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Ask UfYH: How the Hell Do I Get Started?

Q: I never used to be a messy person until I got married and married a messy person. Now, ten years later, the house is cluttered, messy and I can’t tackle it alone, although I usually do. So now it is well more than overwhelming and it depresses me and I say screw it and plop down on the couch and veg. I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t work (I’m actually disabled but not to the point that I can’t do anything). If I had the money, I would hire a cleaner/organizer! Can you help me get started?

A: There’s good news when you say you never used to be a messy person. That means that, underneath your depression and disability, you already have the skills you need to get your home back in order. When you say it’s more than overwhelming, that indicates to me that you’re looking at the big picture (your entire house), and thinking that it’s impossible to get it all done at once. Well, here’s the thing: you can’t get it all done at once. Let’s go ahead and accept that as a fundamental truth about the situation, accept it, and push it to the background so we can get started.

Your situation is what 20/10s were invented for. A 20/10 is 20 minutes of cleaning, followed by a 10-minute break. It’s important for you to take breaks for both your physical and mental well-being. If your disability doesn’t allow you to do a full 20 minutes, that’s fine. Aim for ten or five or two or whatever you can do. The important thing is that you do them.

Accept that this process is going to take you a while. It may take weeks or months, but it’s been a mess for ten years, so you can’t expect to undo all of that in a few hours. You need a plan of attack to prioritize what needs to be done first. In a situation like yours, you want to start with two things: something that’s necessary, and something that’s visible. The necessary thing (usually either laundry or dishes) is so you can continue to live life during this process, and the visible thing is so that you can see that you’re making progress.

Take pictures. You never have to show them to anyone but yourself, but having a record of where you started, how the process went, and what the finished result was may help keep you from backsliding into the mess. Also, it’s really hard to see progress when you’re in the middle of it.

Here’s a rough idea of a good, logical order to tackle things. Keep in mind that this will take a while. That’s OK. You just have to get started. And for things like dishes and laundry, that will take a whole lot of 20/10s, so don’t feel like you have to fully finish before moving on to the next thing.

  1. Make your bed. It’ll give you a home base of clean you can go back to.
  2. One or two 20/10s of dishes.
  3. Clear off one flat surface, like a coffee table, dining room table, or kitchen counter.
  4. One or two loads of laundry. Keep in mind laundry and dishes have three steps: wash, dry, and put it away, goddammit!
  5. Collect and throw away/recycle as much trash as you can find.
  6. In each room, start with your flat surfaces, then move on to floors, walls, and anything else left over. Remember to take breaks, and remember that it might take you days to do just one room. That’s totally fine. We’re working toward sustainable change, not a quick fix.
  7. Every day, keep on top of your dishes and laundry so you don’t backslide.

Once your house is at a good level of clean, one or two 20/10s a day should go a long way toward keeping it that way. These cleaning charts might help give you a good framework for what needs to be done and when. Good luck, and you can do this.

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3 replies on “Ask UfYH: How the Hell Do I Get Started?”

Thanks for the column. A while back I won a question from UFYH and sounded like a know it all. Half to laugh. Your column always does what I need it to. At 67, you’d think my skills would develop but the house always reflects my internal set.

Starting again and thanks. By the way, I’ve finally been able to acknowledge that the chaos of the house reflects a depression in my head. Thanks for the support. I’m starting with the flat surfaces again and the list on the fridge.

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