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Project Clean House

I've developed a strange fascination with the way other people keep house because I'm nosy and, to be honest, my house is always messy. Nobody really dusts, right? Is it okay that I take a nap almost every day when the baby sleeps instead of using that time to clean the bathroom? As my kids got older, they got more and more stuff, which they don't put away. So recently housekeeping has become a matter of survival. If you think I'm exaggerating you have never stepped on a Lego with a bare foot. Or almost passed out from discovering a sour sippy cup. Or exacerbated your sciatica by bending over for a balled-up sock. Perhaps I've said too much.

Luckily, there are experts who give advice and specific details about all of this stuff. I've read tons of books, but I've never fully embraced the lifestyles of these homemaking gurus. I finally decided it was time to get serious. So over the next three weeks I tried out three clean-house advice books. My inner domestic goddess was begging me to make her proud.

The House That Cleans Itself: Creative Solutions for a Clean and Orderly House, by Mindy Starns Clark

Clean? Orderly? Sign me up. The revolutionary idea in this book is that a "house that cleans itself" is a home that is thoughtfully designed so that doing the neat thing is as easy as doing the messy thing. Clark encourages moms to engineer convenience. And if you have a big mess that you just can't get rid of -- build a wall or buy a cabinet to hide it. I embark on my first non-cleaning experiment with high hopes and low energy, but Clark's cheery optimism inspires me.

Day 1 The first tip is to do nothing in order to see how dirty it gets and how fast. While I like the idea, the results of not cleaning are obvious after the first few hours -- total squalor. Blech.

Day 2 "Buy a notebook for my project." Fun! "Draw floor plans of your house so you can define spaces and determine flow?" Too hard! Remember, I'm reading this book because I'm lazy.

Day 3 I take a Prayer Walk through my home. That's right. Clark wants you to enlist God's help in transforming your place. I'm a Mormon, so nothing fazes me. My prayer went like this, "Dear Lord, please bless my kids to stop being pigs."

Day 4 Clark also recommends that you choose a home base zone and commit to keeping it clean no matter what. Think about what bothers you the most when it's a mess and makes you the happiest when it's clean -- that's your go-to area and if you keep it spotless, you'll get a little boost whenever you see it. I choose the kitchen sink as mine and get serious about keeping it clean and free of dishes. It works.

Day 5 One of Clark's many needlepoint-worthy truths, "Every possession you have, from the tiniest button to the biggest piece of furniture, takes with it a piece of your time," really gets me going. It's much easier to follow her purging regime when I think in terms of toys from Happy Meals, old stained baby clothes, and odd parts to games we never play as stealing precious minutes -- or in the case of my family's level of clutter, hours -- out of my day. Throwing away all that stuff is way more fun when I think of each bag as more time to relax.

Day 6 Clark says chores take only a few minutes. I time myself unloading and loading the dishwasher -- ten minutes! Interesting. Dreading the dishes all day takes, well, all day.

Day 7 By the end of the week I'm getting a lot done just by doing it. I testify to the truth of Clark's credo: "Don't sacrifice average daily cleanliness for perfect occasional cleanliness." Naturally tidy people probably already live this way and didn't need to stop cleaning to read a book, but it's an epiphany for me.

Bottom Line

This book will make you think about how your house is set up and how to make every-thing work better for you. Clark will convince you that when it comes to housework, there's just no virtue in doing things the hard way. Just do it the way that you need to do it in order to get things done.

The Messies Manual, by Sandra Felton

First things first: Are you a Messy? If you score from 1 to 3 -- with 0 as disaster and 10 as perfection -- on Felton's opening quiz, sadly the answer is a resounding yes. "Cleanies" are on the opposite end of the spectrum, earning anywhere from 7 to 10. Personally, I fall somewhere between 4 and 6, which means that I qualify, in Felton's terms, as an average housekeeper. Score! I can live with that. But then I realized that even if I have my act together individually, as a family we are collectively Messies. The kids are ruining my average.

Day 1 Felton says, "People do what you inspect, not what you expect." And she especially means your kids. Following her advice, I put everything that I wanted them to do in writing and created an inspection time. It was such a small shift in my MO, but it made a huge difference. It hardly took me any time at all to actually do it. (I kept my list small and manageable. At the top was Make Your Bed, as Felton recommended.) The kids, in turn, seemed excited to point out all the little extra touches they had done. Kids like having their work noticed.

Day 2 Felton suggests writing thank-you cards to your clutter before getting rid of it to help you let go. I decide to pass on this because, well, let's just be honest: It's weird. I'm not that attached to my old junky stuff. But I do take two bags of old clothes to the thrift store. Ahhhh.

Day 3 Felton has a great idea for home file storage called the Master Files List. You keep a list of where you've stored your paper files on your computer. This is a great because computer documents are searchable! You can organize or disorganize your files however you like. I decide to organize all my files and create a Master Files List. When I put everyone's birth certificate in a special box I won't feel anxious that I had put my valuables away someplace safe -- and not remember where.

Day 4 I decide to procrastinate making a Master Files List until my youngest starts first grade. I'll have more time to really focus. In the meanwhile, I go on a hunt for important papers.

Day 5 Felton explains that the way they clean George Washington's beautiful estate is to start at the front door and slowly work around the perimeter of every single room until the whole place is clean. Felton calls this the "Mount Vernon Method" and instructs us to clean and organize our entire house this way. Note: It took her three months to clean and organize her whole house. It is not a quick fix. I decide to try it.

Day 6 I give up on the Mount Vernon Method. It's too overwhelming. And I highly doubt that there were kids messing everything up before even one room is finished -- like mine are.

Day 7 One big shift in my thinking is Felton's concept that if a task requires 30 seconds or less, do it right away. Those blocks of time add up! And stuff isn't so crusty if you do it right away. Spending 30 seconds wiping the tub immediately after I take my 2-year-old out instead of leaving it for the morning saves me, according to my back-of-the-napkin calculations, at least five minutes. Hey, you do the math!

Bottom Line

This book is about the hard work of work. No shortcuts, folks. You just kind of have to do it. Boo! Felton focuses on changing your behavior, setting goals, creating habits, and avoiding procrastination. All good, but quite effortful. It is essentially the opposite of The House That Cleans Itself.

Organic Housekeeping, by Ellen Sandbeck

I saved this one for last because I was dreading it. Being green seems hard. But when I read, "The only real reason to do any cleaning at all is in order to maintain our health" my world changed. Epiphany time -- housekeeping doesn't need to be all tied up with emotions and guilt and interior decorating. Just do what you've got to do to prevent your family from getting Listeria and get on with your life. And then she says, "Suggesting that housework is fulfilling or satisfying?...?is disingenuous." Thank you, Ellen Sandbeck. You had me at housework isn't fulfilling. Most of this book is just plain good advice with less of an environmental bent than I expected. Sandbeck goes green reasonably and practically. It's not crazy green -- it's good, cheap, and sensible.

Day 1 First things first: I order a "Dutch Rubber Broom." Sandbeck talks about these incessantly. I must have one. They are available on amazon.com. Who knew? It seems so exotic. It's just a long broom with a flat scraper on the end with rubber bristles. You can use the rubber broom to sweep, or like a squeegee on your floor, or you can use it to push rags around to clean the floor, which led me to the second thing I need: rags. I rip and cut some old towels and clothes into stacks of rags to replace tree-killing paper towels. Pretty satisfying.

Day 2 Next I get my vinegar on. Sandbeck swears by the stuff. It doesn't smell good, but you can clean anything with it and when it dries the smell goes away. I miss the "clean" smell of typical cleaners, but you get used to it and you can't beat the price or the lack of chemicals. Sandbeck recommends hydrogen peroxide for disinfecting bathrooms, cutting boards, and any heavy-duty microbes you might be worried about.

Day 3 I'm just cleaning to make sure no one gets sick from living here and my house itself doesn't rot. That's it. I don't have to love it or embrace it. It's liberating. I am also developing a sort of Mr. Wizard ethos with my kids by using baking soda for everything from cleaning tubs to clearing out drains.

Day 4 The broom is here, and boy is it awesome! I may never mop with a bucket again. Psych! I never did in the first place! It's a lot easier to use wet soapy rags for quick cleanups around the kitchen than my grotty old sponge mop.

Day 5 Guess what? If you quickly dry your bathroom floors after a bath they won't grow mildew. I teach this principle to everyone in my house. It is received with little enthusiasm.

Day 6 The rag bag is full. It turns out that throwing socks into it is actually easier than throwing them on the floor and much easier than searching for mates. Who knew?

Day 7 Frugal living is making me cheap. $5.49 for a package of cleaning wipes? I can clean all the tile in my house for a week on a nickel. Oh, and sponges are really gross bacteria farms and it doesn't help to throw them into the dishwasher. Instead use a clean dishcloth each time you would reach for a sponge.

Bottom Line

Everything in this book is practical, inexpensive, and makes sense. I love the fact that you don't have to be a radical environmentalist to find the advice useful; but it's especially good for those who don't outright hate the earth.

After focusing on housekeeping for three weeks I think I am finally purged of my obsession with how other people do it. But I'm still not sure how I want to do it. No one routine feels completely natural to me. Though keeping things green -- even if my house is a total mess -- is something that has really stuck. But I did realize that I'm the type who's always trying new things, giving up, getting inspired, and trying again. I envy people who wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, and bake on Wednesday (without going insane by Thursday). But I can't do that. I'm not a Cleanie. I will continue to have my cleaning ups and downs and will probably laminate many more chore charts in my lifetime. The most important thing I learned from these books is that trying out new systems isn't a failure. And if we haven't gotten food poisoning and don't have mold growing anywhere, why, then, that is a success to celebrate!

Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.