How To Stop HGTV From Making You Obsessed With Cleaning

HGTV has made me delusional about how my house looks. Maybe you can relate. After watching a show, you start to believe that in half an hour you can install 47 new cabinets that can be conveniently hidden through a simple pulley system when guests come over. But it’s not just HGTV; it’s also lifestyle magazines with their how-to’s about how destroying clutter and keep the kids from wrecking your perfectly organized palace. And don’t get me started on those damn commercials with some beleaguered mom who buys a Swiffer and finds Nirvana mopping places that she never even knew collected dust.



To quote the greatest health and fitness philosopher of the 1990s, Susan Powter, “STOP THE INSANITY!” We are being sold on the idea that the tidiness of our closets and spotlessness of our floors determines our self-esteem. I know you love a clean house but if you are busy, overwhelmed, have kids, suffer from anxiety, look like Susan Powter, or just want to have more time for family and loved ones, please read on.

Does Clutter Cause Stress?

Over 80% of both men and women reported clutter as a major source of stress.

A cluttered home can be a source of stress finds a Huffington Post poll of 1000 US adults. Over 80% of both men and women reported clutter as a major source of stress. Although those numbers just strike me as ridiculously high, there’s probably some truth that a messy home is a personal pain to many people. I know I feel like I’m losing control when I walk into my home and everywhere there are piles of dishes and clothes.



I Don’t Clean That Much, Do I?

People spend why to much time cleaning, at least compared to other activities. Think about how much you workout, read, enjoy hobbies, or go to your kids school activities. These are activities that create enjoyment and meaning in life. Now let’s think about how much you clean. Which do you do more? Probably cleaning if you’re like most Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average woman in the US spent 52 minutes per day doing house chores. But people don’t do house chores every day. The really numbers are that when people do house chores, both men and women do them for over two hours. Yikes! That’s a huge chunk of free time.


Just Getting More Efficient Is Not The Solution

Before you buy a $600 Roomba ask yourself, “Are you cleaning so much it’s driving you bonkers?”

Getting more efficient is a one answer to cleaning and saving more time for other things. But that solution by itself, and I emphasized by itself, is like teaching a hamster how to run faster inside his wheel. Just run harder little buddy. Eventually, you’ll get out of that darned little wheel.

Just trying to do things more efficiently is a trap. The more we strive for a spotless home, the more it makes us stress when our home isn’t that way. If you have high standards you’ll just raise the bar on cleaning when you find a more efficient way of doing it. Now we can scrub the bathtub six days a week now!

The temptation of just working hard to get the perfect home makes us believe that our homes should look like something in Better Homes and Gardens. It’s not realistic. Just a little more planning, a few more kitchen gadgets, and you’ll be there. I’m not saying to let go of all your standards, but before you buy a $600 Roomba vacuum robot ask yourself, “Are you cleaning so much it’s driving you bonkers?” If so, then first try to set more realistic standards for how things should look. (see the recommendations for more on this).


Clean Is One Of Many States

ancient-1807518_640Now it’s time to pull out your meditation mats and get Zen. Here’s what all those crazy standards are missing. Clean is not a single state of being.  “Imagine the glass is already broken” is a famous Buddhist  Things are changing.  Your house is a thing. Your house is changing. That is the nature of your house. You use it; it gets messy, and then you clean it. But if you refuse to accept this you, you become prisoner to the ideal of a clean house. Everything but sparkling tile floors and glistening kitchen counter tops is failure.

But a messy house is not a failure; it can mean more. Houses get messy because we use them, live in them, play, have dinner, and have fun. Any parent knows that kids love to make messes in the process of playing. You want them to stop making messes; forbid them from playing. I read a sad post once on a self-help forum. This person most remembered that his mother was always cleaning instead of spending time with him.

Stop thinking that the being disorganized, messy, or, God forbid, dirty is some failure on your part. It is part of the house cycle. If you want your house clean all the time, don’t live in it and then hire someone to dust it for your every week.

Is Your Self-Esteem Held Hostage By Your House?

How much do you base you base your self-worth on the appearance of your house? Do you judge your worth as a person based on how much laundry you have to do? Do you tell yourself that you’re a bad mom if your kids rooms are littered with toys? Wanting a clean house is fine but basing your self-worth on it is a terrible idea.

Here’s one of the crazy things, your house is clean, you feel great. When your house isn’t you feel awful. This is called contingent self-worth. If your self-esteem is contingent, you actually do feel better when you get the thing you want. But when you don’t, you feel depressed. Research shows that people with contingent self-worth are more likely to suffer depression because they go through a rollercoaster of up and down driving by external things, like how clean their house is.


What Else Could You Do With That Time?

Is a house so clean that you could eat off the floor worth the effort? Economics have a concept called opportunity cost. If you’re doing one thing, you have lost the opportunity to do something else. Cleaning comes at a cost: time with family, to relax, to have sex, to watch a movie, relaxing phototo play with your kids, to go out and enjoy a lavish meal, to veg out on the couch, to read a book, take a bath, meditate, do yoga . . .  If you’re standards are too high, you’ll be left with little time or energy for other things. Rather than feeling that cleaning is your ultimate goal, think about what else you would do with that time.


Are You Avoiding Something?

Can cleaning be a stress reliever? Yes. It can give us a feeling of control and accomplishment when life just seems too difficult and frantic. However, it can also be a way to avoid dealing with other problems. Are you soaping up the dishes instead of looking are your bills? Are you organizing your closet instead of reading that self-help book on depression? Are you vacuuming instead of finally starting yoga?

When I was trying to finish my dissertation, I always felt happier in the moment vacuuming or organizing my bedroom. Another form of cleaning avoidance is emails. When you go to work, do you clean your inbox of emails instead of actually doing something difficult that counts. Don’t fall prey to this one but if you do you’re in good company.



  1. Cut back on all those home improvement shows. Go on a diet from magazines that are going to give you more advice about how your domicile should look. I know it might be asking the impossible. But after you watch a few of those home improvement shows, don’t you start to think “My place looks like a dump?”
  2. Don’t judge yourself by how your house looks. You are not a bad person because you haven’t swept the floors this week. You’re not lazy because the kids made a mess and you didn’t clean it up. Your house isn’t disgusting. STOP IT! Instead, ask yourself if that mess means something: you worked hard this week and didn’t have time, you enjoyed an awesome meal, got much needed sleep.
  3. Figure out how much you’re cleaning and then set a goal to reduce it. I would aim for 20% less time. That may not seem like a lot but it could give you an 1 to 2 extra hours per week. Next, we’ll discuss how to do this.
  4. Find what you’re doing frequently and do the impossible and stretch it out. For example, my mom washes towels after one use and does tons of laundry because of it. Could you reuse the same towel a few times first. Why vacuum every day? Try to do it once every other day or just once a week.
  5. Ask yourself if your cleaning is really necessary at this point in time. I’ve seen some people constantly picking up after there kids, like three and four times just in the time I was visiting them. Wait and pick up after the kids just once or twice a day. The kids are professional disorganizers.
  6. Are there some organization tasks that just don’t make sense? Do you really need to fold your underwear and then put them in the drawer? For God’s sake, they’re on your butt all day. It doesn’t matter if they’re wrinkle. Or do you have to iron t-shirts. Please, it fashionable if they’re wrinkly.
  7. Accept that getting dirty and messy is part of the cycle of living in a house. Things get dirty but they will also get clean. Messiness is unavoidable.
  8. Instead of feeling guilty about not cleaning, ask yourself what you really want to do with your time? What matters most to you? Did you have fun with your family? Did you make a great meal? Did you watch a movie you’ve been dying to see? These all lead to messes and to feeling great about life.

Photo by paulhami Photo by jtemplerobinson Photo by Michel Curi Photo by jtemplerobinson

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Jason Drwal

Jason Drwal

I am a writer, blogger, clinical psychologist, parent, devoted spouse, coffee snob, runner, and connoisseur of exotic foods.