Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a neat person. Once I was out from under my mom’s reminders, I never made my bed, washed my dishes in a reasonable time frame, or kept my room clutter-free.
It didn’t bother me too much at first, but by the time I became a mother, the guilt caught up with me. When company came over, I scrambled to pull a thin facade of cleanliness and discipline over the disaster zones. Something had to give.
I tried excuses: “I’m a new mom; I’m tired.” I tried adjusting my expectations: “Who says a disciplined person needs to have her bed made every day? Mess is a sign of genius, anyway!” I tried psychoanalyzing: “All those years as a stay-at-home daughter guilted me into thinking it’s my duty as a woman to keep the house clean above all else!” I tried prioritizing: “I’d rather spend time with family than keep my house clean.” I tried rationalizing: “The floor’s just going to get dirty again, so why exert too much effort to keep it clean?”
Nothing worked to either alleviate my guilt or motivate me to clean.
Drowning, I turned to Marla Cilley, a.k.a “The Flylady,” who promised to teach inept homemakers like me how to get their house in order once and for all. The very first step was getting my kitchen sink clear and shiny before bed, every day.
I thought that was a stupid and meaningless thing to focus on, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I shined my sink as baby step number one, eventually adding on other routines throughout the month — laying out next day’s clothes, making my bed every morning, and giving the bathroom sink and toilet a quick swish and swipe every morning. I followed her daily missions, decluttering and cleaning different zones in my house.
It’s been two months, and my apartment is in great shape. Not perfect, but I feel in control of the mess and free of guilt. If company drops by, I no longer rush to shove stuff into closets, slam doors to hide messy rooms, or apologize profusely for not having enough time to clean a cruddy toilet. I now can’t imagine not making my bed or folding up the throw blanket after I use it. I get up in the morning and immediately start putting away dishes. I’ve turned into my industrious mother — I, the girl who left a bowl of encrusted macaroni out in her dorm room for months.
I figured out the root issue: I wasn’t undisciplined or lazy, per se. I didn’t need a new outlook on the joy of cleaning. I just needed to kick my perfectionism.
In all of her emails and articles, the Flylady constantly hammered perfectionism out of me. I did only a little each day. I couldn’t tidy up my house in one go like Marie Kondo insisted, but I could shine a sink. I religiously prohibited myself from doing any cleaning other than what the Flylady prescribed in the baby steps.
“We do what we can today, and then we do a little more tomorrow,” said the Flylady.
“Progress over perfection!” her emails reminded me.
Something over nothing, I chanted to myself whenever I wanted to throw in the towel.
This simple phrase has revolutionized my life.
Without realizing it, I had expected myself to be able to do the impossible (make your apartment look perfect all the time!), or the possible in an impossible time frame (clean everything even though your baby kept you up all night!). Again and again, I failed those impossible expectations, heaping shame, guilt, and discouragement over me until I was too petrified to do anything productive.
Subconsciously I was thinking, “Why wash the dishes when I don’t have the energy to keep the rest of the house clean?” The Flylady taught me to think, “I don’t have the energy to clean the rest of the house, but I can wash the dishes and be done for the day.” And not only “be done,” but to celebrate that small accomplishment, to focus on what I could do and what I did do instead of everything I couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.
With my perfectionist expectations exploded, I succeeded all the time. The successes gave me more energy and motivation to do a little more the next day, or to bounce back a couple days after that if I didn’t do much the next day, after all.
I was disciplined! I wasn’t lazy! I could keep my house clean! And out of that newly-found self, I kept challenging myself without burning out.
“Your house didn’t get messy in one day,” the Flylady said, “and you won’t be able to get in clean in one day, either.”
Words I now live by.
I truly feel like I’ve kicked perfectionism’s hold over my life. And not just in the housecleaning area — I apply the mantra “something over nothing” to developing habits or tackling projects in other areas of my life, like using kinder words to my husband, writing, and working out.
“I don’t want to work out today,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m too tired. But I should work out today. Do I do something I hate, or do I feel guilty for the rest of the day?”
“No,” myself will say back, “it’s not that you don’t want to work out today. You just don’t want to drive to the gym and run on the elliptical for half an hour. What about cycling while watching Netflix? What about yoga at home? What about ten minutes on the elliptical? What’s something you do want to do, instead of doing nothing at all?”
The biggest gift I got from learning how to keep my apartment clean wasn’t a clean apartment. It was learning that when I dodged my perfectionism and did something, I could do whatever I set my mind to.
Slowly. Imperfectly. But eventually.
And that’s something, indeed.