Inside: If you’ve ever felt like you can’t stop obsessing over a clean house, there’s hope. I used to be the queen of neat freaks, compulsive cleaner to the core. Here’s how I let go of the impossible clean house standard and reclaimed my time and my sanity.
I used to be obsessed with having a clean house, especially when I was a stay-at-home with very young children. And this was before Instagram hit it’s peak, and unattainably clean, beautifully decorated homes were a finger flick away on the tiny computers in our back pockets.
Crazy that this demographic – moms with young children – tends to obsess about clean houses the most, when their season of life makes a clean home more out of reach than ever before.
So why was I so obsessed? It could have something to do with the perfectionist in me. I’ve always been a neat and organized individual who enjoys tidy spaces.
Or it could be because I grew up with parents who seemed, at least to me, to be constantly cleaning, even when they were dead tired.
It might have a lot to do with the fact that the faith community I was a part of at the time regularly connected cleanliness to godliness.
The message went that if you couldn’t even manage your own house, you probably couldn’t do anything amazing for God (or anyone else). Oh, and for stay-at-home moms particularly, giving your husband a clean house to come home to at the end of the day was the best gift ever.
Nothing like a little shame and guilt and rules to turn you into the energizer bunny of cleaning.
And that’s really what I was like – I cleaned all.the.time.
So what changed? How did I go from a person who couldn’t sleep at night unless everything in my home was neat and tidy and put away and clean, who would clean until I literally dropped from exhaustion, to one who doesn’t need a perfectly clean house anymore?
Related: 10 Things I Stopped Doing That Made Me a Happier Mom
7 Things I Did to Stop Obsessing Over a Clean House
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I’m sharing everything I did to let go of the clean house obsession because honestly, life’s too short to keep obsessing over a clean house.
I want you to experience the same freedom I’ve found.
1. Believe the truth that mess is morally neutral.
When you believe that mess is bad and clean is good, you set yourself up for a whole lot of shame and guilt when you can’t keep your home mess-free.
And friend, there will be seasons of life when maintaining a clean house is impossible, even if you tried your darndest to make it happen.
Why? Because these things called houses that we live in are actually homes, as in, real people actually live here.
They eat, breathe, play and sleep here. And in our case, work and learn here, too.
When all of that happens in a home, messes are made on the regular. Like every ten minutes in our house.
Maybe some will disagree. They’ll tell you that with the one touch rule, or enough routines and habits and schedules, you actually can have a clean home all the time.
And maybe that’s true…for some.
But if you have a chronic illness, or you have young children (or a lot of children), or you homeschool, or you are a naturally messy person? What about then?
When we set this impossibly high standard of clean houses for all people and tie morality to it, bad things happen. Always.
Tell yourself (over and over again if necessary) that mess is neither good nor bad, and you are neither a good or a bad person for being unable to – or just not wanting to – keep a perfectly clean/tidy house at all times.
Related: Yes, Your Kids Do Watch Too Much T.V., And They Will Be OK
2. Ruthlessly value your time and energy, and ditch the “should’s”.
My big breakthrough came when I started to value my time and energy, to care about what I wanted, not what society (or my community) told me I should want or do or think.
What I realized was that I was spending all my spare time and energy cleaning, and there were more than a few things I’d rather be doing with that time.
And more importantly, I decided it was more than ok to do those things, instead of clean the house. I gave myself permission to let go of tasks I once saw as essential.
- Making the bed.
- Folding clothes.
- Dusting regularly.
- Mopping regularly.
Ultimately I embraced the reality that life is too short to waste on should’s.
I gave myself permission to read the book, write the blog post, spend time playing with my kids or watch a show with my husband. The cleaning could wait.
I finally understood that no one else was going to fight for me to have free time to do the things I loved. What was holding me back the most from having that time was me.
I was the one who was obsessed with a clean house – not my husband, not my kids. I had to cut tasks, make a realistic cleaning schedule (for a homeschool mom) and create time for myself.
Related: Why I Don’t Make My Bed – & Scientists Support Me
3. Decide for yourself what cleaning tasks to prioritize, and create routines and habits around those limited priorities.
Once I set myself free from the idea that messy equals bad/evil/lesser and clean equals good/better, and freed myself from external standards of clean, it was time to decide what I wanted to prioritize.
I knew that I wanted clean kitchen counters and a relatively empty sink at the end of the day because I love waking up to make coffee in a clean kitchen.
(But that doesn’t mean my kitchen is clean all day; in fact, it’s not because we do all the tidying at the end of the day, not as we go.)
I also knew that I wanted clean bathrooms and vacuumed carpets in our main living areas once a week. So these tasks are now on weekly rotation for me. They take about 15-20 minutes a day.
Time-Saving Tip: If a task like cleaning the bathroom is taking you double that time or longer, try writing down the order in which you’re going to clean a space. Decide the order in advance and always do it that way, every single time. It can help you to move faster and more efficiently if you don’t need to decide all over again each week.
I tidy the rest when I’m motivated to do so, and enlist the kids’ help, also when I feel like it.
I have a small sunroom that stays relatively tidy, so if things like sickness or busyness or holidays push the rest of the house to borderline chaos, I can go there to sit and rest before getting the house back to my baseline definition of clean.
If it’s possible to keep one small area (a corner counts) or room tidy always, do it, especially if you are someone who can only truly rest in a tidy space.
Their bedrooms are their own, and I occasionally work together with them to tidy up, although they don’t get overwhelmingly messy on a regular basis because we decided to…
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4. Own less stuff.
This is probably the second biggest thing that helped me stop obsessing with a clean house. I decluttered and adopted a minimalist lifestyle. I gently encouraged my children over time to do the same.
When you own less stuff, you can be messier if you want to, or if that’s your natural bent. That’s part of the beauty of minimalism.
If there are a few toys on the floor, it doesn’t bother me anymore. I can be around mess, drinking my cup of coffee and reading my book in peace, without compulsively getting up to put things away because there’s just not that much stuff.
Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but for me personally, it was a huge reason I could stop compulsive cleaning all the time.
Related: Where to Start Decluttering When You’re Overwhelmed by the Mess
5. Run from social media & magazines that glorify clean houses.
You don’t need me to tell you that if you open up Instagram right now and scroll for 30-60 seconds, you will see no less than three clean house photos.
You don’t need to be told that when you buy that Better Homes & Gardens magazine, it will be filled with perfectly clean houses that are completely unrealistic or lived in.
We’re women. We know this.
So why do we keep turning to social media and magazines, when they constantly make us feel bad about ourselves and our homes? I’m sure one reason is that it offers a semblance of connection in a disconnected world.
But that semblance of connection you find on social media isn’t worth feeling horrible about your home all the time. It’s not.
If you need to keep social media, as I do for work, at the very least clean up your feed. Unfollow and unfriend accounts that make you feel bad about your home (and therefore, yourself).
As for magazines, I gave them up when I realized the tiny bit of inspiration and joy they gave me wasn’t worth the obsession for clean and new and beautiful they triggered. I could live without them and simply stopped buying them.
Social media and magazines rarely bring a deeper connection to your own intuition and standards. They can inspire you…but often to someone else’s version of success and accomplishment and standards, not your own.
If you truly want to stop obsessing over a clean house, it’s probably time to let go, at least for a season while you figure out your own values and standards.
6. Differentiate between clean and tidy.
It’s possible to have a clean house without having a tidy house. As I mentioned earlier, I clean bathrooms and vacuum weekly, so my house is relatively “clean”.
It is far from tidy all the time.
If you think you’re obsessing over a clean house, it’s possible that you’re actually obsessing over a tidy house. There’s a difference.
If you have a simple cleaning routine and dishes aren’t piled up from five days ago, you probably already have a clean house…it just might not be “tidy” all the time.
But why does that even matter?
Knowing the difference helps me mentally to remind myself that yes, my house is often technically clean (relatively, of course, because well, it’s all relative), even if it’s not always tidy.
7. Be thankful for the seasons of life when you’re forced to prioritize.
If you found your way to this article, you most likely love a clean house, and you might even genuinely enjoy cleaning. But sometimes life gets in the way, am I right?
I reached my breaking point when I had my fifth child, was working from home part-time AND homeschooling, and my husband was studying every spare hour for a credentials exam while working full-time.
I just couldn’t keep up with the picture perfect clean house anymore. Something had to give, and I decided it sure as heck wasn’t going to be my sanity or my family.
I was forced to choose.
I could work less, spend less time with my kids, have less time for myself (which was already slim)…or I could embrace a less tidy, not as squeaky clean house.
I chose to let go of impossible tidy/clean house expectations. And I know that one day, when it’s just my husband and I, and maybe an adult kid or two, our house will probably be a lot tidier.
Today is not that day. Today I have a very limited amount of time.
So today, I choose self-care. I choose my family. I choose my work. All of those things are more important right now than a clean house.
When you’re in a season of life with very little margin, you are offered the gift of clarity, the gift of choice. The question is what will you choose?
Will a clean house stay at the top of your priority list? Even at the expense of your own mental or physical or financial health? Or will you be able to knock it down a few notches, at least temporarily.
Always remember: you get to choose.
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Consider This Your Permission to Stop Obsessing
I’ll leave you with this story.
Several years ago now, I caught up with a good friend who has similar perfectionist tendencies. This friend also loves a clean house and works hard to keep it that way, often leaving her exhausted.
She shared with me about one of her recent counseling sessions. In this particular session, she was particularly distraught about whether or not she had time to make the bed or fit in anything else on her intense cleaning schedule.
The counselor asked her, “What would happen if you didn’t make the bed today?”
It had never occurred to her that she could choose to not make the bed. It took an outside voice questioning her inner list of “shoulds”, someone else giving her permission to stop making the bed she always thought she had no choice but to make.
She realized that the world wouldn’t end if she didn’t make her bed. The bed would still be there every night to sleep in, just with the covers already pulled down.
She stopped making the bed the very next day. She let it go and filled that time with something that mattered more to her personally, that gave her joy.
So in that same spirit, I give you permission to stop. Stop being a slave to a clean house.
Take some time to recalibrate, to rest, to throw away the cleaning schedule. When you’re ready, come back to this list and work your way through it.
It will still be here, waiting for you. Take all the time you need.
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This is literally so hard for me. it’s so hard to ditch the SHOULDS, but I love this advice. Fantastic advice for moms like myself who have OCD and oftentimes prioritize a clean house over connection!
It’s almost 3 AM and I am laying wide awake in my bed with my 1 year old (who’s sleeping soundly on my arm) while my 7, almost 5, and 3 year olds are also sleeeping (and a husband who fell asleep on the couch…there he shall stay as all attempts at waking have failed, ha!) and I can’t stop reading your blog!!! I came here by way of a google search for “I can’t wake up before my kids” because, well, that. You speak to my soul! I work from home and take care of my kids all day too. And we are homeschooling in the fall. And I constantly feel like a failure on so many fronts! Part of it is expectations from my husband BUT I know a lot of it is internal. And I’m letting go! I’m done. I refuse to feel guilty any longer. THANK YOU for your against the grain perspective and your life giving words. I will get up when the kids get up (8 or 9 or SHOCK 9:30), I will clean when/if I can, and I will enjoy my kids and the special job I’ve been given of raising (and educating!) them (even if that does involve more TV
Time than I like 😉 ). I will continue to follow you and the raw real life that you share. For now, I should probably find sleep.
Love that you’re keeping it real! It is important to realize that ALL the seasons of life can’t happen at the same time, so live in the one you’re in.
Thanks Audrey! One day, I’ll have a clean house again.