March 27th, 2008

Help with Housework

Elizabeth wrote a bit about the rhythms of housework and has inspired me to share some thoughts on something that came up in last week’s Coffee Talk.

Some of you asked “How on earth do you handle all the housework?” while others of you hoped I would be so kind as to post pictures of the inside of my messy house. Well, I was crazy enough to do that once — in a Faith & Family article about spring cleaning a few springs ago. Don’t hold your breath for another messy photo shoot anytime soon, though.

Not because my home is eternally immaculate — it’s not. It’s very much a lived-in, worked-in, homeschooled-in, small-children-live-here kind of home. But it’s not neglected either. We do handle basic things like meals, laundry, dishes, and clutter on a regular basis. On the whole, I think we do a pretty good job of keeping our heads above water.

Notice I say “we.” That’s because I do require basic household help from my kids. I know, I know … I already told you all about how much I hate chore charts. But this January, I gave in. I found that I was going nuts trying to keep up with some basic small stuff around here that my kids would readily do and should be learning to do anyway … if I only required it of them.

So I came up with my own simple rotating chore chart that made sense to me. I enforce it a minimum of four days a week (mostly to keep us on track on our heavier schooling days — Monday through Thursday). I also made up a separate list of the steps involved in some of the more complicated chores so that there would be no excuses for anyone skipping steps or cutting corners. In case any of you are dying to see my simple chore chart, I published it for you here.

But enough about kid chores. I also want to share some general principles for those of you moms who write to me in desperation because you truly do struggle with keeping on top of housework. For those of you who are drowning, frustrated, or entirely unmotivated, I would encourage you to keep in mind the following:

1. Just do it.

It might sound silly and Nike-ad-like, but it really is that simple sometimes. There’s no way around it — we all have to do unpleasant things sometimes. If we just do it, it will get done, our homes will run more smoothly, and we can get on with the fun stuff. If we whine about it, ignore it, cry about it, dread it, and put it off, not only doesn’t it get done, but we make ourselves (and possibly our families) miserable in the meantime.

The next time you do your most dreaded chore — whether it be folding laundry, scrubbing the toilet, or cleaning out the refrigerator — time yourself. I guarantee you will be surprised at how little time it actually takes to complete the dreaded chore when you finally focus. Personally, I am embarrassed to admit the amount of time I have wasted over the years thinking about and putting off changing bed sheets when the doing of the actual job winds up costing me only about 15 minutes. I don’t know about you, but I can do pretty much anything for 15 minutes.

2. Mix it up.

Throughout your day, try alternating jobs you hate with ones you don’t mind so much. This will keep you moving along while preventing you from feeling like a slaving Cinderella. When I am pregnant, it is out of necessity that I alternate standing jobs and sitting jobs — I just can’t be on my feet all day long. As a result, through the years, I have learned to relish quiet moments of folding laundry or organizing a bookcase for the few minutes’ rest they afford me. I alternate these with more active jobs like cleaning the bathroom or standing at the sink.

3. Change your attitude.

Why are you doing housework? Is it for your family? For your neighbors? For your mother-in-law? Try this: Do it for yourself.

Don’t laugh at me, but I consider getting my laundry done every day — all the way down to putting clean clothes away in drawers and/or closets a gift I give myself. Whatever else is going on in the world, if I am on top of the laundry, I feel like my life is in order. Having that very real sense of accomplishment is what motivates me to see the job all the way through to completion. I think, Do I want to have an unfolded pile of laundry greet me in the bedroom when I finally go to bed tonight? No, I don’t. So, even if I need to enlist help along the way, I get it done. For me. Your key job might not be laundry, but it might clutter control or vacuuming or washing dishes. Get it done. For you.

4. Make good use of your time.

About ten years ago, I read Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life. I heartily recommend it to anyone who struggles with organization. While I don’t follow all of the book’s advice to the letter, some of the basic ideas about home organization have stayed with me through the years. One thing I remember clearly is what Deniece wrote about laundry. Her line was something like, “Don’t let your laundry machines stand there laughing at you while you sort clothes!” She meant to begin by throwing a load of towels or jeans in so that something is being accomplished while you’re standing there preparing the rest of the laundry.

Don’t walk around your house doing random things in random order — make efficient use of your time. Think about the order in which you do things. With the help of your modern appliances, you can come up with simple ways of doing many things at once: You can move a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer, put another load in the washer, and clear your sink and start your dishwasher before you vacuum the living room. Then, while you are vacuuming, you are also washing clothes, drying clothes, and doing the dishes — sweet!

5. Bribe yourself as necessary.

If you truly are unmotivated, motivate yourself. I love to listen to certain podcasts, but I don’t let myself use my iPod unless I am working out or cleaning the bathroom. It makes these tasks infinitely more appealing and ensures they get done on a regular basis. I also sometimes plan to do a brainless chore, like sorting through a closet or cabinet, while I chat on the phone with a friend. For really big jobs, you can promise yourself a bigger reward — like an evening out with your husband or a new haircut when the dreaded thing is done. Whatever works. Just do it. Which brings us back to the start of my list …

Your turn!

26 comments to Help with Housework

  • Mel

    Let yourself read blogs between chores! lol….
    I am on a 15 minute “give me 33 weeks pregnant back a break” after hauling laundry to the laundry room, getting it all sorted and started, and loading the dishwasher. And I love that you pointed out how my appliances are still working for me while I take a break.

    Lest I sound too on the ball, I should point out that I am trying to dig out from under a rather undisciplined week where everything has fallen behind. I struggle with housework and clutter tremendously. For me, I know it is just a self-discipline issue, no other excuses for it. I don’t like to do it, and so I often procrastinate it. I’m good at making a plan, and on weeks where I am motivated and disciplined things go smoothly. And then, there’s this week…..

    But I think our family is just now to the size where it is officially *way* more work to dig out from under than it is to keep it under control. In fact, it is near impossible to catch up when things get out of control! So, this increases my motivation to stay on top of things. 🙂

  • Amy S.

    Chocolate. If I finish putting away the dishes, I get a treat from my Easter basket. The pile of laundry actually gets put away in the drawers, a treat. I know I’m going to eat the chocolate anyway, so I might as well “earn” it. I’m so pathetic.

  • I am in the middle of sorting all of this out like everyone else and have come to many of the same conclusions. My biggest challenge is #4. I spend too much time trying to figure out what the most efficient use of my time and energy is that I end up neglecting things. There is also that perfectionist voice (usually my mother’s) saying “if you are going to do a job, then do it RIGHT! That is why #1 is so important. Sometimes I have to stuff a mismatched sock in that voice’s mouth and just do it. Half done is some done as opposed to none done!

  • I read the companion book A Happily Organized Family and found the relief from clutter gave me so much free time it was completely foreign to me. She mentioned simply asking yourself, “Why?” Why can’t I find that? Why is wed harder than the rest of the week? Why is that room always messier? Once I questioned how me were doing things and made each object earn a place in our home there was less to clean.

    Of course with 9 people the clutter keeps walking back in so you need to stay after it.

    My worst culprit is the desk. It handles finances, computer school work, work to be corrected, parish work, the newsletter, our calendar, mail etc. It does not work for me. I know ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ but if I’m the one to spend most of the time at the desk at some point it needs to work for me.

  • Monica

    Keeping up. That’s the secret I learned. If I keep up with things as I go, things don’t get to be such a mess.

    For example, if I clean the bathrooms once a week (on their assigned day), then I don’t have a particularly difficult bathroom-cleaning…it’s pretty easy to clean them, since they’ve been cleaned a week before.

    If I do the lunch dishes and wipe the counters immediately after lunch, there will not be a mess to greet me at dinnertime. If I do this after dinnertime, the morning will be easier.

    If the kids and I clean up their play areas daily, I never (well, not often, at least!) get to the point that the toys are overwhelming the house.

    Also, getting rid of stuff. Clutter, toys that are never used, dishes that are never used, extra things that make it difficult to get stuff into linen or clothes closets — these all have to go in order to make my job easier.

    I’ve had a pretty boot-camp-like experience with keeping a spotless house recently, since our house is on the market and has been for 7 weeks. I find that keeping up is the *only* way I can maintain my sanity.

  • I hate clutter. I’m not very good at dealing with it, so I’ve found my best tactic is to avoid it in the first place. I don’t buy stuff anymore! Unless we specifically need it or I know there’s room for it when I get it home, it stays out of the cart. In the long run, this should help the wallet as well.

    All toys are kept in baskets, so clean up is easy and quick — the kids can help (though my 18 month old daughter thinks it’s a game that is supposed to end by dumping the basket at the end).

    Vacuuming and mopping just don’t always get done. My husband and I are learning to live with it. I count my day a success if the dishes and laundry are done (or running).

  • I made myself a Housecleaning retreat for Holy Week Spring Cleaning. ( Getting heavenly merit makes for good incentive!

  • I was watching Oprah one morning at 3am while nursing, and her guest actually had a deep insight:

    NEVER walk form one room to another without picking up one thing and putting it in place.

    So, as I walk from the living room to the kitchen, I just grab a sippy-cup that needs washing or stick a magazine back in the rack or fold one blanket. It’s now a habit, so that if there’s nothing out of place… well, I feel out of place.

    My one debt (?) to Oprah.

  • I’m a convert to the faith. For me, the hardest thing about stay-at-home mothering was overcoming my complete dread of housework. I grew up with the whole Betty Freidan “housework” is completely stupid & oppressive way of thinking. This has left me with next to zero practical skills and far to much tendancy to whine (why do I have to be the one to always empty the dishwasher?)

    The book that helped me see that housework is an expression of love is “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House” by Cheryl Mendelson. This is the one source book of “how to” which is completer as it is gentle.

    Now I’m excited to try out the Devotion to St. Anne while doing my Spring Cleaning this month!

  • Jennifer

    I enjoy housework and find great comfort and peace in living in an orderly fashion. My biggest challenge, however, is Sunday morning when we go to Mass. I’m always running around making beds and tidying up the kitchen and then I don’t give myself enough time to get ready. I try and say that Sundays are a day of rest and I should let it go, but then I think about coming home from church to a messy kitchen and I can’t do it. I do try not to do any laundry on Sundays, which leaves Monday a huge laundry day.

  • Regina

    I try to keep in mind what my mission is, and whether or not a task is “mission critical” or not. (Notice, I’ve borrowed my husband’s habit of Star Trek jargon to make my point)

    So for example, on Sunday morning we go to 9am Mass. That means that beds stay unmade, breakfast dishes wait, and we just get ready. I frequently ask myself, as I pick up a bunch of toys off the stairway, “Does this task have anything to do with getting out the door to Mass?”

    On the other hand, if your mission is “Get school work done,” then clearing off the dining room table and establishing order there is “mission critical.” But the toys in the living room can wait, and although the dryer just let out a loud “Honk!” of being done, that will have to wait too. Not “mission critical.”

  • Joan

    YOGA. Yes, yoga class is my reward for doing things I should do around the house. I am sooo sore tonight from doing a TON of decluttering in my yard yesterday, (60 degrees here on Staten Island, NY), and cleaning out my bedroom today. I have 10 bags of clothes to give away, most of which are outgrown by my boys and a ton of mine which dont’ fit anymore, they are all too BIG. YEAH! I am so looking forward to Restorative Yoga tonight, my sore body really needs it!
    Oh BTW Danielle, I hear bits and pieces of Flylady advice mixed in here! I didn’t listen to her today though, I pulled out way too much stuff and it took me hours to sort it all through. That’ s the best way to do it sometimes though.

  • These are great tips — I just added that book to my wish list.

    One thing that has been nothing short of life-changing for me is to break my day into segments with the Liturgy of the Hours — each major hour is an indicator that one part of the day is coming to a close and another is beginning (I’ve been blogging about it a lot, here is one post about it if you have any interest).

    It’s provided my life with a great work/rest rhythm. And by having to have certain types of activities wrapped by the time, say, Vespers rolls around, it helps me keep my energy level high because I know that I won’t be puttering around indefinitely into the night to get it all done.

    Great topic!

  • Dani

    I’ve never read a book on home organization, etc, but I intend to…
    Meanwhile, I’ve taken a page from Ma Ingalls and women of earlier generations who had assigned chores on assigned days…So each day gets a big chore (which takes about 20 minutes, really…), and then I have things that get done daily (dishes, laundry…) and our family tidy time when I set the timer for 10 minutes (usually before lunch and before dinner) and everyone works fast and furious to corral clutter, etc before the timer goes off. Then we have a little celebration dance over how well we did and everyone gets a chocolate chip or 2 for a treat…Mom included! I love to use the timer for chores for myself and the kids. It helps to keep it focused and to know that it will be over in only 10 minutes. Helps me fly through the dishes or the scrubbing of the bathroom!

  • GB

    Hello 🙂 I must say that for me, and maybe for other (all?) mothers with only very young children, the problem is not so much dreading housework – it’s to find the right moment to do it, without creating bigger disasters… For instance, my kids really hate the vacuum (the noise AND the sight!) So, when do I vacuum, since I’m home alone until dinner time? When do I clean the bathroom without two way-too-curious young toddlers in toe, ready for trouble? My husband and I ended up with him taking the children out on Saturdays afternoon, but we hate it, because then we’re not together… That said, ok, I’ll admit, I really really hate dusting the shelves 🙂
    Kansas Mom, lol, my children have the same idea of what it means to put toys away (for us it’s the “Everything Goes Back” game, which regularly ends up with toys and blocks exactly where they where before… all over the place:-) )

  • Sarah L.

    For those that struggle with motivation (like me), try inviting company over every couple of weeks. Sometimes it may be just my parents, but I do have my pride, so I try to get the house in shape for company. The night before company comes my husband and I go into overdrive after the kids go to bed and tackle all the major cleaning that doesn’t get done much, like dusting knicknacks and scrubbing the floors on hands and knees. Our house looked great for Easter company and I’ve been enjoying it for a few days after, too.

  • Michelle

    I got this idea from a homeschool conference and it works great for family of 9 (kids are infant to 13). Each of the oldest 3 are assigned 2 rooms to straighten daily (no cleaning – just removing the accumulations), the 4 and 6 year old each have a small job that I need to direct. It’s put an end to clutter and when it’s time to clean we can clean without first putting everything away! Also, I don’t argue about the kids doing the work anymore. If it’s not done by 4:00 (and it takes them only about 15 minutes) then they have automatically “hired” someone else to do it and the one who neglected their duty pays.

    I agree about the desk issue though…it serves so many functions and so many people (kids using the computer for school work too) that it constantly frustrates me. And with bills, etc. getting buried I need to be the one to clean it up. I’m sure I just don’t have it organized quite right yet……….

  • Kim F.

    Sarah L. I do the same thing! I’ve actually told people that I want to have them over because I need to clean my house. They usually think I’m kidding. The one area that gets neglected though, especially with that method, is my master bath. I usually shower without my contact lenses in…what I can’t see can’t hurt me, right?

  • Elizabeth

    I’ve found the book “Sink Reflections” by the FlyLady to be a life saver. I am lazy when it comes to housework and while I never leave it dirty it is often messy. The first thing I have done to make cleaning easier is to get rid of extra clothing that we never wear and toys we never use. Now I am able to put all the laundry away without having to stuff it in overstuffed drawers and I am not constantly picking up toys that were thrown out of the toybox to reach something at the bottom. I have also started a weekly cleaning system. When I say “started” I mean I have only set up one chore for one day and once I get used to that routine I will add more days and chores. RIght now I do things when they need to be done but I think daily maintanance is the better way to go so things don’t pile up. Laundry and dishes are done each day (though I rarely hit the last of the laundry in the hamper) but Friday I have set up for my big bathroom cleaning and mopping day. It is nice to get the whole bathroom completely clean and the kitchen and bathroom floors mopped each week and know that they will stay fairly clean until the next Friday.

  • Jen

    With little kids, sometimes that’s when a baby gate comes in handy or a special set of toys. When I would clean the bathroom, I would put the babygate up to keep them out. (Still use it occasionally b/c of the nosy dog. With vacuuming, maybe if you had a special set of toys that only came out when you vacuumed and they played with them in a different room than where you are, it might turn into a treat.

  • Dani

    GB, I was checking back this morning to see if there were any more book suggestions and I saw your post. I, too, have all littles and, yes, it can be a challenge. For the bathroom, someone once gave me a suggestion that I’ve found invaluable…clean the bathroom while you’re supervising bath time. While the kids splash, you scrub! Then after they get out of the bath, daddy does pj duty while you do the tub…Also, I started involving my kids in household chores when they were about 15 months. When they are very young, they want to be a part of it all, and they quickly gain in skills. Plus, it isn’t a struggle then to get them to do work as they get older. When I dust, I give each of my kids (21 mos and 4 yrs.) their own Swiffer duster to help. When I clean windows, I use vinegar and water, and they love to wipe it off…I just have them do the window in front of me, so when we all shift down, I’m redoing their window…When I do laundry, I put the wet clothes into a laundry basket and the kids put them into the dryer while I sort and start another load. I found when my oldest was around 15 months, I started to feel he was “under foot” while I was trying to get things done, so rather than struggle against his wanting to be right where I was doing what I was doing, I started to find ways to incorporate him into my cleaning, and it’s worked great. True, there are things I can’t do with “help,” but it’s much easier to steal a few minutes for these things when dad is home if everything else gets done during the day.(that includes vacuuming for us, too, since my kids also abhor the vac….)

  • Sundays:
    We used to be part of a prayer group that read The Lord’s Day grace every Saturday night (Catholic version of shabat.) It motivated us to get LOTS done on Friday and Saturday. If the house is in bad shape Sunday– go out! Visit the elderly, take a family walk indulge in a movie.

    Yes Moday was filled with laundry, but I did catch the Sun. Coffee Hour cocoa stains. Since my house was already a mess that was when we did the messy part of school. The kids did art at the dining room table while I worked from the top down, checking after each chore.

    Smart Moms: my mom gave all 7 of us a Welcome mat for Christmas last year that says: The house was clean yesterday. Sorry you missed it.
    The best guests don’t care what your house looks like. So for motivation invited someone other than your best friend ; )

  • freddy

    This has been a joy to read!
    In our house the older ones are responsible for their rooms plus other chores. They earn holy cards for each job well done, and can turn them in at the end of the week for movies or computer game time. It’s a new idea this year, and working pretty well, except for the mild insanity induced by “bargaining.” (“If I do an extra-good job, do I get extra cards?” “It’s Friday and I didn’t earn any cards yet, what jobs are left?” “He did my job that I was just thinking about doing! You should give us both cards!”)

    I actually enjoy most housework (though you wouldn’t know it to look at my house!) except dusting. Just can’t get the hang of dusting. My main problem is finding the time — between cooking, schooling, and chasing the baby — to do some of the “deep cleaning/clean out” stuff I long to do. But there are some super ideas up there, thanks!

  • Mom of 4

    Great suggestions here! Danielle, I totally agree with you about the Deniece Schofield books. The two things that have helped the most are sticking to my schedule and staying on top of the clutter.

    For Lent this year, I tried something new. We have a 3-floor house (2 floors plus a basement, actually), so I tackled one floor every two weeks to slowly and carefully deep clean and declutter. If that isn’t penance, I don’t know what is! LOL On all but the most insane days, I tried to accomplish *something*, even if it was just de-cluttering one small area. Anything nice enough to be donated went into a pile which ARC came and picked up shortly before Easter.

    Even though I’m not bad about accumulating clutter, it’s still amazing how stuff collects. I managed to greatly improve some of our worst hot spots, and now it feels like I can BREATHE in here again!

  • There is the military motivation: you have yet another PCS move and the packers will pack your clutter and trash unless you dispose of it now. (I start this one 2 months in advance since I know where the dump is and then there is less chance of going over our weight limit)

    There is the babysitter motivation: every teen in your neighborhood will know your house is a war zone unless you tidy up and do the dishes before she arrives. (I take an hour to run each afternoon, but run faster the 10 minutes before she walks in the door)

    There is also the husband motivation: “Did you let the kids run wild and unsupervised all day if it looks like this? (We have a massive “clean up time!” when he calls to say he is driving home)

    But the best is the personal satisfaction motivation: You want to have some peace and order in your life and some days that comes from having a clean bathroom. For 15 minutes, ’cause that’s all you get.

    Happy decluttering and cleaning, today I’m doing the bathrooms and vacuuming.

  • Busy Mom

    One thing no one mentioned was to hire some help now & then. For years when my 5 children were really, really little (4 in under 4 years) I had a cleaner come in once a week, and then after a year, every two weeks and then finally once a month. It was a budget stretcher but a marriage saver. I no longer have regular help (I have more time since I’m not homeschooling currently) but will use a service if illness has struck and we are really behind. I also highly recommend a laundry service. Again, I rarely use this service, but when you need it, it can be a Godsend. It’s helpful after a family vacation, if your house is for sale, new baby and/or something has disruptive your routine. Basically, you drop off your dirty clothes at the laundromat and they sort/wash/fold, and you pick it up later that day. You pay by the pound (In the Chicago area it’s around $1.25/pound). When I use this service I remove all the towels, jeans and sweatshirts (the heaviest items) and leave the rest with the service. Be careful though – it can be addictive!