The 3 layers of housecleaning

clean bathtub
Public Domain MaxPixel

"It’s so much easier to peel back one layer at a time than three layers at once."

Do you ever get that feeling when you've spent a few hours cleaning the house and it looks great, but it doesn't actually feel clean? This has been happening to me a lot lately. I put stuff away, run the vacuum around, fold laundry, wipe down surfaces, and rearrange books neatly so that the immediate effect is one of cleanliness, but it never lasts long -- and part of me knows it's not actually clean.

There are things I ignore (under the bed) and places I dare not swish my broom (beneath the stove) and catch-alls like the top of the fridge and the kitchen junk drawer that I prefer to ignore altogether. There is so much accumulated stuff in the house that it feels like an immense task simply to prepare the house for cleaning -- you know, when the vacuum keeps sucking up Lego pieces and the broom sends Playmobil figurines flying across the room.

The problem, I've realized, is that I've been cleaning only on the surface. I'm not taking the time to do anything beyond the absolute necessities, which means I never get ahead on the bigger things.

A blog post by cleaning expert and author Dana White made this crystal-clear to me. She describes the "three layers of cleaning." Each of these must be peeled back, one at a time, in order to achieve a thoroughly clean house.

Layer One is daily stuff.

These are the dishes, the laundry, the leftover food, the bathroom smell, the post-dinner dining room floor. White writes:

"It’s the stuff that isn’t a project. It isn’t a stop-everything-while-we-tackle-this task. It’s a habit. Just a habit. It’s the most important layer. If I keep up with this layer, it doesn’t even feel like a layer."

Layer two is decluttering.

This is the stuff that doesn't have a place, or is removed from its place and must be returned to it. For me, on a weekly basis, it's the toys and Lego and books and bits of paper strewn around the house. But on a seasonal basis, this means a bigger, more thorough decluttering of clothes that no longer fit, decor that has lost its appeal, books I'm never going to read, etc. It's the Marie Kondo-type purge.

Layer three is cleaning.

Actual cleaning. Real cleaning. It's pulling boxes out from under the bed and hauling furniture away from the wall and scrubbing windows to let in that fresh springtime sunlight. It's mopping the floor, scrubbing the sink, cleaning mirrors. It's the stuff that only needs to be done every week or two, or perhaps even less, but requires the daily tasks and decluttering to be completed first.

It helps to think about cleaning in this way because then I don't beat myself up for not achieving the second and third layers, if it's only the first layer that I have time for. As White says, "It’s so much easier to peel back one layer at a time than three layers at once." Thinking of cleaning in this way also motivates me to get to those deeper layers, once I have more time on my hands.

How do you approach cleaning your house? Is thinking of it in terms of layers helpful?

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