Use the “Outside-In” Trick to Quickly Clean All Your Biggest Messes, From Now Until Forever

published Feb 23, 2020
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Whether it’s the after-dinner disaster in the kitchen or the mess strewn about the house after a lax weekend with everyone at home, having to face chaos at home can take the wind right out of your sails. When the mess is so big that you feel like no amount of tidying up is going to yield visible results, you’re likely to procrastinate and complain and blame and, pretty soon, the whole thing will become a problem bigger than the mess itself.

On the other hand, once you learn the best way to face a big mess, you’ll be well-equipped to prevent those bigger blowups—so you can get life back to order as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Why the “Outside-In” Method Works

My favorite strategy for conquering a big mess is what I call the “outside-in” method, and it works like this: Start cleaning up at the circumference and work to make the mess smaller and smaller as you go. Nothing motivates quite like small wins, and the outside-in method harnesses their power in a very visual way.

By working from the outside in, you’re very literally making the footprint of the mess smaller. In addition, the outside-in method keeps you on task. Rather than wandering from spot to spot or even room to room throughout the house, you know exactly what to work on and what to work on next. Much like a cleaning checklist does, this kind of focus cuts down on the distraction that occurs with haphazard stabs at a big project.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Here’s a breakdown of what the outside-in method might look like when applying it to a particularly big kitchen mess:

  1. Clear the kitchen table. Bring dishes to the counter near the sink. Put away condiments.
  2. Wipe the kitchen table. Completely reset it to the state it’s in before any eating happened, including picking up anything on the floor and pushing the chairs in. (Don’t vacuum or mop the floor yet.)
  3. Put leftovers away. Put them in food storage containers and then in the fridge.
  4. Soak pots and pans. Put water and a few drops of dish soap in any pots and pans to loosen any cooked-on messes. Leave these on the stove for now.
  5. Collect cooking utensils from around the kitchen and bring them to the dish washing areas near the sink. Soak anything that has dried-on food in the sink.
  6. Wipe up any spills on the counters. This is just your first once-over of bigger splatters and crumbs.
  7. Put dishes in the dishwasher. This drastically reduces the amount of dirty dishes you have to face and gives a bigger, faster win than starting with hand-wash only dishes.
  8. Wash items that need to be hand-washed. Get these out of the way before tackling the biggest items.
  9. Wash the pots and pans that have been soaking. With all the other dishes out of the way, you have more room to maneuver.
  10. Once the dishes are done, give the counters a more thorough wipe-down. Spray with cleaner, wipe, and then buff dry if necessary.
  11. Clean the sink. Sprinkle with Bar Keeper’s Friend or baking soda, scrub, and rinse clean.
  12. Take out the garbage.
  13. Repeat the outside-in circuit with the floors. Vacuum or sweep and wet mop as necessary.

Each step in this outside-in strategy offers visible results that encourage you to keep up the good work. You start with the boost of a cleared-off, clean table and then are rewarded with emptied counters and so it continues. You capitalize on the effect of the mess shrinking before your eyes and before you know it, everything’s all done.

Where will you use the outside-in method?