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?