Overwhelmed by Housework? Start Here..

If you wake up in the morning and are absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tasks of the day - cleaning, cooking, childcare, more cleaning - tasks which are never actually completed for more than ten minutes at a time, then you are in good company. Somewhere between our Grannies' generation and now, there was a break in the tradition of training up children to run a house. We have made great strides in equality in the workplace, but instead of training up young men to be equally good at housework as young women, we abandoned the idea of 'housekeeping' as a worthwhile endeavour at all. So today we are almost three generations away from an era when everyone 'instinctively' knew how to keep house, because it was modelled for them every day, and they were expected to do their part from early childhood.

So this week I would like to offer my version of a housekeeping routine that I came to rely on after many, many years of living in complete chaos. I wanted to create a kind of housekeeping blueprint, so that if you want to, you can set up your laptop on the kitchen bench and just follow instructions throughout the day. You will need to tweak it to fit your own schedule, but if you do everything on the list, I guarantee your house will be clean and daily life will be less overwhelming.

But first, I want to be very, very clear about something - the most important thing to remember about housekeeping is that cleanliness is not next to godliness.

If you are a person who is kind to animals and other people and yourself and the planet and sometimes have secret thoughts in meetings about how stupid meetings are, then you are a perfectly adequate human being.

If you are a human being who is a parent and your children are well nourished and you love them, and you are teaching them to be kind to animals, other people, themselves and the planet, and how incredibly interesting bugs are when you look at them very, very closely, then you are a perfectly splendid parent in every way.

And even if your house looks like an episode of Hoarders and your children's socks never match and you can't ever find the keys, it is not a reflection on your character. Just saying. However, housework is a huge and amorphous problem for so many of us, a task without beginning or end. So much of it is in your head. A constantly changing list of cleaning and cooking and shopping and organising priorities that never gets less in number, no matter how much of it you accomplish, because dirt and hungry tummies keep on coming back. And it can be depressing and miserable to live in mess and, and being disorganised can make you very, very anxious, with vague nagging worry as a constant companion.

I wrote the other day a bit about my very slow personal journey to a place where I am at last comfortable and confident as a housekeeper. I was born messy, with a large capacity to cope with chaos and dysfunction - right up until that very moment that I snap, and have a shouty breakdown. Even before I had children I was chronically disorganised, and I collect things, mostly precious pieces of paper that I NEED. I married a man who collected Useful Things that he could build with, and yards and yards of technical magazines. Neither of us had a real grasp of order, forward planning, or even Picking Things Up Off the Floor. Oh, and then we had four children. And we homeschooled them. And we renovated our house ourselves while we lived in it. The potential for mess, clutter and the most appalling perfect storm of shouty breakdowns was almost unlimited.

At quite a low point in my life I felt I had to change something. Well, everything actually, about the state of our house, its clutter, cleanliness (or lack thereof), and the dreaded moment at four o'clock when everyone starts asking what's for dinner.

Being me I approached the problem in a typically inefficient manner. I wrote down everything I could find in old novels about housekeeping. I read vintage housekeeping manuals. I interrogated my organised friends. I began to see a pattern emerging. There are jobs that need to be done every single day to keep the house running smoothly. There are a number of jobs that can be assigned one day a week to keep the house reasonably clean. There are other jobs that only need to be done periodically, but that would drive anyone insane to remember and list them, and get around to doing them, but not doing them means the house is never properly clean. It is important to look at the week and month ahead in order not to have scary surprises. It is important to know what you are eating a week ahead so you only have to shop once. Important pieces of paper have to be corralled somehow, and acted on so the machinery of modern life does not grind you into the ground.

I slowly came up with a plan that covered all of these contingencies, that I can do without thinking nowadays. I feel that this is a very important reason for having a housework routine. Because otherwise you get up each morning and have to decide what the priorities are, and every new day starts with depressing decisions, choosing between a plethora of tedious necessities. With a routine set in stone, that element of energy-sucking decision making is taken away. It might sound boring to go through the same round of chores every day and every week, but for me it has been liberating. Without that element of housework-dread taking up head space, there is so much more creative brain space available for things I really want to think about and accomplish. And now I almost never lose my keys, although my glasses still mysteriously disappear..

A word about menus. Monday mornings I write a menu and grocery list, and do the shopping for the week. Here is some news for those of us who might get sidetracked by food blogs, pinterest, TV celebrity chefs and other, sometimes unrealistic food role-models. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot cycle through the same dozen family meals forever. In our modern global, wealthy societies there is so much choice, and the expectation that we can and should have an endless variety of life experiences, including new and 'exciting' recipes night after night. We forget that two generations ago our grannies had a roast dinner every Sunday lunch, which was recycled throughout the week as cottage pie, hash, then soup. Vegies and fruit were whatever was in the garden, the local shop, or preserved from the summer harvest. There is nothing wrong with that pattern of eating. There is also nothing wrong, of course, with cooking exciting family meals every day, if you want to and have the mental energy to devote to it. If you want to spend your energy on something else, don't feel guilty about serving repeats of your family's favourite meals ad infinitum. They will probably be pleased; they may not even notice!

Here is a list of meals that is practically all my family ever eats, unless I suddenly have a brainstorm and try something new. Here is a possible fortnightly menu that you could circulate until someone complains:

Spaghetti  Bolognaise with salad
Curry (meat or vegetarian), rice
Jacket potatoes with bolognaise sauce and salad
Chops/sausage/meat or veg burgers and vegies
Pumpkin soup, bread, apple crumble and custard or icecream
Burritos, chocolate cake
Stiry fry and rice or noodles
Quiche with vegies or salad
Spaghetti carbonara
Roast and vegies
Chili con Carne and Rice, Corn, Salsa, Sour Cream, Guacamole, Salad, Chocolate Self-Saucing Pudding
Meat and vegie stew with mash, Apple Pie

If you cook double dinners each time you make dinner during the first week, that will give you dinner in Week Three as well, and so on. To anyone who loves cooking this will be rank heresy, but that's OK, because we don't all have to be brilliant at everything.

Now the next thing I need to say is that I am a Stay at Home Mum with all my kids at school. My situation may be absolutely similar, or markedly different to yours. If you are at home with babies or small children, the reality is that your house will never be tidy for more than ten minutes at a time. But take heart from the fact that the jam smears on the wall will be this week's jam smears, not last month's! And staying home with tiny children is sometimes (let's face it, shall we?) mind-numbingly boring, but whizzing around the house with mop and broom while they trot around behind with the banister brush, and making folding the washing into a colour sorting game is much more fun than actually playing proper colour sorting games or watching children's television. It will take much longer to get things done this way, but at least some of it will get done rather than not, and every step forward is progress! And the next generation will be learning about housekeeping..

If you are home with a new baby for the first time, resist the urge to run around and do housework while the baby is sleeping. When the baby is sleeping, you need to nap too. When the baby is awake, it can do housework with you in the front pack, or sit in its little baby capsule and watch you with its beady baby eyes while you clean the bath. Babies like to watch something going on, and like to watch you more than anything.

If you are working full time, the weekly jobs may have to wait until the weekend, but if you can keep up with the daily jobs, weeknights will be so much more pleasant. And if you work full time, with or without a family and have a great routine that works, we would all love to hear how you do it (and how you divvy up the jobs)!

And if you are a working single parent, you are simply a superhero. If you find something to help you here, I will be humbly thankful that I could help, but really, you can only do what you can do, and if you can't do everything, something has to go, and it is much better to not clean the light fittings than not go to the soccer game.

Now the first two days of this routine will be hard work, but will break the back of the housework for the week, and then will be mainly maintenance until the kitchen cleaning on Friday. There is grocery shopping on Monday, errands on Thursday, and finding space to complete house projects on Wednesday (decluttering, anyone?). And your weekends will be free to do whatever you want to.

I have deliberately made a very detailed plan which may look a little obsessive-compulsive, but I wanted to make a kind of housework blueprint. The idea is to be able to sit the lap-top on the kitchen bench and read out the jobs, and just do them. No thinking, no decisions. At the end of the week, evaluate, and see if you want to make any changes, switch days to suit your own schedule and commitments.

Tomorrow morning will be especially busy for anyone new to a housework routine, so if you want a slightly easier morning, you can get a start on it this evening. Do the dinner dishes until there is nothing left on the sink. Wipe over the stove top and kitchen benches. A quick tidy around of the living area will make everything seem so much better in the morning.

Let no-one convince you that housekeeping is not hard work, or can be magically accomplished in fifteen minutes a day. However, it need not be overwhelming, and you can, really, create a calm and pleasant home environment that is welcoming to come home to, is uncluttered and filled with your favourite things. You can make your home be whatever you want it to be, a safe refuge, a creative space, somewhere that happy memories are made. Onwards and upwards!

Find my housekeeping routine here but before you start, have a look at The Real Reasons We Are Overwhelmed by Housework.


Heather said…
I've been pondering my own housework routine. I can't wait to see what you come up with. I know there is nothing wrong with repeat meals, but when I find myself repeatedly serving pulled pork, tacos/burritos, spaghetti, and stir-fry almost every single week because they require no thinking on my part, I start to get a bit antsy about our meals. It's possible that I just need to get over it.
Jo said…
The question is, does the family get antsy over it? My children, and husband, love eating their favourite meals all the time. Very occasionally The Girl gets bored and makes us something new, and it's a gala occasion. Do you get antsy because you want to try something new? Or because you feel guilty that you ought to be making something new? For me it's usually the latter, and I get over it!
I've implemented a menu - Mexican Monday, Italian Tuesday, Vegie rich Wed (stir fry, curry, salad), Eggs based Thurs and roast Sunday (as Fri and Sat is often out at our young age). The BF is fine with it, as each category has a heap of variety within it. It's radically reduced the 'what's for dinner' texts/emails/chats! So that's a happy new addition.

As to housework, OMG - I listed my 'tasks' last night - I'll photograph and blog it this week in tandem with your posts. The petulant child said that some things are 'a thing' - like clearing and wiping down the coffee table. My retort? How long will old plates and wine glasses be there then?! I get that I have 'higher standards' but that's not one of them (imo). I also suggested giving up my six figure salary, and then I WOULD do it all (only fair really). Not sure I'll be handing in the resignation letter - he doesn't want to pay the rent alone :p

Waiting with bated breath already!!
Jo said…
I would love to see your household routine Sarah - anyone else like to join in?
Hilarious that your significant other thinks clearing table optional. My 19yo son and I have similar conversations!
really looking forward to seeing what you do, jo - and what your other readers do.
my routine goes out the window in winter time - i realise i get a bit of the winter blues and find it hard to be motivated when it's so dark. i'm trying to do more during the week after work,so i have some free weekend time!
but if you can find a way around vacuuming - it is absolutely the thing i hate most, and tend to neglect. i would rather scrub the toilet with a toothbruh than vacuum.
i agree with you that we get hung up on having exciting new meals all the time -it's impossible. i like to try new things of course, but i'm all for having a hndful fo 'go to's. i've realised the cake bakign is where i am happiest beign experimental.
i'll be re-reading this post - you had so many good things to say, jo.
enjoy your week.
Jo said…
OK e, I have some suggestions for you re vacuuming. Rip up all your carpets and rugs, and use a broom instead (nippy in a Tassie winter!).
Buy a really stiff banister brush and sweep up mini messes. Ditto dust buster type vacuum cleaner.
Don't wear shoes in the house.
Never eat anywhere with carpet...
And you are the baking queen! Keep experimenting! And love your main meals as well. On the odd occasion I try something new, it's usually something of yours. Thanks!
We've been away but once the kids are back to school and we're back to more of a routine I look forward to trialling some of yours (in place of my very haphazard approach to housework!)
Anonymous said…
I too am a natural born slob, born of a mother who kept the house functionally clean and mostly tidy (aside from the mountain of ironing) whose father also hoarded every singe nut, bolt, screw and nail he came across in little matchboxes stacked up in his shed. My father also hoards everything under the sun but is completely OCD about what goes where. Anally retentive clutter. I too have my elements of neuroticism and ocd but seriously, can't keep anything tidy for very long. I have the genetics and life habits to back it up I tell you.
I am also slowly learning to drag my family from the filth and I am adamant my kids will learn to do chores now so that they can transition into adulthood and moving out of home without having to learn to keep house too.
I completely agree that we have mostly failed to learn/teach how to keep house and that this generation isn't much better. We have far more gadgets to help us to do things, so-called labour saving devices but we have much less time in which to do things still. I think, as you say, dedicating set times and days to doing certain jobs does make all the difference. It's about taking control of the mess.
Washing and the kitchen are my biggest areas of fall flat. I've just loaded the dishwasher with the assistance of Mr 5 who unloaded everything he can reach to put away and then loads the cutlery for me. Miss 3.5 emptied the cutlery and often helps with the cups. Mr 2 closes the dishwasher and helps press all the buttons (usually when we don't want them to be pushed). I also get the older two to help with loading and unloading the washing machine and they help put away their folded clothes (sort of). They also tidy up their toys too. It does sound like a lot for little people but I believe they are a part of our family and as thus we all work to keep the house functioning (I won't say tidy as we aren't there yet). Looking forward to reading the rest of the housekeeping posts.
Oh, and one of the things I love most about your blog is that you keep it so real, being honest about the mess and chaos. I can relate so very much and I figure if you can homeschool 4 kids and learn to keep house then there is hope for me too. :)
Jo said…
Mmmm, homeschooling creates all the chaos, I won't lie. My house is SO much tidier now they all spend at least 6 hrs a day at school!
Looking back, I should have done what schoolteachers do - factor in cleaning up time for every activity when organising a schedule, and ALWAYS finishing activities at least half an hour before leaving the house. And prepping kids the night before just like I do for school - so that they have everything they need for outside activities, snacks prepared for days out etc.
Please feel free to benefit from my hindsight!
And congrats for getting your kids to help so early. Mine always had terrible tantrums about regular chores until they were at least 6. Posy still does at 8. But then, she's Posy... we are not so much Little House on the Prairie material most days.
Jen said…
regarding vacuuming, two words that will save your life: roboy vaccuum. I have a Neato and it saves my life! I run it multiple times a day in the kitchen especially and I haven't had to sweep in months. if you search around online you can find a good deal. They are an investment, but it is the best housekeeping investment I ever made.
wickedredhead said…
Basically single (the noisy, hairy one works 17-18 hour days, including weekends), full-time working Mom with two teenage girls and one autistic 3-year-old boy, who's the size of a kindergartener, but does not talk at all. I am feeling waaaaaay beyond overwhelmed. I feel like I am failing, miserably. I want to cry, all the time. Just sit down in a corner and lose it, for hours upon hours. I don't have the energy or the ambition, or the drive to do anything at all, most of the time. When I do, no one notices, and there are two new messes to replace the one I cleaned. I am so tired. Of everything. I don't know what to do.
Anonymous said…
Wickedred I think we can all relate to your post. It helps me when I find the kids a babysitter (usually hubby) and go for a walk or run. It's a tough time in our lives but I think it's worth it, will be nice when the kids are older and when we can enjoy our grandkids and then send them home HA! All those math and science courses I took when I should have been taking every home economics course ever offered, why didn't I get a degree in cooking or something. I will make sure my daughter is prepared for reality.
Jo said…
Dear wickedred, you are way beyond overwhelmed, and my heart just goes out to you on this one. Some days, weeks, months, years, are just too much to cope with, and we just do the best we can, day by day. I bet you are doing that. I bet that even though you undoubtedly sit in the corner and cry, that you get up again and go to appointments with your son, and try to help him navigate his way through life every day, and you deal with all the issues of teenage girls and try and try and try... Mums around the world are all the same, and all amazing, and some need to be tougher than others. You are doing it pretty tough.
Some years, like when mine were all tiny and I was home schooling, you can only possibly do the basics. Food, dishes, laundry. That's it, morning chores which take all day. Pay the teenage girls to clean the bathroom and do the vacuuming. Even done badly, it's better than not getting to it. My teenage girls are getting better and better at this. Repetition!
So, five minutes at a time. Do a job for 5 minutes, and even if nothing else gets done all day, those tiny 5 min increments will have an effect.
I really am so sorry I missed seeing this comment - I have been doing a certain amount of crying in corners myself over the last months - but if you ever come back here, know that I am thinking of you:)
Jo said…
And anon, you are so right. What I really needed was courses in child wrangling and making dinner and school lunches. Anglo saxon poetry just didn't cut it in my post-university life.
Robert Roe said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
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