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How to get motivated to clean house

Many of us are task-driven. We want to see things done, accomplished, finished. This is what the world tells us is productivity. In this view, homemaking 101 would simply be about menial skills.

However, our life at home is not the kind of world where things are often finished. You might check off “laundry” for the day, but before the day is out, there will be more dirty laundry in the hamper. You might check off “make dinner,” but dinner will have to be made again tomorrow. Not only that, but because you made dinner today, there are now dishes in the sink to wash.

This can be supremely frustrating. It can be discouraging, disheartening, even depressing. But that is because we have the wrong framework for productivity and accomplishment and also a wrong idea of what the point of cleaning the house actually is.

Why do we clean our house at all?

Cleaning house is a drag. And the more you live in your house, the more you have to clean. And who lives in their house more than a homeschooling family?

In my reading of productivity materials, there is a lot said for working in your passion, for delegating what is not one of your “core competencies.”

That boils down to: “No one who is successful cleans their own house.” After all, anyone can do it, right? So clearly you are too important to do it yourself – you should do something more useful in the world and pay someone else to do the mundane work around the house.

A couple years ago one thing on one of my lists was to find out how much a weekly housecleaner was and make that amount a blog-income goal: Because clearly blogging is a better use of my time than cleaning my house.

As soon as it was written down on my list, I started realizing what a messed up mentality it demonstrated I had. It’s almost (not quite) as bad as “Get a job so I can afford daycare.” If I need a cleaner house, how about I cut back instead of increase blog time and actually – gasp – clean something. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t value cleaning.

So, of course, I read a book. In fact, Willa did a book club on the book: Keeping House. In that book I became intellectually convinced that housework – not only the results, but even the work itself – was worthwhile and valuable on a number of levels.

So I began seeking the elusive goal of finding satisfaction in housework. And I am still seeking.

Good thing my life is not short on practice material.

What is the purpose of housework and chores?

In Home Comforts, Cheryl Mendelson writes that a “traditional woman” kept house in a way that

her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in its light and air. She lived her life not only through her own body, but through the house as an extension of her body. Part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made.

Keeping a tidy house is a way to embody love and care, to make thoughtfulness visible and felt.

Our everyday chores and housework can actually be viewed as a way we steward the gifts we’ve been given.

Homemakers can be happy. Are you happy? Learn about the simple mindset shift you need to be happier at home.

Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had to tend the garden. Work is not a result of the Fall, but a part of what we were created to do. We are supposed to tend and keep our plot, our little portion of the Earth we call home. It is our job to care for what we have been given.

Work isn’t bad; neglect is.

For me, the concept that’s helped the most in combatting both ends of the frazzled spectrum is “clearing to neutral.” That is, a clean house is not the end point, is not the goal. The cleanish house is a means, a tool, to reach the four ends listed above. So, if dinner preparations makes the kitchen dirty, the kitchen cleaning I did yesterday isn’t a waste of time: it made those dinner preparations more pleasant, and both the cleaning and the dinner were responsibilities I executed. A cleanish house helps keep us all more focused on what we’re supposed to be doing, and if the kids are supposed to be playing, then the toys (and maybe even all the blankets from the closet – cringe) are supposed to be out. If we’re doing school, then papers, binders, pencils – and all the toys because the baby is loose – are going to be littered over every clear surface. But, even though I clear those surfaces once or thrice a day, those papers and pencils and books aren’t undoing anything – they are the reason I cleared it before and will clear it again. It is a sign of life and of duties being done. It’s ok. We aren’t after a static clean. We’re after smoother functioning of day to day life.

The goal of home keeping is not to have a clean house.

Our homes are tools to be made use of, not display pieces to handle gingerly. Tools get dirty. Tools have to be taken care of. The point is to keep them useful and functioning, not pristine. A shovel left out in the grass all winter will rust and rot and not be much use in the spring; a home left untended will run to weeds. But a home cared for will not be immaculate. The aim in cleaning house is not to have a clean house, but to prepare the house for further functioning.

When you find yourself looking around and sighing and cringing and feeling deflated and defeated (as I do almost every day), it is a sign that your hope is set on the wrong end. Do not confuse your tools with your projects.

Chores give us practice in good habits.

So why spend all this time and energy on housekeeping? Because, though I’ve tried denying it in the past, the state of the house affects us, affects our families, affects our effectiveness.

Yes, order is foundational. God works with order. God commends order. But I think sometimes we think of this as God blessing us achieving an end-goal of a perfectly orderly house. But what does God Himself do? Bring order out of chaos. Transform. He doesn’t seem to be a fan of a static state in creation.

You know the Martin Luther quote about clean floors?

The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays — not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.

Now, he was commenting on vocations, but it’s easy for us housewives to see the statement and think, “God loves clean floors? Then He almost never loves my home.”

After all, even when I do clean the floors daily, they never stay clean for long.

I think we need to think about it a little differently. We need to say not that God loves clean floors, but that God loves us making dirty floors clean.

See the trick? Suddenly those little footprints, the crumbs, the blowing dust, the fingerprints are not ruining our clean floor which we wanted to please God with. Rather, they are creating another opportunity to please God by working transformation from dirty to clean yet again.

It is when we bring order out of chaos, when we make dirty things clean, that we are imaging God’s work in this world, not when we accomplish ever-so-briefly a moment of attaining our ends.

When we keep our homes, we can be hospitable.

Flylady puts this in an amusing way when she asks if you’re suffering from CHAOS: Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome. That’s such a good diagnostic question and motivation. Our houses don’t have to be perfectly clean and tidy to have people over (at least, not in my circles, thank goodness), but they do have to be functional: places to sit, food to fix, an atmosphere that lets us focus on others rather than our surroundings.

Keeping up with weekly housekeeping routines helps us keep our homes ready to function in one of the ways God desires them to function: as a welcome retreat from worldly cares and anxieties, a place of fellowship and peace. “Seek to show hospitality,” Romans 12:13 says. And one very practical first step toward that pursuit is to keep up with the housework so that the state of the house is not a barrier to opportunities that might arise (including the unexpected doorbell).

It can also work the other way. This has actually been a very useful strategy (or, perhaps, mind-game) for me over the years. For over a year awhile back, we were having people over for dinner once or twice a week, and I also had someone over during the day not infrequently. The only way we could have a houseful of four young children, homeschool, and still practice hospitality is if I actually worked my weekly routine and kept at the little jobs while they were still little, so that the house was only ever 15-30 minutes away from being presentable (“presentable” has also varied greatly over the years and in different seasons and with different people – that’s ok and normal).



Keeping the house reasonably clean is a way to be available for others.

Faithful work in the little things prepare us for bigger things.

Christ says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” And in the story of the talents, the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.”

Our homes are small stewardships given to us as practice and training ground. If we would seek to be responsible and faithful stewards of great ministries, we must start where we are, not where we daydream we will be in five or ten years. How we execute our responsibilities in the here and not is how we will execute them in the future. More responsibility doesn’t make us better managers; being a better manager brings more responsibility.

Taking care of current duties is the best preparation for future duties.

We moderns tend to compartmentalize our lives, thinking of what we do – and who we are as we do them – as unrelated segments and pieces. So there easily becomes the church me, the hanging-out-with-friends me, the homeschooling mom me, the wife me, the internet me, and the tedious-chores me. What the tedious-chores me thinks and how she behaves seems irrelevant to the wife or hanging-out-with-friends me, and likewise the church or internet me seems to have nothing to do with the tedious-chores me.

We get in trouble when we live in false paradigms. I am one me and you are one you, and there is no separate identity in each area of our life. That’s true even with housework. How we do what we are responsible to do in the little area of home will be how we handle responsibility in wider and deeper areas. It’s practice for what we’re becoming. How we think and act in the seemingly insignificant work will affect how we think and act in all our work. We are what we repeatedly do. And if we repeatedly, day in and day out, complain and grumble, then we will be complainers and grumblers – not just in that one area, but in them all.

Use chores and housework to learn.

When we as homeschooling mothers realize that education is about living well more than about subjects and tests and getting into college, we also begin to see that education applies even to us in our day to day life. As Augustine & C.S. Lewis tell us, education is about shaping our loves, making us love what we ought to love and hate what we out to hate.

So, fundamentally, we need love more than skill. Sometimes love follows skill (the heart follows the time the body puts in) and sometimes skill follows love (the body goes where the heart leads). But the important element either way is that the love is being shaped in the right direction. Continued growth in skill without growth in love leads to frustration, burn-out, and bad tempers.

So before we work at improving our skill or our children’s skill in housework, we need to open up our hearts to the process and be willing and ready to say, “I want to learn to love keeping my house.” Not tolerate it, not get it done most efficiently because it’s a necessary evil, but to learn to love that which must be done, as Goethe has said.

Learn to enjoy the mundane chores

Is it even possible to learn to enjoy household tasks? Not just to get them done, but even to like them? I believe it is.

When we as homeschooling mothers realize that education is about living well more than about subjects and tests and getting into college, we also begin to see that education applies even to us in our day to day life. As Augustine & C.S. Lewis tell us, education is about shaping our loves, making us love what we ought to love and hate what we out to hate.

So, fundamentally, we need love more than skill. Sometimes love follows skill (the heart follows the time the body puts in) and sometimes skill follows love (the body goes where the heart leads). But the important element either way is that the love is being shaped in the right direction. Continued growth in skill without growth in love leads to frustration, burn-out, and bad tempers.

So before we work at improving our skill or our children’s skill in housework, we need to open up our hearts to the process and be willing and ready to say, “I want to learn to love keeping my house.” Not tolerate it, not get it done most efficiently because it’s a necessary evil, but to learn to love that which must be done, as Goethe has said.

How is that even possible? In my experience, as someone who has considered housework a necessary evil and am in the process of recovery, it begins with small, seemingly insignificant steps:

  • Don’t allow yourself to bad mouth housework. Love does not insult or belittle.
  • Don’t keep an internal ledger of what you did that has been undone. Love keeps no record of wrongs.
  • Don’t use housework as a beating stick on yourself, berating yourself for what needs to be done. Love is patient and kind.

But learning to love something must also include positive actions.

  • Look at a small bit of the house made clean and notice and enjoy it.
  • Rename the time. Call folding the laundry in your bedroom a retreat. Call washing dishes or sweeping the floor meditation time. It can be.
  • Remember that it is transformative work, not mundane and useless work.
  • Break up the routine work into “short lessons” Charlotte Mason style: don’t do the same activity (folding, washing, sweeping, etc.) for more than 10-15 minutes. Use a timer, beat it, change up what you’re doing, keep active and moving to remain upbeat.

Stop and notice the progress you’ve made.

The small step that has yielded the most attitude-transformation for me has actually been to just stop and look and notice after I’m done with a job. Noticing has helped me feel like I did something, know how a clean space feels, and given a moment of peace and rest as reward. In creation, God stopped, noticed His work, and called it good. Mimicking that pattern in our housework is surprisingly fruitful for our souls. It is like a 5 second Sabbath in the midst of everyday life: acknowledge that the work is good, that you did good, that God is good.

When we image God in our work by stopping to see it and call it good, by bringing order from chaos, we find true satisfaction in the mundane details. So often we think of cleaning house as something we do for ourselves: a clean house is what I want, so I’ll grab it for myself, cranky at everyone who frustrates my end goal of clean house. Or, perhaps if we decide we don’t want a clean house, then the frustration will go away. But both of these attitudes assume that it is work we do unto ourselves, for our own good. A clean house is for our good, but secondarily, not selfishly. It is for our good because it is where God has placed us and what God has put before us to do. It is stewarding the resources He has entrusted to us.

True satisfaction comes not in the (fleeting) end result itself, but in the obedience along the way.

Our own attitudes as we tackle our work affect us more than we realize, as well as the rest of the household. If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy. But we can be happy, even in housework, because it is one of the good works God has called us to walk in – it is from Him and for Him.

Be a good example to your children and others by how you work

Moreover, our children will learn our attitudes. They will learn to value things not as much on what we tell them but based on how we actually value things. Children are insightful, more so than we are. They will internalize the message our attitudes convey, even if we are unaware of what those messages are. They will see in us someone who grumbles about work we don’t want to, someone who does a slap-dash job because she doesn’t really care, someone who values herself over others. And we must learn to draw the connection from our own attitudes about our work to the problems we have over the math lesson.

It will be better for us and for our children if we can overthrow as many walls compartmentalizing our life as we can. Tidying, wiping up, putting away, should just a part of life, woven into the day. Putting a day’s school books back when done should be just as much a part of the lesson as the reading itself. They are actually not unrelated at all. It’s all part of doing our work responsibly and well.

And there’s the rub, because when I look at it that way, it’s no wonder the kids often complain about their chores, do a half-hearted job, and leave stuff out. I leave stuff out, telling myself I’ll get back to it, even when the truth is that I just don’t want to bother. I not infrequently do a half-hearted job and look for any likely excuse to bail on my own chores. Even if I’m not complaining audibly to the children about work, do I not get crabby when the work has piled up and I’m finally tackling it? Just like them? My children and I, we are all in the same boat together, and it’s my job to lead the way myself, not push them on ahead of me while I sulk behind. Because, annoying or not, more is caught than taught. I am pretty good at self-justification and excusing myself plausibly. The children attempt to do the same thing, they just aren’t as good at it yet.

What I need to see in their attitudes and responses is not primarily sin to be squashed out of them, but a reflection of my own attitudes and responses, magnified and in-my-face. I need to repent, then, of my own sin, and help show the way out. I need to model the correct response not only to the conflict and the grumbling, but to the work itself. And then we can all practice. Stop the grumbling. Start over again. Try again. Give the correct response. Repeat. Slowly, the habits will change and the attitudes will follow, if I am dealing with my own first and foremost.

And that is the primary way something as mundane as daily chores affects the entirety of our lives and being. It is a small, insignificant area of our life that can be offered up to God, a place where we can die to ourselves and choose to do the right thing instead of the easy and indulgent thing. It is an area of our lives that we can grow in sanctification, and we should not despise the day of small things as we do so. Christ said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” That faithfulness in the little things will grow and spill out and affect everything else, eventually and perhaps subtly, but surely.

Your home is a tool of investment into your family.

Let it be used.

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7 Comments

  1. Excellent article, Mystie. Thank you for your candid rehearsal of your thoughts and wrestlings on this subject. These final words are very helpful and are going to find a home in my commonplace book: “The aim in cleaning house is not to have a clean house, but to prepare the house for further functioning.”

  2. What a great post! Just yesterday I changed all the sheets on the bed and then was getting frustrated when our toddler was getting his wet hair all over them right after his bath (sounds silly now, but I was saying I just wanted them to be “clean for five minutes”). I have mistakenly thought all this time that the goal of cleaning was a clean house, and never felt it was attainable. Thanks for putting it in perspective that the home is a tool to be used — and enjoyed!
    By the way, I noticed the other comment is from someone with the same name as me (and same spelling!) – just wanted to clarify we’re not the same person! :)

  3. I am really enjoying your series on being a better and more joyful homemaker, especially in regards to cleaning! I appreciate the biblical perspective you offer and the outside resources you reference. Like Kristi, I always thought of the goal as being a “clean” house & felt like there was no point in even TRYING to achieve that for more than a minute or 2. Thanks for reminding me that the daily (hourly?) tasks need to be kept in perspective of the goal of having a functioning household and not a magazine-worthy one :)

  4. Magnificent post, Mystie. You have a real gift for putting things in proper perspective in this arena. I like the “static clean” phrase. It really makes one see how the state of your house is dynamic in all aspects, even cleanliness.

  5. Thank you for this post. I’m grateful for this different perspective that you have given me for my daily work. I like the idea of cleaning to neutral; the housework isn’t the event, it’s the preparation for the event.

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