Overwhelmed by Mess? Just Apply the 80/20 Rule to Your House Cleaning

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In a productivity bootcamp course I listened to recently, the instructor talked about focusing your effort to create the maximum impact with the least amount of work. This, she argued, is the most productive way to use your time because it’s rare to have enough time to do everything all the time. She broke down the principle into a ratio of 80/20, stating that 80 percent of the result comes from 20 percent of the effort.

It’s not a new concept. The 80/20 rule was first popularized by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1906, when he noticed that 80 percent of Italian land was owned by 20 percent of the people. Understanding or solving problems through this ratio has come to be known as the Pareto Principle, which states that 80 percent of the effects tend to come from 20 percent of the causes, no matter what the topic. The principle is used in investment and management applications, but it’s also helpful, as my course pointed out, for personal productivity.

When it comes to picking up the house or decluttering areas of your home—two things that are never-ending and there doesn’t ever seem adequate time for—the 80/20 ratio of the Pareto Principle can help you make the best use of your time by achieving the biggest payoff.

Once you identify those housekeeping tasks that have an outsized effort-to-impact ratio, you’ll be able to turn to those chores again and again, regaining control and calming the chaos with as little work as possible.

Here are some ways you might translate the principle when you’re trying to maximize time and energy:

1. Pick things up off the floor

If you need to straighten up but don’t have time to put things away and really clean, get everything that doesn’t belong on the floor off the floor. Even if you can’t vacuum, the difference between a floor with toys and clothes strewn around and an empty one is striking.

2. Clear off surfaces

Clutter-free surfaces give your eye somewhere to rest and have a huge impact on the feel of a space. Again, if you don’t have time for a thorough cleaning but you’ve got to infuse some order into your home, start with clearing off surfaces. This can include the coffee table, desks, and the kitchen counters.

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3. Make the bed

If your bedroom has seen better days (but today is not the day you’re going to be able to dust and polish the wood and put away the clothes on your clothes pile chair), just make the bed. A freshly made bed has an outsized effect on the look of your bedroom and only takes a few minutes.

4. Straighten items

Literally, straighten things that are out of place. Even if you aren’t able to completely clean off surfaces, stacking the papers and notebooks neatly or putting items in the refrigerator or pantry in orderly rows and stacks can give the impression of more order than there actually is.

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5. Vacuum

If you have a bit of time to clean but can’t do everything, opt for vacuuming. (This is the only time I won’t tell you to clean top to bottom!) Getting crumbs and dust off the floor and fluffing up carpeting with the roller brush uplifts your whole living space. Vacuuming has a far more noticeable effect than, say, dusting if you have a limited amount of time or you’re wanting to freshen up quickly.

6. Clean glass and mirrors

Cleaning glass isn’t the most painless task, but not doing it makes your place look dirtier than it might actually be. Whether it’s a glass door full of canine nose prints or a toothpaste-splattered mirror in the bathroom, cleaning the glass instantly makes the room look cared for.

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