The Zeigarnik Effect and 7 Other Ways to Beat the Housekeeping Blahs


We hear about burnout at work all the time, but what about burnout at home? Keeping a clean home is a never-ending uphill battle, and it's very easy to completely get the blahs about housekeeping when every time you turn around you have to do the exact same task again.

But housekeeping does not have to be a dreaded, frenzied chore you only take care of when the in-laws are on their way. Here are eight sanity-saving tips for avoiding housekeeping burnout.

1. Lower Your Expectations

This argument never worked on my mother when I was trying to get out of housekeeping chores as a child, but there is actually something to this. If your vision of a clean house is based on Pinterest photos and HGTV shows, then you might have your sights set a little too high.

For instance, just pulling your quilt up over the sheets when you get up in the morning may not result in a made bed that you can bounce a quarter off of, but it will certainly look neater than leaving a tousled mess of sheets and blankets. Remember, a job worth doing is not only worth doing well, it's also worth doing poorly — because it will at least be done.

2. Start Where You Are

This is advice touted by the famous house cleaning guru FlyLady. She suggests "jumping in where you are" so you don't overthink your cleaning chores.

I often fall victim to housekeeping overthinking, which I call the "while I'm at its." For example, if I were to find my kids had tracked in mud, I'd start thinking that I ought to sweep and mop the whole house, since it wouldn't make sense for me to get out the mop for just one spot on the floor. And while I'm at it, maybe I should move the furniture and clean underneath, too. Three hours later, I'll find myself exhausted and still battling the dust bunnies that roam wild under the guest bed, while the muddy footprints have meanwhile hardened in place.

It's a better idea to just start with whatever is in front of you, and don't allow scope creep. When my kids track in mud, I should just grab a paper towel to clean up the footprints and move on — ask them to do it instead. You track it, you clean it.

3. Keep a Clean Sanctuary

It's easy to become burned out when you find yourself thinking there is a huge amount of work between you and relaxation in an orderly and clean space. But your entire home doesn't need to be spotless for you to enjoy that relaxation — just one room needs to be tidy. So identify what room you can easily make as a sanctuary of cleanliness where you can retreat if you're feeling overwhelmed. Once you've relaxed in your nice, tidy space, you'll often feel recharged enough to tackle other areas of the house.

4. Set a Timer

We have a very difficult time estimating how long things will take. With large projects, we tend to underestimate the time commitment, but with small tasks, like unloading a dishwasher or mopping a floor, we tend to completely overestimate how long it will take.

So rather than avoid dreaded chores because "they'll take soooooo long," set a five-minute timer for yourself to complete the task. Knowing that you can stop when the timer goes off helps you to get started. Once you're in the middle of putting away the laundry or washing the dishes, a cognitive bias known as the Zeigarnik Effect will often keep you going until you finish. That's because our brains very much prefer that we finish tasks we start, so just starting them can be enough to get them done.

5. Use Down Time

What do you do while you're waiting for your frozen burrito to heat up in the microwave? Most of us just stand and watch the food rotate — but that two minutes and 30 seconds is actually quite a bit of time when it comes to tidying up your kitchen. If you commit to doing whatever cleaning needs to be done nearby whenever you have some downtime, there will be less to do when you actually set aside time for scheduled housekeeping.

6. Listen to Your Workout Playlist While You Clean

While you have certainly felt the effect of a motivating song in the middle of a run or dance class, you might not have ever tried listening to those tunes while cleaning house. Music is uniquely motivating and mood-altering, and it can make even the most hated housekeeping chores more palatable — and potentially even fun.

According to Dr. Nina Kraus of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, "Humans and songbirds are the only creatures that automatically feel the beat of a song. The human heart wants to synchronize to music, the legs want to swing, metronomically, to a beat. Our bodies are made to be moved by music and move to it."

7. Outsource the Tasks You Hate the Most

We all have at least one hated housekeeping chore. The one that is so awful that you'd rather face unmedicated dental surgery. For those tasks, why not hire an occasional cleaning service, housekeeper, or local enterprising teenager?

While few of us have the kind of money necessary to afford a regular cleaning service, farming out one or two hated tasks on an occasional basis does not have to be expensive, and having that item off your plate can make the rest of your housekeeping chores seem like a breeze.

8. Purge Regularly

Often, what seems to be a housecleaning problem is really a clutter problem. An uncluttered room will always look cleaner and tidier than one filled to the brim with stuff. Make a habit of purging unneeded items once a week. Just taking 15–20 minutes per week to identify and donate items you no longer want can make an enormous difference in the look of your home — and no "cleaning" is required.

You Can Enjoy Housekeeping

Keeping your space spic and span might be an endless task, but that doesn't mean it has to be drudgery. With a little tweaking to your routines and your attitude, you can have an orderly home without going crazy.

How do you keep motivated in your never ending battle with clutter and grime?

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