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Dreading The Back-To-School Mess? Try These Easy Tidying Tips

August is the time to get a handle on the mess and clutter before the stress of the school year overpowers your feeble will to maintain order.


If your house and car look like small tornadoes blew through them, just wait until the school papers, backpacks, and pencils start flying. If your struggle with tidying is perennial, August is the time to get a handle on the mess and clutter before the stress of the school year overpowers your feeble will to maintain order. Your weak will to drudge through chores is not enough to maintain a tidy home; a quick glance at your surroundings confirms it. This guide is the tool you need to break you and your family free from the prison of puny willpower.

Specific advice will do little if you do not first accept the hard truth: If your home is mostly messy most of the time, it is not getting enough routine cleaning. The problem is not too many messes — to live life is to make messes, especially with little children. Neither is it that keeping a tidy house is “just too much to ask” because “my children are X ages and we do this and that and there’s no time.” The problem is too little cleaning up. I’m not saying you have to do all the cleaning. But hands must be doing the work. If nobody picks up after himself, the house (and the car!) will always be a disaster.

Now, “routine” does not necessarily mean “scheduled.” If you want to have a chore chart for yourself and your kids and that makes you feel empowered and holds you accountable, do that. But when you write out commitments, you have to keep them. Otherwise, the exercise is just in teaching your children how to flake out (ask me how I know). I do not schedule my cleaning anymore, and when I require my young children’s help, I expect their peaceful cooperation. This brings me to tip No. 1.

Spare-Minute Cleaning

One of the biggest hurdles to keeping a tidy house is of our own making: saying we will make time to clean, even writing it down, but not following through, or drastically underestimating how much time it takes to tidy and then getting discouraged when the time allotted runs out. You can clean your house out of willpower, or you can keep your house clean out of habit. Pick one.

Before the kids start school, begin establishing a new tidying habit: spare-minute cleaning. You might think nothing’s going to change much in two or three minutes, but cleaning is like exercise. The benefits accumulate slowly over time. And the more of these spare minutes you spend cleaning, the more natural it starts to feel.  

Cleaning, especially while raising kids, does take a lot of time. The least valuable time you have are the minutes between other duties. It’s the three minutes before you have to leave for soccer practice, the eight minutes while pasta is boiling for dinner, and the 15 minutes after the kids go to bed before you unwind. Instead of instinctively opening email or Instagram, load some dishes, wipe down a table, or vacuum a rug instead.

Spare-minute cleaning is how most of my family’s tidying gets done. When I’m not doing a task or tending to my children, I’m cleaning. My husband cleans in his spare moments too. Instead, try fitting as much cleaning into the cracks of your daily life as possible.

Add Baskets

Survey your home. Are there spots where clutter tends to accumulate? On top of chairs, on railings, at the end of the kitchen counter? These are perfect places for baskets. The only trouble with baskets, which you can buy cheaply at the thrift store, is that they don’t magically teleport things to where they’re actually supposed to go. So take notes of the kinds of things that pile up around the house and ask if there is already a designated spot for such things, in which case a basket would simply be a temporary landing spot, or if they might be neatly housed in an aesthetically pleasing basket or box somewhere in the vicinity.

You might find you need to add more coathooks or a key holder, or clear out a closet shelf or kitchen drawer for the regularly unhoused items you see hanging about. Each box or basket should have a purpose, and the purpose is to keep unsightly clutter out of sight while reminding you there is a place for everything, and everything should be in its place.

The ‘Take One Thing Out’ Rule

Cars and refrigerators can be kept tidy in much the same way. Every time you open them, take out at least one thing that doesn’t belong. Of course, if your wheel wells are already mini trash heaps and all your Tupperware has ended up in the fridge over the last couple of months, snap on some gloves and clear it all out. Once these things are clean, though, keeping them tidy and hygienic is simple. Make sure the car always has a trash bag (I hang a grocery bag from the driver’s seat armrest) and that the kids know never to leave trash in their seats. Then whenever you get home in the car, take something out that doesn’t belong anymore (e.g. a hat, an umbrella, papers from Sunday school, a toy). Every day, remove something from your fridge that doesn’t belong anymore (usually, things that have expired).

Few people have the willpower to regularly purge their car or fridge. Make purging unnecessary by breaking up those “What do I do with this?” and “Do I really want to clean mold out of these right now?” questions into very manageable mini-tasks. Go a step further and bring a vacuum out to the car when you have a few minutes and clean what you can, when you can. Grab a Clorox wipe and clean one shelf of your fridge a week. Build these small habits, and you will never feel overwhelmed by the state of your car or refrigerator ever again.

As an aside, I also practice the “take one thing up/down” rule. When things are placed near the staircase to go upstairs, I scoop them up and put them away on my next trip.

Again, you can clean your dirty house and care by relying on your limited willpower to do drudgery for a whole Saturday afternoon, or you can build small habits that break up tedious tasks into manageable pieces. Not only do you accomplish the same amount or more than if you had waited until you just couldn’t stand the mess anymore, but you get to have a clean house. Instead of your house being dirty most of the time, it’s presentable and pleasant to live in most of the time.

Whether your kids attend school or you homeschool, you deserve a home that doesn’t make you feel stressed and overwhelmed. Raising educated, virtuous kids takes enough willpower. Keeping a tidy home shouldn’t.

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