How I Clean (When I Clean)

organizing my life

So I woke up this beautiful Saturday morning to once again tear maniacally through my house because it is, once again, a trainwreck. This is not a new cycle, nor one that I feel like rehashing here yet again. I do go through long stretches – though, to be honest, they have become shorter and shorter since having a kid – of being very much on top of things and keeping with a routine, and then equally long stretches where trying to keep the mess at bay is like trying to direct the tide (i.e., just as impossible, and with just as high a likelihood of (metaphorically, in my case) drowning).

So what I’ve opted to do instead is to be mindful of my productive days – when my brain seems to be firing on all cylinders, when the fog is cleared, when I can feel myself working well – to be mindful of how I clean. Not only what motivates me and keeps my going, but the actual system of how I clean a room.

Because on my bad days, the tasks feel overwhelming because I have no innate sense of what I should do first – it’s hard to perform triage when everything looks like a crisis to you, you know? So I would, at best, jump around and wind up with a series of half-completed tasks or rooms, or at best, stall out completely.

Instead of continuing to beat myself up about my lack of innate organization, I took the time out to really consider how I work when I work well.

So here are my notes. This is a system to be used in each room of the house, in a hierarchical order, and yes – this is how I’m cleaning my house this fine morning.

Happy Saturday, everyone. Hope it’s pleasant and productive.

The Three C’s: Clear Out, Control Clutter, and Clean

CLEAR OUT: Remove things from the room, in this order.

  1. Trash: I hate to admit it, but full-on legit trash has a tendency to pile up in my house. Wrappers from Bear’s snacks, empty juice box cartons, Amazon boxes and packaging, paper towels from forgotten spills, broken pencils and crayons, etc. The first thing I do is grab a bag and gather up all the trash in the room. PLEASE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAVE KIDS (but really, everyones hould remember): check between couch cushion, under beds, behind furniture, etc. You would be amazed (and horrified) at what I regularly find between the love seat cushions.
  2. Dishes: Neither my husband nor I grew up in a family where we ate all our meals together; everyone was on a different schedule, so we ate at different times and – often – in different rooms of the house. I would like to establish a family dinnertime routine in my house, but we aren’t there yet. Plates – often with food residue – are sometimes left in places where, uh, they really shouldn’t be.
  3. Clothing: Yeah, with a pre-schooler especially, clothing (all clothing, but especially socks and pants) tend to get discarded more or less wherever. I’m also not innocent; shoes come off as a matter of routine as soon as I enter the house, and sometimes so do socks, shawls, over-shirts, hoodies, etc. Meaning when I get around to cleaning, there’s often a decent pile of clothing coming out of my living room, or sometimes even kitchen.
  4. Items That Don’t Belong: As I stated in a previous post, I have a basket/bag on hand that I can load up with whatever ephemera happened to find it’s way into the room as a stop-gap before returning it to it’s rightful place. This consolidates all the misplaced items, making them easier to deal with (It generally take ten or fifteen minutes to just wander through the house returning everything afterwards) and gives me a clear picture of what the actual damage is in that particular room, once all extraneous clutter has been cleared away.

CONTROL CLUTTER: Gather items, sort, and put away, in this order.

  1. Clear off: This is part of the “top to bottom” method. Clear off your surfaces – counter tops, desks, tables, etc., and take care of tasks which can be comfortably performed immediately (i.e., if you’re cleaning off the kitchen counter, load dirty dishes immediately into the sink or dishwasher; if you are cleaning off your desk, immediately put important mail in a prominent place and discard the junk, etc.) All other items can get piled in designated spot (on a sofa, on the floor, on the bed, etc.)
  2. Collect: Collect all out-of-place items (that belong in that room) and add them to the pile of items you’ve begun in the previous step.
  3. Sort: Group items in a way that makes sense to you – by type or purpose (all books together, all DVDs, all toys) or by where they belong (everything going on the bookcase, everything that goes on the side-table, everything that goes in the ottoman, etc.) The actual groupings don’t matter, just that they make sense to you.
  4. Put away: Return the items to where they belong, group by group.

CLEAN: Remove actual dust and dirt, in this order.

  1. Dust: Start with the ceiling, ceiling fan (if you have one – I bet it needs it), top of the windows, walls/wall hanging, , tables/side tables, etc. A quick pass with some Windex on windows and mirrors would come at this step, too.
  2. Clean/polish: As needed; my tub and toilets generally need to be fairly scrubbed, but my coffee table usually needs a good pass with a damp cloth, as does our desk, and occasionally one of our two side tables. You don’t need to go crazy, literally a couple of wipes with a damp cloth to remove sticky residue (especially if it’s a room you eat in), and you’re good.
  3. Vacuum/sweep: Floors and carpets last. Shake out area rugs outside if the weather permits, but inside is fine as well, if you have the space (just do it before general vacuuming).


  1. Always make your bed first. Yes, before anything else. As I said before, it hugely reduces visual clutter and will make your room look better instantly, but also it is the prime place for the “gather and sort” phase, and it’s hard to do when it’s already covered with trash and a mess.
  2. Always do dishes first, for the same reasons you would do the bed first: reduces visual clutter, clears off table and counter space, and makes room to gather and sort.
  3. For you, the clean step may follow directly after the Control Clutter step in each room; for me, as someone who hates lugging around my clean equipment and then having to work around it, I do the first two steps (Clear Out and Control Clutter) in each room and then backtrack and do all the Cleaning through the whole house – that way I can just pack everything up when I’m done and forget about it.

Hope this is helpful to someone. Off to actually get it done.

The Importance of a Routine

organizing my lifeI never really had a morning routine.

There were things I did every morning, sure.  I used the bathroom.  I got dressed.  Sometimes I ate.  But the idea of a routine has an implication of purpose or mindfulness behind it.  It implies thought and intent.  For most of my life, I’ve rolled out of bed at the last possible minute, thrown clothes on, and rushed out the door looking like hell warmed over.  I’d routinely overlook eating a meal, combing my hair, or brushing my teeth.

My rationale for this was I really didn’t get a lot of sleep at the front end of the night; going to bed early was not something I could manage (and often, even when I made it a point to turn in early, I could not usually get to sleep), so I allowed myself to sleep in on the back end, meaning I’d squeeze in an extra hour of sleep, but I’d be running out of the house to start my day unkempt, cotton-mouthed, and still half asleep.

As I got older, I got better about being able to squeeze in slightly more prep into slightly less time; I packed a breakfast to take on the go, and shaved off most of my hair (bye bye, combing!), but it was still literally fifteen minutes between throwing off the sheets and getting into the car.

This year I made it a point to create a night time/morning ritual – you might remember, yes?  Last I updated you, I said it was going “okay,” that I still hadn’t mastered including all the elements, but that it seemed to be an improvement over what I had been doing prior to that point.  Well, I want to re-update you and say, holy hell, I hadn’t realized how much of an improvement it has been, even without all the bells and whistles (still haven’t been able to work in morning pages or exercise).

This morning, my alarm never went off, and because I was keeping with my son in his room (rough night for him), I didn’t wake up with Andy’s alarm either.  Instead, I woke up when Andy came in looking for me at 6:20. And I flipped. the frig. out.  I was running nearly an hour late, and it messed up my entire attitude, and my entire morning.

The weird thing was, it was exactly the time I used to get up prior to instituting my new schedule, and it was a huge wake up call (ha!) as to how significant that extra time in the morning, combined with the prep work I do at night, had become.

Moving my wake up time up by an hour meant an hour in the morning during which I could shower – like, I had time and space to shower, instead of hoping I could squeeze it in at the end of the day, when I was already so loopy and so drained I’d just as often as not forget it.  I could apply makeup, on those days where I felt suited to makeup, and I – even though I made the change to laying out my clothes the night before  as part of this shift – if I had an unexpected, last minute shift in how I felt about my body, I had time to thoughtfully tweak my outfit.  My extra hour gave me time while I showered and dressed to listen to a podcast or two, which meant I got to wake up laughing along with some pretty fun, clever nerds every day.  My extra hour meant I don’t leave the house without brushing my teeth anymore.  I’ve moved to prepping my lunch (when I need it) and my breakfast the night before as part of this routine as well, but my extra hour means I have time to go downstairs and eat it in the comfort of my own home.  It means I forget fewer things, and am more fully awake before I leave the house.  It means I leave the house earlier, and get to spend a little extra time enjoying coffee at my mom’s when we drop Bear off.

I till want to try to work in morning pages (I think including writing in my routine would be so beneficial in so many ways), but I’ve realized that the benefit of establishing the routine is less about exactly what actions I’m able to perform (I can always downsize my makeup routine to make time for morning pages, or eat a quicker breakfast), but that it gives me time to work with, time that I can decide to use as I wish, time in which to just friggin’ breathe.  Time when I’m not running at full kilter, bleary eyed and groggy, out the door.  And that’s when I realized that I didn’t need more activities to add to my morning – I just need to add more time.

Rather than trying to cram your routine with more stuff (exercise can be incorporated later in the day – maybe taking a few laps during lunchtime!), just… give yourself more damn time.  Even if you only get through the essentials, dammit, do it at a leisurely, relaxing pace.  Give yourself that space to breathe.

I’m glad tomorrow is Friday, and I’m hoping to end the week with a distinctly less rude awakening than I was greeted with today.


First the Forest, Now the Trees (an Update)

organizing my lifeI have trouble compartmentalizing my life.  I guess it makes some sense; in some ways, the different threads of my life weave together in a really obvious, organic way.  The state of my home, for instance, affects how stressed I feel, which affects my sleep, which affects my work performance, which affects my feelings of self-worth, etc. etc., but by the same token, struggling slightly or hitting a stumbling block in one area shouldn’t completely waylay my progress in any given other.

But it often does.  This is a continuing issue I need to work on – dusting myself off after a set back, moving forward, and forgiving myself for stumbling.  But it’s also very much an internal struggle that is not the focus of this entry, though I do imagine I will write about it, eventually and possibly extensively.

But right now, I’m still in the early stages of macro-organization: just establishing a routine for the most mundane, bare-bones, most-people-don’t-think-twice-about-these-things aspects of my life.  Checklists to make sure I take a shower, pick out my clothes, brush my teeth, get a good meal in, do my chores, and have a chance to have some creative/restorative time to myself.  As I’ve said before, having to lay out many of those things probably seems ridiculous to some people, but for me, I need to see it written down in black and white and be able to check it off to ensure it gets done.

I used my checklists for the first time today.  It was not a perfect first outing; my “wake up at 5:30” didn’t get checked off (I woke up at 6:05), but hey – I did morning pages.  Nothing, sadly, got checked off under Get Moving, but I glanced at the list – pinned to the fridge – as I prepped breakfast, and I downed a big glass of water to start the day.  And, I remembered everything I needed to bring to work, including earbuds and a book (which I always forget) that made the two hour-plus-long waits that bookend my work shift infinitely more enjoyable.

So, not perfect.  But without those lists?  So much worse.  I’d have been plagued with morning breath, dehydrated, stressed out, and bored, all before one pm.  I’d say Day One was a success, in that, the system works.  The system made my day objectively better.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a whole extensive history there – which, again, I will share eventually – that is not going to be suddenly resolved with schedules and checklists; internal struggles and issues that will take time and support to overcome.

But my usual pitfalls – not being able to “find time” to exercise, not having a plan for any given meal, not having healthy snacks on hand (whether I’m home or out and about), not looking at restaurant menus ahead of time to be informed of options – these are all things that can be, at the very least, helped with some thoughtful planning to create useful resources.

Wish me luck.  I’ve now got an indication that this system is effective, so I’m hopeful.

A Life in Checklists

organizing my lifeI sometimes wonder how well people really understand me when I tell them how easily I get overwhelmed by the day-to-day.

I feel like most of the people I know are sympathetic in a commiserative way; that they feel like they know what I mean, and maybe even feel the same way – the, “hey, we all have busy lives/work hard/have a lot going on!” mentality.

They probably don’t expect that I mean, if I don’t set an alarm to take a shower or brush my teeth, it might not get done that day.  Or that the accumulation of mess/clutter from daily activities will seem to sneak up on me, and then loom suddenly and overwhelmingly, making me feel incredibly anxious, but utterly incapacitated.  Or that performing a multi-step task – even a familiar one, like cooking – sometimes makes my heart race and my skill crawl with impatience and agitation.

Which is why, when considering how to go about bringing order to my life, I had to consider the most basic, most fundamental levels of organization – the checklist.

My friends are over here with cross-referenced planners, digital calendars and mobile apps, elaborate bullet journals with color-coded spreads – and I’m making simple, laminated checklists.  For things like “eat breakfast. Take a shower. Watch a movie.”  Things that apparently integrate seamlessly into other people’s lives.

But not mine.  And I have to accept that – that for whatever reason, this stuff does not come naturally to me.  But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) mean I can’t do it.  It’s a massive waste of energy, feeling bad about how my brain is wired, instead of coming up with scaffolding I can build on to compensate for it’s limitations.

So, some people might think it’s a childish thing to have checklists for such basic stuff.

I’d say it’s a pretty damn mature thing, to go any length to ensure these tasks get done with any regularity.

So, I made some freakin’ checklists.

These are the easiest, most basic things I could think of to start with: routines to give me enough options to not feel trapped, yet not so many to incite choice paralysis, with a focus on developing habit and balance.

I’m still working on my lists for the deep clean I intend to do this month, and from there a more detailed daily/weekly chore chart to keep things in order.  I may do one for meal options as well, since outside of dinner, I’m not currently planning my meals, and always find myself either out of food options, eating utter junk, or simply not eating, and none of those are acceptable options if I’m trying to be healthier.

This is an incredibly busy week, but I’m hoping to eek out time tomorrow and Thursday to write the remaining lists.  I plan to start using these beginning Saturday – I’ll be printing out multiple copies and leaving one in my bedroom, and one in the kitchen (that’s one on each floor of the house, where I start and end my days).

Fingers crossed that these help.  They certainly can’t hurt, right?

Organizing the Chaotic Mind

organizing my lifeI’ve spent the last two and a half hours trying to clean the house.  I can’t say it hasn’t been successful – my living room and kitchen are looking pretty spiffy right now – but it’s taken longer than it would likely have taken most other people, because in the midst of completing one task, I have these intense compulsions to stop whatever I’m doing and start something – anything – else.

While I’m tidying up the kitchen:

I should organize Bear’s busy bins for summer.
Did I ever download that preschool curriculum?
I need to touch up the paint along the baseboards.
I should go out and buy organizers for the cabinets.
I still have to make those worksheets for Bear’s binder.
I have to look up home remedies for carpet stains.
I’ve got to scrub down these walls, I haven’t done that in ages.
When was the last time I washed windows?

While I’m vacuuming the living room:

I should steam clean the upstairs shower.
I need to look up those picture frames I found at WalMart.  Ooh, I should see if RetailMeNot has coupons for them.
Maybe I should order the materials to make those sconces for the wall.
I still need to find floral foam and fake succulents.  I wonder if I can order in bulk from Dollar Tree?
I should get new bins for Bear’s clothes.

And those are at least semi-on task.  A ton of them aren’t even cleaning related:

I should do a shopping haul video.  I think most of my stuff from this week is still in shopping bags.
I’ve gotta start doing mail exchanges again.
I should totally start a bullet journal.
I have a great idea for an art piece I could vlog.
I need to go make more headers for my blog.
I’ve gotta update my social media links.

…and on.  And on.  And the amazing (and frustrating) thing is, after thirty-six years, I still don’t know how to just not listen to those compulsions.  I can, for the most part, resist – but it comes at the cost of temporarily stalling out.  Like the act of pulling myself away from the temptation of distraction is, itself, an act that unbalances me,  knocks me just a little bit off-track, and requires a few moments to re-rail.  Usually this looks like me, sitting on whatever surface my butt settles on, and just staring around the room, trying to remember what I was doing, or what I could do next.  Sometimes it’s grabbing a snack.  Today, it was jumping on here.

The problem is, I don’t have a system for dealing with these intrusive thoughts, and it’s not like they don’t all have some merit.  But I have no system worked out that allows me to address them all – if I think of something and don’t do it immediately, I will put off (or forget) doing it indefinitely.  If I have the motivation and the energy for something one day and don’t jump on it, I will lose momentum and that unfinished task will gnaw at me and drain my mental energy for days or weeks, until I manage to pull myself up again.  I’m not proud of my limitations, but I know them.  I know them very well.  This is living with executive dysfunction.

But, I thought, maybe turning to this blog while I’m trying to recoup isn’t the worst thing to do.  After all, this blog is all about navigating parenthood with a chaotic mind, and the first step to navigating chaos is to impose some sort of order.

And no, it won’t be perfect.  But it’ll give me a structure to work within.

So, while I try to reorder my thoughts and get back to the task at hand, I just want to welcome you to what will be an ongoing series of posts about imposing structure and organization on my life – checklists, schedules, journals, organizational tools – what works, and what doesn’t. 

I might as well utilize what would otherwise be a distraction as a tool, right?  Make it public, hold myself accountable.

It’s a work in progress.  It always is, isn’t it?

Back to the tasks at hand.  One at a time.