Conquering the Invisible Mess
February 3, 2014 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to keep my apartment cleaner. Problem is, I don't really notice the mess.

While reading Organizing from the Inside Out, I ran across this quote that explained why some people don't clean: "They actually don't see the mess, either because they are not as visual as you, or because they're simply focused on other things. Creative people are very inwardly focused, and forever preoccupied with new projects and ideas...either way, the mess is invisible to them. That's why when you're screaming at them to clean it up, they often look at you in wonderment, head cocked to one side as if to ask, 'What mess?'"

This is totally me. I'm certainly a creative type, and I spend a lot of my time in my head. I know my apartment is littered with dirty spaces, and I honestly don't notice them. I'm happy to clean them as soon as someone else tells me about them, but it would be nice to get to them before that. I live with my boyfriend and I don't want him to feel like he has to nag me to clean.

I'm actually fairly organized and relatively tidy, so it's mostly dirt and grime that I struggle with. You know those people who are messy but not really dirty? I'm kind of the opposite. Here are some things that I didn't notice until others pointed them out to me:

-Grime all over the toilet
-Dust lurking on the bookshelves
-Cat hair on carpet and furniture
-Food going bad in the fridge*
-Dirt on the floor
-Spills that I never noticed or cleaned up
-Forgotten laundry in the back of the closet
-Oil on the walls in the kitchen

TL/DR: How do people notice these things? How can I figure out how to see the things that bother other people? I'm looking for simple life hacks, schedules, and systems to deal with the Sisyphean home chores that I would never, ever think to do if left to my own devices. After a lot of dedicated work I'm pretty on top of daily things like sanitizing the counters after cooking, making the bed, and cleaning the cat litter; periodic tasks are the thorn in my side because they're harder to schedule and structure. Before you suggest it, I find Flylady cloying, but I do like Unf*ck Your Habitat.

*I've gotten much better with the food now that I've started to keep my fridge less full, and corralled "lunch stuff" and "perishable stuff" into clear acrylic bins. Hacks like this one are exactly what I'm looking for.
posted by therumsgone to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I just pay someone else to do it.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 10:38 AM on February 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Your BF can clean, can't he? Other then that, schedule a cleaning at an interval that makes sense to you and just do it.
posted by pyro979 at 10:39 AM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Laundry is easy. Clothes come off and go 1 of 3 places. The dirty clothes hamper, the pile by my side of the bed (which my wife hates but that's another issue altogether) or in/on the washer if they're really bad.

The other stuff can be scheduled as well. Clean the toilet on Tuesdays. Doesn't matter if you think it's dirty, clean it anyway. Have you ever heard that in a restaurant if you want to look busy you should start sweeping? It's because there's always something on the floor that can be swept up. Likewise, if you haven't cleaned the toilet since last week there's going to be something there. No matter how clean you think it is.

Spills that you don't notice are a bit trickier. Really though, the easiest time to clean a spill is right after it happens. So if you spill something clean it up as soon as possible. And I don't mean watch that episode of Sherlock first, I mean put that hot pot down and then get to it.
posted by theichibun at 10:39 AM on February 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Photograph the place and compare the photos to online or magazine photos of clean, tidy spaces.
posted by jgirl at 10:40 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I want to say it's Home Comforts, but I'm not positive since I can't find my copy ATM, but I had a book at one point that actually had some checklists for things that needed doing and how often they ought to be done, and I think that's really something a lot of people need. I'm very sensitive to stuff like how clean the toilet is, but I have friends who clearly don't notice those things despite being tidier people than I am. At some point you might just need a recurring thing on your calendar: Once a week, surface cleaning in the bathroom/kitchen. Once a month, check the fridge for food that needs to go in the trash. Once every couple months, walls in the kitchen. Then your calendar can ping you even when your dirt-sense fails.
posted by Sequence at 10:41 AM on February 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm looking for simple life hacks, schedules, and systems to deal with the Sisyphean home chores that I would never, ever think to do if left to my own devices.

All you need is a schedule, and no one can tell you one that will work for you, because home cleaning schedules are based on 1) free time, 2) the size of your home, and 3) how quickly things become too dirty (whatever that means for you).

If your home is already really messy, start with a schedule to get everything really clean. Try getting rooms clean in a day, with a break between rooms. If that's too much, do a room a day per weekend.

Then set up a time-table for weekends or evenings, when you have time (and some will) to get such chores done. Then you can spend a mere 10-15 minutes tidying up, instead of having to Clean All The Things.

As for how to tell if something is dirty, it's easy to tell if something is dirty by wiping the surface with your finger or a cleaning product (cloth, paper, sponge, etc.). You will see the accumulated stuff on the wiping surface, and the clean streak on the dirty object.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:41 AM on February 3, 2014

I want to say it's Home Comforts, but I'm not positive since I can't find my copy ATM, but I had a book at one point that actually had some checklists for things that needed doing and how often they ought to be done, and I think that's really something a lot of people need.

There are a ton online. Here's a Google search, and here's list chosen at random that has been copied on blogs a ton. Here's the text of the list:

  • make beds
  • Wipe down bathrooms
  • sweep after each meal
  • dishes/dishwasher
  • wipe kitchen counters after each meal
  • laundry
  • vacuum main floor
  • open/file mail & school papers
  • entire house pick-up
  • vacuum uper level and basement
  • vacuum under couch cushons
  • dust
  • mop floors
  • wash sheets and towels
  • empty trashes
  • wipe down kitchen cabinets
  • clean glass
  • deep clean bathrooms (toilets, floors, tub)
  • kitchen: burners, microwave, drawers
  • wipe down kitchen chairs
  • vacuum out and clean windowsills
  • dust ceiling fans
  • wipe down vents
  • clean fridge & freezer
  • wipe down exterior and interior doors
  • wipe down switches
  • cycle clean washing machine & dishwasher
  • clean oven
  • clean out garbage cans
  • sweep out garage
  • wash bend quilts
This is someone else's list for someone else's home and priorities. Make your own list based on your own priorities.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:49 AM on February 3, 2014 [17 favorites]

I love Unfuck your habitat for this kind of thing. Warning: many swears.
posted by woodvine at 10:50 AM on February 3, 2014

"Problem is, I don't really notice the mess"

That was always my intuitive assessment. And lately it's been proven by psychological experimentation. It's perceptual.

I see it (clearly!) the moment I know someone's coming over. At that moment, I turn into Super Cleaner. Like a maid on steroids.

So I schedule people coming over as often as possible. Especially people I'd be ashamed to let see a cluttered living space.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:51 AM on February 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's a thing I've learnt recently. I have to clean something in order to see it dirty. Or rather, not to see it, but to be able to do something about it.

If I'm an average person looking at a hill, I think "oh, nice hill". If I'm a climber, I'll think what it's like to climb it and to have climbed it.

I've recently moved to a new place of my own and haven't tackled the bathroom limescale yet. I see it fine. For me limescale is quite a normal feature of a house ("oh, nice hill"). I know it'd be better if I did clean it, but I haven't yet seen what the result of that cleaning is like.

On the other hand, I descaled my kettle. WOW. Clean kettle. Nice. Didn't take long. Now I'm likely to do that next time I see limescale buildup on my kettle.

It's a very different thing seeing a task to be done but not knowing what the result of that task would be like or how you'd accomplish it (wow, look at that limescale. I guess it'd be nice it weren't there. I don't really know what's involved in getting it off and how long it'll take. I'll have a look sometime. It'll do for now) to seeing a task to be done (hey, a hill/scaly kettle), knowing what the result of the task would be like (hey, the top of the hill, nice views/clean kettle) and how you'd accomplish it (climb the hill using knowledge x, y and z/follow kettle descaling instructions with this citric acid I've got here).

I know intellectually that some other people's houses have clean floors, limescale-free bathrooms and so on, and I know that when a floor gets really dirty or a bathroom really scaly in someone else's house that really does make it feel like a grubby, scummy place to me, and that I'd like to do better than that in my own environment. The question is then learning the ability to feel like I can do something about the signs that I see when I look.

As other people are saying, you have to look. This bit is simpler. You can do it on a schedule. You don't have to develop a spider-sense and catch everything the very second it gets dirty. Just do it as soon as you notice, and if you notice food's going off in the fridge because you've read a note on your fridge that says 'it's Monday, check fridge for food past use-by' that's fine. That's soon enough. Keep notes from this thread and from what other people say to you as to what sorts of things you should keep an eye on (fridge, bookshelves etc).

You're going to struggle with ignoring the notes in the same way that you ignore dirt and grime (hi, me) but it's the start of an experiment. Eventually, by cleaning things as you notice them, however you're prompted to notice them, you'll build up that association between seeing a thing that's dirty and cleaning it. Your response when you see a dirty thing will be to clean it. And that will make it a hundred times easier to see dirt. Because you know you can do something about it.

It's a learnt practice, and it's a slog, and it's easier to live dirty. But if you get that association switch from 'ignore it' to 'clean it' then you'll have a CLEAN PLACE. And it'll be wonderful. Really. Clean things look and feel nice; interacting with your environment without guilt and stress is even nicer. You can do it.
posted by lokta at 10:56 AM on February 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

If scheduled cleaning isn't in the cards, what about scheduled photo comparisons?

1. Divide your apartment into zones (kitchen, bedroom, whatever)
2. Clean each zone, then take a photo--this is your ideal "clean zone photo"
3. Once per week (e.g. every Sunday morning), compare the "clean zone" photos to reality. Or if once a week is too much, do one zone per week.
4. Make reality match the "clean zone photo"

If you don't like the zone idea, you can take ideal photos of specific things instead like the toilet, or the sink, or the tub, etc. Compare, contrast, and clean!
posted by skye.dancer at 10:59 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the messes that accumulate predictably over time (toilet, bookshelves, floors), here's what I do:
Step 1: I use a to-do list app (Things) and check it almost every day.
Step 2: I set recurring to-dos for these things, based on how often they get dirty.

It doesn't automatically make me clean these things at the proper time, but it sure does make me aware of how often they SHOULD be cleaned!
posted by kidbritish at 11:03 AM on February 3, 2014

I respectfully disagree with lokta. (I'm a Certified Professional Organizer, so your issue, OP, is something I hear quite a bit.) If you were my client, the first thing I might ask you is, "Do you wait to notice that your body is dirty and your mouth is stale-tasting, or do you regularly shower and brush your teeth?" Most of what we do is not (or should not be) based on waiting for things to get dirty and then cleaning them, but creating rituals and systems for attending to things that, while less interesting than the things that fascinate us, are nonetheless essential.

Wait until the sink is full of dishes and you'll procrastinate even after you notice; rinse every dish as soon as you use it and then put it in the dishwasher, and you'll never have to think about whether it's time to do it. (While yes, there is a certain level of satisfaction of fixing something broken or cleaning something dirty, someone who doesn't notice that things are dirty will have a less keenly developed sense of that kind of satisfaction.)

Try to think of how you attend to other tasks. Do you only do them when you are triggered by an emergency? In theory, you should have a schedule for paying your bills rather than waiting to "notice" they are due. In theory, you should have a trigger for when you fill the gas tank (when it hits 1/2 full, or when it's Tuesday, or whatever). Life is a series of If-Then statements; "if I just finished dinner, then I'm washing up" -- once innate -- means you won't spend time putting off doing it because it's no more a choice than brushing your teeth. (If you don't brush your teeth, please don't tell me. )

Action precedes motivation. While effort at achieving mindfulness might help, you're better off just setting up lists and alarms until you are in the habit of X (e.g. wiping off the surfaces in the bathroom after each use, cleaning up the entire kitchen after dinner, putting everything away before going to bed, etc.) If food goes bad in the fridge, you need at least one day per week (in theory, in the hour before you go grocery shopping) to go through the fridge, empty out what needs trashing and writing down what needs replacing.

You might need to post lists and set alarms (or use the apps recommended above) to remember this, or have your boyfriend help you develop schedules that make sense for your schedule. (He doesn't need to nag you, but if he knows you tend to collapse on the couch after dinner, he may be able to point out that if you guys BOTH don't move from the kitchen to the couch until the dishes are done, the gravitational pull of his presence will get the dishes done.) Most people find that if they develop rituals, they will eventually do things automatically, but you may need alarms and reminders forever. Don't take that as a loss any more than needing an alarm clock to wake up from sleep.

posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:11 AM on February 3, 2014 [31 favorites]

Scheduling is all that works for me. My specific system, in case it would work for you too, is recurring reminders in Remember The Milk for various tasks on various schedules, plus a widget on my phone so every time I turn my phone on I see what's due that day and am motivated to cross off an item or two. Whatever I don't finish that day, automatically pops on to the next day's list, and eventually I get sick of seeing it every day and get it done.

Since I know I'll never remember to schedule every little thing, I also have a recurring daily reminder for a 15-minute clean-up. I can't use that time to knock that day's other stuff off the list; I have to look around the house, find one or two things that aren't on my recurring chore list but need decluttering/cleaning, and work on those things for 15 minutes.

It's not a perfect system and my house isn't as clean as I wish it were, but it's gotten a lot better since I started doing this, and some of the things have become routine so I don't really even need the reminder anymore.
posted by Stacey at 11:26 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the schedule thing doesn't work for you (and I highly recommend it especially as you are living with another person who has equal responsibility to pitch in) is to always do two things:

1) Assume everything could use a cleaning right now, even if it looks clean

2) If you have time to lean, you have time to clean. This ties into the above in that you fill your idle time with small cleaning tasks. Example, standing in the kitchen waiting for your coffee pot to finish brewing? You can wash a sink-load of dishes OR wipe down the counters OR muck out the microwave in those few minutes. Pick one, do it, get your coffee.
posted by jamaro at 11:29 AM on February 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why do you want your apartment cleaner? What does cleaner mean to you?

Figure that out and set specific goals.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:33 AM on February 3, 2014

Periodically, I will make a formal list of "Things I don't see anymore", walking around looking for busted, misplaced, dirty, dissheveled, things.

Now and then I'll work the list down a bit.

Not hard. Life doesn't have to be boot camp. Just keep at it. Realize it gets whack some times, and that it's a human habit to acclimate to a stable environment. Use whatever tricks like these you need to get to a place you feel is good for the amount of effort you want to expend.

You are what you are. I wouldn't date an untrainable slob, but plenty of people would. I am sure you aren't one, but you and I both are on the same spectrum... along with everyone else.

If it helps... i segment places in to private and public, shared and personal bins. If it's a public, shared space, I keep it clean. If it's private and personal, it's mine and I can let mushrooms grow there if I wanna. If it's private and I share it with a mate, it gets intermediate scrutiny. Generally, the public spaces are only allowed to be disorderly briefly.
posted by FauxScot at 1:05 PM on February 3, 2014

Seconding the idea that the best, most efficient hack for this is "paying someone else whose job it is to notice these things."

If you can afford it, even having somebody come in once every two weeks to "reset" your apartment is absolutely wonderful.
posted by modernnomad at 10:18 PM on February 3, 2014

I don't notice how messy my house is until I know someone is coming over. Then I suddenly see the mess VERY CLEARLY and go into a frenzied cleaning mode. So now I play a game in my head that I have a visitor on the way and clean accordingly. It is weird the things that I don't notice if I don't do this.
posted by futz at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2014

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