Make Yourself Clean Again: A Housekeeping Guide for Procrastinators & Lazy Bums

How many meals’ worth of messes are you sporting in your kitchen? (Photo by Meredith Siemsen)

Why can’t I make myself clean? To clarify: Other than an occasional potty mouth, I am clean; I do bathe. But I’d say 87 percent of the time, my kitchen is a haphazard exhibit of kind-of-washed-but-drying glasses, soaking-in-the-sink pots and pans, and disgustingly crusty plates and bowls. Gross.

I’ve been observing my own behavior lately (I’m told being self-aware is good for me), and because I live alone, I am truly only forced to wash up when I’ve finally burned through my embarrassingly large collection of cutting boards. I have six of them, exactly five more than a single person should want or need. Visualize, if you will, my wooden and plastic cutting-board collage—a fiesta of tomato seed slime, cilantro-stem scraps, withered lemon butts, and the thin-skinned, totally unchewable parts of a red onion. The colors pop! The textures are alive! Either I’ve discovered the newest art form … or I’m a total slob.

It’s unfortunate, but true: I clean out of necessity, not out of good breeding, nor a healthy pride in my living space, nor a solid foundation of disciplined self-respect.

Spark joy? Tell you what, Marie Kondo, my sock drawer might look awesome right now, but nothin’ ’bout scrubbing week-old cheese and egg schmutz off a pan is sparking my joy. I’ll spark joy when I own a dishwasher, girl. I’m still waiting for that golden day.

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I have discovered, however, that given the appropriate motivation, I can trick myself into cleaning. After years of extensive research on the matter, I have found a few miraculous strategies that result in a tidy and totally satisfying apartment experience, ultimately fashioning the kind of living space that’s suitable for the inevitable “drop-in” by a sort-of close friend or annoying family member. I would like to share these with you now.

1. Commit Yourself to Some Other Horrible Project

I’m the queen of procrastination. Thank heavens my editor at the Iowa Source is of the flexible and easygoing variety.

But I’ve noticed over the past decade that when I’m in a nasty avoidance loop about a major project, the best way for me to hurdle any mental or emotional blockade is to definitely not tackle the task at hand.

Instead, I clean!

It’s a marvel. Apparently, I will do anything to not have to do that one horrible thing I have to do, because suddenly … items in the overgrown pile by my front door, one by one, find their rightful homes. How curious. The vacuum comes out of its coat-covered closet cave, my toilet seat becomes clean enough to eat off of, and my bedsheets sing with an inviting sea-breeze freshness.

The right soundtrack leads to next-level tidying, like color-sorting your laundry! (Photo by Meredith Siemsen)

But I dare not give into their siren songs just yet. This is no time for a siesta! Because my handmade artisan soaps need to find a new arrangement in the prettiest basket on my prettiest bathroom shelf, the Bargain Box pile needs to go to the Bargain Box, and the Christmas decorations must at last get carted away to my retro post-roller-rink storage unit on Glasgow Road. Somehow it all gets done!

If I’m feeling really inspired to create a new kind of momentum in my life (or especially desperate to keep avoiding the current dreaded project), I’ll get out my sage stick and smudge the place. “Energy that is no longer serving me, away with you! O lingering spirit of ex-boyfriend, I set you free! And angels, all my loving angels, flock to my home, be with me now, and guide me. I need all the help I can get.”

In conclusion, the best way to have a company-ready apartment, the apartment you were born to have, is to take on projects you dread. Because in order to eat those frogs, as my favorite Chinese proverb goes, “First, you clean!”

I find my apartment stays the most immaculate right around tax time. Drop by anytime in early April. You will be impressed, intimidated, and amazed!

2. Invite People Over

You won’t live in squalor for long if you have a would-be husband coming over for tea.

3. Use the “20-Minute” Jedi Mind Trick

If that lightly soiled clothing pile is starting to threaten your personal body space, the fuzz in the bathroom is now growing its own fuzz, and the coffee table has become a home for everything but coffee, try playing a trick I learned from a friend of mine.

Look at the clock, mark the time, and tell yourself, “I will clean for 20 minutes.” Just 20 minutes? Fuggedaboutit! You got this! You don’t have to do every disgusting thing right now, just 20 minutes’ worth of disgusting things.

The real magic happens when you look up from your fourth dusting rag at the clock and discover, to your amazement, that two hours have passed—and you’re still at it! Time has become meaningless, young Skywalker. You’ve slipped into the Gap, you’ve become one with the Force, and as a result, you’ve been improving the outward manifestation of your universe in total bliss for 120 miraculous minutes. Your apartment is starting to look like the apartment of someone who enjoys living!!! You have cracked the code. You’ve reached beyond the Matrix. You are now enlightened. And all it took was “20 minutes.”

4. Crank the Jams

Okay, if I cut the snark a little and get really real, I will tell you that some of the best days in my 44 years on this planet were spent cleaning my apartment. I owe it all to a rapturous stint of underemployment and (drumroll, please) my ultimate playlist, which blasts tunes at me by Alison Krauss, Jai Uttal, and Queen. Thank you, Aretha Franklin and David Bowie for energizing my very soul and making me a better person with a cleaner bathtub.

One of the thousands of benefits of living alone is that you don’t have to worry about someone else criticizing your mess—or your music. Yes, I do have a flute-only version of the Muppet Show theme song on my ultimate jam list, and there is nothing you need or could even want to do about it. What happens at Chez Siemsen stays at Chez Siemsen.

5. Kill Two Hideous Birds with One Stone

The other thing I’m terrible at is making myself exercise. And we all know, this kind of denial at my age is about to become a slippery slope of newly forming double chins, butt sag, and floppy arm skin. So, on Sunday mornings, when self-loathing is at an all-time high, I use the 20-Minute Jedi Mind Trick—with a twist! As I carry dirty socks to the laundry basket, late-night dinner dishes from my couch back to the kitchen, and the pile of paid bills to my home-office (bedside table) file cabinet, I force myself to step in rhythm to the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”

With knees reaching toward my chin on every measured step—alternating with toes kicking forward into a painful but controlled lunge position—it’s not long before the burn begins. Gluts, quads, hams, and abs are doing the heavy lifting here, baby, and while the cleaning pace is not at all efficient, you’ll still give yourself a hug afterwards for a brilliant morning of multi-tasking that looks as hot as it feels, especially if you’re wearing your flying-pig slippers. Note: If your ass is not sore the next day, you’re doing it wrong.

The Paradox of Clean

The ultimate paradox is, I function so well in clean. I breathe better. I sleep better. I work better when my home is uncluttered and shiny. I’m nice to people. I even start flossing. So how is it possible that something so satisfying and life affirming never seems to be a priority for people like us?

Well, I don’t know what your problem is, but for me, the answer to this question also applies to the following: Why don’t I go to the gym more often? Meditate regularly? Or stop eating my body weight in pizza at 11 p.m.?

It comes down to this. I have to keep my friends somehow, and nobody wants to be around a perfect person. It’s waaaaay too intimidating.

You’re welcome!

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!