Looking for realistic tips on how to keep a tidy house? Seem unattainable if you’re not naturally neat? It’s possible you’ve been going about it the wrong way.
Challenges In Learning How to Keep a Tidy House
I have a theory.
Somewhere (the North Pole?) there’s a manufacturing plant where all the world’s children are churned out. Each baby is a custom job.
Some of these tiny dumplings get sweet, petite noses; some get stuck with Grandpa’s unfortunate schnozz.
A Chief Hair-Gluer-Onner decides between totally bald (a popular option at quitting time), peach fuzz, or shocking crop of troll hair.
And then the final step in the assembly line – setting the internal factory defaults. Among others, there are:
- Energy level,
- Ability to stick stamps onto an envelope straight, and
- Tendency to put dirty socks in the hamper.
No surprise to you, I’m sure, but some people are born with the socks-in-the-hamper switch toggled on.
Then there’s the rest of us.
And if you also have kids with glowing orange slob switches, learning how to keep a tidy house might feel impossible.
Trying To Follow A Naturally Neat Mom Menu
Sure, we could try to follow tips from those fastidious moms who were born knowing how to keep a tidy house.
But trying to learn how to keep a tidy house from a default-neat mom is like expecting to melt off that extra hundred pounds you’ve been carrying since college simply by getting a list of what your skinny friend eats.
If major change really worked that way, everyone in America would be model thin.
Trust me, losing weight isn’t as easy as following a thin girl menu.
And learning how to keep a tidy house when it doesn’t come naturally isn’t as simple as following a “Born Neat Mom” menu.
It’s Not Their Fault
Naturally tidy moms have good intentions. They just can’t fathom our level of slob-dom.
So instead, I’ll share how a really messy person manages to keep a tidy house pretty consistently.
Yes, that would be me.
And yes, I’m surprised too.
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How To Keep A Tidy House The Easy Way Aka Embrace The Lazy
If you’re desperate to learn how to keep a tidy house, I suggest three types of tweaks. Tweaking these three areas is much less work than trying to re-shape yourself into a neat-mom pretzel.
A) Organize your house around your inherent messiness
B) Make slight changes to your own behavior that will pay off in the long run
C) Institute a few house rules
Let’s start by organizing your house to make neatness easier.
A) Don’t Organize Against Your Messy Tendencies
Lots of us default-messy moms are perfectionists. Sounds weird, considering the state of our homes, but we really do shoot for the stars.
And when we can’t reach the stars, we reach for the Pringles and the remote instead.
Or a box of tissues for a good old-fashioned cry.
So instead of high maintenance decorating and organizing, try organizing around yourself instead of against yourself.
#1 Be Realistic
To stop fighting yourself at every step, be realistic.
Being realistic about keeping your house neat doesn’t mean lowering standards or settling for less.
“Be realistic” means set your house up so you can still be who you are, only with a tidier home.
If who you are is not someone willing to neatly file each paper or re-clothe your daughter’s Barbies nightly, then don’t organize in such a way that nekked Barbies and poorly-stacked paperwork contribute to your home’s messiness.
Realistic organizing means a command center inside a closet door. Because the gorgeous one dominating your front hall is going to drive you crazy trying to keep it display-worthy. To the point where it might even lose its functionality.
In other words, don’t over-organize when you don’t have to.
Because if it’s a hassle to put things away “just so,” you (and most definitely your kids) won’t put things away at all.
And your over-organized area could end up making your house look worse instead of better.
#2 Keep Stuff Where You Use It
Another way to make keeping a tidy home less work is to figure out where you actually use stuff.
If you always end up at the dining room table on your laptop, find a home for it in the dining room. Even if you have an honest-to-God office.
Always do your nails in front of the TV? Then keep your nail file and lotion in a drawer next to the couch.
Otherwise, you’ll be like “well, there’s no point carrying this up to my [insert room where things “should go”] when I’m just going to use it here again tomorrow.”
There’s no pre-determined-by-the-Universe place your stuff has to live. It’s your house – store things where they’re easy to put away.
#3 Trash Happens
Conforming your house to your life also means collecting trash and dirty clothes at the source.
Put trashcans where trash spontaneously generates. An oddly-placed trash can looks better than trash on the floor.
And don’t keep the hamper in the hallway if it means heaps of dirty laundry on your bedroom floor. After all, the hallway is sooo far away when you get out of the shower.
In our house, my son has his own recycling bin in his room. It’s either that, or he gets buried in a pile of soda bottles.
Are recycling bins supposed to be kept in the bedroom? Who knows, but it’s a good solution for us and keeps his room much neater.
Not neat, but neater.
SIDE NOTE: Hopefully when I said I’d show you how to keep a tidy house, we had an understanding that I meant I’d show you how to a keep a tidy house MINUS bedrooms inhabited by teenagers and grown children…
#4 Perfectly Procrastinated
They (neat moms) say “if you’re going to do something, do it right” and “put it away right away.”
But what we (not-quite-so-neat moms) actually hear is:
- “Don’t bother doing anything at all because you don’t have time to do it right (or don’t feel like it)” and
- “Even if it’s inconvenient or far away, this item is not really put away until it’s completely and correctly put away so just drop it anywhere until you have time to put it away properly.”
Which leads to mess. Because our reaction is:
“Well, it belongs in the garage and it’s inefficient to go all the way out to the garage every time I need to put away a screwdriver, so I’ll just put it here until there’s a pile big enough to make it worth the trip.”
So instead of insisting that your kids, your spouse and yourself put things away correctly immediately after using them, find waystations for the stuff that builds up.
“Junk motels,” if you please.
What Is a Junk Motel?
No, a Junk Motel is not your house (or at least it won’t be once we’re done here).
Some people may call this intermediate step laziness or procrastination.
Maybe it is.
But I call it progress, a tidy house, and being able to find things. If something isn’t where it officially “belongs,” check its Junk Motel.
If incoming paperwork doesn’t make it to your office until you get fed up looking at a huge, messy pile, then put a paperwork box near where it accumulates as a temporary holding spot.
Maybe it still needs to make it to your office eventually for processing or filing, but in the meantime, it’s not getting tomato-sauced, crumpled, lost or thrown away, and it’s not making the house look messy.
This works for anything that “officially” belongs in an inconvenient place.
- For stuff going out to the garage, collect it in a nice bin near the garage door.
- When you run across random Monopoly racecars and Cootie bug ears, stash them in a small bin inside the game cabinet – you know you’re not going to dig out the Monopoly game just to put away one car.
- A bowl in the living room temporarily collects earrings, wallets, barrettes, and other little things people shed in front of TV. Not only does it look neat, they’re much easier to find later.
- Station cute baskets in living areas to collect toys that go to kids’ rooms.
Basically, it’s much easier to straighten your house when it’s convenient.
#5 Don’t Highlight Your Inner Messy Girl
Next on the “organize around yourself” list is don’t organize or decorate with things that require maintenance (or at least careful use) to look tidy.
This overlaps with the “Be Realistic” commandment.
Avoid things like tied-on slipcovers, artful throws, thin bedspreads with tons of pillows, bulletin boards, wire baskets for mail, shoe racks, coat trees, and open kitchen shelving.
If you’re a messy person, use a file hanger that’s on the inside of a closet door or a lidded box to control paperwork. Not an open inbox tray in the middle of the kitchen. Or, God forbid, magnet clips on the fridge.
Your “inbox” will never look neat. That’s just not you. And I’m not even convinced a born-neat mom can pull off tidy-looking fridge paperwork.
So hide it. Hide it all!
- A comforter instead of a fussy bedspread makes bed-making a less dreaded chore. You can also get rid of the top sheet to make the bed even faster.
- If your kids are messy (I’m laughing hysterically at the “if”), don’t put their stuff on display in a landing area where their backpacks must be hung “just so.
- Use a shoe crate instead of shoe racks that are out in the open.
#6 Use Storage That Requires Less Effort
Hanging things on hooks can look messy and is probably the opposite of what I just said. However, if it’s between hanging things up or throwing them on the floor, hang them.
It might look slightly messy but it’s a compromise.
Three towels tossed on hooks may not make the House Beautiful cover, but if it’s that or thrown sloppily over a towel bar or onto the floor, hooks win.
#7 Contain Everything You Can for a Tidier Home
Containers Containers Containers! Big fan here.
Bins and baskets and totes keep messy piles looking neat.
Plastic tubs and canvas cubbies keep toys out of sight.
Entertainment centers with doors means you can have a tidy house and not nag your kids to put away their video games more neatly.
Small bits of clutter look tidier if they’re grouped and contained. Your keys, wallet, random receipts from your pocket, and sunglasses look messy scattered on a counter. But contained on a tray they automatically look neater.
Without any extra work from you.
#8 Find Your Stuff a Decent Home
How many times have you heard “a place for everything and everything in its place?”
Yes. Good Idea. But…
It ain’t that simple for some of us.
It didn’t come painlessly for me, that’s for sure!
Almost everything in my house has a place where it belongs now. But I understand the struggle of getting there.
How do you find a place for everything when:
- What makes sense one week doesn’t the next? With our insanely poor memories and shifting logic, we could lose that item forever!
- Or we pick a place and put things there, but nobody else follows suit.
- And what about the stuff that just kind of floats around? Like
- Product tags and boxes for possible returns
- Stuff you need to give back to your mom
- Library books
- Reading glasses, flash drives, earbuds that you use everywhere in the house
- And we won’t even get into that crippling perfectionism of finding the “perfect” spot.
Finding a place for everything is a post all in itself. I’m writing a more detailed post about it and will link it here when it’s live.
But, seriously, don’t overthink it. Just do your best, one item or category at a time.
Even if you can’t find the perfect solution, it’s okay. Just find a place for each thing so it’s not hanging out on the kitchen counter.
If it ends up being a mostly good place, then you can rearrange the area later to make it work.
- If you’re afraid you’ll permanently lose things because you won’t know where you put them, send yourself an email using this system for remembering things.
- What about something you want to relocate, even though it already has a less-than-ideal default home? You’re afraid to change it since at least you can find it now, even if it’s in a dumb spot. Just leave a note in that spot with its new location and/or send yourself an email using this system.
- As I mentioned, keep things where they’re used, especially if it’s an everyday item. That will make it more likely they get put away. If you clip the dog’s nails in the living room, keep the clippers there.
- Once you do find a place you think will work permanently, label it. Labels aren’t just for finding things – they’re for remembering where to return things.
- For stuff that already has an inconvenient home and is, therefore, never put away, use the Junk Motel idea above. Designating two or three places to look for something you’ve lost is much better than searching the entire house.
Choosing a home for something doesn’t mean it has to be the ONLY place that thing lives. Instead of:
“A place for everything and everything in its place”
“Places for everything, and everything should end up in one of its places – stop complaining about having to look in both the closet and the living room before you find something because it’s not like you don’t need the exercise.”
Think of it like your kid being in college. If you ever misplace him, you can probably find him at his school OR in your home.
Assuming the last person who used him put him away.
B) (Slightly) Change the Way You Do Things
Now that you’ve done as much as you can to organize your house around yourself, let’s look at some small behavioral changes.
Slight alterations that won’t go against your inner nature.
Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting you change your nature and become a default neat person. I’m sure you’re a lovely person and I want you to stay who you are.
But learning how to keep a tidy house means building tidying into your mindset, habits, and everyday life.
I’m talking about very small changes, like taking 30 seconds to clear junk from the counters before you cook. Not put it away, just clear it so you’re not working in a mess. You’ll thank yourself later during kitchen cleanup time.
Here are a few more small changes to consider.
#1 Establish a Mess Perimeter
To limit cleanup, stay in one place while you work.
It’s way easier to clean up a mess if it’s all in one area.
This is especially true for cooking. I used to move all around the kitchen and even into other rooms. I made a helluva mess when I cooked dinner.
Then I trained myself to stay in one very specific area by putting a placemat on the counter. It served as my visual reminder to STAY PUT.
This one change has made the biggest difference in after-dinner cleanup.
You can apply this elsewhere too. Clear out a space before you start and stay there instead of acting like Tigger and bouncing around your house while you work.
I know you love your Tigger self, and you should – just save it for another time.
#2 Build Tiny New Habits One at a time
Staying in one place is one habit that makes things easier in the long run.
There are other habits that save you work later, as well.
If you really want to learn how to keep a tidy house, slowly building tiny baby step habits will make the entire process smoother!
Small habits that will make “future you” happy:
- Make your bed – you’ll be shocked at how much neater your bedroom looks and stays.
- Clear the table (or TV trays) right after dinner, even if you’re not ready to clean the kitchen.
- Push in chairs whenever you leave a table or a desk.
- Close cabinet and closet doors.
- Scan a room when you leave it to see if there’s anything you can take out with you.
- Carry things closer to where they belong as you go in that general direction. That doesn’t mean put stuff away in a room you’re not headed to, since that’s a recipe for distraction. Just generally shuffle things along in the right direction.
- Take stuff upstairs that’s on the steps when you go up
- Use small, natural pockets of time to neaten. For example:
- During kiddo bath time, straighten the bathroom.
- When you’re putting your toddler to bed, put away her clean laundry.
- When you take your first morning pee break (or hide-in-the-only-room-with-a-locked-door break), pick up towels and put the toiletries in the cabinet.
- Scoop crumbs into your hand as you finish making a sandwich or when you finish eating.
- Put mail in your paperwork box as soon as you receive it. Yes, unopened. Deal with it all at one time once per week to avoid scattered papers.
- Stop putting things on the floor “just for now.” When you set something down on the floor, even for a minute, messiness happens.
#3 The 1-Minute Rule – Will It Work for YOu?
I know I said I was sharing things that work for me, but I’ll admit right now the 1-Minute Rule doesn’t work for me at all.
However, I’ve heard from lots of messy moms who swear by it, so I’m including it here.
The basic rule is to take care of anything you see around you immediately if the task will take 1 minute or less.
Um, if I tried to do each little 1-minute chore whenever I notice it, every time I went to the kitchen to get a drink, I’d end up in the garage three hours later still thirsty with no idea how I got there.
I’m wayyy too distractible for that rule.
But I have scatterbrained friends who heartily endorse this rule. So try it out.
Maybe it will work for you.
Or maybe I’ll meet you in the garage a few hours from now?
#4 Clean In-Between, Not “As You Go,” to Keep Your House Neat
Another one that just does not work for me is “clean as you go.”
This involves switching back and forth between parts of my brain, especially if I’m working on something creative.
Or if I’m trying to get through something distasteful that takes a lot of energy, I just want to get it done. If I stop to go throw something away or wash something, I may never return.
Instead of cleaning as you go, try to get into the habit of cleaning before and after projects – cleaning in-between.
Build in time to neaten up before and after you work on something. Set an alarm for 5 minutes before you need to stop and clean up before your current mess becomes the first layer of a new mess.
You can also build in breaks to do a general “rescue” during the day. I do one right before bed each night.
C) Make Some House Rules to Keep a Tidy House
Okay, so we’ve gotten your house more slob-friendly now, and you’re working on habits that complement your nature.
The last piece of the neat house puzzle is creating house rules.
House rules make a huge difference in the time you spend trying to keep a tidier house. And a short list of house rules means it’s not all on you.
Some suggestions of rules for everyone in the house (depending on their ages):
- Take your own plate to the sink after dinner
- No eating anywhere other than the table. If this sounds too strict, what about only popcorn or pizza in the family room, only on a blanket, and only on movie night as a family? Preschoolers walking around with cookies are the Godzilla of your Tidy Metropolis.
- Hang up your towels. Buy different colors for different kids so you know who’s leaving their towels on the floor.
- Put trash in the closest trashcan immediately.
- No video games (or snack or whatever) until backpacks, jackets, and shoes are where they go.
- Pick up anything that belongs to you from the main living areas before bed. You may not be able to successfully train the kids to pick up communal toys, but they can at least put their own socks in the (conveniently placed?) hamper.
You’re an adult and don’t necessarily have to go by the exact same rules as your kids. But if they see you following them, they’re more likely to follow them too.
Recap: How To Keep a Tidy House Even If You’re a Messy Mom
If you’ve tried and failed to learn how to keep a tidy house, it’s possible the methods you found were what failed you. Especially if you were using neat-mom methods like…
- “Pick up after yourself,”
- “Put things away when you use them,” and
- “Tidy as you go.”
Instead of trying over and over again to make things work against your personality, work with who you are.
Organize your house to fit your family’s lifestyle:
- Be realistic when it comes to solutions that may make things worse
- Store things in the room where they’re used most often, if possible
- Catch trash and dirty clothes where they happen
- Find intermediate spots for stuff if it isn’t convenient to put it where it ultimately belongs
- Decorate with things that take little effort to keep tidy
- Use hooks and other convenient ways to keep things off the floor
- Containerize, containerize, containerize
- Find homes for stuff that don’t have them, even if the homes aren’t perfect.
Then look at behaviors you can tweak to keep things tidier without stressing yourself out:
- Stay in one place when you work
- Work on tiny new habits, one at a time, such as making the bed and taking things upstairs when you go
- Use the 1-minute rule to see if it works for you.
- Don’t worry about cleaning as you go, but try to build in time to clean up before and after you work and intermittently throughout the day
And, finally, institute a few house rules so you’re not the one following around picking up after everyone.
As you know, if keeping a tidy house feels like a huge chore, it’s not gonna stick. Even if you manage for awhile.
It’s like no-carbing for 6 months and then spending the weekend at your Aunt Franny’s.
Remember her? She’s the one who bakes for fun, is insulted when you don’t taste her cooking, and refuses to allow rabbit food into her house.
Hello, chocolate cake!
In other words, it’s tough to fight an uphill battle. I mean, we’re tired, am I right?
So embrace your
lazy efficient side, enjoy your newly-tidy house, and move on to the fun stuff!
PS If you’re still having a hard time figuring out how to keep a tidy house, you may have too much stuff.
When my house starts getting to the point where I can never seem to keep it picked up for more than an hour, I know it’s probably overstuffed.
If you’re looking for a list of easy things to declutter fast, check out this post with a free checklist printable of easy stuff to get rid of.
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