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You can do anything, even cleaning your house, for 20 minutes

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Rachel Hoffman’s new book Unf*ck Your Habitat is full of advice for “marathon cleaners” like Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

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There are many, many terrible things about cleaning your house. The worst, in my opinion, is that it forces you to confront your own mortality and the pointlessness of your own actions. Too deep for an article about housework? I don't care – it's true. When it's Sunday afternoon and I'm trying to scrub the mysterious brown scum at the end of my toothbrush cup, all I can think about is "Is this really life?" Is this really the best use of my time? Having a slightly cleaner toothbrush cup? Ditto ironing. Ditto Hoovering. The worst bit isn't even the cleaning of it – it's the days following the cleaning, where you watch another toast crumb get trodden into your living-room rug and find another sink full of tea mugs and think, "What was it all for? Do I really have to do this for the rest of my life?" 

This is because I am what Rachel Hoffman calls a "marathon cleaner". The Unf*ck Your Habitat author – whose popular Tumblr blog has recently been turned into a book – points out the dangers of leaving all your cleaning to a Sunday blitz. Laundry goes in at 10am, dishes are cleaned and put away by 11am, bathroom is attacked between 12pm and 2pm, the sheets get changed, the laundry gets hung up, new candles get lit and, by 6pm, I have the exact kind of flat that I spend all week dreaming of having. And then 7pm rolls around: someone makes dinner, or dumps their gym bag, or doesn’t hang up their towel, and everything is on the high road to being fucked again. 

Doing a little bit at frequent intervals is a much more useful habit than spending hours cleaning everything with a really long time in between

Marathons are not sustainable: “You can’t use marathons as a way of maintaining a clean house if you’re a busy person, because there’s just not enough time to spend hours a day cleaning up the shit.” Importantly, they don’t help you build habits. “Things get really awful, you marathon and then you wait for them to get bad again. In between, you aren’t doing anything to help yourself sustain a clean environment. Doing a little bit at frequent intervals is a much more useful habit than spending hours cleaning everything with a really long time in between.” 

The way to build successful habits is to adopt the 20/10 approach: do 20 solid minutes of cleaning, followed by a 10-minute break. The break is non-negotiable. The logic is very similar to Kimmy Schmidt’s: in the same way anyone can withstand anything for 10 seconds, you can withstand any boring task for 20 minutes. 

And, after those 20 minutes are up, hey, have a Twix and a sit down.

The great thing about Hoffman’s writing is that she doesn’t try to pretend that cleaning is something fun, or that it’s anything other than a massive pain in the arse. She fully recognises that the majority of organisational books are aimed solely at people who are homeowners or who have the money for magic compartmentalised wardrobes. She also realises the danger of coveting the “minimalist” life that Marie Kondo has made so hugely popular. 

“Compulsive decluttering and compulsive hoarding are opposite sides of the same coin: they both result in extreme behaviour that dictates how you interact with the stuff around you.” Minimalism is unattainable, due to the simple fact that we need stuff to live, and, importantly, taking a “minimalist” approach to your stuff won’t magic you into a chic flat full of freshly painted white walls and sleek silver fixtures. Your flat will still be your flat, just with fewer of your things in it. Keep things you love. Keep things you use. Throw away gifts if you don’t love or use them, and don’t feel guilty about doing it. Don’t donate your broken-ass crap to charity, and don’t make your stuff somebody else’s problem." 

While this advice might seem obvious to many people, it’s interesting to note the way cleaning has changed over the last couple of generations. It’s gone from something that women teach to their daughters, to increase their inherit usefulness and marriageability, to something everyone has to just deal with between work (everyone does that now!), life (not just for men any more!) and child-rearing (shockingly, both parents are interested in parenting these days). Housekeeping is no longer one person’s job, but a desperate scrabble that everyone has to take part in to keep on top of.

Which is why this handy little book will genuinely come in useful for a lot of people, even if they just learn the following:

Clean the floors last. 

Clean dry before you clean wet.

Start with stuff that smells bad. 

Don’t be like me and attain your perfect home one day a week. Unfuck your habitat regularly and with vigour. 

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess by Rachel Hoffman is published by Bluebird.

@Czaroline

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