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

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You're listening to LIFE KIT from NPR.

Hey, everybody. It's Marielle Segarra. Raise your hand if you think it's a moral failure to leave dirty dishes sitting in your sink for a day. It's kind of a funny question, right?

KC DAVIS: I don't know anybody that would say yes, but if you ask someone - do you feel shame if you leave your dishes in the sink for too long? - a lot of people say yes.

SEGARRA: I mean, it's true. Sometimes it feels like the dishes are silently judging me from across the room. Same goes for that dusty bookshelf and the unfolded laundry that's constantly giving me the side eye. That was KC Davis, by the way. She's a therapist. And she wrote a book called "How To Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach To Cleaning And Organizing." She says the problem is that when we think of chores as a moral obligation, but we aren't doing them, it's easy to spiral.

DAVIS: I'm just not responsible. I'm just not mature. I'm just not good enough. I just don't work hard enough. I'm just lazy. When you believe that that's the issue, the only solution to that is try harder, be better. But I have found just clinically as a therapist and in speaking to other therapist friends, like, that's almost never the issue.

SEGARRA: Maybe you're dealing with a chronic illness, or you have ADHD, or you work two jobs, or you're a parent, or you're just tired from life. The good news - and this is the other message of the book - you don't exist to serve your space. Your space exists to serve you.

DAVIS: Yes, there's still labor that needs to be done, but it takes off the pressure of how it's supposed to look and how it should be done because then 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 to inside of it.

SEGARRA: And once you understand that, you can start to think of cleaning as a kindness to yourself.

DAVIS: Because everyone - everyone - no matter who they are, no matter what they've done, no matter what they are struggling with, deserves to live in a functional space.

SEGARRA: On this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to walk through a framework from KC's book called the five things tidying method. It's informed by this mindset and her work as a therapist, and it'll help you get your space back to functional quickly, so it can start serving you again.


SEGARRA: You have some really helpful concrete frameworks in the book that can help people, for instance, clean up a room when they're having trouble mustering the energy or when the idea feels overwhelming. And I want to walk through one of them. It's called the five things tidying method.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: First of all, what is the concept here?

DAVIS: Well, the concept is that if you've got a big mess, we don't know where to start. When we do start somewhere, we feel like we work hours at something to see no progress. It feels for some of us like the whole endeavor is just so miserable. It takes a long time to sort of, like, psych yourself up to do it. And so I came up with this method when I was in my early 20s because I felt all of those things. And I just sort of have to tell myself, like, in any room, no matter how many things you think you see, there's really only five things. There's trash, dishes, laundry, things that have a place and things that don't have a place. And for me, if I start at the top of that list and I go category by category, ignoring everything in the room and just looking for that one category of item, it really takes care of a lot of mental blocks that I experience, and I think that's true for a lot of people.

SEGARRA: OK, so let's say you're standing in the door of your living room, and you are looking around. The first thing you do is you get a trash bag or a trash can, and you look for the garbage, right?

DAVIS: Yeah. And I always get the biggest trash bag that I can.

SEGARRA: OK. And then so you're just collecting everything, and you're putting it in the bag or the can. Are you taking the trash out at this point?

DAVIS: No. I - 'cause one of the things that gets us stuck is that we get distracted. So if you - the more times you leave that room, the more likely you are to get distracted on some different project. And the other reason is because I - this is going to get our space livable and functional. Like, I can function with a trash bag sitting by the back door. I can't function with too much trash all around the house. And...


DAVIS: ...I - maybe it's just me, but, like, 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 like it has been exorcized. And so, like, knowing that, like, I'm going to get to a certain point and sort of run out of motivation, I want to get as much done to make the space livable as I can.

SEGARRA: All right. So step two is dishes, right? What am I doing with the dishes?

DAVIS: You're just putting them in the sink.

SEGARRA: OK. Now, let's say this is the living room. There are a bunch of, like, dirty cups and stuff...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: ...Maybe some plates. I'm bringing them to the kitchen?

DAVIS: Yeah, you can do that. You can also get a - I like to have laundry baskets that don't have holes in them because it doubles as lots of other things. And one of the things it works well with is dishes. Like, if you want to carry around a laundry basket and put all the dishes in the laundry basket, you can do that. You can get a small rolling hamper and just pop a piece of hard cardboard on top of it and then just put a basket on top of that and roll that sucker around and collect all those dishes, you know, depending on what works for you, what kind of makes your brain feel like it's on a greased track. 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. I think you should find the way to put the smallest amount of energy to get the most functional result.

SEGARRA: Totally. Well, you have a tip for dishes once you are doing your dishes later on. It's the dirty dish rack method, right?


SEGARRA: And this works really well for you.

DAVIS: Yes. So I realized that it's really overwhelming to me to look at a sink full of dishes, that I really dislike from a sensory perspective putting my hands and having to get the utensils from the bottom where they're, like, mixed with all the yucky water and that I couldn't use my sink. Like, I couldn't get a pot underneath to turn the water on. And so I thought, OK, well, I would really like a way to make some of these things easier for me. And so I got this dish rack. And what I started doing was whenever I had a dirty dish, I would stick it on the dish rack dirty. But what happened was at the end of the night when I would go to my sink, not only could I use my sink all day, but I'm looking at this very organized dish rack where it's like plate, plate, plate, plate. Oh, this is all organized. Oh, it would take me just a few minutes to load this up into the dishwasher. And it was just smoother. It was easier. I felt less resistance, less procrastination, less avoidance. And that became, like, a life-changer for me when it came to dishes.

SEGARRA: OK, so let's move to No. 3. If we're doing the five things method, you've gone around the room, picked up the trash, picked up the dishes. And now we're at laundry.

DAVIS: Now we're coming to laundry.

SEGARRA: There are often, in a given room, various types of laundry. Like, there's clean but, like, not in the drawer. There's dirty, definitely dirty, not going to wear it again. And then there's in between. I don't know. Maybe I think I should wear it again, but it's not...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: ...Maybe clean enough to go back in the drawer. I'm not sure. What do you do when you walk around, and you see all this stuff?

DAVIS: So I'll tell you what I do because I am all about simplifying things for my brain. So I've got ADHD. That presents some problems with executive functioning. And one of those things is, like, too many decisions, too many steps, too many - like, my brain goes into gridlock really easily. So here's what I do. I don't have all those categories. And I'm not saying that I don't, but, like, I don't. I just - if it's on the floor, it's going into the hamper, and it's getting washed. I don't care if I wore it once. I don't care if I wore it a thousand times. I don't care if I didn't wear it at all. I just thought I was going to, and I brought it into the living room and set it on the chair. I have to - in my mind, things have to be one step. And the step is if it's not hung up, it's going into the washer. It's getting washed again. And that really simplifies things for me.

SEGARRA: Got it. Yeah, so it sounds like in general, like, that might work for some folks, or maybe some folks want to, like, pick things out. But maybe in the triage method, they walk around the room, they collect the laundry in a basket probably...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: ...And then they put it in the corner for now.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: And they move on to things that have a place. And this one seems pretty straightforward. Like, put the stuff in the place, right? Do you do that right away?

DAVIS: Yeah, yeah.


DAVIS: And sometimes it depends. Like, the house that I used to live at, we had - so our living room, dining room, which we were using as a playroom, and our kitchen were all in one floor. And that's where we did almost all of our living. And so, you know, I didn't - if I - if something belonged in the kitchen, it was three steps to get to the kitchen, right?


DAVIS: So and now I live in a house that the layout's a little differently. So I'm not going to walk all the way across the house for something, right? I'm going to put it in a little basket of where it goes.

SEGARRA: OK. And then last one is things that don't have a place. What do you do with those in the moment? Do you just kind of pile them up, or do you find a place for them? Like, at this point you still haven't thrown away your trash. You haven't put the laundry in the laundry room. You haven't done the dishes. So, like, yeah, what are we doing with the stuff that doesn't have a place?

DAVIS: This is always sort of my check-in moment where I kind of check in with myself, and I go, OK, how we feeling? What else is on the agenda today? How motivated are we? What's our body feeling like? What's our concentration level? Because sometimes I just put it aside in a basket and have to do other things - go, you know, throw the trash away. But if I'm really kind of feeling like, no, I want to tackle this, I want to get this done, then I will sort of look inside. And you have to make some decisions. So sometimes the easiest thing is to go, OK, sometimes things don't have a place because, like, you don't need that thing. Is there anything here I can purge or donate or get rid of? And then I go, OK, is there anything in here that kind of, like, has cousins or close friends? And what I mean by that, you know, is if I have a pair of scissors and I don't really have a place where these specific scissors go, well, is there a place in my house where I'm keeping similar items? Like, do I have a drawer where I keep my box cutters? - because I could just add the scissors to that.

SEGARRA: If you're coming to the end of the five things and, like, you've checked in with yourself, and you're like, all right, I either have the energy for this or I don't, so maybe you pile up the things that don't have a place in the corner...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: ...If you don't have the energy. And then you're looking at the five things that you've collected, you throw away the trash, right?


SEGARRA: You bring the laundry to, like, your washing machine. Or if you if you do your laundry at a laundromat, maybe you just - what? - like, put it by your door or something.

DAVIS: Put it by the door, yeah.

SEGARRA: Yeah, maybe you do the dishes.

DAVIS: I almost never do.

SEGARRA: Maybe you save them for later.

DAVIS: I almost never do.


DAVIS: That's always the thing that I leave. And people are different, right? Like, some people, they really need to do the thing they dread the most first, and then they kind of feel free. Like, oh, now I'm not dreading this. I'm the opposite. If I know that I have permission to not touch those dishes, I will do everything else in my house.


SEGARRA: You talk in the book about care tasks as a potential kindness to your future self.

DAVIS: Yeah.

SEGARRA: Like, that's one more reason to do them. If you - if it's the evening and you're like, you know what? I don't really feel like doing these dishes right now, but I know in the morning it would be really great to have an empty sink. So I'm going to do something to make that happen.

DAVIS: I think so often we clean reactively as if having to clean our space is a punishment for having lived in it. You know, it was great to have that dinner party, but, ugh, now I have all these dishes. All right, I - you know, I did a project, but now I have to clean up after myself. I want to flip that. Instead of thinking that care tasks are always cleaning up after ourselves, I want to start thinking of them as forward-facing tasks. You know, I'm going to clean for myself. I'm going to put two dishes into the dishwasher because it would be a real kindness to morning me to be able to just have a clean dish to eat off of in the morning. I want to put my slippers next to my bed at night because I have tile floors, and my feet are cold in the morning, and what a kindness it would be to myself to be able to wake up and put those slippers on before having to walk across the tile. And when you start doing things out of kindness, things start to change. And sometimes I say, I'm not going to even touch these dishes because I deserve rest. And I do that out of kindness, too. I'm going to go let myself lay down on the couch.

SEGARRA: I'm going to put some of this stuff into action in my life, seriously. It's one of those things that, like, shifts your perspective.

DAVIS: Well, when you do, just remember that there's no way to fail at this. You do it, and it makes your life better. And then maybe you fall off, or you don't do it. And then you go, oh, yeah, let me - I want to go pick that tool up again.

SEGARRA: Are you, like, hearing the voice in my head or something?

DAVIS: (Laughter).

SEGARRA: Like, I...

DAVIS: I have the same voice. That's how I know.

SEGARRA: OK, time for a recap. You don't exist to serve your space. It exists to serve you. With that in mind, do your housework and self-care in ways that make sense for your brain and your body in general. If you're doing the five things method, go through all the steps before you put away the trash or do the laundry or the dishes. And if you find yourself struggling to do a care task, think about why it's hard for you. Are there changes you could make, ways you could do it differently that might make things easier? Lastly, remember that a messy house is not a moral failure. The dishes aren't going to come alive and say judgmental things to you or make you a 10-course meal. You've been watching too many Disney movies.


SEGARRA: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on decluttering and another on using rest as a form of resistance. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT and want even more, subscribe to our newsletter at This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Mia Venkat. Our visuals editor is Beck Harlan. Our digital editors are Malaka Gharib and Danielle Nett. Meghan Keane is the supervising editor, and Beth Donovan is our executive producer. Our production team also includes Andee Tagle, Audrey Nguyen, Clare Marie Schneider and Sylvie Douglis. Julia Carney is our podcast coordinator, and engineering support comes from Carleigh Strange, Patrick Murray and Neil Tevault. I'm Mariel Segarra. Thanks for listening.

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