, then put it directly into the basket for disbursement to drawers and closets. Your clothes will also be wrinkle-free, and Snowball the Cat won’t ever have the chance to curl up on your black knits.
If your laundry room is too small or there isn’t enough surface space to fold, you have my permission to put the clothes into a basket and immediately take them to the bedroom for folding (another reason to have your bed made!). Then, you have the added benefit of already being in the room where they need to end up.
- Yes, folding laundry is boring, so I get why you want to watch TV. Play a YouTube video or Netflix on your smartphone and set it near where you’re folding. Or, play a podcast or listen to music. When the process is more satisfying in the moment, you’re more likely to do it.
- I know I already said this, but when you fold laundry either in the laundry room or in the bedroom where the clothes need to end up, you’re reducing the number of steps and the amount of time the task will take. And that’s a key component of making a habit easy.
10 | Weekly warrior
The habit: Here, you have a choice between two weekly habits.
- 21 Item Toss: If you struggle with clutter and having too much stuff, schedule a block of time once a week to get rid of 21 items. I’m talking easy stuff: dried up pens, that shirt with the hole in it you keep meaning to replace, lid-less Tupperware containers. This is a great way to make decluttering both a habit and a less overwhelming task. Credit: Clutterbug.
- Power Hour: This is one hour a week where you do those naggy things that you’ve been putting off for God-knows-how-long. You know the things: drop off your winter coat at the dry cleaner’s, reattach a button on that one shirt, make your dentist appointment. Keep a list on your phone or on a dry erase board in your kitchen or office where you can jot down these non-urgent tasks as you think of them. Then schedule one hour every week to do as many as you can. Credit: Gretchen Rubin.
Why it’s important: It’s hard to make habits of things you only need to do infrequently. So instead of trying to remember to toss broken or worn out items everyday, or run an errand you only do a couple times a year, make the habit to set aside a block of time to dedicate to whatever needs doing that week.
- Schedule it, and then create a visual reminder on your calendar of choice. If you can’t do it the same time every week, make sure you create an alert on your phone or place a brightly-colored sticky note in your planner so you remember when it’s scheduled for that week. If possible, use habit stacking to tie it in with your current routine (“after I get home from the grocery store on Saturday, I’ll take 15 minutes to toss 21 items”).
- Take advantage of temptation bundling if you need that extra push of motivation. If you love a weekly bubble bath, schedule your weekly power hour prior to wine-and-soak time. Prefer Sunday brunch with the girls? Drop off those library books on the way to the restaurant.
Remember: it’s a marathon, not a sprint
I hope you’re fired up and ready to take back control of your housekeeping. But please don’t try to be an overachiever and do it all at once.
Chances are, you’re already doing one or more of these habits anyway. So just pick one habit – the one you think will have the most impact on your life and your home (or, frankly, the easiest one to fit into your current schedule) and figure out how to best implement it for you!