Spend less time cleaning (without spending a dime)

In 168 Hours, I write that if you don’t think something is a top priority for your time, you have three choices. You can ignore it, minimize it, or outsource it.

When it comes to housekeeping, that last option tends to get people up in arms. To be sure, not everyone can afford a cleaning service, though “afford” is a squishy word. Over the past 10 years, the majority of households have found the space in their budgets for personal cell phones, often for multiple household members. When we decide something is a priority, we often have more disposable income than we think.  

But here’s the thing that seldom gets mentioned in the “not everyone can afford a cleaning service” rhetoric. Even if you do have a crew from Merry Maids coming in every two weeks, that leaves a lot of household maintenance to do. If they come on Thursday, you’ll still have dirty dishes on Friday. Someone will need to take the garbage out, do the laundry, empty the dishwasher. How do you spend less time on all those things?

This brings us to the first two categories. Ignore, and minimize. Fortunately, neither of these has to cost a cent!

Ignoring is a vastly underused option. If you are the person in your house who normally does all the cleaning, and you want other people to step up their game, you can try not cleaning and see what happens. Will your teenagers eventually do their own laundry? Will your partner lose at the game of kitchen chicken? You never know. What this exercise often reveals is not that one party has been a selfish and lazy oaf, but that people have different standards for how clean they like their dwellings. Then you have a different problem. Unless one party has a hoarding problem, or there is a question of health or safety, the party with the higher standards is not necessarily right. The question of what a household’s standards ought to be should be discussed as a family, with the goal of avoiding the free-rider problem, but also avoiding judging someone for not ironing the sheets when she doesn’t believe sheets need to be ironed. Once a minimum standard has been agreed to and split accordingly, any party with higher standards is free to do more. But this has to be recognized as a choice.

Another thing to stop doing: tidying up at night so the house will pass some sort of inspection. I’m slightly struggling with this myself. The dishwasher needs to be emptied right now. There are dirty dishes in the sink. And here I am at my computer! But I’m not sure that I’ll have accomplished anything by going to bed with a clean house. These quiet hours after the kids have gone to bed are too precious to be spent washing dishes given that, come tomorrow morning after breakfast, there will be even more dishes, and the marginal cost of doing the extra ones at that time will be less than stopping working and doing them now. So I’m asking myself why I have an urge to go pick things up. Do I think people will judge me? Who? Who will judge you? If you’re picking up because you really, really love a clean house and consider that a high priority in your life, than by all means do it. If it’s for some imagined other, maybe it’s not a good use of time.

When people said to me in interviews “But not everyone can afford a cleaning service,” I always had an answer: it doesn’t cost anything to lower your standards. And it can save you quite a bit of time. We’ve already lowered our standards a lot, from 1965, when married women did about 35 hours per week of housework, to now, when they do less than 20. But even 20 is quite a bit. In the comments earlier this week, Karen argued that the drop is such that “let the housework go” has ceased to be useful time management advice. I think this is a realm where we all have different opinions. I believe it could go lower. Before I found a professional cleaning option I liked this fall, my husband and I had been cleaning our house ourselves for a while. We didn’t spend anything approaching 20 hours per week on it, combined. It’s not that we had neat and clever tricks like you’d see in magazine cover stories. We just didn’t do a lot of things. The house is definitely cleaner now that it’s being, well, cleaned. But life didn’t fall apart when we ignored things either.

Minimizing, though, is an option too. Some items of clothing, like jeans and sweaters, can be reworn. Dishes can be re-used through the day. Everyone has her own cup, and keeps filling that, rather than putting it away and getting another. Make simple meals that only involve a pot or two. Picking up is easier if every room has a bin for extraneous items. Don’t buy rugs or furniture that show dirt. Light wood floors are better than dark wood floors. Buy less stuff. Owning less stuff means that you don’t have as much stuff to put away or to clean. When you’re weighing bringing an object into your life, don’t just look at the cost, look at the lifetime cost of your time needed to maintain it in pristine condition. This often adds on a few bucks (at least).

Give things homes. Come up with simple systems for where things go: mail in one place, shoes in another, dirty clothes in a third. The mail pile may be out of control (see the photo accompanying this post) but at least it’s only out of control in one place.

Ultimately, though, what I have found to be most effective for minimizing cleaning time is  not a specific housekeeping technique. It’s a behavioral change for the housekeeper. Cleaning can expand to fill the available time. If you have less time for housework, then it will take less time. So commit to capping it at maybe a 20-30 minute total on weekdays, done in 5 minute blitzes, and an hour or two on weekends. Set a timer, focus on what you’re doing, and then when the timer goes off, be done. You’ll be more efficient. And probably happier.

How much time do you spend on housework? How much time do others in your house devote to such tasks? 



19 Responses to Spend less time cleaning (without spending a dime)


  1. Calee says:

    I read this post in between doing the dishes, after putting the kids to bed!
    I think we certainly subscribe to the “minimize” philosophy of housework. I would love to have the type of home where people can drop by unannounced and the place is totally welcoming. Unfortunately– I need an hour’s notice, but if I’m honest with myself, an hour really isn’t bad and we don’t really have and “drop by” friends so it’s not like its really a problem.
    The people I know with very clean houses:
    A) Do not work out of them – one or both of the spouses goes to an office every day and if someone is home, they do not work at a paying job
    B) Spend all of their time cleaning up after each activity at home
    C) Have one or more persons in the house who put a high emotional value on having a spotless home.

    We do none of the above. I try to do the dishes each night because it makes the morning go smoother, but none of us are particularly tidy. Thank God for bi-weekly cleaners, but even when we didn’t have a service or they came monthly, we were fine.

    • Laura says:

      I did the dishes this morning while waiting for the pancakes to cook. Much more efficient to do it in between flipping than to take time away from work last night. And yes, I don’t think many people just drop by anymore. There is something appealing about the idea of living in a neighborhood where this happens, but now I’d worry about setting off someone’s alarm system.

  2. Oh, but then anonymous people on the internet say nasty things about you! Personally I think it’s a disease, this need for everything to look like a Better Homes and Gardens catalog. (We have a full-scale deliberately controversial post on this topic coming up in April, I think. We blame the patriarchy.) The only guys I know that have this visceral need for things to be clean have been formally diagnosed with OCD. With women it’s considered normal! I do think that getting comfortable with the idea that the house doesn’t need to be spotless and uncluttered is very difficult for some folks and God Bless my mother for going through the letting go process when I was a child.
    In Casa Grumpy we do regular housework (laundry, dishes, food prep, etc.) together as a family. Just like Carol Channing told us to. http://www.lyricszoo.com/marlo-thomas/housework-carol-channing/ Folding laundry is especially fun to do together.

    • Laura says:

      @Nicoleandmaggie – The homes in Better Homes and Gardens have been professionally styled. The idea that your home should look like that regularly is the equivalent of thinking that your hair and make up should look like your wedding day every day of your life. Not going to happen. I am looking forward to this intriguing April post on the topic!

  3. Linda says:

    This is a topic dear to my heart. I am a perfectionist when it comes to cleaning and I am learning how to ignore and minimize. My dear husband loves to cook and so he does that most nights but he would never notice or care if the vacuuming needed to be done or toilets cleaned. (Kids are away at college so we have an empty nest) I realize I am only cleaning to meet my own high standards but really who cares if the house is dusted every week?(which is what I used to do as a stay at home mom) Now I’m working full time and don’t want to spend every weekend cleaning. I don’t want to hire a cleaner.(My husband says they wouldn’t do it good enough for me!). I’d rather spend that money on a massage! I’ve decided that 10 minutes in the morning on a specific task and then weekly bathroom cleaning and vacuuming is good enough. I’m a work in progress. Your book 168 hours helped a lot.

    • Laura says:

      @Linda- congrats on getting over the dusting fetish ;) I have high hopes that 168 Hours is making for messier homes all over the country. Or the world (I have a few copies of the Korean version on my shelf right now).

  4. Cara Marcano says:

    We have bad colds which we either got from kids this week or are about to give to them .. so my option last night was to crawl in bed with one year old for breastfeeding to bed session, which I love — or go back upstairs to cleanup dinner after a one-year old and 3-year old… (looks like armageddon, yes in that age group! more food on the floor than in their mouths). And baby fell asleep by 9 as did I, hubby ended up cleaning up mess and I am happy… rested and not as sick today as yesterday. If anything this area for me has been easier to outsource or let go than childcare which I do the majorityof more than hubby. a fulll dishwasher is actually a great contribution to the environment as well… so keep dishes in sink until then !

  5. Cara Marcano says:

    another issue to look at is how much housework kids do today versus in the past and what our goal on this as liberated working women is… if kid is over 5, the should be unloading the dishwasher putting away their own toys etc. no reason in a house full of teenagers they can’t do this part .. take out garbage, laundry etc. not sure but would be worth looking at research on this.. my hubby is dead set against allowance but yes the kids should do more so mom does as little as possible in this area. also teaching children to cook and clean is a good life skill. My one year old is no help but my 3 year old we should be doing more to get her to clean up regularly and they can be trained to take off shoes when they come in side etc.

  6. Well, I feel better. My most recent time use analysis had 17 hours a week in this category and that included food prep time which is big in our house since we cook from scratch. I do use a biweekly cleaning service and the bulk of the time I spend “cleaning” house outside the kitchen is the two hours getting ready for the cleaning service. But, that only works out to one hour a week. I can’t imagine spending 20 hours a week on that sort of activity. Suddenly my 17 hours is not looking like such a huge chunk of time!

  7. Twin Mom says:

    Does picking up toys/puzzles count as housekeeping? Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time enforcing the cleaning up of puzzles, toys, etc. (and putting things back on the high shelf where they are kept) From what I hear from moms with large families, kids are not “helpful” until at least 6 (girls) or 7 (boys). My kids (just turned 3, 3, and 5) can help pick up but this is JUST starting to happen without my pointing to each individual block/puzzle piece. Pointing to each individual puzzle piece is NOT a time savings.

  8. ARC says:

    Discovering my toddler could pick stuff up and LIKES it was awesome. Now I sit on the couch and read, and supervise her cleanup while she runs around putting things away :)

    Loading the dishwasher has been the bane of my existence recently, though it actually doesn’t take long. I just need to do it once a day and stop stressing about it.

    Laundry is another thing I just don’t want to do, and having recently read 168 hours I was trying to get a price for someone else to do it but i can’t find anyone where I live :(

    But, we get a cleaning every 2 weeks and I’d give up a LOT before we’d stop having her come in. It also helps us maintain family harmony. :)

  9. Karen A says:

    So, I’m the Karen who argued that this has ceased to be useful time management advice. I guess I meant “for me.” Because when I was talking about letting the housework go, I really meant go. I wasn’t keeping time diaries at the time, but I don’t think I was even spending 2 hours/week on housework (although we did have a once-every-two-weeks cleaning service). When I said I had to increase the amount of time I spent on housework for my own sanity and peace of mind, I roughly doubled it. So, I would estimate that I now spend about 5 hours/week, if that. So yes, definitely, it can go lower than 20. (Twenty sounds like a heck of a lot, in fact. I’m not sure I know anyone who does 20.) But I still maintain that there is a point below which it just doesn’t work any more.

    • Laura says:

      @Karen – ok, I grant you that two hours is probably that point! The 20 (which is rough, I didn’t look up the study, just from memory) is for all women. It’s lower for women who are in the workforce full time. I think it also includes food prep, so it’s “housekeeping” not just cleaning. I’ll have to look up the exact numbers and report back.

      • Karen A. says:

        I now tend to approach this issue as “what is the minimal amount of housework I need to do to stay in the loop?” If I never do any of the kids’ laundry, for example, I am always behind in knowing what they need. And there’s also that sinking feeling when you walk into one of your kids’ rooms and wonder, “what’s that smell,” and realize you can’t remember the last time the sheets were changed (or, even worse, you do remember).

        I guess I could just wait for them to tell me, but my 8-yo just doesn’t care and wears whatever is on top in the drawer, and my 12-yo tells me only when there’s a crisis, so that approach ends up involving either 1) taking a good look at your child and realizing that he is wearing a stained T-shirt, jeans with a hole in the knee and that don’t cover his ankles, and scruffy sneakers; 2) unplanned emergency trips to the mall or wherever to get your child something to wear; or both. I especially hate #2, because it wastes a lot of time relative to anticipating your child’s needs and planning a trip combined with other shopping needs.

        For me, it takes doing the kids’ laundry about once every 2-3 weeks to just keep on top of their current wardrobe state. And that laundry day also provides a reminder to check on the state of sheet and towel and bathroom throw rug washing throughout the house. I can delegate and outsource up until that point, but I need to keep my hand in a little bit.

        • We let my 5 year old look as scruffy as he wants to. An unplanned emergency clothing trip isn’t going to happen– DC would just have to make-do with whatever was on hand no matter how silly until we could do a planned trip. Either it isn’t really that important or it becomes a learning experience.

          • (That said, we do laundry as a family at least once a week– it is a fun bonding activity. You can catch up with each other’s weeks while folding. And with front-loaders my 5 year old is almost able to do a load by himself.)

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  11. Carrie says:

    I haven’t finished my first weekly time log, so I’m not sure how much time I spend cleaning yet. But I “outsource” by requiring my kids to do chores. (They get allowances too. Work, get paid.) The help is so significant that when they go off to spend the night at Grandma’s, I feel a huge burden!

    My mom told me today that her new baby gift to me (I’m 22 weeks pregnant with #7) is a maid service. I almost peed my pants with happiness. LOL!

    • Laura says:

      What an awesome baby gift! Definitely beats more onesies. Which I’m guessing you have *plenty* of.