Sam Holstein

How to Clean Your House When Your House Is a Total Mess

How to Clean Your House When Your House Is a Total Mess

People who keep a clean house often act like keeping a clean house is easy to do. They will even look down on people who don’t have a clean home. But for many people — the disabled, the mentally ill, the single parent — keeping a clean house is a serious challenge.

For people like us, I’ve written this guide to cleaning. It’s a step-by-step guide that breaks down picking up into clear, easy steps. If your house is a mess and you’re totally overwhelmed by it, this guide will put you on the right track.


If you’re like many people, you probably think “cleaning your house” is about making the bed, wiping the countertops, and vacuuming the floor. But if you’re low on emotional energy, spending your cleaning time doing these types of cleaning tasks can be a waste of valuable resources. These tasks may get rid of crumbs on your floor and make your bed look nice, but they don’t address the source of the mess that holds you back in life.

The source of the mess that holds you back in life is the clutter. It’s not the crumbs on the floor, it’s the random piles of stuff in the corner of every room that you will “put away soon.” It’s the dirty laundry scattered across your bedroom and the charging cable you can never find when you need it most. If these things weren’t a problem for you, you would love to spend time at home, even if there were twigs on the floor from when you last went for a walk in the park.

My bedroom carpet needs vacuumed sometimes and my shower stall gets dirtier than I care to admit. But my reading chair is always empty and the end table next to it always has a clear surface, ready for a book and a cup of tea. That’s far more important.


A couple of notes before getting started:

  1. These steps are organized to start with the easiest, highest-impact activities and end with the most time-intensive ones. If you only have time for a few of the steps, only do a few. Don’t beat yourself up about not cleaning to completion.
  2. Do not advance to the next step until you’ve finished the prior step. Scurrying about the house in a scatterbrained way is a big reason many people spend lots of time cleaning but accomplish little.

As you do these tasks, remember to check everywhere. Look behind the couch and underneath the coffee table. Check behind your home office desk and underneath your bed. When you don’t check these places, clutter will build up there like driftwood.


Part 1: Picking Up

#1: Throw Out Trash

Trash is the easiest thing to clean. You don’t need to make any decisions about whether you’re keeping trash or how to store it. Just throw it away. Takeout boxes and cups, discarded wrappers, little balled-up pieces of paper that have fallen, even the tiniest pieces of trash lying around — throw them all away. 

Some people wait to throw away trash until the end of their tidying process. I’ve never understood this. How can you tell what needs tidying when there is takeout trash everywhere?

Get rid of the trash so you can move on with a clean slate.

#2: Take Dishes to the Kitchen

I’m not a mindful eater. I often grab accessible food and eat it while playing video games or laying in bed. Mindless eating habits aside, dishes have a tendency to pile up around me. Many ADHDers, the autistic, and other neurodivergent people struggle with similar problems. We don’t mean to let things pile up, but we do.

Before cleaning the rest of your space, hunt down all the dishes and take them to the kitchen. You don’t have to wash the dishes right now, but you do want to make sure they’re not in the way in the rest of the house. 

Taking all the dishes to the kitchen also allows you to see all the dishes you need to wash. It’s easy to think you don’t have many dishes to clean, only to realize that once you’ve brought all the used cups and small plates in from around the house, you actually have a lot of dishes to do. 

#3: Put Clothes Where They Belong

Find all the dirty laundry and put it in the hamper. Find all the clean laundry laying around and put it away. Find all the coats and hang them on the coat hooks. Put clothes where they belong.

If any of your clothes don’t have a designated space, create one. Buy coat hooks for your coats. Use command hooks to hang your belts, hats, and scarves on the wall. Find a hamper big enough for the amount of dirty laundry you accumulate.

Articles of clothing move around often in a home. Giving them a designated space to live makes it possible to tidy your home.

#1b, 2b: Throw Away Trash and Put Dishes in the Kitchen (Again)

If you’re doing more than a quick tidying, you’ve probably found more trash (and possibly more dishes) by this point. Nearly everyone has receipts jammed in their pants pockets and small wrappers buried under dirty laundry. 

As you find these errant trash items and dishes, take them to their proper place. Don’t let them pile up and get in your way.

#4: Put Food Where It Belongs

Dieticians say not to do this, but many of us let snacks wander around the house. Boxes of rice crackers live on our end tables and tasty candy in our desk drawers. 

Storing food where it doesn’t belong decreases our ability to find the food we want when we are hungry and increases our chances of binge-snacking in an unhealthy way. Don’t let animal instinct get the best of you. Take all the food and put it where it belongs in the kitchen.


Part 2: Decluttering

#5: Gather up Your Paperwork

Unless you’re a pretty organized person, you likely have paperwork scattered around your house; a receipt you want to keep here, an invoice from when the car was serviced there, a pile of letters from when you checked the mail, that sort of thing.

Go around your house and find all the paperwork. Don’t worry about sorting it or dealing with it right now. Just make a big pile. If you have an inbox tray, decorative box, or even just a cardboard box you can put all the paperwork in, so much the better.

#6: Put All Your Cables and Gadgets Away

Everyone has gadgets and cables these days. They’re a necessary part of modern life. But most people don’t have a particular strategy for dealing with cables. They leave cables lying around, or they shove them into bags and boxes until they are a snarled mess. Then they shove those bags into the back of drawers until they are forgotten about forever. Then they spend another $10 to buy another cable on Amazon.

My office desk has a large drawer meant for filing paperwork, but since I scan and shred all the paperwork I’m not legally required to keep a hard copy of, this drawer has no particular use. I use it to store all of my gadgets (like headphones, flash drives, and extra mouses) and many, many cables.

Years ago, an Apple store representative taught me a killer way to store electronic cables that ensures they never, ever get tangled. You don’t need any rubber bands, ties, or clever tricks. It’s one of the most useful tricks I’ve ever learned.

  1. Pull your cable flat. Then fold it in half. You should hold both ends of the cable in one hand and the middle of the cable in the other.
  2. If the cable you’re storing is long and thin (like a six-foot iPad charger), fold it again. If it’s long and thick, or if it’s short, do not fold it in half again.
  3. Tie the cable into an overhand knot. Here’s how
This is an overhand knot. You already know how to tie one, I promise. Source.

When cables are tied like this, they don’t come unwound. They don’t tangle with other cables. Most importantly, you can see both ends of the cable easily, so finding the cable you need is a breeze. 

All my overhand knotted cables are carelessly thrown into the same drawer, but I can always quickly find the cable I need.

#7: Put All Your Books Away

Some people have bookshelves they use to store their books, but others just keep their books in piles all over the house. This may make you feel good about yourself — “Wow, I’m such a reader, look at all these books all over my house!” — but on a practical level, it’s difficult for you to know how many books you have if they are not gathered in one place.

Gather all your books in one place. Put them on a bookshelf if you have one, but if you don’t, at least stack them all in one place.

#8: Put Away Everything Else

You probably have interests. Maybe you paint. Maybe you love to ski. Maybe you have a fascination with decorative lego sets. The stuff you need for these interests is probably scattered around your house right now.

You also have other stuff you need for life. Medicine bottles, bandages, extra toilet paper rolls, paper towels, and other life stuff.

You know the drill. Find it all and put it where it belongs. 

Hint: It does not belong on your desk, end tables, countertops, or kitchen table unless it is a tchotchke. All of your belongings should have a drawer, box, or another kind of spot where they belong. If someone were to ask you “Where does this go?”, you should know the answer immediately.


Finishing Up

By this point in the process, you’ve created a lot of other tasks for yourself.

  1. You need to do all your dishes.
  2. And all your laundry.
  3. And go through your paperwork.
  4. And figure out what all those spare cables go to.
  5. And find a place to store all the stuff you now realize doesn’t have its own place. (This can be a sign you need to declutter).

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably tired after doing all this other work, so take a break. You can do your laundry and dishes later.

If you get into the habit of cleaning your house in this way regularly, you will find this process takes less and less time. 

Fantastic. More time for everything else in life.