Housework systems

Rock that timer: Using your timer to get started and keep going

Take five minutes. Just five. Set a timer. If you’re on the couch or in bed, look to see the closest surface to you. It’s probably the coffee table or your nightstand. For those five minutes, just focus on that one surface. Clear it off, throw stuff away, maybe even dust it. So when your five minutes is done and you’re back in bed, you have one clear surface to look at. You have an accomplishment to focus on. You did something. You don’t have to do everything. – Unf*** Your Habitat: The Depression/Messy House Cycle

Setting a timer to get started is a very motivating way to work.  If the world is falling down around you (or feels like it) and you have what seems like three week’s worth of work to do in one afternoon, it can seem much easier to just hide in a comfy chair or the safe place inside the computer.  That’s how it is to me anyway.  Or sometimes you just honestly can’t be bothered.

Either way, try setting a timer for a small chunk of time, and promising yourself to concentrate on one area or one task for that amount of time.  Merlin Mann calls this “Running a dash

You might choose 2 minutes, or 5 minutes, or 11, or 15.

Once you get started (the laptop is put away, you’re on your feet, you’re doing things) it’s easier to keep going, just until the timer goes off. Then you can stop, and you’re ahead of where you were.

If you have a series of tasks to do, once you’re on a roll, you might want to alternate timed “working” blocks with timed “relaxing” blocks. You can do this anyway you like, of course.

Pick a time that feels good to you and suits the time you have available. Work for that time. Stop for a cup of tea when the timer goes off. It’s as easy (and as difficult) as that.

Imaginary railroads, stations, and zones

Back in Fall 1998, Pam and Peggy announced an update to their SideTracked Home Executive System. They had come up with the idea of dividing your home into Stations:

Break down your house into five stations and assign one station to one week (there are usually five weeks in a month).

Let’s say that:

  • Station One/Week One includes your entry, living and dining room,
  • Station Two/Week Two is your kitchen,
  • Station Three/Week Three the main bathroom, your office, a 1/2 bath and the laundry room,
  • Station Four/Week Four the master bedroom and guest room and
  • Station Five/Week Five is the basement.

Begin de-junking at the entrance of the station. You’ll work clockwise each day, cleaning out a closet, cupboard or drawer (sometimes for as little as ten minutes) and when the week ends on Sunday, you’ll move to the next station and do the same thing.

Granted, it will take several rotations (months) to get the whole house de-junked, but you will see progress in every room, you won’t kill yourself and life as you like it will go on as usual. Eventually every station will be streamlined!

Pam Young and Peggy Jones, Fall 1998 newsletter

Sounds familiar?  The Flylady adapted the idea of Stations, only she works from top to bottom instead of clockwise and called them Zones instead.

I really like the idea of calling them stations, though, because I can imagine a little train track going around my house, stopping at each room to move out clutter.


With a small boy in the house, half the time I have a small “train” hurtling around the house shouting CHOO CHOO.  Only he seems to be spreading things around, rather than picking them up.  Note how the sticky fingerprints reflect the camera flash on that photo!  (PS: He is also obsessed with helping himself to fruit from the fruitbowl, and playing builders.  Yesterday I found him trying to bash in a small nail in the wall using a piece of fruit, leading to me having to tell him “A plum is not a hammer!” Yeah.  So that’s one of the reason’s I’ve not been blogging much)

Stations and Zones

What can I take from the SideTracked Home Executives’ idea of Stations and apply it to my personalised list of tasks in each of the rooms in HomeRoutines’ Zones:

  • I can put the list of tasks in a clockwise order around the room.  I’m actually starting to imagine an additional rail loop going clockwise around each room.  It’s like the Island of Sodor round here with the unexpected complexity of our rail network.  Having the tasks based in an order that is based on the physical layout of the room helps me keep track of where I’m up to.
  • Decluttering is a continual task. It’s worth taking a quick look at each storage area each month or so, because “you can’t CLEAN surfaces unless you HAVE them” so you need to clear the crap off your shelves before you can wipe them down.  I have been decluttering recently and it feels good, but it just keeps going on.
  • Pause after every station for a cup of tea. It’s good for the soul.
  • Sometimes you can get stuck in a plateau with any system or challenge; maybe all it takes is mixing up your lists again (and an imaginary train) to get back on track.

Soundtrack:  Peace Train by Cat Stevens

Just one thing: The power of the timer

So this morning I shared a post from I dream of Clean on the HomeRoutines Facebook page, and asked:

Do you have one little thing that would make a big difference if you got it done? We often have these little things on our “quality of life” to do list! I have a giant toddler handprint on my living room window – I think I will get to it because it is terribly distracting!

and then kept on sitting on my butt reading through my feeds and stuff.

And then I Dream of Clean popped up on my page and asked

Nice!!! Should we hold you to it? Maybe, let us know when it’s complete? 🙂

Ohhhh busted.

So I got up and took a photo of my toddler besmudge’d window:

and got out my window cleaner and cleaned that window, and the other window.

And then, since I was standing up without my laptop, I couldn’t help but notice that there were a few…other…. issues with my living room. Seriously.

This is pretty typical – laundry baskets, neary-finished folded washing, train track to nowhere, cushions off the sofa, and books every-which way.  What can I say, I have preschoolers!

But getting up and cleaning that one spot on one window totally gave me a burst of energy!

So I went with it.  I set my  timer for 11 minutes… turned on Dora The Explorer to distract wee Hank from further destruction… and by the time it went off, the living room was looking much better.  I kicked some cleaning butt!

For reals, Tim just came upstairs and said “So clean!!!

Sure, the floor could use a vacuum and I have still got a planter box of weeds outside the window.

But it’s a heck of a lot better, and that is just fine with me.

Get Excited and Make Things

Don't keep calm and carry on.

A couple of years ago I had one of those Keep Calm and Carry on posters on my wall.  I felt kind of cool for awhile, because I was ahead of the curve with it down here in the Antipodes (They’re all over the shops here now, along with those fake bus blinds. Welcome to 2008, New Zealand!)  But after awhile its very presence on my wall started to stress me the heck out.

At the time I was just.getting.through.the.days with a major house renovation, a difficult pregnancy, my big girl starting school, and all the other usual dramas of family life, and somewhere along the line the poster’s admonition didn’t help.

Stop telling me what to do, poster!

But here’s the thing I found in the midst of it. If I got going and did something – anything – I’d have more go to do something else. Sitting in my armchair while the room grew dark around me, playing that damn whack-a-mole level of Plants Vs Zombies, was not an effective way of getting started on any endeavours, creative or practical.

HabitHacker has got it right –

If you improve your habits and put routines on autopilot, you’ll have more time for creative endeavors.

The art of habit leads to the habit of art.

Tim and I have found time and time again that if the kitchen is tidied, the living room floor isn’t covered in unfolded laundry and the books that Mr 18-months has ripped off the bookshelf (again) then we find ourselves magically Doing Things. Making jam, collage-ing stuff, sending out Postcrossing postcards, or doing some coding on some side-project of Great Awesomeness. Whereas if we’re sitting in a Living Room of Great Squalor after the kids are in bed, then we’re more likely to dive down the rabbithole of the Internets, or start playing dumb computer games without enjoying it or even really wanting to.

Does this make us tidy up immediately after dinner? Not always! But we’re trying, and it makes a difference.  Baby steps down the hall, and all that.

How to get started, get excited, and do something:

Run a dash

Go for 11 in 2011

9/10 productivity experts on the internet agree, timers are the way to go! Merlin Mann calls this Running a Dash:

My favorite tonic for procrastination—which I have mentioned in passing previously—is what I call a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute. By breaking a few tiny pebbles off of your perceived monolith, you end up psyching yourself out of your stupor, as well as making much-needed progress on your overdue project. Neat, huh?

He online casino has some excellent techniques on how to do this. I particularly like how he suggests giving yourself two criteria for success: 10 minutes of picking up crap in your garage or one trash bag full, whichever comes first.

Fool yourself to work

At ParentHacks today I found this great list of 10 ways to start working by the developers of Swift To-Do List

In order to be successful, we have to work hard, no matter what. We can’t always be at the mercy of our motivation.

I am lazy. But that’s okay, because I have some tricks for fooling myself into working, every single day. Actually, I’m quite productive thanks to these tricks.

Stop procrastinating and do what you love

Maaike’s latest post on her glorious new blog talks about how to find your passion in life:

What is it that you love to do? Which activities make you forget about time and put you in an enticing flow? That’s what you need to figure out, birdies!

Get those ideas out there, imperfect though they are

Last word goes to the glorious Ze Frank

I run out of ideas every day! Each day I live in mortal fear that I’ve used up the last idea that’ll ever come to me. If you don’t wanna run out of ideas the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do ’em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack.

No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas that you’ll get to later.

Some people get addicted to that brain crack. And the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals. And everyone’s clapping for them.

But the bummer is most ideas kinda suck when you do ’em. And no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed the first time you do something it’ll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person who’s still dreaming of all the applause.

When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, ’cause I certainly don’t want to be addicted to brain crack.

Watch the video below for the inspiring speech. (Probably PG)

And then – run a dash and see where you end up!

Baby Steps around the Office, Baby Steps down the Hall

Because I’m a word geek, I’m always fascinated to learn about the origins of phrases.  I refuse to declutter my etymology dictionary, for instance; it’s just so handy when you need to find out whether the use of the word kit for a collection of stuff came up before or after the word kete, which is Maori for bag.  (Kit has been around for ages, by the way, lest I leave you with an unanswered question to plague you. You’re welcome.) Plus, it makes visitors think I’m smart and stuff.

Anyway, I flicked through an old Dave Ramsey book at the library the other day, having heard him mentioned online, and was excited to see he used the phrase “Baby Steps”

Then, Dave mentioned that he had named his”Baby Steps” after a book a character wrote in a movie, What About Bob?. Intrigued, I looked it up.

Being such a spring chicken myself, I hadn’t seen that film, which came out back in 1991, when I wasn’t even born yet was 13.

It’s a comedy film directed by Frank Oz, and starring Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. Murray plays Bob Wiley, a multiphobic psychiatric patient who follows his successful and (beyond) egotistical psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin (played by Dreyfuss) on vacation. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) Hilarity ensues.

In the movie, Dr Leo Marvin introduces Bob to his book Baby Steps… A Guide to living life One step at a time…

Here is the blurb off the back of the fictional book, explaining the idea of Baby Steps:

What are Baby Steps?

It may be a comedy movie, but it’s still very good advice.

Take it all one little baby step at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

(PS: The book cover and blurb are from the interesting blog of Daren Dochterman, who designed the cover for the prop book in the movie. It’s taking all of my concentrating energy to not spend the rest of the afternoon reading it!)

Housework systems: The Whole SHEBang

On The Whole Shebang, SHE stands for Self, Home, Endeavors – a broader, more positive definition of SHE than the Flylady’s “Sidetracked Home Executives.” It was created by Krista, a professional organizer, who is sharing her beautifully designed resources and plans with all of us.

The basics of her plan are on her SheBang 101 page:

  • Creating your own Morning, Afternoon and Evening routines (we like routines 🙂 Krista’s example routines are great too.
  • Creating a special SHE spot of your own in your house – a cozy chair where you can sit and relax with a book for a bit, without looking at the washing basket!
  • And jaunty, informative signs to print out to stick on your baskets and boxes as you declutter – that is, creating your “SHE itt kit” (I see what she did there!)

Her concise Maintaining the SheBang page has great advice on monthly tasks to keep you on track, especially a ritual of reviewing and revising your routines.  I find that with little kids, a routine that used to work no longer does, as naptimes and playtimes shift – and as small boys become ever more enthusiastic to climb into an open dishwasher. (Unloading dishwasher now must occur when he is in his highchair!)

I’m looking forward to her further SHEBang projects – the first one is decluttering the closet. There’s the full-on version with printable resources and checklists – and the fast version where you pick out 5 ugly shirts to donate. Either way – excellent advice, and I’m certainly subscribing to her blog to keep up with the new projects as they come out.

Housework Systems: HouseHoncho

I just discovered HouseHoncho this afternoon and I am delighted!

If you sign up (for free) you’ll get one email a day, which gives you nine home tasks: three easy ones, three medium ones, and three “advanced” ones.

Here’s an example of today’s email message:

Good evening! Tomorrow we are focusing on the living room/family room with this list! Remember, don’t put pressure on yourself to get it all done. If you pick 3 items–in any combination–you will make a difference in your home today.

Calendar Alert: Spring is March 20th.

1. Clutter bust for 5 minutes.
2. Straighten a bookshelf.
3. Dust the television.

1. Clean the floor.
2. Clean the inside of the windows.
3. Vacuum the lampshades.

1. Organize (ie, purge) entertainment such as CDs and DVDs.
2. Thoroughly clean tables (such as a side or coffee table).
3. Spring Clean-athon Task: Dust the ceiling using a broom and soft cloth.

Check out the blog to read the words that haunt me from a high school teacher.

Keep it simple!
Your HouseHoncho Team

Isn’t that beautiful and simple?

HouseHoncho moves through the areas/zones in the house, one per day of the week, like this: (I couldn’t resist putting it into HomeRoutines to see how it fits!)

House Honcho schedule

There’s some great housekeeping advice on their Kitchen Table blog, and their Daily 5 routine list is sensible too.

House Honcho also has a page on Facebook.

If you sometimes need a little inspiration on where to start, HouseHoncho looks like a fantastic service. With 9 little missions per day to pick from, there’s bound to be three jobs that suit your home and your available time and energy. Plus: it’s just one email!

Choosing a housework “system”: Organized Home

Organized Home by Cynthia Townley Ewer is a comprehensive, well organized reference site, with special sections dedicated to creating a Household Notebook, decluttering, organizing and seasonal tasks. It also offers some nicely designed Printable planner pages and a fab section called SHEs organized – with resources for people following the Sidetracked Home Executives system that was a precursor and inspiration to FlyLady.  I think the HomeRoutines app works really well with the SHE mindset as well!

Organized Home is the first place I came across the Four Box method of decluttering.  It’s a good reminder that you don’t need any special products to declutter.  (Don’t procrastinate thinking you need a set of special baskets to declutter into – a cardboard box from the grocery store will do just fine, and you can put it straight in the car to donate!)

Cynthia has also written a great book called Houseworks, which contains heaps of the wonderful advice on the website.

Choosing a Housework “System”: Home Ec 101

Home Ec 101 is a great, well-organised reference to how to cook, clean, wash and fix all the things around your place.

If you are looking for a concise schedule to follow, then the Weekly Chore Schedule is a great reference to print out and stick on your fridge.

Quote: is a site designed to teach real people, real skills, as they apply to real lives.

Few people have the resources to keep up with the glossy magazines and the reality of television is it isn’t.

Home-Ec 101 is an attempt to reach average people and teach them the domestic arts that make life a little less expensive, a little easier, and a little more enjoyable.

Check out: