I’ve spent the better part of seven years telling my kids to clean up. Charlie and I are both people who need a clean space to feel productive, capable, and calm. Keeping our home relatively tidy is a high priority to us. To our kids however? Nah.
When they play, they play deeply, imaginatively, and with everything they own. This has irked me, and gotten under my skin, while simultaneously I felt like a huge jerk because I spent way too much time interrupting their play, not participating, and harping on the mess. I let it erode my own ability to play with them and their enjoyment of play. Thankfully my internal compass self corrected this enough that I didn’t interrupt them as constantly as I felt drawn to. But still, it felt like a near constant battle. One that left me, and them, feeling like we lost.
A few months back I decided to adopt a different plan, and to my great joy and total shock, it has worked incredibly well. I have since adopted this plan to encompass not just cleaning but also internet consumption, yoga practice, and sometimes work. Next up is working out, meal prep, and reading. But, before I get too ahead of myself, here is the gist.
I stopped tidying. I stopped cleaning up after anyone (including myself), I left the components of my breakfast on the counter, I allowed their puzzle pieces to mingle with the baby dolls (because the “sick babies needed something to play with in their hospital in the woods, while their parents are camping”, obviously), and I let it be. Then, I do three clean ups! One in the mid morning, on my own. One in the late afternoon, with the kids. And one in the evening, before bedtime, with Charlie. These three dedicated clean up times are enough to keep our house pulled together and very clean, but I don’t spend all day feeling like I’m following a tornado around and trying to stay on top of it. In short, it’s saving my relationship with my kids and keeping my house cleaner and calmer for me, and my family.
Mid Morning: I get my kids engaged in something and I set a 20 minute timer. This could be sending them outside to play, or into their room to play (that doesn’t get cleaned till evening), or, if worse comes to worst, I set them up with a TV show. I press GO on the timer, crank up some music, and clean. Without ceasing I clean. No breaks. It’s incredible and shocking what I can get through in just 20 minutes. I begin by walking through each room and taking everything back to where it belongs (I just drop the kids stuff in their room, I don’t clean it), tidying first. Then I wipe down counters and table tops, then I make the bed, start the laundry, and usually at that point I decide if I want to sweep and vacuum or do the dishes. When the timer goes off, I stop (If I want to. Or, if everyone is happy, I ride the momentum for a few more minutes. ).
Late-Afternoon: This time the girls and I work together. I set the timer with a loud fun sound, turn on some pop music, and they clean their room and whatever messes they’ve gotten out in the house (this is all a part of our routine. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. We talk often about our home and being community members of this space. So keeping it tidy is part of being a helpful community member. Like helping to feed the dog, open the door for someone carrying something, or being respectful of each others words. These are all really familiar topics for my kiddos, so this wasn’t a big fight to institute at all. And, they noticed how much less of a punk I was when I changed our plan. AND, I explain the plan, the why, and how it will work. They know what’s happening and are in on it. Communication for the win, always!) I do the same as last time, start with tidying, get it all looking nice-enough, and then work on a detail job. Typically whatever one I didn’t do in the AM (although, at this point, there are always more dishes). I also usually have a few minutes at the end where everything is clean and tidy, but I’m done. This is when I start dinner. Prep the veggies, or pop something into the instant pot.
Night Time: This is post dinner. Charlie is home, and we are twice as effective! If the house is pretty tidy (It usually is thanks to the previous two clean ups!) we just do a 10 minute timer. If not, or if we’re feeling motivated, we do 20 minutes and tackle the bathroom, or a deep cleaning job. The girls sometimes clean during this (they always clear their plates, put their own toys away, and tidy their room, but often help with other stuff too).
Caveats: This obviously only works when we’re home all day. Otherwise I do this once when we get home from school, and Charlie and I do the clean up in the evening together, but the morning one is limited. This also works incredibly well for us because we have a smallish home. If you have a larger home I would suggest focusing your 20 minutes on one area of the house that you want to keep clean (kitchen, living room, your room?) and then spend your evening 20 minutes on the other areas of the house. If you are gone for the better part of the day, just institute the evening 20 minutes. Make it a cleaning dance party, fun, and connecting. Those 20 minutes will do quite a lot if you are all working together, and will set your home up to feel great the next day too.
After seeing how successful this plan has been for us with cleaning, I began to use it in other ways. I started with my yoga practice. After Thanksgiving I was struggling to get back into a daily practice, it felt hard and heavy. So I started setting one 20 minute timer, turning on my yoga music (Alt-J or Glass Animals Radio on Pandora!) and just moving on my mat. Sometimes my kids join me, climb on me, or just go play. All of that is ok. All of that is yoga. Movement. And important. I was doing this once a day, now I usually try and make this happen twice. Once after the morning clean up and once after the evening clean up (while Charlie reads the bedtime books). Just those two check-in moving moments really reconnect me with my body, and feels amazing to know that most days my body is getting 40 minutes of opening and stretching.
I am slowly trying to use this to also control my media use. For example, this morning I was aching to just zone out on my phone. So instead of berating myself for that, or giving into it, I set a 10 minute timer and vegged out. After the timer sounded I plugged my phone in and came over to my computer to write. I left it behind, feeling like I got to have my cake and eat it too. Also, when you only have 10 (or 20) minutes online, it’s much easier to not just scroll and scroll, or check and re-check things (just me? I check IG, and then FB, but then I better check IG one last time… oh, and now it’s been 10 minutes so probably FB again too….on repeat).
On days where we are home all day and I really don’t feel like I can think about… anything. I just go on repeat: 20 minutes playing, 20 minutes writing or working, 20 minutes of yoga, 20 minutes cleaning. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
I also use this to connect with my kids more deeply. I turn off my computer, set the timer for 20 minutes and walk fully away from it, and vow to be present, listening, and engaged for 20 minutes. It’s amazing how long that can be, how much play can happen, and how much my kids eat up that totally undistracted time.
Instead of trying to write, workout, clean up, make food, play with my kids, and stay socially connected ALL AT ONE TIME, I am spacing it out. And it’s working. And blowing my mind how much can get done, how full I can feel, and how much I can give to my kids in just 20 minutes.
My next plan is to try and add in my workouts into this timer model, but so far my motivation is low, so for today Yoga is making the cut. As is time with the kiddos, and a tidy home. I’m slowly conquering my day, and my needs, in one 20 minute chunk at a time.
None of this is legalistic. I chose 20 minutes because I am of the mind that “I can do almost anything for 20 minutes” so it works for me mentally. However, if 20 minutes is up and I still feel like and the kids are down for it, I keep cleaning/yoga/whatever. And alternately, if I’m 16 minutes into my cleaning and my daughters are in need of me… I stop! It’s my life, my time, and my choices. There will be another window, I just have to take it as it comes. I think that has been the best lesson of this method. I have plenty of productive windows of time in my day, but they’re only productive if I take them. Otherwise I watch them pass me by, berate myself later for missing them, and get frustrated with my home/body/kids. Choosing to grasp those 20 minute windows whenever I can has revolutionized my home, ability to play and connect, and my yoga practice.
If you give this a try I would love to hear how it works for you! Sometime I’m not sure if these random tips just work for me, my specific brain, or are helpful for others. Let me know if this resonates for you.