How to Deal with Cleaning Burnout

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Keeping your home clean can get overwhelming at times. Here are some strategies to get through cleaning burnout and prevent it from happening again.

A young woman reclines on a blue sofa holding a rag in one hand while the other is above her head in an attitude of exhaustion.

You wake up one day and the thought of doing more laundry makes your stomach turn. There are dishes in the sink, spills on the kitchen counter, and you don’t even want to know what you just stepped in. Sure, you could force yourself to fix the mess–or you could head back to bed and have a good cry. 

That feeling like all you do is work and clean is known as cleaning burnout, and it’s more common than you think. The good news is that once you understand the root causes, you can take the basic steps to get over it and keep it from returning.

Why You Have Cleaning Burnout

Housework Involves Memory Skills

When people think about cleaning the house, they picture dusting a few surfaces, running a vacuum or maybe using a mop. But, like many tasks historically considered “women’s work,” cleaning involves a lot of invisible labor. Much of that labor is mentally taxing: you have to remember what needs to be cleaned, when was the last time you cleaned it, and what you need to clean it with. Then you’ve got to remember where those things are in your house, guess whether you’ve got enough of the products you need, and estimate whether you have enough time available for cleaning.

Once that’s done, you’ve got to decide whether there’s anything else you need to clean first, move things out of the way so you can clean, and maybe evaluate whether it’s safe to use certain cleaners together. Then you are finally ready to clean. Unless the doorbell or phone rings, your child needs your attention, your spouse or partner interrupts to ask you to help them find things, you get a text message, or the dog poops on the floor. So, no, cleaning is not simply dusting, vacuuming, or mopping a surface. It’s mentally exhausting, especially if you have impaired executive functions or are dealing with other life stress.

Cleaning Yucky Things

There is nothing pleasant about sorting through sweaty clothes and underwear  before doing laundry, especially if those underwear are soiled. Washing dishes covered in crusty, rotting food can be revolting. And bathrooms? You know exactly the type of messes found there, none of which are nice. 

It’s one thing to clean these kinds of messes after children–knowing they’re not capable of tending to it themselves makes it less irritating. But when another fully functional adult leaves these types of messes for you to clean? It can either be demoralizing or leave you struggling to convince yourself that you should be happy doing it. Either attitude can become problematic and lead to burnout. (Related: How to Divide Chores Fairly with Your Spouse.)

There Is No External Recognition

As I’ve said before, there are no trophies for having a spotless home. You don’t get a blue ribbon or a shiny gold star by your name. Most of the time, not even the people you’re cleaning up after notice that you’ve done it. For many stay-at-home parents, this is their first time experiencing a complete absence of recognition for their efforts. It can be brutal. In the workplace, over a third of employees cite lack of recognition as the reason they quit. For stay-at-home parents, it turns to burnout.

It Never Ends

Topping it all off, housework is never a one-and-done thing. As soon as you put away laundry, someone leaves their dirty socks in the hamper–or on the floor. Washed the dishes? Wait five minutes and someone will want a snack. Dust? It’s already settling again on your furniture by the time you put the vacuum away. If the mental juggling, filthy messes, and lack of appreciation didn’t cause your cleaning burnout, then the unceasing monotony of it will.

Getting Through the Exhaustion

So how do you get past this feeling–does it mean you’re destined to feel resentful of your home or the people who live in it? Do you have to white knuckle it, forcing yourself to clean even though you can’t stand the thought? Not at all. Several approaches can help you recover from feeling overworked and burned out.

Do the Bare Minimum

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by housework, try taking a mini-vacation from taking care of your home and do just the bare minimum for a while. People with jobs do not work seven days a week, nor are they on call all seven of those days. But when it comes to cleaning their homes, people—especially stay-at-home parents—often push themselves to work such hours, then wonder why they’re burned out.

Ultimately, a home needs to only be clean enough that messes don’t cause illness or attract pests. If you have children living in the home, it may be difficult to live down to this minimal standard. There are still ways to prioritize where you spend your energy for a while. Take a few days to keep only the food preparation areas and bathroom surfaces clean and ignore the rest of your home. You’re on “vacation” and that’s okay!

Hire Help If You Can

Hiring a cleaning service is not affordable for many, but sometimes paying a college student to dust or clean floors for a couple of hours is doable. Consider running an ad in a campus newspaper, or ask a neighbor or your local church for recommendations. Also, know that you don’t have to make this a regular thing. Many companies will do onetime cleanings.

Equally important, don’t dismiss the idea of hiring a cleaning service because you can do it yourself. People routinely hire lawn care companies, house painters, and mechanics. But mowing yards, painting homes, or changing tires are all things a person can DIY with enough effort and research. The point is not whether you can do something. The point is, there’s nothing shameful about hiring someone else to handle things—especially if you’re exhausted.

Double up or Body Double

Body doubling is a free strategy that helps some people stay motivated to perform unpleasant or difficult tasks. It involves having another person work nearby at the same time. The body double isn’t required to do the same thing. Body doubling helps improve executive functioning, so it eases the mental overwhelm while providing external validation, too. So, if taking a mini-vacation or hiring help isn’t possible, try inviting a friend to come visit or FaceTime them to act as a double while you clean.

Strategies to Avoid Its Return

Once you’ve had some time off, some help to clean, or some company to help you feel less overwhelmed, here are steps you can take to keep from experiencing cleaning burnout again.

Be Specific With Your Goal

When your goal is to “clean the house,” there’s no real ending point, which makes it difficult to know when you’re done for the day. Instead of having such an unclear goal, focus on a specific set of tasks to achieve. In this way, a vague plan to clean a bedroom becomes putting on fresh sheets and vacuuming the floor. The general idea of cleaning the kitchen gets replaced by specifically wiping counters, scrubbing the sink, and mopping. By focusing on specific tasks, you have a set endpoint in mind, so you do not risk overworking.

Use Systems, Consistently

If you think following a routine means being in a rut, you may avoid establishing a routine. Yet routines eliminate the mental overload involved in cleaning. If you turn those routines into a cleaning checklist, you have one or more stopping points, too. Checking items off a list also triggers dopamine release, so you’ll feel happier, which then motivates continued use. That consistency helps lighten the work required, because the more often you clean, the easier and faster it is.

Stay in Tune With Your Body

Another important strategy to avoid cleaning burnout is to stop pushing yourself so hard. People who set vague goals or binge-clean often work to the limits of their physical endurance, then suffer exhaustion for days. People with health issues that affect their ability to clean often use this approach, too. Staying in touch with your body allows you to stop working before you’re overworked, so you don’t need days to recover.

Scheduled Downtime

The final strategy to avoid burnout is to schedule time off, just as you would with any other job. Set aside a day or two each week when you don’t do housework. Or, if you do, keep your activities to the bare minimum of wiping food preparation surfaces and dealing with bathroom disasters. Give yourself permission to have a normal, lived-in home. Spotless is not the standard–you were born for so much more than cleaning. Keep it in perspective.

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