Cleaning Hacks from a Reformed Slob
If one of your 2019 goals is to finally tackle your mess, I'm rooting for you
January 4, 2019 at 9:00 am
Let’s get something out of the way: If you’re fairly decent at keeping your space clean/tidy, this piece isn’t for you.
If you can walk into your bedroom and see a majority of the floor, this article isn’t for you, either.
And if tidying up your place never evokes a latent, ashamed certainty that it’s just a matter of time before the whole place looks abysmal again, it’s also not for you!
This one is for the slobs—and specifically, for the slobs who are so fucking tired of being messy.
That used to be me. Having a messy living space was just part of my identity. I was one of those people who waded through piles of clothes and magazines when I walked into my bedroom. I had friends in college tell me my room was the messiest one they’d ever seen. I laughed it off, but deep down, I always wished I could change. I didn’t enjoy living in my mess. And even when I joked about “my nest,” I actually hated letting people see how I lived. But it always felt like a habit I could never escape.
If any of this rings true, I’m happy to report from the other side that change IS possible. Starting with my purge last year, I’ve turned over a new leaf. I’m finally maintaining the neat, clean, pretty space I always wanted for myself. And if I can do it? You can, too.
Here’s how I kissed my old slob-self goodbye. (Disclaimer up front: I realize that for people struggling with hoarding, the situation is completely different, and a professional disposal service is often needed before the issue is surmountable—that wasn’t my situation, so I’m using “slob” to mean “an exceptionally messy person.”)
Make a commitment to change
This “hack” sounds cheesy, but it’s extremely important. You have full control over your mess! It’s just stuff! Decide, right now, that you are going to take control of it. And then keep making that same decision every day. That doesn’t mean you clean up every single day; just that this is an ongoing choice — one that you have the power to make.
Start with a purge and create functional storage spaces
This step is daunting, but it’s an absolute game-changer. You need to be able to neatly store everything you own, which means cleaning out all spaces of useless junk you’ve accumulated over however many years. Put on comfortable clothes and have a water bottle nearby. Resist the temptation to put on music. You’re going to get in the zone. Remember: Your goal for this purge is to get rid of stuff. So, your space isn’t going to start getting cleaner right away, but keep your eyes on that prize. Get some boxes and bags ready for your charity/trash/keep sorting — and do not stop until you are finished. FINISHED means all the charity/trash boxes are no longer in your possession. That’s when the organizing can begin, because you will have given yourself the amazing gift of PLACES TO PUT THINGS.
Marie Kondo’s method is one way to do this, and it’s super famous for a reason. For my own purge, I kept her mantra “Does this bring me joy?” in mind as I cleaned out closets, cabinets, drawers, under the bed, etc. But I veered away from following her method to the letter, as she advises sorting by category (ie, go through all your clothes, then all your books, and so on) rather than going area to area (which is what made sense for me, at least this time!). Find a way to purge that works for you!
One of my old struggles with any type of cleaning was never knowing where to start. I’d look around and feel overwhelmed thinking about how much time it would take. But here’s how you hack this mental obstacle: It’s much easier to start cleaning when you acknowledge that it literally does not matter where you begin. Once you’ve committed to cleaning out old shit you don’t need until the whole space is finished, you can start anywhere. Start with the messiest corner. Or the area closest to you at this very moment. Start by picking up that pink sock. Whatever. You are embarking on a quest. You get to decide which roads to take. They all lead to the same destination.
Your purge will likely consume your free time for several days, but so fucking what? It’s worth it. And, honestly, once you start, it’s totally addictive. You’ll find so much weird shit you forgot you had, and cleaning out those spaces feels GOOD. It’s exciting! You’re finally doing it! During my purge, I would be sitting at work looking forward to the evening, when I could get back to cleaning. It was the total opposite of my old half-assed approach, which involved cleaning as quickly as possible so that I didn’t have to think about it anymore. Accept that it’s going to take a while, vow not to stop until it’s finished, and feel that weight lift off of your shoulders.
Find places for things—ALL the things
Every single thing you own should have a designated spot where it is stored when not in use. The floor is no longer an option. A tidy floor puts your mind at ease, and it’s one of the first things that makes a room look put-together and inviting. If it’s not furniture, a large potted plant, or an electronic device like a fan/lamp, there’s a 99% chance it doesn’t belong on the floor. (Note: Under your bed is a gray area because it’s out of sight; I keep a few storage bins of craft supplies under mine! But if something is so far underneath that you can’t easily reach it and you often forget it’s under there …. are you sure you need it?) This might mean getting creative and storing things in ways you haven’t tried before.
One of my life-long struggles was always with what I considered “in between” clothes. If I had worn a certain t-shirt while out and about all day, for instance, I might not want to stick it back in with the clean t-shirts. But I also didn’t want to throw it in the hamper after one wear, since that’s a waste of water and time. So, my solution would be to just let clothes pile up on my chair, which always got out of control and looked awful. [incorrect buzzer sound] Now, I still have my in-between clothes, but I store them out of sight: I have a series of command hooks on the inside of my closet door (which I can close!), plus a small cushioned bench at the back of the closet where I’m allowed to toss the yoga pants I just wore all day. I know my limits: I’m never going to be a person who neatly folds a garment I’ve just removed after a long day. So, I’ve set up a system where I can succeed at preventing those clothes from becoming a mess.
Develop your own systems. Make it easy for Future You to put things in their logical places, so you’re never holding something and thinking “ugh, I have no idea where to put this.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that nothing will ever stump you again! You’ll eventually get A New Thing that manages to defy all your fine-tuned categories. That’s okay! In your wonderfully clean and tidy space with plenty of storage options, it will be a breeze to decide.
DECORATE your clean space (however you want)
When your space is clean, it’s so much more fun to decorate! It’s way more enjoyable to add things here and there that make you happy. Anytime you have a new item you’re proud to display, you won’t have the sinking feeling that it visually gets lost in your mess—or worse, adds to it.
If it’s been a while since you got serious about cleaning, it’s probably been a while since you gave your place a facelift, too. You can now spend hours browsing wall art on Etsy and Society6, without all of your efforts being in vain. Add life to your walls. Rearrange your bookshelves. Add little touches of your personality all over the place. Browse “home decor” Pinterest boards for inspiration, if you like, and then do your own thing. Get a pretty comforter for your bed. Hang a plant or a suncatcher by a window. See how wonderful it feels to cultivate a space that feels great to be in. Never stop cultivating—there’s nothing wrong with swapping out decor when you want something fresh. The old stuff can go in the (now tidy) closet or off to charity.
Decorating, to me, is a seriously important step for two reasons: First, you’re giving yourself the gift of living in a pleasing, cozy space. Second, this will lay the foundation for your motivation to make the next hack happen. When your space looks beautiful, you won’t want clutter to get in the way of that beauty.
Prevent clutter/messiness from here on out
I’m never going back to the slob lifestyle I used to lead, and a big part of that is an ongoing dedication to maintaining my clean space.
In my messy days, I’d walk into my bedroom and try to ignore the mess. I’d step around it, as usual, and focus on something else. If my eyes wandered around my room, I’d inwardly cringe, but effectively shut out the mess as “background” info.
The good news is that when your place is mostly clean, little messes/issues stand out way more than they did when everything was messy. That means it’s easy to walk in and actively assess what needs to be cleaned. Does that mean you tidy your space every single day? Maybe, but some days that tidying might be as simple as tossing some socks in the hamper.
And at least once per week, take real stock in what you need to clean. I like to do this on Sundays when possible, but it’s also a great thing to do on those restless evenings when you wish you wanted to do something. Cleaning in some way is a simple task (one you can daydream while doing!) with a huge payoff. This doesn’t mean you clean your whole space weekly—you won’t need to. Just actively take in your surroundings and decide what needs attention. Maybe it’s a dust-and-vacuum day. Maybe it’s a get-all-the-clothes-in-the-closet/hamper day. You’ll see the same habits you had in your former life pop up—there are some workout clothes over on my vanity bench right now that I need to put away before bed—but now you’re not letting them get out of control.
Recognize that keeping your space clean is self-care
When you live in a space that makes you feel happy and relaxed when you enter, you’ve given yourself a precious gift. I can only speak for myself, but my old mess gave me exactly the opposite of those feelings.
And if you’re reading this and thinking that I’ve gone from slob to perfect neat freak, that’s far from reality. I still struggle in some ways — I don’t have much cabinet space in the bathroom, for instance, so the counter is still regularly a mess. But it’s a much smaller mess than the old Alicia would have had to deal with.
Keeping your place clean isn’t about being flawless. It’s not even about having guests over. It’s just about taking care of YOU, the person who lives in the space.
Your goals and strategies may be different from mine, but if you want to start living a more tidy life, I see you and believe in you. Nothing in life is permanent, including your mess.
That said, I want to end by acknowledging that there are people out there who do want to live in a cleaner space, but circumstances/health/finances are preventing them from doing so. If that’s you, I hope you’ll do two things right now: First, forgive yourself. You’re doing your best for right now, and though I consider a clean space important, other things are more important and always will be. Second, bookmark this piece for a time in the future when you have the time/energy to be open to it. You are not on my schedule or anyone else’s, and maybe the things I’ve shared above will help you someday.
I’m also going to admit something sorta weird: I know that if I’d read an article like this one 10 years ago, it might not have stuck — because I wasn’t really ready to make a lasting change. If that’s you, too, I get it. But I hope I’ve helped you plant a seed, and that one day, you’ll be ready to start your journey toward a cleaner living space. When you are, know that there are former slobs out there like me who respect and understand the process. You are not alone.
If, on the other hand, you’ve read this far and you’re SO ready to make your mess a thing of the past, I’m rooting for you! Make this your year.