Now that I live in a 29-foot Airstream travel trailer, my cleaning routine has shrunk down to nearly nothing. It's fabulous! My husband and I used to spend an entire weekend working on the house, just to maintain a basic level of cleanliness -- now, a complete scrub-down takes about an hour (and I have more time for the things I want to do!) I know that not everyone can downsize to this degree, but there are still some steps you can take to cut down on the time you spend cleaning.
Stop Messes Before They Start
The best and easiest way to reduce cleaning time is to reduce the mess that you create in the first place. How much of your cleaning day is spent picking up stuff that's been left in the wrong place and returning it to its proper home? If you lose the habit of "I'll just sit it here for now" -- taking an extra second to put things away BEFORE you drop them on the floor or the counter or the desk -- you will save yourself hours of time later on.
The interesting thing about cleaning is that it's always easier the sooner you do it. But when you wait, stains that would have kowtowed to soap and water set in (requiring expensive chemical removers), spills that could have been easily wiped up dry into a varnish that permanently ruins the finish on your table, and the egg yolk on that breakfast plate hardens into a cement that has to be chipped off with a chisel. Anything you can do to clean as you go (washing the pots and pans your food cooks instead of waiting until the sink is overflowing, wiping down the sink as you finish in the bathroom) is going to save you effort, eliminate the need for harsh cleansers, and prevent damage to your belongings.
Also ask yourself how much of your cleaning involves sweeping, vacuuming, or mopping up something that was tracked in from outside. I love nature, but not in my house! However, you can stop the influx at the door with a bit of preventative maintenance. Place an umbrella stand next to the door so folks don't drip their way down your hall when it's raining. Put good absorbent mats at every exterior door and ask people to remove their shoes before entering your home. While this is a common practice in eastern homes, westerners have a bad habit of walking through every kind of dirt and muck in the world, then wearing those same shoes into a house filled with wall-to-wall white carpet. Provide a bench to sit on and a storage rack underneath and it will make things easier on your housemates and guests.
Finally, look around your home and ask yourself what areas tend to always be a pain in the neck to clean -- and what you can do to eliminate that irritation. If that above-mentioned white carpet keeps you down on your knees with the Resolve, fighting every spill, maybe it's time for a good textured Berber that won't show the stains. If that ficus tree is constantly dropping leaves that you have to vacuum up or leaving a water-ring on your hardwood floors (in exactly the shape of the bottom of the pot), perhaps you would do better with a silk plant. If your countertops seem to absorb stains like a sponge, have them sealed with a polyurethane that is easy to wipe down (you won't have to spend so much time bleaching out that drip of red wine or splatter of tomato sauce). Generally speaking, darker colors are good for areas that get a beating (high-traffic carpet, kitchen counters, the sofa your kids tend to eat and wrestle and spill on) because they hide the wear. Save the light colors and delicate materials for decorative items that are just for show.
Clean A Little Every Day
When you spend all week making a mess then try to clean up 7 days worth of slobbiness at once, it's guaranteed to take a while. But if you do a little bit of tidying every day, breaking the job into bite-sized chunks, it will feel like less of a burden. There are really two schools of thought -- you might do a quick clean in whatever room you happen to be occupying (swipe the shelves with a dust cloth when you pick a book to read, throw in a load of clothes as you're cooking dinner, make the bed while you get dressed). Or you can pick either one activity (Mon. is laundry day, Tue. is vacuuming and moping, Wed. is windows and mirrors) or one room (Mon. kitchen, Tue. bathroom, Wed. kid's room) each day of the week. There's no hard and fast rule -- whatever works for you.
You can also save yourself some time on the weekly cleaning session if you devote 10 or 15 minutes every evening to picking up from the day's activities. The house might be spotless when you leave in the morning, but the piles start to accumulate the minute the first person comes home from school or work. Shoes get kicked off by the door, bookbags and briefcases are dropped inthe front hall, the mail is plopped on the kitchen counter -- little ones spread out their toys (and big ones too, if you have kids who play sports or video games) -- homework and the daily paper and your latest scrapbooking project -- all these things should be put away before bed. If everyone in the house will pitch in and help, straightening up will only take a few minutes, and you can start fresh with your mess-making in the morning.
And that leads me to my final comment on making cleaning easier -- if you are doing it all yourself (and bitching about how long it takes), then you need to grow a spine and make your family members responsible for their own messes. Your children and spouse and roommates are entirely capable of cleaning up after themselves -- I promise. Everyone in the house should have regular chores, and there need to be consequences for failing to do your duty. If this is challenging for you right now, don't worry -- I will be talking more about this later!
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