By Julia Pantoga
The first point I’ll make about housework is that it TAKES TIME. Even I, a person who keeps a far-from-immaculate house, lives alone and hires a cleaning service to take care of my floors and bathroom, plan for at least ¾ hour of housework a day. That’s how long it takes me to make my bed, load and unload the dishwasher, wash my knives and pans, wipe the kitchen counters, sweep my floors and pick up the clutter that has accumulated from the previous day. I used imagine that people with clean houses kept them that way effortlessly. Now I know that is pure fantasy.
My mother’s house is very, very neat and clean; which I always envied. Then I broke my ankle last spring and spent six weeks sitting in her living room watching how she and her husband really live. I was shocked to realize that they spend about the same amount of time each week that I do on housework. They clean up promptly and completely after each meal; they pick up the house everyday after work; and every Saturday morning they sort the accumulated mail and magazines of the week. I thought that neat houses happened magically for people who were organized and always put things away; I was wrong.
As I see it, there are only three ways to have a neat house:
1. Don’t live in your house. Eat all your meals out. Always shower and dress at the gym. Never have people over; entertain only in public places that other people keep clean. Have your mail delivered to a post office box and never, ever bring it into your house.
2. Clean-as-you-go. Always, always, always, pick up and put away everything you use. As soon as you finish eating, thoroughly clean the kitchen. Open all of your mail everyday over a waste basket. Make your bed as soon as you wake up. Unpack as soon as you get home.
3. Schedule time for housework everyday. This is what I do and the time that I’ve scheduled is in the morning. I try not to leave the house for the day unless it is reasonably neat.
This list assumes that you schedule separate time for cleaning the house. I hire that out, and I know that seems terribly indulgent of me to some, but I don’t care and I highly recommend it. For one thing, it forces me to do a thorough job of picking up every two weeks. It also means that every two weeks, my whole house is tidy and clean. When I’ve done my cleaning myself, the whole house was never clean. One week, the bathroom was clean. The next week, the bookshelves were dusted, but the bathroom was starting to get dirty. The next week the kitchen floor was clean, but the bathroom floor wasn’t.
Well, anyhow, if you clean your house yourself (which I think is kind of crazy), you need to schedule separate time to do that, apart from daily housework.
Between cleanings, there are tricks to making your home look tidier than it is. Along with my tips, I’ve included some actual photos from my house, which is actually quite small and filled with “stuff.” That way, you’ll know that I’m talking about a real house, with real storage and cleaning issues.
1. Make sure that the first area people see when they walk in your house is neat. In my house, the first thing you see is a corner of my kitchen where I keep my plastic bags and onions. As you can see from the photo, this is not the loveliest corner of my house, but it is organized, and I do my best to keep it tidy.
2. Keep counters and your stovetop clean. You’d be surprised at how people assume you are tidier than you are if you always keep your stovetop clean. And, even just coffee grounds or crumbs from your breakfast toast on your counter will make your kitchen look unkempt. Remember, if it’s at eye level it’s going to be seen and registered, even if only subconsciously. Likewise, you can get away with a sink full of dirty dishes if your stovetop and counters are clean.
3. Make your bed. It is truly amazing how much cleaner your bedroom looks when the bed is made. You get extra housekeeping points if your bedroom is adjacent to a living space and you can keep the door open to remind visitors of just how very neat you are. This is the view of my bed, as you walk from my kitchen to my living room:
When you keep your house looking neat, you will find that the neatness picks up momentum. Not only do you become more conscious of putting things away, people who visit your home will keep your home neater too. When my kitchen floor was always lined with unpacked groceries and my kitchen table was cluttered with books and the week’s mail, my friends would tromp snowy mud into my house without a second thought that muddy boot prints on my carpet might bother me. Now, friends who walk into my house often offer to take their shoes off at the door and I get to say something hospitable like, “Don’t bother; I’m just happy that you’re here.”
The biggest advantage to keeping your house neat, hands down, is how it makes you feel. When you are tidying up, you become aware of how lucky you are to have the possessions that you do. When you need something, you know where it is. When it is time to relax, you are not looking at something undone. One friend summed it up best for me when I was commenting about how much time and effort it takes to keep my house neat and she said simply, “Order = calm.”
(Editor’s note: For more on the real-person clean home, visit ApartmentTherapy.com.)