Cleaning 101: How to maintain a neat home in as little time as possible

We’ve got the strategies and tools you need to quickly clean your house from top to bottom.


Confession: My mother never taught me how to clean a house. Really. She only taught me how to clean for the cleaning service, which meant getting everything off the floor and counters and putting things into piles. Then, magically, you came home from school to a clean house.

Summer camp taught me how to clean one thing: a latrine. (Hold your nose, spray some mystery substance in a bottle, wipe the seat while still holding your nose. Run.)

Fast-forward to owning my own home, having my own kids and no cleaning service in sight. I’ve had to figure some things out.

I’ve also picked up tips from experts Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Austin-based Branch Basics cleaning products; Meagan Gates, brand manager of Austin-based Lemi Shine products; and Becky Rapinchuk, who is known as the Clean Mama and has written the book “Simply Clean: The Proven Method for Keeping Your Home Organized, Clean and Beautiful in Just 10 Minutes a Day.”

Let’s start with this idea of only spending 10 minutes a day cleaning. Possible? Perhaps. Rapinchuk has a very strict regime. Every day she does a load of laundry, cleans kitchen counters and sinks, loads and unloads the dishwasher and makes the beds. Then each day of the week is a special day. Monday is bathroom day; Tuesday, dusting day; Wednesday, vacuuming day; Thursday, floor washing day; Friday, catch-all day (or things you didn’t get to); Saturday, sheets and towels day; and Sunday is a day off except for the daily cleaning tasks. She also has a rotating schedule of when bigger things like baseboards, washing windows and decluttering get done.

Her house is never completely clean on the same day, but if people are coming over she says she can run around for 10 to 15 minutes and get it all clean.

Her book has a how-to with checklists of when to do what if you’re going to use her method. It also has make-your-own cleaning solutions to save money on cleaning supplies (see box for some of them). It’s inspiring, but I never got past the first week.

Instead, I spend an hour and a half, usually on Saturday morning, and get the whole house clean and put together for the week. When I started this routine, it was taking four hours. Why? I didn’t have the right tools or techniques, and I had years of grime to work through, especially in the bathroom showers.

Why is cleaning important?

It’s all about improving the air quality, Nelson says. Think about all the dust that is flying around, sitting on all the surfaces and clutter. You want to get rid of all of that to improve the health of your home and your family’s health.

Where to start

To really get the house under control, you’re going to have to declutter and assign a place for everything. That’s a larger project for a weekend or a series of weekends, and we suggest starting a room at a time or a shelf or a drawer at a time.

Also think about who is making the mess and what you can do to stop it. In my house, this led to more laundry baskets, several in the bathroom and one in each bedroom to avoid the clothes-on-the-floor problem. It also led to a lockable garbage can and a recycling bin with a top to stop the dog from turning the house into a garbage dump each day. We also had to have conversations about putting dishes into the dishwasher instead of the sink and not eating in the bedrooms. We also added bins for toiletries on top of the bathroom counter knowing that realistically no one was going to put the toiletries away each day. Instead, each Saturday, I just move the bins, clean the counters and put the bins back rather than wrangling all the toiletries into drawers each week.

In your weekly cleaning, follow these rules:

Top to bottom

Go from the ceiling to the floors, and go from the top floor to the bottom floor. That means when dusting you dust the ceiling fan, then work your way down to the top shelves to the furniture to the bottom shelves.

When sweeping or vacuuming, do the farthest corner of the top floor, down the stairs to the diagonal corner of the bottom floor. Bring the trash can to you as you sweep rather than carrying the dust pan to the trash can.

When cleaning the bathrooms, clean the mirrors to the counters to the toilet to the floors.

Do the easy stuff first

You don’t want to stop before you have started because you’re discouraged. If you have the glass shower from Hades that has a level of soap scum that needs serious scrubbing, make that a day’s project rather than something you think you can do at the same time as the rest of the house. Instead, think about what you can do quickly to get a basic level of clean: counters, toilets, floors.

Nelson also recommends doing the bedroom first because that’s where you spend the most time breathing in the air.

Put the right tools in the right places

If you’re dragging cleaning products up and down stairs or from one end of the house to the other, stop that. Create two or more different cleaning caddies with the same products in them. Consider having multiple brooms, multiple vacuums, multiple mops.

When doing the laundry, bring the hangers with you. Why fold clothes just to put them on the hangers? Instead, take clothes out of the dryer and put them on the hanger. If you don’t have a clothing rod in the laundry room, you can use the molding around a doorway as your ledge for your hanger while you are hanging up clothes. Think of ways you can simplify all of your cleaning tasks.

Find the products that work for you

I’ve tried a lot of products this year to mixed results. Everyone has their favorites. Find yours.

My go-to products for the floors are a broom and Swiffer Wet Jet (we have no carpets). Some people love a floor vacuum and a steam mop. The new bucketless microfiber mop systems also allow you to use less water to clean the floors.

For carpets, look for a vacuum with a certified sealed HEPA filter to avoid putting all that dust you picked up back into the air. You can also use that vacuum on couches and mattresses to get rid of dust.

As my basic cleaning solution, I use a vinegar/water blend with essential oils to get rid of the vinegar smell and a microfiber cloth. The solution works everywhere in my house. One note about vinegar: It can be harmful to lungs if you use too much and don’t have good air quality. If you have any lung issues, use vodka instead (to clean with, not to drink). When using a vinegar solution, make sure to have windows open or fans going.

Also don’t use vinegar on natural stones like marble and granite. Use vodka and water or rubbing alcohol and water instead. Regular tap water works unless you’re going to be storing a solution for a long time; then used distilled water.

The microfiber cloth has revolutionized cleaning, Nelson says. Time to join the revolution. These cloths pick up all the dirt in ways that a sponge or a paper towel cannot. Other cloths just move dirt around. Nelson also likes the new spunlace microfiber cloths that can be used on floors or on mirrors and windows without needing a cleaning solution.

I do use a sponge for the toilets and a scrub brush for the showers.

When I need to scour something like my sinks or greasy oven, I create a paste with baking soda and water and use a scrub brush or a scouring sponge.

Think about germs

The nastiest places in the house besides the kitchen counters and sinks and toilets are often forgotten. Don’t forget to clean door handles and toilet handles. And don’t use the same cloth on the toilets as you do on the sinks or counters. That’s just gross.

Skip the antibacterial soaps for daily use to avoid building up a resistance, but if someone’s been sick, add rubbing alcohol, vodka or hydrogen peroxide to your cleaning solution to get the sterilizing properties you need.

Let the products do the work

If you’ve ever read the back of a cleaning product (I bet you spend all your time doing that), it might tell you to let the product sit for a few minutes. Do it. Rapinchuk taught me to spray down all the mirrors, counters, toilets, showers and tubs in my 2 1/2 bathrooms before coming back and wiping them down. The extra minutes help loosen up all the grime, especially in the showers. No scrubbing for me.

Sometimes you need the toxic guns

We’re all for nontoxic, natural chemicals. Nelson even suggests removing all toxic chemicals in your house to really improve the air quality. Every once in a while, though, you hit a stubborn stain or stubborn soap scum that needs something more. After trying all kinds of home remedies on our showers, we opened the windows and used stronger CLR, just to get rid of the lingering grime. That one use did wonders and now, with regular maintenance, we don’t have to do use it again.

Put your appliances to work

Did you know your washing machine might have a self-cleaning mode? Use it, usually after you’ve done the laundry for the week. Also use the self-cleaning mode on your oven.

You also can use your appliances to help you clean. The dishwasher is great for sanitizing cleaning tools like sponges and spray bottles as well as cleaning plastic toys and washing baseball hats. Wash your microfiber cloths and mop heads in the washing machine (just don’t use fabric softener or they will lose their absorbency).

Make sure to maintain your appliances as well so they aren’t mold collectors.

Divide and conquer

Repeat after me: Children are in charge of their own rooms. They also can start learning to do laundry and clean their bathroom. Everyone in the house needs something for which they are responsible. Also make it fun. Crank up the music, dance around, and it will go faster.

When to call the professionals

When you need carpets, the fireplace, duct work or a laundry vent cleaned, let the professionals do it. Or, if your house is so far gone, hire a professional to degrime so you can get back on track.

Don’t forget the daily maintenance

I’ve lessened the work to an hour and a half a week because of these steps, which Rapinchuk encouraged me to do:

I squeegee the shower after I shower (I’m usually the last one in the shower). It prevents the soap scum from building up.

I empty the dishwasher and fill the dishwasher as needed (or at least I try to).

I also try to clean the kitchen counters at night with just a quick spray and wipe.

I try to do a load of laundry a couple of times a week rather than letting it build up.

No one is perfect. Our house still has some pitfalls (don’t look in that closet or that kid’s room, please), but most of the time, we could quickly run a cloth or a broom through the downstairs and have people over.



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