Right now, many of us feel stir-crazy inside our houses. The walls are caving in. The normal everyday clutter might be getting to us. We also have a need to make our environment less of a haven for germs, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local doctors recommend.
Where to start in all this mess?
Let’s start with the basics of where to prioritize to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting to limit the survival of the virus. Cleaning removes germs, dirt and impurities on the surface, which helps lower the numbers of germs. When you disinfect, you’re using chemicals to actually kill the germs after you’ve cleaned. This helps lower the spread of infection.
Focus first on cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that get touched often, such as light switches, doorknobs, tables, desks, toilets (especially the handles), other handles, sinks, faucets, hardbacked chairs and remote controls.
Wear gloves as you are cleaning if you think you might have any kind of virus going on in your house, and then wash your hands after you take your gloves off.
Clean the surface with a detergent or soap and water before you disinfect.
After cleaning, you can disinfect using products such as Lysol or Clorox (your product should say disinfectant on it). With any disinfectant, let it sit for at least 10 minutes so that it has time to kill the germs.
If you can’t find a commercial disinfectant, use an alcohol solution that is 2 parts 70% rubbing alcohol and 1 part water in a spray bottle.
"Simply Clean" by Becky Rapinchuk offers this recipe:
1 1/4 cups water
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup rubbing alcohol
15 drops essential oils
Put it all in a spray bottle. Spray the surface and let it sit for 10 minutes before wiping.
You can also use bleach, but open the windows if you do, and know that it can cause discoloration or other damage to surfaces. The ratio is 5 tablespoons of bleach to 1 gallon of water or 4 teaspoons of bleach to 1 quart of water.
The CDC also recommends cleaning all carpets, rugs and drapes with cleaners made for those.
Wash all clothing, bedding and towels in the hottest water possible. Don’t handle laundry without gloves, don’t shake it out, and wash your hands afterward. Also, disinfect the laundry basket in between loads of laundry.
Time to declutter
Even if you’re not feeling the need to disinfect everything in sight, you might be feeling the need to clean around the house.
Right now, 1-800-JunkPro, which helps families clean and has rentable dumpsters, has experienced an increase in calls for its rentable dumpsters. "It's basically made people either spring clean early or clean things they haven't cleaned ever," says 1-800-JunkPro CEO and President Mike Davis.
Davis says if you decide to use this time to clean out things you no longer want, work from the back of the house toward the front, where a dumpster would be located.
They rent dumpsters for three days and seven days, starting at $273 with additional days costing $10 a day. "Most people can get it done in three days," Davis says.
And you don’t have to come into contact with anyone when you rent one. They’ll drop it off and pick it up without entering the house.
A little bit at a time
If you’re not doing a whole house declutter, start with one task that is doable. It could be something that is really bothering you or is in the most need, or it could be the simplest job. It might be one drawer or one closet. Don't start with the hardest task.
You want to be able to get it organized quickly and feel like you've accomplished something so you can move on to the next task.
"It gives you the oomph to keep going," says Leslie Byer Rosner, a professional organizer in Austin with Found Space Organizing.
Once you've decided where to start, put other tasks out of your mind.
Different professionals have various cute acronyms for how to organize spaces, but they all follow the same principles:
Decide what you want the space to look like
Have a vision of that closet neatly organized. You don't need to map it out just yet, but you'll have the goal in mind when the organizing gets tough.
Know what you have
Before you start buying organizational systems online, figure out what you have and if you need it. Pull everything out and start sorting like items together. Do this quickly and don't get caught up on whether you need something. That's for a later step.
"The reason we do this is to identify what duplicates we have," says Angela Ploetz of Round Rock, a professional organizer with the Posh Space and the blog Girlfriends Get Organized. "You might have five jars of peanut butter, two partially used, one empty and two new."
Perhaps you share the unopened ones with friends or donate them.
If you get stuck on how to sort, Rosner advises to think about broad categories and then narrow it down. It might be all makeup together first, then later eye shadows in one pile and lipsticks in another. Or you might sort by function and put all the pedicure supplies into one space.
"It's going to get worse before it gets better," Rosner says of sorting. You'll probably cover the floor with piles of things.
Evaluate your stuff
Often we've heard about making three piles: keep, toss and donate. Add another pile: keep, but doesn't belong in this space. It's great to have a basket for each family member, or a basket for each room. That way you can return the items you want to store elsewhere at one time.
People often get derailed, says Deniece Schofield, author of "Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life."
People waste time by putting items away in the other rooms rather than tackling the room they are working on. Often they don't finish any room at all.
If you're stuck on whether to toss something, Schofield recommends keeping a box for uncertain items and placing it in a not-so-easy-to-get-to location. If you haven't needed it or used it in six months, then you know it was worth tossing.
Rosner suggests if you get stuck on any step because of a particular item or group of items, take a break. Get something to eat, or phone a friend and talk through your dilemma. You might find you actually know what to do.
Purge what you don't need
This is when you take your toss pile and truly toss it or your donate pile and truly donate it. If you are someone who can't make a decision, call a friend to help you do it, or a professional for help. You want to make sure you're not just moving what you have around, Ploetz says. (Call ahead or check websites to see what and when groups are accepting donations.)
If you're really struggling, use Schofield's method of the uncertain box. Date the box, so you to know how long ago you used these items.
And if you are really struggling with deciding what to purge, you could toss it all and start over.
Decide how you'll use remaining items
Things that you use all the time should be in the easiest-to-reach places. Items that are for special occasions or used in a pinch should be stored in higher places or behind items that are used more often.
Find the right containers
Often you have the containers on hand, but you just don't know it: shoe boxes, egg cartons, plastic spinach bins, ice cream buckets, margarine tubs and lunchmeat containers. If you decide to buy containers, know exactly what needs to go in each container, how big the items are and how big the space is before you hit the online stores.
For the endless flow of paper, such as mail, Schofield uses a bin or a box. She also had special bins where kids would put their schoolwork or notes they needed parents to see. Ideally those bins are right by where the backpacks are.
You might need several bins for bills. One could be just for action items (i.e. "pay me, please"); another could be for things that just need to be filed. Keep a shredder and a recycling bin nearby for junk mail and duplicates of forms.
Pantries, drawers and shelves can get messy quickly. Use drawer inserts for utensils. Tie together items like appliance cords with ponytail holders. Use a shelf riser to create two layers of plates or bowls when things don't nest together or to extend your space. Consider slots for lids and cookie sheets to store them vertically rather than horizontally.
Think about hanging things rather than stacking or shoving them in a corner. Ploetz built a cleaning supply wall unit by hanging pegboard covered with fabric. Now the broom and mop get hung on that board, and she added bins for smaller items.
Instead of stacking towels or swimsuits, add hooks in the laundry room and bathroom. You can get more towels hung and in a less messy way with a hook rather than a towel rod. Magazine holders are great for neatly storing office supplies like paper, folders, envelopes and more. Each magazine holder can have its own supply, or you can group them together in one holder.
The back of the door is your friend. Buy hanging shoe racks and store electrical cords and office supplies on the back of the office door. In the laundry room, store small cleaning supplies like different sponges and rags.
In the bathroom, you could store makeup or hair accessories on the back of the door. In the closet, store jewelry, socks or maybe even shoes.
A good time for labels
Now you get to put everything back in their new containers. Labeling is especially important if you live in a house with other people.
You can use Post-it notes or tape and marker or just marker. You also can get an inexpensive label maker or buy label stickers and feed them through a printer. In the closet, you can use hangers with labels on them to divide your clothes by type.
Put your containers away
You are now ready to clean up and put everything in its place. In closets, hang the clothes with the hangers going backward. When you use an item, turn the hanger the right way. That way, in a year or six months, you’ll know exactly what you wore and what you didn’t. Once you're done, take a picture to remind you and your family members how it looked.
Keep it up
Remember that picture you took. You could print it and put it in the drawer as a guide for others to follow. You also can avoid slipping back into bad habits by spending a few minutes every day doing a sweep of each room and returning items to their proper places. And while you're looking for one item, if you see another item out of place, quickly return it to the right place.
Don't spend a lot of time overthinking it or fuming about who did what; just make the correction and move on.
You’ve decluttered; now, let’s clean
To help with these tips, we consulted Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Austin-based Branch Basics cleaning products; Meagan Gates, brand manager of Austin-based Lemi Shine products; and Rapinchuk, who is known as the Clean Mama and wrote the book "Simply Clean: The Proven Method for Keeping Your Home Organized, Clean and Beautiful in Just 10 Minutes a Day."
Let’s start with the idea of spending only 10 minutes a day cleaning. Possible? Perhaps. Rapinchuk has a very strict regime. Every day she does a load of laundry, cleans kitchen counters and sinks, loads and unloads the dishwasher and makes the beds.
Each day of the week also is a special day. Monday is bathroom day; Tuesday, dusting day; Wednesday, vacuuming day; Thursday, floor washing day; Friday, catch-all day (or things you didn’t get to); Saturday, sheets and towels day; and Sunday is a day off except for the daily cleaning tasks. She also has a rotating schedule of when bigger things like baseboards, washing windows and decluttering get done.
Her house is never completely clean on the same day, but if people are coming over, she says, she can run around for 10 to 15 minutes and get it all clean.
Her book has a how-to with checklists of when to do what if you’re going to use her method. It also has DIY cleaning solutions to save money on cleaning supplies. It’s inspiring, but I never got past the first week.
Do less work
Follow these rules:
Go from the ceiling to the floors, and go from the top floor to the bottom floor. That means when dusting you dust the ceiling fan, then work your way down to the top shelves to the furniture to the bottom shelves.
When sweeping or vacuuming, do the farthest corner of the top floor, down the stairs to the diagonal corner of the bottom floor. Bring the trash can to you as you sweep rather than carrying the dust pan to the trash can.
When cleaning bathrooms, clean the mirrors to the counters to the toilet to the floors.
Do the easy stuff first
You don’t want to stop before you have started because you’re discouraged. If you have the glass shower from Hades that has a level of soap scum that needs serious scrubbing, make that a day’s project rather than something you think you can do at the same time as the rest of the house. Think about what you can do quickly to get a basic level of clean: counters, toilets, floors.
Nelson also recommends doing the bedroom first because that’s where you spend the most time breathing in the air. It also can be germ heavy.
A go-to cleaner is a vinegar and water solution with essential oils to cut the vinegar smell (note that this is not a disinfectant, but if you add rubbing alcohol to it, it can be).
If you’re dragging cleaning products up and down stairs or from one end of the house to the other, stop that. Create two or more different cleaning caddies with the same products in them (this might be something that can’t done right now, as stores limit quantities so there are supplies for everyone). Consider having multiple brooms, multiple vacuums, multiple mops.
When doing laundry, bring hangers with you. Why fold clothes just to put them on the hangers? Instead, take clothes out of the dryer and put them on hangers. If you don’t have a clothing rod in the laundry room, you can use the molding around a doorway for hangers while you are hanging up clothes. Think of ways you can simplify all of your cleaning tasks.
Let the products do the work
If you’ve ever read the back of a cleaning product (I bet you spend all your time doing that), it might tell you to let the product sit for a few minutes. Do it. Rapinchuk taught me to spray down all the mirrors, counters, toilets, showers and tubs in my bathrooms before coming back and wiping them down. The extra minutes help loosen up all the grime, especially in the showers. No scrubbing for me. That also gives time to kill germs if you use disinfectant.
Put your appliances to work
Did you know your washing machine might have a self-cleaning mode? Use it, usually after you’ve done the laundry for the week. Also use the self-cleaning mode on your oven.
You also can use your appliances to help you clean. The dishwasher is great for sanitizing cleaning tools like sponges and spray bottles as well as cleaning plastic toys and washing baseball hats. Wash your microfiber cloths and mop heads in the washing machine (just don’t use fabric softener or they will lose their absorbency). Wash your reusable gloves in there as well.
Make sure to maintain your appliances as well so they aren’t mold collectors.
Divide and conquer
Repeat after me: Children are in charge of their own rooms. They also can start learning to do laundry and clean bathrooms. Everyone in the house needs something for which they are responsible. Also, make it fun. Crank up the music and dance around and it will go faster.
Don’t forget the daily maintenance
Squeegee the shower after everyone showers. It prevents soap scum from building up. If someone is sick, use separate bathrooms if you are able or disinfect between showers.
Empty the dishwasher and fill the dishwasher as needed.
Clean the kitchen counters at night with cleaner, then disinfectant. Right now you might need to do that more often.
Do a load of laundry a couple of times a week rather than letting it build up.
With your newly clean, decluttered house, perhaps social distancing at home won’t feel as difficult.