7 ways to spend less time doing housework (even if you don’t have a tiny house)

I loved the reactions to last week’s guest posts from Elisabeth Sharp McKetta and James Stead about their tiny house adventures. They wrote that having a very small house allowed them to spend time and money on other things: hobbies, travel, etc.

They are both minimalists and are temperamentally drawn to the small home concept. Stead even wrote of living in his Suburu at one point in life.

Some of us, on the other hand, like our space. More than a Suburu’s worth of space!

Alas, it generally follows that bigger homes do consume more time. Things must be cleaned and maintained. That said, even if you don’t want to live in a Suburu, there are ways to keep a not-so-small house from eating all of your time. Some of my favorite:

1. Care less. It costs money to outsource household chores, but it doesn’t cost anything to lower your standards! This is also the quickest way to achieve partner chore equality, a major point of contention in some households. If Party A spends more time on housework than Party B, equilibrium can be reached by Party B electing to do more. It can also be reached by Party A electing to do less.

One of these is much easier to achieve than the other.

In all seriousness, if you are the sort of person for whom “outer order leads to inner calm,” then you might need to create the equivalent of a tiny house: a sanctuary for yourself in one room that is pristine, with you making a conscious decision not to care so much about the rest of the house. Shut the door. Pretend the rest of your square footage doesn’t exist.

2. Set a time. Like email, housework can expand to fill all available space. You can guard against that by assigning a time limit to chores to force prioritization. For instance, you decide you will clean the house for 90 minutes on the weekend (ideally with all family members participating). If a given chore does not happen during that window, it was probably not critical. You could set a smaller window during the week (e.g. 20 minutes after dinner when different people are assigned to dishes, straightening up, etc.). Same thing for yard work. If you enjoy it, great. If not, set a timer and do what you can, so you don’t wind up spending your life weeding in spurts of three weeds at a time.

3. Make less mess. Easier said than done, right? You can’t keep a toddler from spilling Cheerios. But a few things can help, even in a larger house. Definitely own fewer things. Eighty decorative objects accumulate more dust than two. Our kids re-use cups (or water bottles) during the day. We take off shoes at the door (family members — no one else is required to). Simple meals use fewer dishes, and often taste as good as more elaborate ones. Food stays in the kitchen and dining room.

4. Give things a home. Mess is often a function of things being piled up places. If it is easy to put things away, you will. If it is not, you won’t.

5. Batch. I know that people think that doing a little here and there keeps things from adding up, but all activities require transition times. I am reminded of this every year when I add up my business expenses to do my taxes. I think hey, maybe I should have entered these all on my spreadsheets when I incurred the expenses. And then I see that I can do the whole thing in a few hours on one day when I am in spreadsheet mode as opposed to taking some time on many, many days to do this unpleasant task. Same thing with housework. I’m pretty sure that doing a small load of laundry every day is the route to madness. Do a few big loads at one point. Dump them all out somewhere and everyone comes claim their own stuff. Don’t patrol the wastebaskets nightly; do a big swing through getting anything that wasn’t full on the night before the trash goes out. Don’t run the dishwasher at the same time every day if it isn’t full. (Same thing with food prep: If you’re cooking a meal, double or triple the recipe and use the leftovers for lunches or another dinner.)

6. Stop doing errands. Bigger houses require many things. Shopping can be fun, but I’m not sure how many people find it fun to wander around a big box store looking for a certain kind of lightbulb that the store turns out not to carry. This is the sort of activity that can destroy a weekend. Order online what you can.

7. Outsource effectively. Paying to take chores off your plate can be a great way to spend less time on housework. However, I have found from studying time logs that many people don’t outsource in a way that buys them back hours. The most obvious method of outsourcing — paying to have a cleaning service come do stuff like dust your baseboards every two weeks  — doesn’t save time if you weren’t dusting at that frequency before. You might have a cleaner house — which can be a good worth paying for — but that’s not the same thing as saving time. (Also, a lot of people clean before the cleaning service comes. Yes, this is about picking up stuff so surfaces can be cleaned, but right there it suggests that the time-savings isn’t always as big as imagined.)

Instead, analyze what does consume the most time, and figure out if you can offload that. For many people, these are frequent but smaller tasks, such as cleaning the kitchen and tidying common areas. These are more effectively outsourced to someone who is in your house frequently. This could be a family member (your kids!) It could be someone else. If you already have a payroll system set up for childcare, adding a part-time housekeeper (e.g. someone who comes for three hours three times per week) is a straightforward process. Alternately, a paid caregiver might be willing to take on these duties during available hours (e.g. an after-school sitter comes from 1:30-6 p.m. instead of from 3-6 p.m.and does house stuff during the time before the kids get home).

If you have a not-so-tiny house, how do you keep it from eating your time?

19 thoughts on “7 ways to spend less time doing housework (even if you don’t have a tiny house)

  1. There’s a lot of metaphors for it (put your oxygen mask on before someone else’s…pay yourself first…) but I have recently shifted toward taking time for myself first and time on the house second. This primarily applies to afternoon rest time for my kids, which I used to spend on cleaning/organizing/housework. Now I use most of that time for me (reading blogs! leaving a comment in the comment section!) and then fit housework in around the edges of that. I am shrugging off the stuff that I used to get done on a regular basis, and tend to just do what gives me the biggest bang for my buck with the time I have.

    1. @Katherine – definitely pay yourself first! Fun first, then housework. As long as the house is still standing, it’s probably OK.

    2. Also my strategy, though it was not easy to apply at first as I am pretty obsessive about cleanliness and order (outer order, inner calm – absolutely!). But I learned to « ignore » the dust and stains and mess and keep reminding myself that it is more beneficial to me and my family to have me in a good mood after doing something fun than having me cranky because I spent my little amount of free time cleaning up.

      I am very good at the outsourcing part, and really value every cent spent on the cleaning service! And I can’t wait to involve the kids (10-months old and 3-years old for now, so not much help there… though the 3-years old knows he has to gather his toys before going to bed, otherwise they risk « disappearing » overnight! 🙂

      (Huge fan of your blog, books and podcast Laura! Thanks for all your good advice!)

  2. I outsource to my kids! At 5 and 8, they’re able to do so, so much of the housework. Yes, they have homework and playtime and read 20 mins a night (at least) and get to bed by 8 and do a sport, but they also clean the kitchen and make their lunches and tidy up daily. The chore chapter in KJ Dell’Antonia’s How to be a Happier Parent is so great, if anyone needs convincing!
    I also don’t do anything when I have time to myself that I can do with the kids. I work from home, and even on days between clients, I don’t go grocery shopping or clean toilets while the kids are at school (same applied when they were younger and napping). Granted, all this means my standards aren’t sky-high, but oh well! If someone else is bothered, they can clean it 🙂

    1. @Meghan – I’m a big fan of not using nap time for chores. It seems efficient, particularly for at-home parents, but then that parent gets no free time, and that is no fun.

  3. –Robotic vacuum (currently using the Samsung model, but previously owned a Roomba)
    –Have your kids help. Mine are 9 and 10 and do their own laundry, clean up their things, set and clear the table, vacuum the furniture, and other jobs as they come up.
    –Self-cleaning litter box.
    –Instant pot. Great for fast, easy, and healthy meals.

  4. I’ve become a convert to a “kitchen helper” or “learning tower”, which is basically a ridiculously expensive stepstool. But it’s high enough and secure enough that my one-year-old can play or watch while I cook or do kitchen chores. This has been a total game changer at an age where the child actually helping (or doing chores on his own) is not an option.

  5. Yes to all of this. I could use some advice for our two remaining persistent stumbling blocks: mail and paperwork that just ends up on piles everywhere (my attempts to drop this ball in hopes that my husban will pick it up are failing miserably) and dealing with leftovers / cleaning out the fridge. (This is probably just a special problem I have as I am often not home during dinner – I’ll leave it in the crockpot or on a sheet pan that gets thrown in the oven. Sometimes the leftovers should be frozen, sometimes put in serving-sized containers for lunch, but that never seems to happen in any sort of functional fashion. Queue my simmering rage about being the only person to clean out or organize the fridge and dear god could the people in my house stop putting all the things on the top shelf where other things have always gone.) Anyone have a good system for this? I might just label the shelves in my fridge soon….

    1. @Sara – on mail, I try to “batch” – recycle/throw out obvious junk mail as I’m bringing it in, and then once a week go through the remaining pile. My husband pays our bills and is pretty good about looking through the pile for those (I’ll also put those on top of the pile if I spot them). Anything that is an immediate action item for me goes on my desk.

      As for the fridge – I guess I’m not of the camp that there isn’t necessarily a “right” place in the fridge to put things. You could just try not prepping dinner and then there wouldn’t be a leftover issue! Probably people wouldn’t starve.

    2. I autopay everything I can and get electronic statements. Also, I recycle or pay/process/respond to mail the same day so it does hang over my head. Usually one piece per day.

    3. I haven’t figured out the paper thing myself (and have had to let go of my frustration that my husband can not throw the junk mail away and leaves it for me to deal with) but labeling my shelves in my fridge has really helped! Other people in my house don’t always follow, but at least the things I put in there are usually taken care of! I like being able to look at the “leftover” shelf to see what we’ve got! I’m not great at freezing (I have a pack of chicken right now that needs separating and freezing) but when it does happy, my future self always thanks my past self!

    4. There are a few key systems that have helped the clutter. For mail AND all the random paper that comes with family/kids, I purchased a three-tier file stacker and set it in the corner and any mail/paper that is NOT MINE and that I don’t immediately care about (i.e., most of it) goes in the trash if it’s clearly not important or in the stacker if I might want to get to it at a later date, or most likely if it’s somebody else’s stuff that I don’t want to have sitting around on the kitchen table and they can go fish it out if they need it. If it’s my mail, I move it to another stacker I have on my office desk and work through it in batches eventually (or immediately if it’s actually important). The other thing I did, which doesn’t answer this question but is related, is to buy a charging station and put it on a table in the living room (i.e., not the kitchen because our kitchen is small and does not have space for clutter). Now if there is a device in the kitchen, I can just move it to the “device charging table” because that’s where these things go. And I added a basket for random charging cords, adapters, etc. These things mostly solved the paper and device clutter problems. The only problem left is that my husband insists on leaving his keys, wallet, earbuds, etc (and the etc begins to expand to hats, gloves, watch…) on the kitchen counter, which is just not a good place. I can’t win this battle, so I put a basket there and continue to put this stuff in the basket so that hopefully he can limit this pile to that space and keep the rest of the area clear.

      1. @M – I am a fan of the basket system. If something must sit on an otherwise clear horizontal surface, a basket contains it quite nicely.

    5. I have 4 of those magazine holders on my table, one for each kid and one for filing. When mail, drawings an school papers come in, the get sorted in the holders. Bills get put in a to be paid spot.

      We always had problems remembering to eat leftovers, so now we have a white board next to the fridge with what leftovers are available for lunch and what needs to be eaten soon. It has helped!

  6. Another tip from Gretchen Rubin – don’t put things down, put them away. I have become compulsive about this because it really helps.

  7. I listen to your podcast while I do my housework which results in a much cleaner and more orderly house than if I am just doing mindless chores without anything to distract me. Investing time in training your children is definitely the way to go then you can read aloud to them while they get on with the chores. We also do DEAT (Drop Everything And Tidy) every day for 10 minutes accomplishing 40 mins of transformation for 10 mins of time expenditure as there are 4 of us at work. I prefer an Orderly Platform as it saves time in the long run as one doesn’t have to waste time looking for things.

    1. We do a variation of DEAT called “take 5” — everyone runs around and puts away 5 things. Sometimes we set a timer to see how many take 5s we can do in 10 minutes, or do a take 10, but really just the simple 5 is huge.

  8. I really like a couple of ideas here. I have a pretty low threshold for my home, but I do PREFER cleanliness and orderliness. Unfortunately, I don’t/won’t spend that much time on the house (and my husband will not agree to hiring a service) so the house is not as clean/organized as I would like. I like the idea of the “sanctuary”. I’m kind of a cluttered/batch cleaning person to begin with, so this will take discipline because my spaces move from perfectly clean/organized to slowly more chaotic until I spend the time to batch clean/reorganize again. Although I may WANT a constantly decluttered space, I am not personally a constant declutterer. Still, the idea of personal clean space is comforting in principle, if not in practice, and my help with being OKAY with the rest. The other idea I like is take 10 (or 5!). I’ve done some version of this myself (to counter my intrinsic batch cleaning nature) and will set a timer for 10 minutes and it REALLY helps. The problem is that I will get into the habit for like a week, and then I will drop it for a month, then again and again. It would be cool to implement this on a family scale. I will talk to my husband. If he is on board, this may be the push I need to make it a permanent routine. And I feel like this would be something he would dig because he is all about efficiency.

  9. I would like to point out that a combination of lowered standards and a bi-weekly cleaning service has actually saved me tons of time.
    The bi-weekly cleaning is to a level I would not be able to reach even if I had a full kid-free day to clean (wouldn’t happen in a million years). I basically do very little deep cleaning, which saves me tons of weekend time. But for the weekday point, I used to be very very diligent about the kitchen clean up after every meal prep. Now that I know the kitchen will be deep cleaned in less than 2 weeks time, I do a very basic wipe down and leave it at that. Same thing for bathrooms, I will clean them just enough to be hygienic, but if the mirror is a bit splashed? Someone else is coming to take care of it soon enough.

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