This 4-Zone Method is How I Clean My Apartment to Keep Myself From Burning Out

published Apr 11, 2021
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Credit: Minette Hand

It pains me deeply to say this, but I never really had a cleaning routine for my apartment until two years ago. Up to that point, I employed a soul-crushing combination of panicked tidying when things got out of control, followed by long stretches of paralytic guilt as I watched the tides of mess rise around me again.

That worked out okay (read: terribly) for the seven years when I lived in a studio, cocooned in my own belongings. But once I moved into my boyfriend’s one-bedroom, and then across the country into a space that was new to both of us, it became clear that things needed to change.

With double the humans, the tide of mess rose twice as fast, but crossed our tolerance thresholds at different times — mine inevitably first. (That’s why I take on this kind of scheduled tidying, while he handles tasks with a clear threshold, like doing the dishes and taking out the garbage and recycling.) I discarded my old habit of triage-style cleaning right away and tried instead to do a little cleaning each day. Unfortunately, that burned me out fast and added a parental vibe to my dynamic with my boyfriend that I found… you know, pretty troubling. So that was out too.

The Goldilocks Option: A 4-Zone Rotation, Cleaned Once Per Week

Having now tried strategies at both ends of the spectrum, I felt like it was time to attempt something in between: I decided to set aside one day a week for a dedicated cleaning session. Whether or not my mess threshold had been crossed, I’d build in a few hours every Sunday to dust, scrub, sweep, mop, and scour my little heart out. That way, I hoped, the job would never get so big that it slumped me back into the paralysis I’d felt in my cluttered studio.

The thing is, though. I’m still a lazy little bean, so there was one more thing I needed to do to keep the project manageable long-term. I divided our one-bedroom apartment into four separate spaces — kitchen and dining area, living room, bathroom, and bedroom — and vowed to tackle just one of them every Sunday. That way, I’d be able to do a deeper clean while also preserving my sanity, and each room would get a once-over on a monthly basis.

(Quick author note: There’s also a hallway adjacent to the bedroom and bathroom that I clean on both those days, since it’s such a high-traffic area. And if there are ever five Sundays in a month, I take it as a sign from the Cleaning Gods that I’m supposed to take that day off.) 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Does this schedule make the absolute most sense? No, it does not. As you’ve likely already noted, I never have an entirely clean apartment. And I can almost hear you asking — doesn’t the dust get tracked from room to room in between Sundays? Yes, absolutely it does. But for me and my brain, this routine has been an absolute life-saver because it’s just so dang satisfying. It allows time for dust bunnies to collect, for mirrors to get streaked, for splatters to accumulate on the stove — for each individual space to get a little grungy before I roll up my sleeves. Because for me, if you can’t tell a difference in the before and after, what’s really the point? 

How it’s Helped Me:

In the times before my routine, noticing a mess accumulating could lead to a spiral or a complete derailment. I’d want to drop whatever I was doing to resolve the issue in that exact moment. But now, I get a perverse little thrill of pleasure from watching the grime build up, imagining how much more satisfying it will be to wipe it out once Sunday rolls around. 

Somehow, giving myself the gift of forgetting about the disarray on off-days performs a complicated alchemy, transforming my dread into eagerness. Last Sunday, for example, I took on the kitchen, wiping down the inside of the oven and polishing the sink until it gleamed. It wasn’t until Monday or Tuesday that I noticed I’d neglected the mirror in my dining nook, which was speckled with little spots of oil from a month of cooking. Instead of feeling guilty or annoyed at myself for missing it on the day, I found myself looking forward to my next Kitchen Sunday all the more. And it’s been the same in my other rooms.
From sticky puddles in the fridge to crumbs between the couch cushions, to The Pile™ of worn-once clothing amassing on my bedroom dresser, every mess has its day. But the six remaining days of the week are for me — a routine that (so far!) has kept me from burning out on the process of constantly beating back the chaos.