How Just Two Days of Cleaning Up After Yourself Resets Order and Discipline

“Today, I will clean up after myself. Immediately. No excuses.”

It only takes a day. It only takes one simple shift in to-do. It only takes challenging a single habit to see how the ripple effect shifts everything else as you move through space.

As an introvert who works with words all day and has a tendency to daydream and get lost in big ideas, I need the physical space around me to be somewhat orderly: If I have a big piece to write, my desk needs to be cleared first. Cooking for a dinner party? My recipes are typed and hanging on the wall behind my prep space, and all is mise en placed before my guests arrive (a carry over from my time as a private cook). I tidy up before bed. I like to do laundry and nest.

I’m a clean person…. Aren’t I?

Meh. I’m human. I’m a single gal who works from home. Dishes pile. I converted a dingy storage closet into a walk-in for my clothes, and it feels good to frantically change five times and then shove the mess in and close a door behind me. Please don’t look under my bed.

And so what would my day look like if I didn’t let myself just casually drop a dish in the sink or a pair of socks on the floor? What would cleaning up after myself continually even look like? Today — the second day of my forty-day string changing up a habit every single day — I’m finding by cleaning up after myself immediately.

How will this change the course of my day?

What habits might it shift?

What routines will it shake up?

My day of continually cleaning up after myself:

Upon waking: I need to pee. But I can’t just get up and go to the bathroom, I realize, because I first have to make the bed. Then I see the shoes and socks left on the floor from last night, and so have to put those on. I take my meds and bring the spoon and dish on my nightstand and the water glass into the kitchen, where I now have to wash them and the mug I left there last night. Looking over to the stove, I see the cutting board and two knives I left there last night–they get washed, too. I might as well make coffee while I’m here. Now I can go to the bathroom.

Bathroom: I realize brushing my teeth counts, so now I do that immediately rather than after my coffee, which is when I usually do. Already, my routine has changed.

Walking Mitra: I grab my coffee, and the kitchen does look nice and orderly. My room looks nice, too. We walk and, upon our return, keys and leash go immediately back on the hook and coat goes away — oops, have to properly hang one shoved on a hook a week ago — and can finally sit and read for a while.

It’s quite amazing at how this must put all in order as I go has put a sense of structure in my morning that I hadn’t had before.

By noon, time has run away from me, and I’m running late. My mom’s picking me up to bring me home to Connecticut, and I haven’t showered. But I end up only running a few minutes behind as, like magic, there’s not much tidying to be done. The bed is made. The dishes and closet are clean. The rooms are in order.

At her house, I apply the same rules as we drink tea and snack… until I forget and we head out the door with a mess on the table. Dammit. But as soon as I’m home, I’m cleaning. Alone in her space, I feel less invasive. The rules are simple. My mind is clearer.

The next morning, I decide to continue. It’s Mother’s Day! We’re cooking for our family, and I want to test out this idea with others around without them knowing I’m doing it. This means that I put our coffee cups directly into the dishwasher before we head out to pick up cake and bread, and wash the pot and breakfast pans, too — voila, they’re clean and dry upon our return, and the kitchen is clean and ready for us to cook! I’m washing and straining and wiping while things simmer, and so the counters never clutter. When my uncle, grandparents, brother arrive, the kitchen doesn’t look as frantic as my feet feel.

Later there are dips in the process between courses, and sitting to talk with my grandmother rather than rushing to wash. But, overall, the progressive cleaning means there’s no giant mess at the end. After dessert, my mother sits and I handle the majority of the rest alone. Never at one point have I felt like dirty dishes were going to eat my face off.

By the time guests leave and night falls, I’m exhausted, yes. But all is clean and quiet, and my mother happy.

Conclusions

I’m a single gal with no dependents, so I’m glad I tried this out in my space and with family. Here are a few tips I think anyone can take along:

  1. Take a second to ask, “What first?” Self-check-ins are key with all things in life. So first thing in the morning, before rising from bed, think: First I make the bed, then I pick up the socks/shoes from the floor and put them on or in the hamper, then I make the coffee and (insert whatever), then I…. As pretty much every source of neuroscience, psychology, or self-help will explain, the surest route to success of any sort is making a detailed plan that accounts for setbacks and variables. So even just mentally running through a quick plans helps.
  2. Pay attention to your hands: When your hands are on a cup that empties, put it where it belongs. Follow through, and either wash it or put it in the dishwasher. Go the extra thirty seconds to have the entire job done.
  3. Defy Gravity: Beds, floors, table surfaces etc. are the enemy. Purses don’t belong on floors, keys don’t belong on tables, and clothes don’t belong on beds. Save the step and put them the right place the first time, for a one-part process instead of two!
  4. Prep a Reward: Saturday morning, I delayed my favorite thing — sitting with my coffee in my armchair to read — in all of that cleanup stuff. But I got to look forward to it as a reward after the tidying and prepping and enjoyed it that much the more because of the accomplishment achieved. So I have myself a few extra minutes of reading, too, as a reward. Adults need prizes too, dammit! Give yourself a prize at the end!

And my personal markers:

The effect on my health: There’s something to be said for leaving the dishes when you’re too tired or not feeling well, yes. When at home, I let the sink pile throughout the day, thinking it’s smarter to do them all at once as I go. But…. there was something to be said about the mental clarity of “I cut this apple so now I wash this knife….” Or, “I got out of bed so now I do this, this, and this.” Imposed order, when done for good reason, feels good! So there’s that.

Social interactions: It did feel good to tend to my mother for a bit. To not have a deluge of dirty things to attend to all at once together. And to make it look rather seamless, by moving things along quietly as I went.

My sense of self: As an aforementioned nerd, I like order and quiet so that when things get a little messy, it feels like an indulgence. I’m definitely no neat freak, and I’m sure my roommate would want me to pick up some of the heavy lifting cleaning wise more often. But there are times in my day where I ponder, “What now?” I like moving through my time with a purpose — whether it’s to work or recognizing the purpose of relaxing with mindless television (that can be oh-so good for you!). This little shift in habit contributed an odd sense of purpose I did not expect.

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