Why a Simple Change in Your Cleaning Routine can Make Good Habits Stick

I’ve attempted to use a cleaning schedule before (y’know, once or twice!)

It usually plays out in four stages:

  1. I find a schedule on Pinterest that I think can work for me. One that doesn’t sound too crazy, that lines up with what I want to do, and when I can do it.
  2. I’m an “out of sight, out of mind” type of girl, so I make it background on my phone so I can’t possibly ignore it.
  3. Everything goes great for the first few days. I’m keeping up and feeling confident that this is my new normal. Then someone has a cold, or we have a string of doctor appointments or my energy level tanks.
  4. A few days go by, and I realize that I’m way off track. I look at the dishes, the dog fuzz, the mail starting to collect. My week of hard work seems like it’s down the tubes.

Here begins the negative feedback loop. I ask myself “why this is so hard for me?” I fret that other people don’t have these problems. “What is it that’s so hard about keeping up a schedule a few minutes a day?” I ask myself.

Then, I tell myself, “I’m going to catch up on all three days I’ve missed. Tomorrow! I’ll get it all done first thing tomorrow!”

And that my friends, is the death knell of my cleaning schedule.

Has this scenario happened to you? Did it stress you out as it does me?

I totally get it.

The Problem with Rigid Daily Cleaning Schedules

I don’t use a cleaning schedule anymore for a few reasons. When you grew up in a hoarding environment, simple tasks look and feel a lot different, and so the approach to tackling them has to be different as well.

Mostly, this approach breaks down for a few reasons.

Fluid Schedules don’t Jive with Rigid Cleaning

I’m a busy mom with a lot of responsibilities: Three young children, an elderly mom who doesn’t drive, and freelance writing clients who depend on me to make deadlines and work on concepts. Every single day looks different in my calendar. It makes it hard to keep pace with a rigid schedule, and harder to meet all the demands around you (including those we place on ourselves). The cleaning schedule doesn’t care if all three kids had the dentist and the car needed an oil change. It can’t account for changes in schedule or occasional appointments or activities, which means the cleaning schedule you adopted in September might be totally wrong come November.

Executive Function Challenges and Rigidity don’t Mix

When you have executive functioning deficits or other functional challenges (such as depression, anxiety, pain management issues, or CPTSD) every day looks different internally as well. There are days when I wake up ready to take on the world. I get way ahead in my to-do list, and I feel like I have a good handle on things. It feels awesome.

There are the days where everything looks like The Impossible Task. These are the days I’m holding on by my fingertips, just trying to do right emotionally by the people I love.

A rigid daily cleaning routine doesn’t care if you slept horribly, have a particularly triggering or draining day, or face daunting physical challenges that make “Scrub the Bathroom Friday” a non-starter. The daily schedule leaves no room for the fluctuations some hoarding or trauma survivors face seasonally or even from day-to-day. Using a rigid schedule may be incompatible with your abilities, your energy level, or your focus. 

The High Price of “Failure”

The third (and potentially deadliest) issue with a rigid daily cleaning schedule is my perfectionism. (An irony not lost on you, I’m sure!)

As is the case for many children of hoarders, part of my overwhelm comes from a struggle with perfectionism. I get sucked into the details— and when I perceive myself as having “failed“ it takes some doing to recover and get traction again.

When I look at a goal and realize I’ve totally missed the mark, the emotions I experience can get in the way of recovering my equilibrium, getting things done, etc. As someone who deals with managing the link between the condition of my house and my sense of self-worth, the potential pitfalls of a daily cleaning schedule make it a less desirable option for me.

However, having structure is important for getting things done, so how do I find a balance?

In my case, it came down to creating a game-plan rather than a schedule. To do this, I make use of a habit tracking app. For you, this may look like a bullet journal, a project management platform, or even a spiral-bound notebook with notes and reminders.

I find a habit tracker works well for me if I use it appropriately by keeping the “streak” mentality under control. (That’s a post for another day!)

A Different Way to Cut the Clutter and Clean House

A daily cleaning schedule probably works great for many people. I am not one of them.

For many years, I thought that because I could not follow a cleaning schedule, I was probably doomed to live in clutter and disarray. It wasn’t until I learned to work with the ebb and flow of my energy level, the needs of my family, and my own accommodation model that things really started to change for the better.

Instead of subscribing to a rigid policy of “Tuesday means fresh sheets and wash the kitchen floor?” I now set myself weekly goals using a habit tracker app.

This allows me to work within my energy level, my schedule, and my bandwidth at any given time. It lets me keep an eye on the things that need doing on a daily or weekly basis without setting myself up for failure.

Here are some tips on using a habit tracker to build your house cleaning chops over time:

Start small. You can’t remedy the overwhelm you feel in your home by translating it to overwhelm in an app. Add a few high priority goals (for instance, my first was “Clean sink at bedtime.”) and set yourself a 60% goal for that item. When I didn’t get the sink empty every single night, I felt a sense of failure. But if I could get it done five nights out of seven? I knew I was doing better than I had the week before. Tidying is like bodybuilding. You don’t clean and jerk 100 lbs. your first time at the bar. Progress over perfection!

Add as you go. Give yourself at least two weeks to grow those first two goals into solid habits. Once you become comfortable enough to conduct them without consulting your habit tracker? You know you’re ready to add another. This will help you gain rhythm over time that is sustainable.

Don’t be a hero. Using a habit tracker meant to allow you (alone) to fit everything in. Find ways to incorporate help from your spouse, your family, or even outside sources. For instance, if you just can’t keep up with the flow of laundry in your house and you can budget for it, consider outsourcing your wash/dry/fold duties to a laundromat that offers pick-up/drop-off services. Put your energy where it can make the most impact.

Expect and accept setbacks – you are not perfect and you don’t need to be. If your tasks slide, use these prompts to evaluate and move forward:

  • What did I do instead?
  • Why did I get off track? Did my responsibilities change?
  • Was I healthy this week? Was my family? Was something sapping my energy?
  • What else did I accomplish? What went right this week that I can be proud of?

By using these questions to get a handle on your feelings and limitations from week to week, you can effectively get away from negative thought patterns, allow yourself to more easily get back on track, and feel confident in your plan and your abilities.

Let me know how habit tracking works for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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