Learning to see my own slovenliness
July 12, 2013 11:47 AM   Subscribe

How do you develop an eye for seeing messes and clutter before they get out of control?

I recently moved out of a truly filthy old group house with an absentee landlord. None of the 6-7 of us living there at any given time were particularly neat, and we let a lot of egregious mess-causing problems slide simply because there was no chance anyone would be able to fix them. (Combination of inattentive property managers, our poor habits, and a 100+year old poorly maintained house in an inevitable decline.)

Even after moving out, though, the filth and clutter-blindness habits I picked up are carrying over in unhealthy ways. My current housemate, understandably, is not pleased, and this is making my socially anxious, eager-to-please self very worried. The place I am living now is a temporary house-sitting situation; I want to find workaround for dealing with this issue before I move in with new roommates.

Examples from current living situation:

-Upon returning home after being gone for a week, my housemate immediately asked me to clean the stove-top. Once she pointed this out, it was immediate obvious that there were crumbs underneath the burners and some greasy build-up; I apologized, and she was totally fine with my clean-up job. During the week, though, I barely noticed. I cleaned the biggest, most obvious crumbs and that was that. It's not a matter of having put the chore off till later and then forgotten about it; I honestly didn't see.

-My old place had a pantry moth invasion last summer. I threw out a lot of food at that time, but I and everyone else in that house assumed the problem was over by the time I moved, and so I brought a lot of dry goods with me. Just today, my housemate noticed moth eggs on some of my food. I had to throw out or repackage a bunch of dry goods and do a thorough wipe-down of the cupboards. Somehow I'd missed the eggs entirely, or possibly been willfully blind to them because replacing all those egg-infested foods would/will be hella expensive on my tiny income. (My nutritional yeast! No!) I apologized profusely and offered to compensate for any of housemate's food that might have been affected; she declined this offer.

This is not a matter of developing strategies for cleaning; I know about going in short bursts, unfuck your habitat, flylady, etc. Once someone points out that something's dirty I'm more than happy to clean it. I just need to be able to see what to clean in the first place. I am chronically messy and can see the big messes that pile up in, say, my room, but my room is my own business. How can I see the medium-sized messes in places that affect other people's quality of life?

If it changes anything, I have depression that is severely messing with my desire to get up and even do things I like, let alone clean. Already in therapy and pursuing meds. Hiring any kind of cleaning help is not financially in the cards for me, now or after I move. (My parents have had cleaning help all my life; I suspect this is their way of compensating for similar clutter-blindness.)
posted by ActionPopulated to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A weird hack that works for me when I'm trying to get all the little details taken care of is to take a quick photo with my iPhone and then look at the picture. I think maybe I expect interior shots to look like home-blogs or something, but I find it way easier to see what's out of place or dirty when it's in 2D. (Also, taking an after-shot is REALLY satisfying once you've cleaned up!)
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 11:52 AM on July 12, 2013 [15 favorites]

You know, as long as you do it the first time you are asked, cleaning to other people's specifications is not a bad thing sometimes. Does your roomie know that your current policy is "my standards are not as good as yours, but I will happily try to meet yours"?
posted by Phalene at 11:53 AM on July 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think some of it is getting in the habit of quick cleaning even when things look clean -- like wiping down the counters and stove every time after preparing food, or rinsing out the bathroom sink every time you brush your teeth, or fluffing the pillows whenever you get off the couch, or whatever. Maybe think of it as pre-emptive cleaning?

Otherwise I just find that when I'm randomly waiting for things in the kitchen (coffee, microwave, water to boil), I tend to notice messes-in-progress. Depression can absolutely mess with your concentration, though, so I'd probably work on the pre-emptive thing rather than beating yourself up about not paying enough attention.
posted by jaguar at 11:55 AM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Every time you go to leave a room, stop and look. Spend 5 minutes picking up and wiping surfaces.

Also -- since most of what you listed was good related -- imagine you live with bears.

When you stop and look upon leaving the room, ask yourself "will the bears know I was here? Did I leave any trace of myself or food behind?"

They have an excellent sense if smell.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:57 AM on July 12, 2013 [17 favorites]

..wiping down the counters and stove every time after preparing food...

Nthing jaguar. When Mr. Getawaysticks and I moved in together, this was one of the first things I learned from him... actually just do a little cleaning as you go instead of having it snowball into a big mess.

I think I still have a long way to go and Mr. Getawaysticks is definitely irritated at my cluttery lifestyle, but that went a long way to staying more sane in the kitchen. (Thankfully, we have separate bathrooms...)
posted by getawaysticks at 11:59 AM on July 12, 2013

It's funny but some things make a place look way messy. For example:

- dusty, animal hair on the floors? = FILTHY
- crumbs on the counter, on the stove? = FILTHY
- dusty kitchen table? = FILTHY
- books stacked in a pile? = TIDY
- 10lbs laundry in a basket that is pushed neatly into a corner? = TIDY
- unmade bed? close the door = TIDY

Maybe agree with your roommate on key surfaces that will be kept clean, and look at those surfaces.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:02 PM on July 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Keep a list where grime tends to accumulate and make a point to clean these areas:

floor corners, floors in general

cabinets (especially around pulls and knobs)

stove surfaces -- knobs, top, door, handle

refrigerator -- inside on shelves and outside around handles

microwave -- inside and out

switch plates

doors, especially around handles

sink -- pay attention to area around fixtures and the drain


posted by Fairchild at 12:03 PM on July 12, 2013

Also, it may be helpful to think:

"If I were house swapping or having a guest over, would this environment be welcoming?"

"If I were selling my house and prospective buyers were coming through, would my house show well?"

It's also helpful to walk outside, take a moment, and enter your front door and look at your place as if you were visiting for the first time.
posted by Fairchild at 12:08 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Once someone points out that something's dirty I'm more than happy to clean it. I just need to be able to see what to clean in the first place.

I am exactly like you but I'm working on it.

You don't see it because it doesn't really bother you, so you have no need to look for it. The trick, I think, is to make yourself look for it. When you're leaving a room, take just a moment and make it a point to really look at the room with the mindset of a Clean Person. When I bother to do this, I will immediately say "oh of course, that counter needs wiping/those shoes need putting away/the pillows are a mess." If I don't do that, I will awaken from a week-long daze and realize that I have twenty cups in my room and the floors are covered in dust bunnies and my roommates hate me.

The suggestion of taking a photo of the room is excellent, that really works for me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:09 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I disagree with the suggestion to have your roommate ask you to clean whatever they want to be cleaned. No one likes to feel like a nag. Your desire to see the mess on your own is the right approach, I think.

Maybe you could sit down with your roommate (and future roommates) and discuss his or her standards, then make a list of tasks that you just perform at certain intervals whether you "see" the mess or not. Like wipe down the counters every day. Make sure the dishes are washed every day before bed. Wash the sink with Comet once a week. Spray down the shower once a week. Wipe down the top of the fridge once a month. Whatever it might be that works for both of you. Check these off daily until you get used to everything being so clean that any problem is immediately apparent.
posted by CheeseLouise at 12:10 PM on July 12, 2013

I find it useful to look at my house and think "would I want a hot date/my boss to show up unexpectedly right now? Could she look in the fridge/use the bathroom without being grossed out?" Because while *I* don't really notice mess, I see it, and when I think about it in those terms I know exactly what needs to be done.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:10 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My husband has the same problem you do. We have kind of worked out that he has to just have a mental check list for thing. So if he cooks part of that job is wiping the stove top and counter, as it can't be a habit he just makes a mental check list and goes through it. Just before he goes to bed he has a series of jobs he runs through (such as all his dishes in sink, check the dogs water, check if bin needs emptying) that sort of thing. Because he doesn't trust himself to just notice it he makes himself more conscious of it as part of his daily routine. We sat down and worked out what things really drove me crazy and he concentrates on those, in return I corral his dirty clothes to the laundry, do all the dishwashing etc.

Maybe you could sit down with your roommate and explain you want to get better, what 5 things bug them the most about how you are with cleaning or whatever. And then make a conscious list or even an actual physical list you check off every day that you do at the same time every day until it becomes a habit. Even if you remember it being clean or think it's clean if it's on the list just do it.
posted by wwax at 12:37 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

To be honest, I think some of this is just a learned habit. I grew up in an old house and we had mice and the occasional moth problem, which was traumatizing enough that I'm extremely particular about wiping down countertops (though not the burners all the time...oops) and about checking dry goods for signs of any bug issues. Everyone has their particular trigger when it comes to "dirty"-- I never make beds, but that freaks out my partner, so he does it if it's really bad. It sounds like you're being really responsive, which is great, and I'm sure it's appreciated. Everyone has different standards and sometimes it's hard to work out a good situation for everyone.

One thing that's helped is having extra surfaces down to help with stove crumb clutter, like making sandwiches on a spare flexible cutting board that can easily be lifted and cleaned. I also have a lot of rags/towels around, so it's easy to just grab one for any spills or just to wipe down surfaces after any kitchen activity.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:58 PM on July 12, 2013

I would favorite Sweetchrysanthemum's comment a thousand times if I could.

People get used to seeing things a certain way. Seeing them out of context - in this case, as a photo - really can make a world of difference. For me, what really works is dating. I don't know why, but when I may be bringing a date back to my place, I tend to see my place through a stranger's eyes and I really think about what I see - about the way my home represents me. Does it look the way I want it to look? And, if not, why? I don't have to do that anymore though since the changes I made ages ago made all the difference in the world... but when I first became single after a long term relationship, I remember the afternoon before my first 1st date as a single guy. I wasn't expecting to bring her back to my place (and as it turned out, I didn't), but I just stood there for a moment and looked around, and I suddenly saw my home as if through a stranger's eyes. And I learned a lot.

Also, +1 on the comment above about it being a learned habit. That's the real trick. Once you figure out what needs to change, you need to make a habit of whatever change you made.
posted by 2oh1 at 1:17 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am the same way, and I've really had to develop some strategies to deal with this now that I live alone.

You said it's not about unfuck your habitat, but UFYH has actually been super-helpful for me in this. I've been making it a goal lately to do one 20-10 a day (20 minutes of cleaning followed by a 10 minute break, for the unitiated). The thing is, if you do this every day, you get to the point where you're looking for messes to clean, because the standard do-the-dishes-put-the-clothes-away-organize-papers routine will eventually only take about 10 minutes (which was shocking in and of itself!). And that's when you'll start to notice stuff like the schmutz on the stove.

And if you get UFYH's smartphone app, it gives you a whole bunch of challenges, which is a great source of ideas for cleaning.

A few other ideas/thoughts:

- Do you have a chore schedule with your roommate(s)? I've found this is helpful because it lets you know when you have to pay extra attention to a certain area. In my old house, I pretty much never cleaned the toilet until we started a chore schedule, and then I'd clean it once a month because it was my turn.

- Try to figure out what your problem areas/times are make checklists for yourself. For instance, if you have a tendency to leave a mess after you cook, make a checklist of all the things you need to do once you're done with a meal (ie, put all ingredients away, empty trash if you filled it making dinner, do all dishes, wipe down surfaces). Or if you make a mess in the bathroom, make a checklist for your morning bathroom routine (ideas: check drain for hair, clean up after shaving at the sink if you're a guy, put away makeup/hair stuff if you wear/use it).

- Try to figure out the level of clutter that's acceptable in your house, which varies - some shared houses are fine with housemates' stuff being out, some are not. What do your housemates do? Do they leave books that they're reading or their laptops out? What about shoes/slippers, knick knacks, etc? Really take a look around and figure that out. If all the personal stuff out is yours, then you know you need to be conscientous about bringing stuff back to your room when you leave the house/go to bed/go to another room. Use your roommates as your baseline.
posted by lunasol at 1:18 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Run your hand over your counter. Is it smooth? If not, spray with cleaner and wipe with sponge. Scrub if necessary. Run your hand over it again. Smooth? No? Spray and wipe. The same with washing dishes. It's not enough to look clean - it should feel clean.
posted by valeries at 1:24 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the kitchen and bath, always wipe surfaces, and leave the sink clean. Sit down with roommate, ask what chores she hates, and do those. Then she won't mind some of the annoying little messes. There are a lot of cleaning lists on the web, so pick one and clean according to a schedule. You're cleaning even while depressed? My hat's off to you. Until I started feeling a bit better, my house was pretty bad.
posted by theora55 at 2:21 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've made it a rule that I must inspect horizontal surfaces in the kitchen and bathroom after I use either room.That means I'm definitely going to clean counter, sink, and stove unless, upon inspection, they are spotless. Psycologically it's very different for me than the attitude that I'll clean up if I notice water, toothpaste, crumbs, spatters, etc. Of course I don't actually scrub a clean surface, but I assume that there's probably something that needs cleaning.
posted by wryly at 2:29 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I made a rule that I'm not allowed to step over anything, which has helped quite a bit. If I'm walking through the house & see shoes/toys/random clothes, etc. I have to pick them up and deal with them rather than just treating them as a bumpier floor that can be ignored.
posted by belladonna at 3:07 PM on July 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe it's easier if you go all the way with it. Instead of trying to keep your place "tidy enough" to avoid total gross-out, why not look at cleaning as a way to actually bring delight to yourself and whoever might come by?

It's a nice feeling to know that you could invite anybody over and have them feel welcomed to a home that's taken care of, even decorated. Sweeping the floor isn't just a rote chore, it's a way of being kind...
posted by mbrock at 8:03 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

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