In this post: Is your house messy? Here’s why, what that says about you, and how you can clean your whole house quickly.
First, it was a holiday, then a trip, then the whole family came down with Covid. That’s all it took for the house to go from sparkling clean to an absolute wreck. I looked around my house while shoving yet another tissue in my pocket that I’d found on the couch as the familiar burn of shame crept up my chest and into my face.
You’re a professional organizer, for crying out loud. You write about ways to keep your house clean easily. Why should anyone trust you? You’re a fraud!
My insecurity and frustration threatened to take over, but I pushed the icky feelings back and instead of giving in, I just reverted back to what I knew worked. I went back to the basics and rebooted my Rule of 3 chore list as soon as the Covid headache went away.
Is your house messy? The truth is: it can happen to anyone. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
And like the recent instance that rocked my home, it’s often the result of being busy or overwhelmed by life and not knowing where to start. (And in my case, a love of Diet Coke that turned into way too many cans on the counter.) Fortunately, I have the answer to all of that, and this whole article is devoted to ways to rise out of the mess.
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Why is my house messy?
If you’ve ever felt like a failure for having dirty dishes on the counter, or a pile of laundry on the couch for days on end, or toys all over the floor, please stop right there. You are NOT a failure. You are merely a person overwhelmed by their circumstances.
Oh, and you probably actually live in your home.
Could you just be a lazy bum? Sure. It’s possible. Everyone has a lazy streak sometimes. Been there, done that.
But you know what’s even more possible is one of these really valid reasons for mess has happened to you.
Note: while in some parts of this article I’ll be discussing how mental health may impact your messy home, I’m not a healthcare professional nor should this be considered medical advice. Please speak with your primary care provider or another qualified professional for recommendations for your personal health.
Maybe, like me, you’ve recently gone through an extended season of chaos. Illness, family obligations, and even pleasant positive things like travel and celebrations can throw equilibrium off balance and literally (and figuratively) let things pile up.
Life is full of interruptions, especially as a parent. So, this could be something as innocuous as forgetting the laundry in the dryer because your toddler made a masterpiece on your walls and you just discovered it and need to clean it up, or as serious as dropping everything because a family member needs to be rushed to the emergency room.
Each of these interruptions can temporarily halt progress on cleaning your home. It’s just life.
Lack of time
Let’s face it: you’re busy. You’re a mom, on the go, running kids here, there, everywhere to basketball practices and scout meetings and church events and school events and family gatherings, and everything in between.
You might be a caregiver to a child with an ongoing illness or special needs, going to endless therapy sessions or doctor’s appointments and worrying about whether you’re doing a good job as their parent or not. (You are.)
You might be a spouse or partner, balancing life with kids with finding time for intimacy.
Or you might be a business owner, trying to stay on top of the bookkeeping and employee PTO requests while also remembering to take the dog to the vet and defrost the chicken you bought on sale last week.
You probably barely have time to change out of your pajamas or work clothes to get to the next thing on the agenda, let alone wash the dishes and take out the trash.
Is it any wonder we moms are tired all the time? Just a few generations ago, new-fangled machines were helping speed up “women’s work” (insert eye roll here), and now all that gets us is a more productive way to constantly be behind. Sure, the food stays cold in the fridge and the dishes practically do themselves, but we still have to shop for that food and put those dishes in the dishwasher.
Life is one big “don’t forget to do this thing!” now. We’re busy.
Hand-in-hand with lack of time comes bone-crushing weariness and fatigue. When you’re constantly on the go (and probably struggling to get in bed at a decent time because after the kids are in bed is your only quiet time of the day), exhaustion is par for the course.
Is it any wonder it’s hard to prioritize working even more on our own homes when all we want to do is collapse and watch HGTV reruns?
With all the busyness comes a million and one decisions and prioritizations that must be made. Put off any one decision for a short period of time, and you’ll likely be fine. But put off a hundred small decisions and you’re in for cluttered surfaces.
That’s what clutter is—delayed decisions or actions.
Where does this paper go? I don’t know. I’ll put it down here on the counter for now. What should I do with this broken toy? I’ll set it here until I fix it. When will I need to refill the dog food? Soon, probably, so I’ll just leave the giant bag here by the door until I do. I know I should do XYZ, but I’m tired so I’m going to leave that alone for now.
Executive function challenges
Maybe it’s task initiation or the order of doing things that is tripping you up.
It happens to everyone sometimes, especially if you are tired or going through a hard time, or are really really busy. But if you struggle with the skill to make those decisions on a consistent basis, you may be dealing with an executive function disorder that goes hand-in-hand with certain neurodivergencies. Your brain might just be wired a little differently.
If you’re struggling with motivation, task initiation, etc., try to find the fun or novelty or urgency in a task and if there doesn’t seem to be any, create your own. Implement a timer, playlist, or reward.
Whoo, boy. This one is a doozy. It’s related to executive function, for sure, but sometimes it’s just because, well … you don’t wannnnnaa.
That doesn’t mean you won’t clean. It just means you’re putting it off for a little bit. Maybe that’s for a “good” reason (playing with your kids). Maybe that’s for a “bad” reason (watching the Bachelor). But the reality is, like K.C. Davis always reminds us, care tasks are morally neutral.
You’re not a bad person for having a messy house.
You’re a person. Who happens to currently have a messy house.
That’s all the mess says about you.
Procrastination can be beaten, however. Use one of the tricks for executive function challenges listed above. Or remind yourself of your why … the reason you need to clean. Maybe it’s for your mental health. Your kid’s safety. Pride of accomplishment. Or simply to give yourself a gold star on a chart. (You can TOTALLY make a chart and buy gold stars and give yourself one for every single dang task on your list, if that’s what makes you happy.)
And above all, remember: you’re worth a tidy home.
The last reason for mess in a house is one that should not be overlooked or underestimated: depression. I’ve been there, and it’s truly disabling.
When you’re depressed, it doesn’t necessarily mean you spend all day crying on the couch. Sure, that could be part of it, but even more than that, you might feel numb or detached from everything happening around you and struggle to find the motivation to do, well, anything.
Even things that usually would entertain or encourage you fall flat and bring no joy. So anything that actually takes concentration and effort, like cleaning? Forget about it.
If you’ve been feeling that way, please, know you are not alone. Reach out to a loved one, ministry, or helpline, like this one.
What are the effects of living in an untidy house?
Living in a messy house may be a neutral state, but it still can have negative effects on your mental and physical well-being.
Take, for instance, stress. Even if it’s just a low underlying stress because of all those decisions you’ve been putting off that have turned into clutter now. It’s still something that will be having an effect on your mental and emotional health, and that of your family, as well.
That’s not to say that you should berate yourself for clutter, or consider messy rooms a sign of unworthiness. Not at all! We’ve already established the reasons for the mess to be there. But now we need to acknowledge the effect it can have if allowed to remain.
Anxiety is another common effect. In fact, studies show that for women especially, clutter can cause anxiety.
It’s not hard to understand why—that constant feeling of chaos and clutter can lead to overwhelm, making it difficult to focus on other tasks. The messiness can also trigger feelings of shame or embarrassment, particularly when friends or family visit.
In fact, just the threat of a visit is enough to either send a wave of embarrassment over you or spur you into action. (If the latter, hey, use that to your advantage and invite people over just to get a jumpstart on cleaning motivation!)
But if that anxiety isn’t at least productive in some way, it’s going to linger and grow and start impacting you in other ways.
It doesn’t really matter what you need to work on or pay attention to, if your house is messy, your attention will be divided from things you’d rather (or need to) be doing. And if you just want to relax … you’ll be faced with all the “should be doings” instead of just truly relaxing.
Visual clutter can be very distracting.
When your house is a mess, it can take longer to locate what you’re looking for, whether that’s your toddler’s favorite sippy cup (the blue one, not the green one!) or your passport, which can be frustrating and time-consuming.
If you’re repeating the constant game of hide-and-seek with your daily objects, just think of all the time you’re wasting that you could be spending in much more enjoyable or necessary ways.
Having better systems of organization in place will save you so much time!
When your bills are buried in a pile of junk mail on the counter, it’s easy to miss a due date and then end up with late fees. Ouch!
Or, you could search the house top to bottom for something you need, not find it, and buy it all over again … just to find that item in another place later on. And now you have two of them.
Finally, living in an untidy house can lead to health issues.
Piles of clutter are breeding grounds for mold and collect both dust and pet dander, which can then lead to respiratory issues such as asthma or allergies. Equally serious is when clutter hides the presence of pests, for instance, mouse or cockroach droppings, which can cause serious health problems if handled or inhaled without proper protection like an N95 mask while cleaning.
Piles on the floor can also create tripping hazards and piles on counters can topple and land on you or your kids, increasing the risk of injury.
Fortunately, these scenarios are not as likely for simple household clutter and mess. But if left to linger too long, it’s a major concern. That’s why it’s so important to clean regularly and come up with a cleaning routine and organizational system that you can easily maintain.
Note: If you are struggling with cleaning your home to the point where there is consistently rotting food, evidence of pests, and piles of belongings blocking pathways or making necessary rooms like the kitchen or bathroom unusable, that is beyond the scope of this article. Please reach out to a helpline or seek a qualified professional for assistance overcoming hoarding.
How to clean a messy house
Have a plan to get out of the mess (if that helps)
- Set Goals
If you’re the planning type, it can help to decide what is your big goal for your home.
Ideally, this should be something attainable when broken up into 3-5 steps. So, “make my whole house spotless in just 1 day” is an admirable dream to chase, but “be able to eat at the kitchen table tonight” is waaaayyyy more reasonable.
- Prioritize tasks
Next up: take that goal and break it into smaller bite-size chunks. (As the saying goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.)
Even if you insist on keeping the goal of making your entire house spotless from top to bottom in just one day, you’re more likely to actually achieve that goal if you’ve broken it down into manageable steps.
For instance, the eating at the kitchen table for dinner option might look like this:
– Throw out / recycle trash (toss paper napkins, wrappers, old packaging, junk mail, etc.)
– Remove dishes and silverware and glasses from table
– Put anything still left on the table (or chairs) back where it belongs
– Use a wet paper towel with a spritz of all-purpose cleaner to wash the surface of the table and chairs
For more ways to plan your cleaning and decluttering, check out my Time to Declutter Toolkit, which helps you do this step-by-step.
- Assign deadlines
Sometimes you need a good ol’ fashioned hard and fast deadline to get you in gear.
Use a countdown timer, reminder app, or calendar apt to remind you of the upcoming deadline … and then keep it!
- Find your motivation
But if you need a little more motivation, add a carrot!
What kind of reward do you like? Does a gold star do it for you? Make a chart, baby! Need to add up “points” to apply toward a purchase or a trip or activity? Rack ‘em up!
Rewards not working for you? Add a stick!
What penalty can you think of for NOT reaching your goal? Payment to a “DNF” jar? Taking a friend out to dinner? Adding an extra bonus task? Taking over a spouse or partner’s chore list for the day? Make it count.
Where to start cleaning a messy house
- Start at the front door and work your way in
The reason? This is how any guest will view your home first. Take the paths they will take to tackle the most important areas in your home. But also, it’s often the least difficult. For any items near your front door, you probably have a good idea where they should go.
- Start with the most visible areas
Your living spaces are the most urgent to clean, especially if you’re having company over. But even if you’re just cleaning for yourself and your family, any living space will have the biggest impact on your quality of life.
- Start with the least overwhelming task
Whatever is the thing that intimidates you or repels you the least? Do that. Gain momentum. Make it a chore snowball … start small and grow into the bigger, more difficult tasks as your confidence and determination grows.
- Start in a half bathroom
Listen, if you have a hall or half bathroom that’s primarily used by guests in your home, or by anyone in the living spaces of your home, it’s not going to be as dirty as, say, your potty-training son’s bathroom.
Wipe down the counters, swipe the mirror, scrub the toilet, sweep the floor, replace the hand towel, and boom! You’re done.
- Start with your kitchen sink and counters
A dirty kitchen sets the tone for the entire house, especially if you live in an open-concept home. From where I sit while typing this, I can see my kitchen sink and the mugs and glasses and cookware I still need to wash today. It’s distracting.
I should do something about that.
Cleaning off the most seen surfaces in your home definitely improves the visual clutter factor and automatically makes a home look clean and sparkling, no matter how many loads of laundry are waiting to be folded.
Quick tips to clean fast
- Declutter first. The less stuff you own, the less stuff you have to clean up.
- Clean one room at a time
- Use a timer—race the clock
- Take your cue from Mary Poppins and make it a game.
- Create a cleaning playlist to pump you up (bonus points if it doubles as a timer!)
- Clean in this order: remove trash, remove glasses/dishes, remove laundry, remove items that belong somewhere else (and put them there), tidy up what remains
- Have an empty basket or container in each room where things frequently gather, so you can quickly toss them in the basket to tidy up in a hurry and then take them where they belong when you have more time (this works especially well with toys)
- Invest in storage furniture that is in your style but doubles as a place to put things quickly
- Work top to bottom (so dust and dirt fall to the floor and get cleaned up last)
- Company coming over and you need to clean up fast? Just clean the stuff they’ll see and touch. Deep cleaning can wait.
- Find your motivation
- Enlist help (delegate/outsource)
- Get into a cleaning routine
What does it mean if your house is messy?
Short answer: It means you live in your house. Period.
Slightly longer answer: It means you might struggle with task initiation, motivation, or focus. Or you might be going through a difficult phase of life.
What does a messy house say about your mental health?
It could mean that you are neurodivergent in some way, or are struggling with anxiety or depression. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Please talk to your healthcare professional for more advice.
Is it OK to live in a messy house?
Of course! If we’re talking toys everywhere, half-done laundry piles, dishes in the sink from yesterday, and a to-do list a mile long, that’s normal. A messy house is a lived-in house.
However, if your mess has gotten to a point where food is rotting and attracting pests (and not just those bananas you kept meaning to make banana bread with), piles are preventing entry to rooms, or there are tripping or other health hazards, please seek help from a qualified professional.
What does a cluttered home say about you?
That you live in your house and you have stuff you haven’t made decisions about.
Or, in more extreme cases, that you are chronically disorganized, a collector, or even a hoarder. Please seek help from a qualified professional if that might be you.
Is being messy a symptom of depression?
It can be but isn’t always. Please seek help from a qualified professional if you have questions about this.
How do you deal with living with a messy person?
My recommendation is to give them grace, but be open and honest about how the mess affects you in specific ways. (Specific concerns are easier dealt with than broad generalized ones). Try to recognize they are probably very sensitive about it and may react strongly if this concern is presented in a way that creates conflict.
Can a messy house cause anxiety?
Yes, it can. Studies show that clutter can contribute to anxiety, especially for women.
Is your house messy? You need a plan!
Is your house messy right now? Shoot, mine is too. We don’t live in magazine spreads or stock photos. We live in real houses. With real people. Who do real things anyone normally does in a place they live.
For us, lately, that’s been recovering from the plague and living off paper plates and waiting for a fever to drop before squeezing in some daily habits so the house doesn’t completely get trashed.
Not even feeling like you want to clean your house right now? Also totally normal.
Listen, we don’t clean because it’s something “good moms” do. We shouldn’t even clean because it’s what “everyone does”. We clean simply because it helps us live better. It’s a gift we give ourselves.
Life happens. You’re gonna drop pizza on the floor, let the dog lick it up, and forget about the missing pepperoni under the table for a few days. You’re going to have random hairs sticking to the bathroom sink. You’re even going to forget to take the trash to the curb and have your bin stink to high heaven for an extra week.
We’ve all been there, done that!
But having a plan to recover from the chaos … that’s the solution. Even just focusing on a few daily chores will keep things from getting out of control. Because you’ll be prepared for when life happens, and you’ll just keep going.
So, why’s your house messy? Because you’re not a robot living in a museum, friend. You have a beautiful, chaotic, messy life. You’re human, with emotions, and struggles, and dreaded bouts with the stomach flu when your kid brings home the plague from preschool.
You have a messy house because you are living in it. So live it up.
(And then do the dishes. Again.)
Not sure which daily chores to pick to do to keep the chaos at bay? I’ve got you covered with The Rule of 3! Learn more here.