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.

The bottom of the hierarchy has the most important need. In the housekeeping world, this is sanitation. We have to keep things clean enough that we don’t endanger our health. You might say that everything related to housekeeping revolves around that premise, but really, some things are more important than others — as my friend Deanna has noted, “No one ever died from oven grunge.”

The next level is that morass of decluttering and organising that I refer to generally as “tidying”. As far as I am concerned, a room achieves a state of Tidy when I move in and have finished unpacking, or when I repaint and put things back to rights. The rest of the time (some 99.8%, I’d hazard) is merely focussed upon the process of tidying, not upon achieving perfect results. Tidy seems to be a state of grace achieved by decorator homes on photo-shoot day, and by hotel rooms between guests, but is hardly a state of affairs in places where normal people are living on a daily basis. I don’t worry about achieving it, although I do like my interior environment to get much closer during the odd times when we have company.

The other levels include maintenance (stuff like cleaning windows that helps keep things in nice shape, but is not vital to hygiene), and at the top of our domestic pyramid, aesthetics.

Many of us are simply trying to stay on top of the bottom hygiene tier, and would like to achieve the tidy tier. We envy those people who have achieved domestic self-actualisation by having all their rooms at the pinnacle of excellence, the aesthetic home. (Behind that envy is a small sense of incredulity, and we might wonder that such people have [1] better-trained residents who pick up after themselves, [2] better-paying jobs that allow for paid help to do the scutwork, or [3] useful OCD tendencies, or [4] some combination of the above.)

So, here’s my battle plan for Housekeeping in 12 Steps (ordinal steps, not footsteps):

1. Herd all the dishes into the kitchen. Actual dishwashing occurs a bit later — random dirty mugs and spoons will (for a while) continue to appear out of nowhere, you know. (If you really have a lot of dishes strewn about, maybe you need a plastic tub for gathering them up, like a smaller version of what restaurant bussers use.)

2. Empty all the rubbish and garbage (and change litterboxes) and then immediately take it out to the dumpster. I don’t park it at the door, or worse, in the middle of the room, because I will trip over it and spill it and then have an even worse mess to clean up. I learned a very important tip from a professional custodian — don’t leave the replacement trash bags in the box in some cupboard somewhere — put them in the bottoms of the wastebaskets right where you need them. That way when you remove one full bag, there’s another bag waiting there to line the wastebasket right away. That saves you at least one trip, or probably several, because most of us have several wastebaskets.

3. Gather up all the laundry for washing, including stripping off the bed linens and the towels and stuff, and sort that into the respective piles. Doing this impels me to keep moving, because I hate not having clean sheets — or any sheets — on the bed, so I have to get them washed and done soon. If I am doing laundry in another part of the building, I set a timer to remind me to keep going back promptly to keep the loads moving. (Usually I do the sheets first and dark clothes after those, because I’m going to put the cleaning rags in the hot water/whites load.) While I am picking up random clothes, I also grab the empty hangers, so they all end up at the washer-dryer where I need them. It’s too much bother to go back to fetch hangers when I’m pulling out a load from the dryer, and it’s worse bother to have even more shirts to iron because they sat squashed in a basket for days until I need to wear them.

By this point I feel like I actually have some momentum, because one job is finished and another has been irrevocably set into motion.

4. If you hand-wash dishes, then fill up the sink with some hot, soapy water and start the dishes soaking. (We’re letting them soak in hot, soapy water because the food is dried on them.) If your sink is too full of dirty dishes to be able to plug it, then you need that busser’s tub to hold the extra dirties. If space is really tight, then make sure the burners are cool and set a rimmed baking sheet on the stove and use it for spare counter space.

Another basic need beyond sanitation is keeping the apartment and the utilities, meaning, getting bills paid.

5. Next it’s time to tackle some of the paper-paper-paper. I could spend all day at this, so I DO NOT sit down! Sitting down means getting sucked into looking at things, both the things I need to look at, and the many-more things I don’t need to look at. All I am doing right now is flipping through the papers to pull out things that can be thrown away, and bills or documents that need to be attended to. Although I try to have everything automatically deposited and paid, there are always those random things that require personal attention. There’s something deadly about thinking that I will “get around to” paying that bill or following up on that letter later on. Whenever possible I follow the “OHIO Rule” (Only Handle It Once), so usually when I get my post I stand by the wastepaper basket and immediately sort stuff into junk – magazines – business. When housecleaning, I sort out the bills and things that need attention, and I put those on my chair seat so they don’t get lost, and so I don’t forget about them.

Feeling virtuous by having located several things I had forgotten that I must attend to, I then pull myself away form the paper-paper-paper before I get sucked into it and/or the Internet / computer that is also at the desk. That’s another reason why I set stuff on my chair: it impedes sitting. (Am I clever or what?)

6. I’m a procrastinator, so dealing with some of that paper is really a type of productive procrastination, because next up is the important hygiene task of cleaning the bathroom. ::blech:: I employ the Premack Principle, and promise myself a snack after I finish the bathroom. Scrubbing the bathroom reminds me to remove the used towels and bath rug to the appropriate laundry pile if I had not already done so.

7. Having that well-deserved snack takes me back to the kitchen, which reminds me that I need to finish washing at least one load of dishes. Normally when I’m not strapped for time, I wash dishes after each use, rather than letting them pile up. It’s simply easier to put a wee squirt of dish soap (washing-up liquid) on the scrubby-sponge and clean off my bowl-spoon-mug than it is to clean up several meals’ worth of dirty dishes. Of course, sometimes I am too much in a hurry to get someplace else and thus have to leave the dishes, or else other people leave dishes. So, the dirty dishes pile up. I will enjoy my snack, and then wash one drying-rack full of dishes and let those drip-dry while I attend to more housekeeping. Meanwhile, the next batch of dirty dishes goes in to soak (changing out suds if necessary).

8. Ah, it’s time to move the laundry loads. When the sheets are out of the dryer, I force myself to straightaway put them back on the beds. I hate wrinkled sheets, I loathe making beds when I’m dog-tired, and I need my bed surface back to rights because that’s where sit to match socks and fold stuff. Now, I like fancy socks, but hubby just wears the same dark socks on work days. So when his socks get thread-bare, I toss all of them and buy a bunch of replacement socks that are all the same. My point to the wholesale sock-replacement is that I have better things to spend my life doing than sorting socks! Plus, hubby frequently does his own laundry, and he has some colorblindness issues and couldn’t always tell when things were mismatched. (Let it be said that the two of us have different opinions on what constitutes “worn”, but some of the socks I have tossed were more see-through than a negligee. I really don’t understand guys sometimes.)

Wardrobe debates aside, I have made great progress on the housekeeping front, but by this point the enthusiasm has begun to wane. There are only a few hurdles left … better put on some music!

9. Clean out the fridge. This means checking the dates on the meat and dairy items, and throwing away any leftovers that are more than a week old. (How the hell do I remember? I try to clean out the fridge on the same day of the week, or else I just toss anything I didn’t make in the past couple days.) The drawers get washed out and the sticky spots wiped off the shelves and the door handles. Frequently we have a grocery list magnetted to the fridge, and cleaning-out is a good time to add to that.

10. Clear off the floors to vacuum, sweep or mop. Of course, there is stuff on the floors, just like there is stuff on all the other horizontal surfaces, and we are already familiar with the recursive picking-up issues.

Well, here’s the secret to getting things picked up: grab a large, sturdy laundry basket and a small rubbish bag. Just go around and pick up all the clutter, and drop things into either the basket or the rubbish bag. (Remember, we already picked up most of the dirty dishes and clothes.) Ta-da! Instant surfaces! Once you have exposed those surfaces, put down the basket, toss the last bag of rubbish, and do the floor cleaning and table wiping.

11. If this was a song, we would be singing the chorus again. Move laundry again, if necessary. Put away clean dishes and rinse off the second batch and set it up to dry. Wipe off the counters and the stove. Get something to drink, and change music if necessary.

12. Finally attend to the Basket O’ Clutter. Instead of putting away one thing at a time and making trails like drunken Spirograph patterns all over your residence, you simply take the basket to each holding location (closet, cabinet, drawer) and unload the stuff that belongs there. Then your basket is free for the last load of laundry. Yes, you have to put that stuff away now, or you won’t have the basket for bringing back the laundry!

Well, as odd as that system may sound to some, it works for me. As the saying goes, “Your mileage may vary.”

* I admire them, but I don’t really believe those photographs of people’s homes in architecture and decorating magazines. Everyone really has boxes of tissues and wastepaper baskets and bottles of hand lotion and the not-really-clean-not-really-dirty clothes to be worn again before washing and all other mundane objects of real life.


  1. 4 October 2011 at 4:11

    omg. i love this!! i do things almost the same way! only i insist on getting it done from top to bottom.(upstairs then down) That way, when i’m done with my morning coffee and mentally ordering the things i have to do and dinking around on my computer in my bedroom, (i allow one hour for that) I can just start where i am, in my room and then to starting laundry.. bed sheets too when needed for the same reasons you said; so i can use the bed later to fold things on and to keep me moving with the laundry lol cuz I can’t stand a naked bed either! anyways, first load.. clean bathroom upstairs, then sweep the stairs with a broom and switch laundry.. then to the downstairs.. same top to bottom rule.. wipe down, place all the clutter that goes upstairs in a pile at the bottom of the stairs .. organize, wipe down, do dishes (i have a dishwasher) and then .. i HAVE to make sure i sweep and/or mop so that the floor doesn’t get the clothes dirty should they get dropped. Hahaha.. listing all this stuff seems like it would be so uninteresting to anyone else.. but I just love that we both seem to have created the same coping methods for our easily distracted, difficult to motivate conditions =) I even put the bills in my chair to make sure i have to take care of them before i sit down and play at my computer again! lol. I want to tell you that I love this site and I am looking forward to reading through it some more. I found it while trying to find ways to help my 7 yr old daughter cope with her a.d.d. without medications. Giving my kids speed just doesn’t seem o.k. to me. Not when it’s not severe.. no behavior probs. etc. but, she is having trouble in school and seems to be developing more slowly than other kids her age due to her constant residence in “lala land” so, anyways, Thanks for the amazing, articulate and well educated posts..keep up the good work! =) sincerely, Jennifer

  2. andrea said,

    19 February 2008 at 4:39

    Andrea Shettle,
    Well, if you’re starting in the kitchen, then put the list in with the kitchen supplies.

    As far as getting past the first level, I take it you’re getting stuck on sorting out the clutter? Try reading this post and see if it doesn’t help you do some clutter triage: The Taxonomy of Mess.

    Then get back to me and we’ll try to figure out where you’re getting overwhelmed.

  3. 19 February 2008 at 2:15

    Ah, but what if you have multiple locations for your cleaning supplies? (In the kitchen for kitchen cleaning stuff, in the bathroom for bathroom cleaning stuff)

    And how do you get beyond the base level of the pyramid (which for me tends to be: garbage, dishes) to other stuff without feeling overwhelmed?

    Thanks for this — I sort of already use some of these techniques, but not consistently enough (ditto for my partner) to really keep things under control.

  4. Jacqueline said,

    16 February 2008 at 22:42

    You are clearly a lovely person to lay all this out for us.

  5. Jannalou said,

    16 February 2008 at 17:24

    Can only staple ’em if you know where the stapler is! ;)

    But I’ll try to do that.

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    16 February 2008 at 17:09

    Okay folks,
    I’m glad to hear that this is useful! But I must ask you,

    How are you going to keep track of those printouts so you can find them again when you need them?

    Yeah, I know you, don’t I? I would staple the pages together and put them with the cleaning supplies. Next time you go to clean — ta-da! — there is the list. (-:


  7. 16 February 2008 at 13:53

    Me, most likely …. I have all of those issues going on – and then some!

    I printed this off.

    Odd to think that this started out with a complaint about a so-called support worker trying to tell an experienced and qualified educational psychologist about Maslow and making a bollocks of it! LoL

    Glad tho….

  8. 16 February 2008 at 8:03

    You wrote this post for me, didn’t you? I was lamenting last night that the household levels of domestic slovenliness have rocketed since I started blogging.
    Sometimes, I start with the pointy bit of the pyramid, if I have a jug of fresh flowers on the counter in the kitchen rather than a dead one all is well with the world, that and a quick wipe around the wash basins, soothes my angst sufficiently to allow me tackle the job rather than being over whelmed and that feeling of simply not knowing where to start.

  9. Jannalou said,

    16 February 2008 at 6:17

    Thank you! :) I have printed this off because Juniper and I will be attempting to clean house this weekend. These steps are simply an expansion of my brother’s three steps: 1) Get rid of the garbage; 2) Pick up everything off the floor and other horizontal surfaces; 3) sweep/vacuum the floor.

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