My Mom’s “One Spot” Cleaning Trick Changed the Way I Handle Messes

published Dec 4, 2023
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Woman wiping down kitchen countertops
Credit: Grace Cary/Getty Images

No matter how much I declutter, put organizational systems in place, and practice my cleaning routines, the rooms in my house often get turned upside down. And that’s OK! People live in my house — lots of people, actually (we’re a family of 7) — and I try my best not to let maintaining my home keep me from enjoying all the moments that happen in it. 

At least a few times a week, I find myself facing a bedroom littered with clothes and books; a playroom that looks like the scene of a toy explosion; or a kitchen cyclone of school papers, shoes, and socks, an empty Amazon box or two, some grocery bags that still need to be unpacked, and, oh yeah, a counter full of dirty dishes. 

These messes are overwhelming, no matter how many times I’ve encountered them. It’s tempting just to throw my hands up and go to a different room or approach the situation with a cranky attitude. In these moments, though, I try to remember what my mom told us when tasked with a cleaning job that felt like a mountain: Start in one spot and work your way around. 

Homing in on one small item or area, to the purposeful exclusion of the rest of it, is the key to getting over the hump of inertia. Giving attention to one thing that needs to be done makes it the first thing that’s done. Once the hard part — just starting — is over, you have the momentum you need to keep going; the proverbial ball is rolling. Additionally, starting with one section or task gives you the instant dopamine hit that comes from finishing something or seeing a cleaned-up area. This is almost always enough to propel you to the next little thing or space. And then the next, and the next. Until the whole job can be checked off the list. 

So what kind of bite-size tasks or small areas are good for diving into an overwhelming cleanup task? Maybe it’s focusing on the stovetop and spraying the dirty cookware with Dawn PowerWash to get the dishes going. Or maybe it’s making the bed so an in-order oasis in the bedroom kickstarts a total refresh. In a dirty kitchen, I pick the smallest area of counter space or the kitchen table to clear off and wipe down. 

To keep the momentum going, another key aspect of this strategy is to continue around the mess or the space. Once you finish cleaning up one spot, turn your attention to the space that’s to the left or right of you. As you make the cleaned-up areas bigger, you’re making the mess smaller, all the while keeping the task at hand manageable. You’re “eating” the overwhelming mess “elephant” one bite at a time — and the entire, seemingly impossible endeavor is finished before you know it.