During week one of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, after working from the couch for maybe three whole days, I whined to my housemate, “I have never done so many goddamn dishes in my life.”
…That was over a month ago. At this point, just looking at a fork is stressful.
It’s a familiar situation for a lot of people right now: We need to make livable workspaces that are also workable living spaces. But in an unfair COVID catch-22, that endless time at home means we’re also responsible for a great many more dishes, way more trash, and more messes in general.
Ronda Kaysen, a New York Times columnist and co-author of the organization guidebook Right at Home, explained that since we have to live in and use our homes very differently than ever before, we have to adapt and act differently—and probably a little more intentionally—than we have before. That means making a schedule, trying to stick with it, and organizing your calendar and your stuff. Cool! But also… how?
Figure out a chore plan, whether you live alone or with others.
Are you annoyed because the kitchen’s a mess? Because clutter keeps building up on tables? Think about the level of cleanliness and organization that would work for you in an ideal scenario, so that you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve. "If you have issues that are bothering you, write them down,” Kaysen said. It might be helpful to designate a cleaning day where you clean the whole house top to bottom—that’s what her family is doing now—or try to determine how frequently you need the toilets scrubbed/floor mopped/litter box emptied.
Having a plan for cleaning your space can help cut down on distractions like, Hm, maybe I should vacuum the living room instead of answering this email. If you live with others, Kaysen said this probably starts with a conversation: How often do you need the bathroom cleaned? How many dishes in the sink are too many dishes in the sink? What’s your standard for how the living space should be kept clean and tidy?
Calling a “house meeting” might feel awkward—especially if it’s with your partner. Remember, though, that this is about making everyone more comfortable, not less. Come from a positive mindset about your needs and not their actions, and be curious about others' needs—which chores are most important to them, and the ones they hate and might be willing to swap duties on, if there's one you happen to loathe. From there, it’s a matter of compromising and deciding if you’d rather divide and conquer or rotate through universally less-savory tasks.
“It really depends what your style is," Kaysen said. "I hate bathrooms; my husband’s fine with it. I do not do them, he does them all.”
In doing this, you create a level of accountability, whether that’s for yourself or to your roommates.
You don’t need to have a rigid schedule, but you do need something.
According to Amy Tokos, a certified professional organizer and the founder of Freshly Organized, LLC, boundaries can quickly disappear when you’re at home all the time. To keep yourself from working 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. (or, uh, taking that entire time off from work by accident), you should set some boundaries for yourself.
“It doesn’t have to be strict, but it does have to be intentional,” she said.
Ask yourself some questions about what works for you. “What time is good for self-care? What is good working time? What is a good time to take care of tasks?” Right now, Tokos is working from 6 to 8 a.m., then using a big chunk later in the morning to go for a longer walk. It’s not her normal schedule, but it’s working in this moment.
In terms of actually making that schedule, play around a little to figure out what works. If you feel motivated during the day, Tokos suggested consistently carving out part of your lunch break to tidy up. Or maybe you work 50 minutes of every hour, then take the last 10 minutes to do whatever task needs doing. Set an alarm to keep you honest, if it helps.
Maybe, like Kaysen’s family, you pick a specific day to get your chores in order. Or, break it into chunks: Monday is for sweeping and dusting the living room and bedroom; Thursday, once work is finished, you spend a few hours to really clean the bathroom and kitchen.
Do this for your personal life, too. Are you a morning showerer or a night showerer? A midday exerciser or an evening one? “Carving out a workout space is really critical, and that’s something you should time, especially if you’re in an apartment together,” Kaysen said. “Who works out when, and how do you do it? You might have to move the coffee table, you might have to move some things around.” Scheduling the time is good for you, and it lets your roommates know what to expect, which also helps.
“It’s not that life has to be this rigid, inflexible thing,” she continued. But the idea is that if you say, “I work out at 7 every morning,” everyone knows that’s not the time to turn on the TV. If you oversleep and need to switch that time, it is, of course, an option.
“The schedule isn’t to lock you into things,” Kaysen said. “It’s to communicate, so you don’t have to communicate all the time about everything. The schedule is meant to give everybody space and flexibility, and to get the needs they have met.”
To cut down on work-based clutter and untidiness, create zones.
Kaysen said "zones" are one of the most crucial components of organizing. The idea is easy enough: Think consciously about which rooms or areas of the house serve what purpose.
If you’re working from home, you should have your own designated “office” space. That could be just the couch in the living room—it could be one half of the couch! Or maybe you work from the kitchen table and your boyfriend clocks in from the bedroom. But that space is yours, for your laptop and planner and notebooks. “You have your own charger, he doesn’t get to steal your charger. And you have your own pens and your own paper, and those are yours. We’re possessive, and that’s OK,” Kaysen laughed.
Get really into baskets—or other space-adjusting techniques that make rooms feel differentiated at certain points in the day.
Odds are good a space is functioning doubly for you right now: Maybe you decided to make a bedroom into the phone room, or a basement into a fitness center. (Or a bathroom into the midday cry room.)
Here, Kaysen said, the humble basket is a godsend, a “traveling cubicle” where you can keep all your job stuff from interfering with your personal-life stuff. Her husband works at the dining room table, and at the end of the day, he puts everything from work in a basket, which goes on the bookshelf, which gives the family their table back in time for dinner.
It doesn’t have to be made of wicker —your “basket” might be a tote bag or a backpack or an empty La Croix case. And this works for more than your day job, too. You can stash your jump rope and barbells and boxing gloves in a workout basket (duffel bag), while your Switch and your bluetooth speaker and the novel you’re working through go in an entertainment basket (old High Life box). What’s important is putting stuff back in it to free up space and visually reset it when you’re using the area for a different purpose.
Embrace a more minimalist lifestyle.
You’re probably already living more minimally right now —no impulse purchases at the Sephora register, no merch to splurge on when the concert winds down. Organize your home to reflect that: Have the stuff you use most often front and center, and stash the stuff you don’t where it won’t get in the way.
To cut back on the sink pile, Kaysen suggested just using one set of dishes per person each day, rinsing them between meals. “Even if it’s two people, you’re talking about six meals at home a day. Plus snacks. You’ve gotta keep on top of the onslaught,” she said.
You can apply this mindset to everything you're using right now: your wardrobe (minus, like, underwear), the amount of products you use in the bathroom, and so on. Using less stuff means there’s less stuff to clean, plus less stuff to dig through each morning, put away every night, and grow to resent as it clutters your countertop when you just don’t have time to get to it right now, OK?
Have a strategy for dealing with distractions.
Look… they’re gonna come up. Whether it’s the dog barking, the pile of laundry you promised you do staring up from the hamper, a Hulu push notification that there’s a new episode of Dave—“When you’re at work, there are just fewer distractions [than there are] in your living space,” said Tokos.
When it comes to chores and home admin tasks (somehow, there’s never a better time to clean the house or change all your passwords than when you’re on a deadline), Tokos recommends having a “parking lot.” Essentially, that’s a notepad or running iPhone list where you scribble down to-do tasks as they pop up, rather than abandoning a half-written work email to do them now. Writing things down while they’re on your mind will help you resist the urge to interrupt your flow and do them ASAP.
“Get it out of your head and onto your calendar,” she said. “It keeps us from thinking about it all day long [and from interrupting work and] doing it.”
Be willing to move, shift, and reassess the rules.
Kaysen has always worked from home, but having the whole family in the house all the time has changed her routine. “We’ve gotten into a much more strict cleaning ritual than we used to be,” she said. Even an organization expert has her limits, though, and she’s also “totally thrown in the towel” when it comes to getting out of sweatpants each morning. “I think that’s OK,” she said. “I don’t feel slovenly because of that, I feel like… I’m not going anywhere!” Sartorially and organizationally, your own needs, standards, and priorities have likely changed right now, and they’ll probably continue to. That’s not only fine, but inevitable.
“I have this philosophy about your home, which is that your home is a living, breathing entity that changes with you,” Kaysen said. “Your home is supposed to work for you. It’s supposed to be the place that makes you feel comfortable and makes you able to live your life as best as you can.”
Besides, some stuff simply can’t be left hanging. You can’t just let perishable groceries sit in bags in your entryway; you can't leave your laundry to mildew as you go into back-to-back meetings; the recycling bin isn’t a black hole. Eventually, you're going to have to stop carefully piling used napkins on top of the trash like it's a giant Jenga game, and simply take it out.
Your household upkeep isn't going to be perfect all the time—something your roommates and coworkers will almost definitely understand because their schedule isn’t perfect all the time right now, either.
So don’t be too hard on yourself with this stuff. Being surrounded by all the chores and projects you’ve been meaning to do can start to feel really overwhelming. If it does? Take some time for you—even if there are, inevitably, dishes in the sink. You'll do them when the time is right.
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