How to Clean House: Ask Yourself This Important Question First

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Yesterday I realized that I’ve developed a really bad habit of letting clutter and dirt pile up. It piles up until one day, I just can’t take it anymore and it becomes a “crisis.”

Well, you know what happens when something is a “crisis”, right? Everything must stop and that crisis becomes the thing that must be fixed and put back into an acceptable state. Once I have fixed the “crisis,” I feel better, proud, accomplished, happy….(insert any ‘ole adjective here that makes one feel better about themselves).

I then go back to my normal routine and the cycle repeats….until that which I have ignored suddenly becomes a “crisis” again and then I spring back into crisis mode to “put out the fire.”

Raise your hand if that’s you, too. Join the club, my friend!

This is so.freaking.exhausting. I do this with everything: cleaning my house…clutter in a corner…too much email in my inbox…laundry (!!)….dirty bathrooms…a messy garage….I could go on and on. Part of me envies Type A personalities that have their stuff together and have color-coded checklists for everything that gets done on Mondays, Fridays, first of the month, last of the month, quarterly, full moon, quarter moon…(my goodness, where did they learn those organizational skills?!). That’s just not my personality. No matter how much I try to organize my life in such a structured way, I just can’t seem to execute that level of scheduled-ness.

The reason I bring all this up is because this week, I put everything on hold to tidy up my home. In other words, you’re now talking to a woman who’s in “crisis mode.” All work projects with deadlines looming got the boot and my house cleaning became priority. I’m so behind on projects that I have sponsors emailing about my “missing assignments.”

I literally couldn’t think with all this clutter crowding my mind. A dirty house stresses me out. If I am stressed, how can I be creative? How can I work on DIY projects when I am walking past discarded piles of mismatched socks littering the laundry room floor? How can I feel relaxed when every time I walk past dirt participles in the corner I wonder, “Are those ants, or is that just dirt?” 

Our home should be our oasis. It should be the place that makes us feel soothed. After living here for 9 years I am finally beginning to love my house (read here about how I used to hate my house) and feel comfortable here. But when the house isn’t clean, it’s impossible to enjoy it.

House Cleaning Crisis Mode

So this week, I had set my alarm for 6 a.m. each morning and made it a priority to clean up just one area of my house that bothered me the most. And when that alarm when off on Monday morning, I felt energized and ready to tackle the clutter. I just wanted it done.

On Tuesday, I added to my calendar “Clean up the laundry room.” This is typically how my laundry room looks: 



But 2 hours later, with all the laundry was folded, the dust bunnies were banished, I felt light and airy! I was so happy with my progress that I posted it on my Instagram. Accomplished!



As the week continued, I knocked out more clutter each morning: the foyer, the wicker basket in the kitchen that has become a catch-all for little “doo dads” that no one knows where else to put…and it felt wonderful!

But I also started asking myself, but how do I keep it this way? And how did I let it get like this to begin with? 

And here are the answers that I came up with. Keep reading…

The Real Reason It Gets So Messy (And Why It’s Hard to Clean a Dirty House)

Admit it–it’s easier to swipe up than it is to wipe up. 🙂 We all know that the first excuse that comes to mind is that life is so “busy.” Yet we have 30 minutes for Instagram. Sixty minutes later we wake from the Facebook fog of scrolling. Actually, all of those little distractions probably take up waaaay more than 90 minutes of our day. So it’s not that we’re “busy.”

It’s because we’re overwhelmed because we think that all tasks are equally important. Everything must be done, and because we’re not sure where to start, it’s easier to keep putting it off.

The reason it’s messy to begin with is because we don’t know have a system for keeping the room clean. Without a system, we keep doing the same things that got us into the cluttered mess to begin with. The solution is that we need a system for keeping our house clean (and believe me, the system we need isn’t color-coded laminated schedules). 

The Magical Rule to Keeping Any Room Clean

This is something I learned over the past year and a half. I learned that the key to keeping a room clean is to simply decide on the ONE thing you’re never going to compromise on in that room. You actually just have to ask this question:

“What’s the one thing that I can do to keep this room clean, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Let me give you an example.

A couple summers ago, an awesome brand that I worked with was coming to my house with a media guy to shoot a video of me making a fun DIY word light sign out of wood. Dude, my house was dirty. Imagine the stress of having the person who you’re most craving to impress come to your house and you’ve got 1 week to fix the holes in the wall, wipe the kids’ smeared handprints from the wall, and to steam clean your kitchen cabinets.

After all that cleaning (and a successful shoot, I might add) I had gleaming, stress-free counter tops, which was unheard of in my messy house of 5 people. It was that moment that I decided I would never be stressed or embarrassed over a dirty kitchen ever again. 

And I asked myself that most important question:

“What’s the one thing I can do to keep this kitchen clean, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

The big “lightbulb” answer was to never allow a dish to sit in the sink or on the counter.

And with that simple answer, I followed that magical rule day in and day out. Every day for the past 17 months. The minute my family even thinks to leave a dish in the sink, I turned into the dictator of the family, barking orders, “Who left this cup in the sink?! Get down here, clean it, and put it away right now!”

I follow that simple rule and I’m happy to say that my kitchen has never once caused me stress from any mess. Oh yeah–we cook dinner, and of course, as we’re cooking, there is a dish or two. But we either wash as we go, or we have our oldest son wash immediately after dinner. There is no leaving the dishes until tomorrow. There is no leaving a plate on the counter after making a sandwich. I won’t allow it. Under no circumstances. Even if the school bus is coming and there’s a cup on the counter–“nope, go rinse that bowl and put I away before we leave!” I’m crazy and consistent about that one rule.



Why It Works to Stick With One “Cleaning” Rule

There’s a book I absolutely adore called The One Thing by Gary Keller. I discovered this best-selling years ago. The book was life-changing. You see, when we try improve things, we come up with so many solutions, but how do you know which one is going to work? How do you not get overwhelmed by everything you can do, while focusing on just one thing? But by asking that focusing question to find the “one thing” that will make the most impact, you now have got a starting point of making real progress towards a goal.  

So with my kitchen example, I knew that if I just stuck with the one rule “No dishes left in the sink or counter” that the kitchen will feel cleaner, even if there are other things out of place or crumbs on the floor. With the dishes out of the sink, I was more likely to pick up crumbs on the floor. I was more likely to open the mail over the recycling bin instead of leaving it pile up on the counters alongside dirty dishes. All it took was for me to consistently follow that one rule and suddenly, my motivation to do the other things was more instinctual. 

Over time, it has become so habitual to simply wash a dish and put it away that I don’t even think about it. Now, everything has a place and when anything is out of place, habit kicks in and I am like a robot trained to put things back. It’s freakin’ amazing, I have to tell you. 



One Room at a Time

Don’t try to pick a rule for every room in your house all at once. It’s too much and you’ll find yourself back into the same boat where you’re at now with being overwhelmed. Start with the room in your house that causes you the most anxiety and stress. Become so consistent with your one rule that it becomes a habit. Once it becomes habit and you don’t have to think about it (you just do it without thinking), you can either pick a new rule in that same room, or you can pick a new rule in a different messy space. 

I feel confident in what I’ve been keeping clean in my kitchen that I am now ready to move to my laundry room. In my newly cleaned laundry room, my new “one rule” is: 

“Never leave clean laundry on the table or in the basket.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to take you months to move on to your next “one rule.” You can move faster or slower than I did. But just remember: One rule at a time. Maybe in your bedroom you vow to never leave your bed unmade. Each morning, with a fresh bed, you’re more likely to fold your clothes and put them away. You’re more likely to toss dirty laundry in the basket instead of hanging it on that exercise bike you swore you’d use. See how this works? 

In your craft room, maybe your one rule is to always clean up after crafting. By doing that, you’re more likely to keep the rest of the space tidy. And even better, you’ll be more likely to want to come in and craft again in a clean space!

The Challenge With Having Rules

Well, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. It’s easy to set a rule for yourself, but what about getting your family on board? It’s been a year and a half and I still have to nag my three boys (ages 13, 10, and 9) to wash their dishes and put them away immediately. They’re learning, and I’m sure soon it will become their habit, too. Just be prepared for lots of nagging, but for a good cause! (Even spouses are slow to get on board sometimes). The benefit is that if you have young kids like I do, hopefully they’ll adopt these rules for themselves when they head out into the world!

You Can Do It!

Believe it–having a dirty house is soooo stressful! But if we just focus on that “one rule” for that space, surprisingly, it works for keeping it clean. I’d love to know how this strategy works for you! Leave a comment below and let me know if this is something you’ve ever tried, or if you have any other tips for how to clean your house! And if you have friends and family that you think could benefit from this little magical tip, save this on Pinterest or share it with them on Facebook!

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  1. My Rule: If it takes less than 1 minute/60 seconds, do it now. Like the ‘don’t put it down, put it away’ rule someone else mentioned. I also take 10-15 min before bed to do a quick ‘tidy up’ and then I make my bed every morning. These work really well for me. When I started, I felt like I was cleaning.all.the.time but now I find that it’s just habit and I don’t think twice about it. I also starting using a Swiffer for dusting and it’s awesome, quick swif and it’s done. It magnetically attracts the dirt, fits in even tiny crevices and then you can just toss it when it gets dirty. Works for me!

    1. Great tip, Connie! I think I should make a sign that says, “Don’t put it down, put it away.” HAHA, I could use one for each room! I also make my bed daily and feel like it makes me ready for the day! I’m going to get a Swiffer. I don’t have one. Thanks!

  2. I hung on every word of this post! It spoke to me on every level and I love the solution. I no longer have kids in the house but the clutter has still overtaken every single room and the overwhelming feeling is so real. Thanks for such a wonderful suggestion and I am going to check out that book too. Thanks for sharing at #HomeMattersParty

  3. Totally works! I’ve been down this road and I follow this one huge rule so consistently that I no longer have to say a word to my family. No longer must I unload the dishwasher because who ever opens it “EMPTIES IT” 1ST. This simple rule makes a huge difference! No mess No stress!

    1. Ooooh, I LOVE that rule!! And that could be a great DIY sign to make, too: No mess, no stress! 🙂 Thanks, Danielle!!

  4. But, I LIKE color coded laminated schedules! (she whined) I even spent days creating a magnetic one (ever so adorable repurposed cookie sheet) with dry erase magnets. I used it for 1 week and kept going way over the allotted time for some tasks and completely ignoring other tasks. It now sits in a spot of shame, unused. 🙂

    I like your “one thing” suggestion; although it will be difficult to pick one thing in one room that stresses me out. Your kitchen rule sounds like a good place to start, so that’s what I’ll do. There’s only 2 of us, but goodness! how the dishes pile up.

    Thank you for always finding a way to challenge us, help us, entertain us.

  5. Sharon Williams says:

    Years ago, I was a Mary Kay consultant. You might think, “What does that have to do with this blog?” Well, I highly recommend that everyone read her autobiography. It will be a life changer in the area of time management as well as how to keep your house organized. She applied those same rules to constructing a corporation. Serena, I’m so glad for you that you are getting a system and inspiring others to do so. I’m that Type A personality that you mentioned, so organization is in my DNA, but I know that it isn’t with everyone. I’ve even had friends ask me to come to their house and help them get organized, which really blew my mind. I had not realized that I was being ‘watched’ so closely. The really good news is, you have more time for the projects you really love to do. By the way, I love that shade of blue on your chairs at your island. Maybe that should be the color of that china cabinet you found? Thank you for inspiring us!

    1. Hey Sharon! Oooh, I will have to find her book and read it! I love reading about people who have been able to successfully schedule themselves and run their home and business at the same time! And you know…since you’re so good at organizing, that could even be a little side business for you. Just sayin’….People struggle to stay clean and need consultants to come in and help. Side hustle time! 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion on the blue for the island! It’s one of my favorite blues!

  6. thank you so much for your ideas I definitely need them my house has become such a conglomerate of things that really are not necessary. I am going to try your ideas and also to check out the book you mentioned from the library. I appreciate all that you do for us when you have such a demanding schedule.

    1. Awww, you are welcome! I am so glad that I decided to write this post. Sometimes when something “speaks” to me, I just have to write about it because I know that other people feel the same way. Definitely get the book The One Thing from the library! It is a game changer. I have the audio book but a business friend gave me the paper back version. I like to re-read the book at least once a year!

  7. I have a general rule.
    Dont put it down
    Put it Away

    1. OMG, Letty, that is FIRE!! I think I may have to borrow that from you and make a sign for the wall. LOL. I absolutely love it. I think it will stick in my mind. I have noticed the past few days that when I go to put something down, I say, “Nope. We don’t do that, Serena. Go put it away.” Thank you for putting words to it! 🙂

  8. Amy Phelps says:

    Serena, I just love your inspiring ideas, your openness and the ability to give us food for thought in your nifty, creative ideas. Once again, thank you pretty lady for sharing your wisdom.

  9. Kate Horrell says:

    I will say that I’m the kind of person that HATES when anything is left in the sink. Since it’s just me now I have no one to blame but me. My thing is I HATE dusting, always have. But that is the one thing I have to really motivate myself into doing. I will put on music to get going, but it still doesn’t get done until I can’t stand to look at it anymore, OR having company. lol

    1. HAHA, there’s nothing like the threat of company company that makes one do the chores they hate! LOL I feel you on the dusting. It’s not fun at all. Maybe try getting some audio books? You can get Audible (but that costs money) or you can download Overdrive which links to your free library and download audiobooks for free. At least it takes your mind off of it! 🙂

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