Maslow Cleans House

This How-To post is dedicated to a pal of mine who was commenting about how hard it is to get the apartment (flat) tidied and cleaned up. I was trying to describe how I used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, natural supports, and the Premack Principle together as means for organising this most mundane set of chores.

In this case, we don’t mean that housekeeping is “hard” in the sense of physically mopping a floor, but hard in the sense of figuring out where to start, how to keep the momentum going, getting the job finished, and even figuring out what to do with stuff. The so-called “executive functions” of planning, execution, self-monitoring et cetera are not limited to office work — they are just as necessary in the realm of what used to be referred to (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) as “domestic engineering”.

Amazingly, tidying and cleaning a small apartment is more difficult than doing the same in a full-size house. Granted, the larger house has more rooms, which in turn means more square area to be vacuumed or mopped, and may mean twice as many toilets and tubs to scrub. But the problem with the tiny domicile is that the average 21st-century post-industrial resident has a certain amount of Stuff for daily living, and that amount of stuff does not shrink proportionately just because the domicile does. (I love the German word for “stuff”, Kram, because cramming my Kram into odd places is what I spend a lot of tidying time doing.) Worse, small residences usually lack great amounts of storage space. Unless you are spartan in your personal possessions by dint of poverty or strong design aesthetic*, you have more stuff than the meager cabinets and closets will hold.

Of course we have to pick up first to clear the surfaces so we can clean them. But we could spend all day trying in vain to get things picked up, especially if we have AD/HD and are easily distracted. Picking up is way too recursive — you pick up one thing to put away, take it to where it belongs, find something at the end point or en route to the end point, pick it up, maybe put away the first thing, try to put away the second thing, maybe manage to do so without being distracted by the third thing, or get interrupted by a phone call or a cooking timer or remember something else or…

Heavens, at that rate you would need to get your shoes re-soled before you got the place picked up! And in all that, you’re making a half-assed attempt at trying to clean things as well, because you got thirsty and found something moldy or spilled in the fridge and —


To make any headway in my own domestic engineering, I finally had to set up a hierarchy, somewhat similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The needs are dual, based upon the needs of the residents for living there, and also upon the housekeeper for being able to get things done effectively. My own order of operations is set up as much as possible for natural supports to be created. Read the rest of this entry »