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How to Find Motivation to Clean Your House

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We’ve all felt like doing something besides cleaning, but usually that feeling passes. What about those times when it doesn’t, though? I’m talking about the bone-deep lack of motivation to clean. Been there, done that.

You see, several years ago my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. To make a long and very painful story short, I spent two years as his full-time caregiver and then became his widow. In my grief, I completely lost motivation to do anything around my home.

Wouldn’t you know that was right as this website was beginning to take off? The irony wasn’t lost on me. All of which is to say that I get it. I understand. I’ve been there, too. Here’s what I did.

Step 1: Start Small. No, Smaller than That.

Start with one spot. Not one floor of the house, not one room, not even an entire closet or cupboard. Start with one surface. Preferably, it’s one that affects you personally, not something you’re trying to clean to make a family member’s life easier. Don’t think about the rest of the house yet, and don’t feel guilty that you’re not doing more. You are doing something, and that’s the first step.

I chose our kitchen island. It’s visible from every entrance, so whenever I came home, it put me in a bad mood. It’s the only convenient spot for food preparation, so my mood worsened when it came time to cook. Cleaning it would have a dramatic impact on my day.

Step 2: Commit to One Spot.

Once you’ve picked a spot, clear it off. Dust it. Polish it, and scrub it. Treat any nicks, scratches, or stains. Make a point to clean it every morning and again before bed. This one spot focus gets you back in the habit of giving your home attention twice a day — you’re just starting small.

By picking one surface, you’re also unlearning your clutter blindness. Seeing the change in that spot, and solving a mess that personally affected you, is a great inspiration to keep going.

Step 3: Celebrate.

After keeping your commitment, you deserve recognition. More than that, you need it: rewards help us lock in behaviors and turn them into habits. I rewarded myself with a fresh bouquet of my favorite flowers, and not the kind that filled our home after my husband’s funeral.

Step 4: Expand A Little.

Now move beyond your spot creating a list of small tasks you want to accomplish. Keep the list short and simple, and work at it ten minutes at a time to keep from feeling overwhelmed by cleaning.

Repeat that same 10-minute effort in for a few days, then increate it to 20-minutes. By the end of the week, you’ll start to see progress but, more importantly, you’ll know you’ve been following through with your plan. At that point, you need to lock it in again.

Step 5: Get Validated.

Telling others what you’ve accomplished and getting positive feedback is a great way to stay motivated, but choosing the right people is crucial. A cleaning perfectionist or judgmental person is not the one to brag to.

If you don’t have a friend who has been through a similar struggle, be the friend you need, literally: write a letter to yourself praising your efforts and accomplishments. Then, keep it where you can read it every day.

Step 6: Repeat.

Add more time to your new cleaning routine until you’re happy with how your home looks. Do a little eery day, or spend an entire day at it—whatever works for you.

Just make sure you spend some time each and every day telling your trusted friend about your progress, so you’re getting a daily dose of reinforcement that helps lock in your motivation to clean.

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38 Comments

  1. Scared and lonely says:

    My journey starts today. Major depression and No support or family. I have no one to show my progress too and an overwhelming fear of losing my children. This is what I needed to read.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so sorry you’re going through this. If you’d like some support, come join my Facebook group. We have weekly decluttering challenges cheer each other on through the process of getting our homes in order.

  2. Both my wife and I are depressed
    We have sustained some big time traumatic punches in the last five years. Unfortunately, in the context of this, our house has become a cluttered mess. Neither of us can muster the oxidation to handle it
    I am 70 years old and just don’t have it in me to deal with it and my wife has paranoid psychosis, but is in therapy, as am I. We need help. But we are on a fixed income and can’t fork out thousands of dollars to some company
    I don’t know what to do. We live in delaware and social services here are rudimentary.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so sorry you’re both going through such a horrible time, Duane. Words just can’t offer much comfort, I’m afraid. I understand social services are stretched thin already, but you mentioned that you’re both seeing a therapist. I’ve found they often have remarkable insight into strategies that can help people deal with clutter, and since they know you well they’re good at knowing which ones are likely to suit your personal situation. And if they don’t have particular tips, they may know of additional resources in your area that can offer help. Sometimes, church groups or local councils on aging have or know of volunteers who could help you tackle the mess.

  3. I can’t thank you enough for this post. I never thought a cleaning post could make me cry… I am pregnant with my fourth child and have a 2, 4 & 6-year-old at home with me. I feel so nauseous and every day I wake up saying, I have got to clean this house, only to go to bed having not even attempted. I don’t know why it becomes such a huge thing in my head, but yes, to start small is the only option. Thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Shannon, I’m so sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed right now. But you’re growing a human being and raising three more of them, and nothing is more important — or challenging — than that. It’s okay to rest right now. It’s okay to spend time just being. It’s okay not to have a perfect home. You will get through this time and you’ll be amazed at how strong you truly are. ❤️

  4. Thank you for this post. I have appreciated your site since I found it. This post hit at exactly the time that I need it. Pointing out that neglecting the bathroom is neglecting yourself really hit me. You are correct of course. But I had never thought of it that way. This will be my first focus. And I love the idea of setting a timer then saying you are done. Done is my favorite 4-letter word. Saying “Done!” after 10 minutes is almost enough reward by itself. Thank you Katie.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You’re welcome, Julia! Remember, it’s your home, so you always get to decide how clean it needs to be and when you’re done. Give yourself permission to stop when you want and start again when you’re ready.

  5. Dave Mott says:

    Hi Katie. I’ve been waiting for this type of advice all my life. Hope your doing ok chick 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Glad to be of help, Dave! I’m doing well and it’s so kind of you to ask. 🙂

  6. Mary Truong says:

    You know my parents always called me lazy because I could clean the house but I’m just unmotivated like you said it doesn’t mean you’re lazy it’s just that feeling that you don’t wanna do it

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Absolutely. Everyone gets to decide for themselves how clean they want things.

  7. Well, cleaned my surface- looking forward to my flowers on Friday. Been living here for over 20 years, it will be the first time I ever got anything ( even acknowledgment) for my efforts. Feeling optimistic about this. No matter how hard I’ve worked in the past, it never seemed like I was doing enough. I knew I was struggling because of everything else I had on, so I guess I’d give myself a break for it then, back in the day, but now- with so much time on my hands I struggle even more. I guess I just see it as a thankless task that never ends and just gets screwed up by people who don’t even notice me working- no wonder I’ve run out of motivation! I’m definitely interested to see if the flowers help

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Housework often feels pointless for the exact reason you mentioned. I hope your flowers help you feel better about it! I’m not nearly as patient as you, so I time my rewards immediately after to help my brain associate doing the work with getting something I enjoy. This evening, for example, I’m going to try a new bath oil as my reward for reorganizing the front closet that I’d been using to hold things that really belong in the bin.

  8. I’m so sorry you lost your husband. In reading all of these posts, it seems like everyone had very good reasons. I don’t. I have to much stuff, I love deals, and instead of stopping and saying, “Where would I put this?” I just buy stuff and it’s everywhere. I don’t know where to start and I’m not at all motivated. I did unheap two of my kitchen counters, but that was a few weeks ago. It does look better and I do like it, but I haven’t kept going. I’m going to try your ten minutes advice. Thanks for the idea!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you, Diana. Everyone’s struggle is different and unique to them. Just because you don’t have an obvious reason like the loss of a spouse doesn’t mean you don’t have things going on that make it hard for you to find motivation. Even shopping for new, exciting stuff brings its own challenges, as you’ve seen. Try the 10 minute approach and see if it helps. Then please check back in and let me know how you’re doing. 🙂

  9. Sheila O'Patchen says:

    So, everyone else’s stories here sound so much harder than mine, it’s really hard to feel sorry for myself. My excuse for not cleaning? Studying for the CPA exam(s) and working about 60-80 hours a week. Any time off I can manage to spend with my husband is spent sitting in front of the TV watching movies. Or sleeping. I *think* I have passed my exams now. So…yesterday, I started with one side of the kitchen. The area with the sink and all the dishes. Today, I am going to tackle the island and maybe the other side of the kitchen. This is motivating to me to know that the idea of starting out smaller than small is not all that uncommon. It is also reassuring to know that I am not the only woman out there who feels like she has no chance in hell of ever being like Wonder Woman. Thank you for this 🙂

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Don’t dismiss your own struggle, Sheila! You’ve got a ton on your plate with school and work, and even when you’re not actively focusing on one of those they’re still probably on your mind. And it’s not like you’ve got more hours in the day than anyone else — so you are perfectly deserving of feeling stressed and of giving yourself a break, too. Starting smaller than small will help you feel accomplished but can also help you discover how to squeeze in little tasks without adding to your stress level — and also see how much those little tasks can help!

  10. Stacey Phillips says:

    I have a weird situation, we lived with my in-laws for 5 years, in their house. Now, they somewhat have moved ( master bedroom is full of their stuff), and we rent! But, much of their stuff is still here, and we are getting such a great deal on rent, I don’t want to be pushy. But with their stuff still here, it’s hard to get organized and I lose motivation to clean now. I have no children here ( I’m older), and I work from home, but need to be ready for calls, etc. so always at my desk during work hours.
    HELP! I do love your advice about a small place, so am going to do it!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I don’t think it would be pushy to move their stuff to one room so you can set up the rest of the house with your things. You could always explain to them that you didn’t want their possessions to get damaged in any way, so you put them there for safekeeping.

  11. Wow!! I just searched and clicked on this website for some tips, my husband was diagnosed with Brain Cancer just over a year ago GBM4.
    You do know exactly what I am going through!
    Thank you

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It’s a hard road ahead. Take time to make memories together. That’s so much more important than cleaning right now. God bless.

  12. Thank you so much for this, I understand totally what you mean in the first paragraph or so. My dad has brain cancer and the way you describe it and how it effects loved ones is so true. It’s like a nightmare that never ends and the most horrible thing is that I know it will end, but end the most horrible way. I have been struggling with motivation for quite a long time and some days even getting out of bed is just impossible. I really have to force myself. I am actually a house proud person so my house looking a mess is actually dragging me down further. But then I have no motivation, so there is the vicious circle! I loved the idea of reward ping yourself and also of timing yourself. I am definitely going to try those, thank you.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m so sorry you and your father are going through this. It’s a horrible form of cancer that truly affects everyone in the family. Be extra kind to yourself during this time.

  13. Thank you, this is exactly what I needed to read. I’ve been caring for my mother in her home, while maintaining my home, and helping my two children with school from home due to this covid pandemic. Mum passed away a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t been motivated to do ANYTHING at either house since. This feels like a very manageable plan, I feel positive now. Thanks xxx

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It sounds like you’ve had your hands full, Zoe. Glad to hear this helped you feel a bit less burdened. Take care.

  14. Really helpful. I have arthritis on my back and it’s very hard to try and handle housework. Plus house is being remodeled so there is so much stuff laying around which makes me lose my motivation to even try. But I am going to start small and see if I can get my motivation back. Thank you again

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Hilda,
      You’re welcome! Remember to take care of yourself first: there’s no point in having a clean house if you’re in too much agony to enjoy it.

  15. Thank you so much for this. My own story is honestly at this point almost laughably terrible at points and although I’m pretty resilient I definitely have serious problems simply continuing on some days. I’ve read this post several times since I found it last year. It helps immensely to know that – yes – there are people struggling with REAL things too.

    I’ve had a clean foyer table for a while now, and I’ve moved on to other areas. Your tips are well-written, well-thought-out, and actually help. Thank you so much. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Meg,
      You’re so welcome. I’m glad you’ve found it encouraging!

  16. Amber Kelly says:

    Thank you! I’m a stay at home mom to an amazing 3 year old boy who has Autism . Motivation is key when it comes to cleaning with me! I’m going to go tackle my 1 surface while hes asleep! Thanks again

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Amber,
      I’m happy to have helped you rediscover your motivation!

  17. Thanks for this. I’m pregnant, exhausted, and moving to a smaller home soon. So I’m a little stressed about how I’m going to manage everything when the baby comes. The second trimester is a little bit sunshinier than the first, so maybe if I start this routine now, things won’t be so difficult later. I plan to start with the kitchen table; I think seeing it clean will be a big motivating factor for me. Great advice.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Do what you can and don’t stress about the rest, Erica. You’re growing a human and that’s hard work!

  18. First I’d like to say I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t even imagine… and second, starting smaller than small? Brilliant! I am recently a stay at home mom with a toddler and I love the idea of starting smallest. I’m so glad I came across your site. I now have a better idea of how to tackle my unruly house. Thank you!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you. It’s so hard juggling a toddler and cleaning tasks, but starting small can really help.

  19. Michelle Leslie says:

    Yes!!!!! It makes so much sense Katie. I’m in the “don’t feel in the mood to clean” slump and honestly, tackling one surface seems so much more doable. Thank you for that. I think I’ll start with my bedside table. The pile of books is getting out of hand and every time I go to bed I worry that they’ll come toppling down while we’re sleeping. Great post

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Starting with your bedside table is a great idea, Michelle! You’ll see a nice, uncluttered spot first thing in the morning and last thing at night — great motivation to tackle other areas when you’re ready!

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