Rethinking Spring Cleaning

The Best Way to Trick Yourself Into Cleaning Your House
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April 28 2014 9:30 AM

Rethinking Spring Cleaning

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Elbow grease is great, but peer pressure is better.

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Using your own eyes to look at your house from new angles is a great way to increase the efficiency of your spring cleaning project. But to ensure that you finish it, you’re going to want to call on the eyes of others. We’re talking about healthy, old-fashioned peer pressure here, the civilizing force that keeps a host fearful that, should his dinner guests arrive early and catch him with the bathroom unmopped, he’d be exposed as a failure, a fraud, a person who has no business tending to the comfort of others since he apparently cannot adequately tend to his own home. And just like that, you’re barred from polite society for a minimum of three social seasons.

I exaggerate, but only somewhat. Peer judgment is a specter that has always haunted cleaning manuals and for good reason: For those of us who care about the domestic arts at all, it is our motivation and our discipline, the superego to our messy id. Mary Davis Gillies looks over her midcentury shoulder: “If the room is picked up once daily in a rudimentary fashion after each change of activity, everything will keep right enough to greet unexpected callers with aplomb.” Decades later, Cheryl Mendelson offers a more touchy-feely, New Age version: “Good housekeepers know intuitively what needs to be done in their homes because they know how their homes make people feel.” In both cases, cleanliness is conceptualized as a thing that an outside observer must evaluate and verify; we should be cleaning not only to a degree that we find livable but also in preparation for a keen-eyed interloper, expected or otherwise.

The threat of judgment is particularly important to spring cleaning because, again, we are no longer mounting the process out of requirement of health or basic habitability—unless you are a hard-core clean person, you almost certainly need someone to impress other than yourself. This is why I highly recommend planning a social event in your home to set yourself a deadline. If a Cinco de Mayo fiesta or, as in my case, a weekend houseguest is looming on the calendar, you are far more likely to make quick progress on your spring cleaning list than you might otherwise. And then, when the discerning eyes finally arrive, you can revel in the secret thrill of knowing that even if they investigated the medicine cabinet or stooped to inspect the baseboards, your cleanliness would be unimpeachable.

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An added benefit of the interface between peer pressure and spring cleaning is that, as any seasoned host will confirm, we tend to clean with more attention to detail and thoroughness when entertaining than we might for ourselves. It’s bearable and even understandable to let the bathroom get a bit dingy in the midst of a hectic work week, but you simply can’t have people over without wiping everything down and well—the last thing you want is for your guests to depart asking questions about your hygiene rather than your fabulous recipe. Just be sure to give yourself enough time before the company arrives: Beware of the last-minute shoving of clutter (why is it still with you?!) into closets five minutes till showtime—that’s a dirty trick indeed.

A final note: I find Gillies’ ideal of living in case a guest is always about to arrive to be useful both in spring and throughout the year—especially if we imagine that guest to be omniscient. So much of our spring cleaning work takes place in normally closed closets and overlooked nooks, so that even if we had finished everything and a real guest arrived unannounced, he would not necessarily notice our efforts. But the all-seeing guest in your head can see everything, and if you’ve pleased him, you’ve gone above and beyond what lesser mortals will expect. Which means, of course, that you are a little bit superhuman yourself. Doesn’t superiority feel nice?

Next up: Your home will never be entirely clean—and that’s OK.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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