How to clean your house when you're too tired to clean : Life Kit Too overwhelmed to tidy up? KC Davis, author of the book "How to Keep House While Drowning," suggests a clean-up strategy that homes in on trash and clutter.

This 5-step method can quickly get a messy house back in order

This 5-step method can quickly get a messy house back in order

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo illustration of a messy table including dirty dishes, trash, legos, junk mail and a castoff sweater showing an untidy house and symbolizing overwhelm.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Imagine your home on its messiest day. Maybe you're standing in the doorway of your living room and it's chaos as far as the eye can see. Legos strewn across the floor. Dirty socks wedged between couch cushions. Cups crusted over with milk. Random receipts and pieces of mail on the table.

"A lot of us see that and we get overwhelmed," says KC Davis, a licensed therapist and author of the book, How to Keep House While Drowning. "We don't know where to start. When we do start somewhere, we feel like we work hours at something to see no progress."

The 'Five Things Tidying Method'

Though many of us feel shame when our homes end up in this state, we need to remember that a messy house is not a moral failing, Davis says. Also, you don't exist to serve your space, she says. Your space exists to serve you. Once you understand that, "the only thing that actually matters is whether my house is functioning and whether I'm able to live the kind of life I want inside of it."

In a recent interview with Life Kit, Davis shared her "Five Things Tidying Method," a simple framework to get a messy room back to functioning. She says that in any space, there are only five things: trash, dishes, laundry, things that have a place, and things that don't have a place. You're going to tackle them in that order.

1. Collect trash

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photograph of a pile of junk mail on a window ledge next to a plant. Trash is the first thing to pick up in KC Davis&#039;s &quot;Five Things Tidying Method.&quot;
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Get a trash bag or a trash can. Move around the room, collecting the garbage.

But don't take out the trash yet. "The more times you leave that room, the more likely you are to get distracted on some different project," Davis says. The point of this method is to get the space back to livable and functional.

"I can function with a trash bag sitting by the back door. I can't function with too much trash all around the house," Davis says. "I will have all the motivation in the world to do something and I'll do it for like 30 minutes and then all of a sudden the motivation will fly out of my body .... And so knowing that, I want to get as much done to make the space livable as I can."

2. Pile up dirty dishes

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photograph of a dirty coffee mug, spoon and milk sippy cup scattered amongst dinosaur toys on a shelf. The image represents the second item in KC Davis&#039;s &quot;Five things tidying method:&quot; dirty dishes.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Gather up all the dirty dishes. You can put them in the sink if it's nearby. Or you can pile them up. Davis likes to use laundry baskets that don't have holes in the bottom. You could also get a small rolling hamper, put a basket on top of it, "and roll that sucker around and collect all those dishes," she says.

This is about what works for you. "The reality is, there are going to be ways of doing things that make you feel like you are grinding gears with no oil, where every step of the process kind of feels miserable and you have to force it," Davis says. "And there are ways of doing things that are going to make you feel like you're on a greased track. I think you should find the way to put in the smallest amount of energy to get the most functional result."

Do not wash the dishes yet.

3. Pick up clothing and laundry

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Laundry is the third category in KC Davis&#039;s &quot;Five things tidying method.&quot; In this photo a pair of toddler&#039;s socks are strewn on the staircase.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Collect the laundry that's lying around. You can use a laundry basket or a hamper or a bag — whatever works for you.

Now, we know there are multiple categories of clothing you might find lying around your house. Maybe it's clean but not in the drawer. Or it's dirty. Or it's somewhere in between.

Davis, whose ADHD means that sometimes her brain "goes into gridlock" when she's presented with too many decisions, doesn't make those distinctions with clothing. "If it's on the floor, it's going into the hamper and getting washed. I don't care if I wore it once or a thousand times," she says. "I don't care if I didn't wear it at all. If it's not hung up, it's going into the washer."

You can adjust this step to work for you. Maybe you'll sort out the dirty and clean laundry, for instance. Just remember that this method is about triage. Try not to get stuck on this step. And put the laundry aside. Do not wash it yet.

4. Put back things that have a place

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
&quot;Things that have a place&quot; is the fourth category in KC Davis&#039;s &quot;Five Things Tidying Method.&quot; In this example, that would include a thermometer, a toy, a computer charger, headphones and a bottle of lotion on a wooden tray.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

This one is pretty straightforward. If that book belongs on the shelf, put it back. But if some items belong in another part of the house, put them in a laundry basket or pile them up by the door for now.

5. Gather things that don't have a place

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
&quot;Things that don&#039;t have a place&quot; is the fifth category in KC Davis&#039;s &quot;Five Things Tidying Method.&quot; Essentially, any item that is creating clutter because you&#039;re not actually sure where it belongs in your home. These are things that might end up in a junk drawer, like tape, plastic easter eggs, batteries, a rubik&#039;s cube, notepad, a tape measure, screws and a tote bag.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Sometimes our belongings become clutter because we've never chosen a place to store them. Those are the items we're tackling in this step.

First, though, it's time for a check-in, Davis says. "How are we feeling? What else is on the agenda today? How motivated are we? What's our body feeling like? What's our concentration level?"

She may decide to gather all the stuff that doesn't have a place, put it in a basket and set it aside. But if she has the energy, she'll start asking questions. Like, "Is there anything in here that has cousins or close friends? And what I mean by that is: If I have a pair of scissors, is there a place in my house where I'm keeping similar items, like a drawer where I keep my box cutters?"

At this point, you may also decide to create a home for these random odds and ends. Some people call this a "junk drawer." Davis likes to use clear shoe holders — the kind you might hang inside a closet – because she can see everything and find it when she needs it.

Once you've gone through the five categories, take out the trash. Maybe do the dishes. Bring the laundry to the machine and start it, if you want. Or put it by the door if you're going to take it to the laundromat.

And then use your space! Might we suggest a celebratory dance party?


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Mia Venkat and edited by Meghan Keane. The digital story was edited by Danielle Nett. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan.

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