Cleaning Up -- It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better But It Does Get Better

Look at it this way: you've already done so much work.
Publish date:
October 11, 2014

So, you’ve decided it’s finally time to get your mess under control. You have all your supplies gathered, you’ve put together the perfect cleaning playlist, and you’re completely and totally motivated to get started. You’re feeling pretty awesome about this whole cleaning thing, so you get started.

A few hours later, there you are, finally into a decent groove of cleaning, and you stop to take a break (because breaks are important!), look around, and think, “This is worse than when I started.” Well, crap.

This moment is critical in your whole cleaning process. This is the moment when you want to throw in the towel, say, “Screw it,” and walk away, because if things aren’t getting any better, why even bother? Here’s the thing: things are getting better. You’re just too in the middle of everything to see it.

When you’re standing amidst an unholy mountain of clothes, books, shoes, and that box of stuff you’ve been moving from place to place but have never actually opened, you’re standing smack dab in the middle of results. The trouble is, if you don’t keep going, those results become the problem.

Look at it this way: you’ve already done so much work. If you’ve been working for hours or days and you’re surrounded by a mess, it means there was a lot of work to be done, and you’ve done a huge amount of it already, but you aren’t done. Giving up halfway means that all of your work up until this point was in vain. And that sucks.

It’s like baking a cake. You get your ingredients together, measure them out, mix them all up, and finally pour the whole thing into the cake pan. You have two options here: you can say, “I did all of this work and I still don’t have a cake,” or you can stick the cake pan in the oven and bake it, and pretty soon you’ll have an actual completed cake. The mess you’re currently surrounded by, after having cleaned for what seems like most of your adult life? That’s the cake batter. You just need to keep going in order to get the cake that is a clean home. And possibly an actual cake, because I believe that hard work deserves rewards of your choosing, and my choice is often cake.

So what do you do at this point, when you feel defeated and beat down and like you’ve put in all of this effort and are getting absolutely no reward for it? You need to keep your momentum, acknowledge that as much as you’d like to be done, you aren’t, and you need to keep going.

Just to break it down, let’s look at all of the steps involved in a major clean from beginning to end. You have to reduce the amount of stuff you have, either by culling items or by getting rid of trash. You have to come up with an organizational system, no matter how basic. You have to organize the stuff that’s left, you have to actually clean (vacuum/dust/sweep/whatever) the area, and then you have to put the items back neatly according to the organizational system you’re using. It is almost completely unavoidable for this to all happen without the mess getting a little worse first.

So rather than feeling that you haven’t made any progress, or that the whole thing is completely pointless, realize that things getting worse before they get better is just as much a part of the process as vacuuming the floor or hanging up the laundry.

Progress is incremental. If we could all get a clean house easily and without much work at all, then all of our homes would be clean. But despite what all those terrifyingly glossy home organization and decorating magazines and that one friend you have whose house looks like no one actually lives there would make you believe, most of us don’t have always-clean homes. There’s always work to be done, and it’s unwise and nearly impossible to get it all done at once.

So: incremental. Every little bit you do is progress. Even if it doesn’t look like it. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Because what you’re doing is laying the groundwork for a cleaner place. Really tackling a cleaning project takes time and involves a lot of steps, and some of those steps fall squarely into the “Why am I even doing this? It’s never going to get better” category.

How do you get through those steps, though? How do you convince your brain that you are making progress and you do need to keep going? I have a few suggestions that can help:

  • First, before you really get started, pick one very visible and messy surface and clear it off. This can be a counter, dresser, coffee table, whatever. As long as you see it repeatedly during the process, it’ll work. Clearing it off will likely take less time than you think (but put things in appropriate places, rather than just relocating the mess), and it’ll give you a clean, visible reminder of your progress as you go.
  • If it’s a project you can take your time with (rather than emergency cleaning), start and complete one area before moving on. If you’re doing your bedroom, for example, do your whole closet first before moving on to your dresser drawers, if possible. This will make the whole project feel a little less overwhelming, and give you “done” areas to celebrate.
  • Take pictures. Document what the “before” looks like, snap a few shots during, and make sure to really focus on the “after.” This gives you visible proof of the progress you’ve made, even if your brain thinks you haven’t gotten that far. Not to mention, “after” shots are a great way to remind yourself that you can, in fact, accomplish what seems like an impossible task.

Next time you get to the point when you just want to give up, tell the little voice in your mind to shove it, and keep going. Your hard work will pay off, you are making progress, and it’s not all just pointless. You just have to keep going. You got this.