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Home Rule

Cleaning Helps Control Clutter

January 08, 1987|BONNIE McCULLOUGH

It's time for a success story. There are rewards for being organized. You can experience progress even if you only apply the beginning phases of order.

This story began last spring when a friend's husband bought my consulting services at a charity auction. This man, who helps with household chores, was desperate to motivate his wife to do some more housework. She worked four 10-hour days every week. When she was home, she was easily enticed to abandon cleaning. This friend--I'll call her Carol--is right-brain dominant: very creative and extremely compassionate. She doesn't like have-to's, especially time-consuming ones.

It was four months before we sat down to a consulting session because Carol kept postponing the appointments. As we shared a cup of tea, I said: "You work so hard at your job all week, you can't bear to stay home on your day off and slave in this house; so little time, so many things you'd like to do. Cleaning is last, right?"

Carol was clinging to some of the old behaviors of a full-time homemaker. She was trying to cram all the former activities (social, volunteer and creative projects) into her three days off. When a big change comes into your life . . . job, baby or sickness . . . you have to cut back on these other activities.

Second, Carol's unspoken philosophy was "I won't do anything until I have time to do it all." During the former at-home days there were plenty of opportunities for a six-hour cleaning. Now, during the week, if Carol notices that the refrigerator needs to be wiped out or a mirror is splattered, she says to herself, "I'll do that Thursday when I have the whole day off." But when Thursday arrives, she can't bear to spend her only free time slaving on the house.

There is an answer. A few minutes of housekeeping every day will save Carol from the long marathons. My definition of housekeeping is to keep the house from getting worse. Every room needs a little daily attention, just as you have to set out water and food for pets to keep them alive.

I challenged Carol to invest 30 minutes of care before leaving for work. I told her to: "Take 10 minutes in the bedroom to make the bed and pick up things. Work as fast as you can. Set a timer if you need to. Take care of the big things that show the most. Use the second 10 minutes to straighten the bathroom. Rinse out the sink and polish the chrome handles. You can even put away the makeup and hair supplies while you brush your teeth. Use the final 10 minutes in the kitchen to wipe off counters and stash dirty dishes in the dishwasher."

I promised Carol that this little investment would have tremendous benefits. People are influenced by environmental impressions. If she and her husband restore the general image of tidiness, it will give them a calm sense of freedom to either rest to begin their evening projects.

On the other hand, when they walk into a messy house, a feeling of overwhelming hopelessness takes over. Instead of relief, they feel exhausted. They are depressed with so much to do; they hate going home. They blame each other and tempers flair. And all it takes are a few minutes here and there to create that image of neatness. If they do this for several days in a row, the place keeps getting better and better.

For example, by making the bed, the bedroom is already 80% better. The next suggestion is to never let clothes touch the floor. If they are clean, put them away while in hand; if dirty, toss them into the hamper.

As we walked through Carol's house, she explained that she used the closet in the guest bedroom for her clothes and that she normally dresses in that room. I asked, "Why are your clothes on the floor; don't you have a hamper?" She told me it was in the other bedroom. "Carol, you obviously need one in here, too."

The guest bedroom also looked sloppy because the bedcovers were in a heap on the mattress. Company had left two weeks before, but neither she nor her husband had taken time to make up the bed. We calculated that it would take about 20 minutes to put on clean sheets. Why not invest that time the day after company leaves instead of an hour before the next guests arrive? To do it early is working smarter.

The next week, Carol grabbed me at church and gave me a hug. "It works. I didn't have to stay home on my day off. I bought a timer and made myself stay in each room 10 minutes. It's so easy; why didn't I know this before?"

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