Mindfulness in Action
How To Keep Your House Tidy
Use these efficiency lessons I learned from waiting tables to bring order to your own home
I have a very tidy house. When guests are coming over, there’s no mad dash to clean up. I may pick up a thing or two, but for the most part, my house stays presentable. I also have a young child. And a very sloppy husband.
How do I do it?
I spent six years in the service industry. I started as a hostess and then worked my way up to server and bartender. The things that made me successful in those jobs have transferred to the way I manage my household.
These tactics fall into two main strategies. The first is called “Full Hands In, Full Hands Out.” The second is to think like a head waiter in enlisting the support of other members of your household.
Full Hands In, Full Hands Out
Some servers tackle the many tasks of their job one at a time. When asked for a side of ranch, they make a direct beeline for the kitchen. Shoulders squared, eyes focused ahead, they take no notice of any other tables. A hundred percent of their brain and efforts are concentrated on obtaining and then delivering that tiny ranch dressing that they easily carry in one hand. Once delivered, they pick up one dirty plate from the table. Then they dart straight to the kitchen to deliver that plate to the dishwasher.
Servers like this run everywhere and work quite hard, but they are terribly inefficient.
A good server takes the request for ranch dressing and then grabs everything they can as they move across the dining room towards the kitchen. They also check on other tables. Can I get that plate? Do you need another drink, sir? They load up their arms with dishware and deliver it to the dishwasher. Then they move to the computer to enter any new orders they’ve taken. Next, they gather up any food that is ready to be served, as well as the ranch dressing and any other items that were requested when they were moving through the dining room.
They fit as much as they can on a tray and then move from table to table making deliveries. Here is your ranch dressing. Here is your soup. As they head back to the kitchen, they gather dishes again and check on tables. Their eyes are everywhere, scanning the entire room, taking a quick inventory of everyone’s needs and trying to accomplish as much as possible on each trip across the restaurant.
A restaurant manager would call this strategy “full hands in, full hands out,” and I use this same approach in my home.
That ranch dressing request is the same as the pair of shoes abandoned in your living room. If you pick them up and walk all the way down the hallway, through your bedroom, and into the closet to put them away … then you are just like that inefficient server.
Think about what happens when you get back to the living room. How many times have you realized there is something else that needs to be put away in your closet? Time for another trip. Or maybe you notice a roll of tape that should go back to the office…which would have been on the way to the bedroom when you were putting away those shoes.
Servers on the receiving end of requests call this “one-timing me.” That’s when a table makes several requests of you, but only one thing at a time. You bring them the first thing and then they ask for something else. When you return with the second thing, they now have a third thing they need. The guest is probably not doing it intentionally; they just keep thinking of new things. However, the server feels aggravated because it would have taken much less time to get all three things in one trip.
This is my secret for keeping my house tidy: I refuse to let the objects in my house “one-time” me. I would never take those shoes all the way to the bedroom closet unless I was specifically going to my bedroom for some other reason.
I travel around my house all the time, but it is never for the explicit purpose of putting one thing away. Instead, I just make sure that when I happen to be moving through my house, I grab things and move them closer to where they belong.
Here’s an example of this in action:
I’m sitting on my couch, and it’s time to go to my workout class at the gym. I jump up to get a water bottle from the kitchen, but before I leave the room, I do a quick scan around me. There are several things out of place:
- an empty coffee mug
- a book my daughter left behind
- my husband’s dirty socks
- a pair of scissors
I’m going to the kitchen to get my water bottle, so the empty coffee mug is an obvious grab. However, I also take note of anything that needs to go somewhere past the kitchen. In this case, my daughter’s book. The other stuff (scissors and socks) goes in the opposite direction, so I leave them.
I plop down the mug and the book in the kitchen. I don’t take the book all the way to my daughter’s room. I grab my water bottle for the gym and look quickly around. I see a new pack of hairbands that got left on the counter when I was putting away groceries. They need to go in my bedroom, so I grab them and toss them on the living room coffee table on my way to the garage.
So far only the coffee mug got put away, but now the book and the hairbands are both a little closer to their final destination. When I have a reason to go to the rooms where these items belong, I will see them on my way and grab them. It’s possible they will again just move a little closer. For example, if I’m only going to the laundry room, my daughter’s book gets dropped right outside the laundry room door.
Later in the day, when I have a reason to go to my daughter’s room, I will grab that book as I walk by it. If nothing else, the book will arrive in her room at bedtime when I will be going there to tuck her in.
And the scissors and the socks? I’ll grab them the next time I have a reason to head towards the office or master bedroom area. Since I’ll always end up in my bed at night, everything on that side of the house will always eventually get delivered.
So by the end of the day, all the clutter should be put away.
Before I started using this system, “cleaning up” was a stressful and tiring process of running all over my house. It was something I dreaded and put off until the mess really got unbearable. Now that I always have “full hands in, full hands out,” it’s something that just happens organically throughout my day. Because I’m constantly moving items closer to where they belong, the clutter never builds up.
You can try this technique yourself right away.
The next time you need to move from one room to the next, look around and notice what needs to be put away. Then choose the things that go in the direction you’re moving. Don’t get discouraged if the room you’re leaving still looks like a mess. This is a strategy that takes some patience.
Now this is the important part. Don’t be tempted to go all the way to the room where each item belongs. They must be dropped in the nearest location to their final destination that you would have gone to, whether you were carrying them or not.
As you begin to develop this habit, you may find it useful to create a trigger to remind yourself, as you move from room to room during the day, to pick up items as you go. You can designate a spot near the doorway of the room as the “drop” location, and perhaps add an eye-catching sign or signal to help you remember. When the habit becomes established, you can remove that trigger—by that point, the items themselves will act as a reminder.
Don’t think of this as “cleaning up,” think of it as full hands in, full hands out. You’re being more efficient because every time you move through the space, you also transport other things that need to move. You are saving yourself countless trips around your house because every move you make is accomplishing multiple objectives.
Think Like You’re the Head Wait to Enlist the Support of Others
At the restaurant where I worked, I was often the head wait. This position meant that I would be the last server on the shift. As business waned during a mealtime, other servers got “cut,” which means sent home.
Before they could leave, however, they were expected to complete certain chores to clean up and reset the restaurant, and I got to sign them out to indicate that they had fulfilled their responsibilities. The head wait gets this privilege because ultimately, at the end of the shift, they are the only one left and therefore responsible for making sure all of the chores are done and the restaurant is ready for the next wave of business.
A server waiting to get signed out by their head wait is very motivated. That scribble on their checkout sheet means instant freedom. However, the head wait becomes busier as they take on more and more of the restaurant while others go home. I quickly learned to use this to my advantage.
Whenever a server presented me with a sheet to sign, I always made a request. For example: “I’ll sign you out, but can you take four waters to table nine for me?”
Everyone got a signature and a quick task to complete. They were so happy that they were getting to leave that I never got any pushback on this. Those little tasks added up to me being able to handle a lot more tables, which meant, of course, more money.
This translates most directly to my home in the way I deal with my daughter. Children ask for things all day long. They want you to play a game with them, make them a snack, help them get that toy off the shelf, etc. So, throughout the day, I have this individual who wants something from me, and I have learned how to harness that to keep my house tidier.
When my daughter asks me for something, I glance around the room. Often, my response is something like, “Yes, I can help you paint your nails, but first, can you put your puzzle away?” My daughter is highly motivated to get whatever she is wanting, so I get a happy, eager acquiescence from her. She grabs the item and runs to put it away.
This is much more pleasant than what I used to do. In the past, I’d realize her toys were all over the house, and so I’d demand she clean up after herself. I got loud arguing from her and sometimes tears. She’d half-heartedly put some things away, but she’d constantly be begging me for help, and usually, I’d still end up doing the majority of it.
It was a battle. A battle I was always losing. It took so much energy, and her efforts were so piddly, it hardly even seemed worth it.
Now the clean up happens organically and pleasantly throughout the day. This is probably also my favorite parenting tip. It’s basically about timing. Most parents find themselves completing countless tasks for their children, but they get resistance when they make their own requests of them. So ask your kids for what you need whenever you are about to do something for them. Let them see it as a transaction. They do things for you, and then you do something for them.
This can work on my husband as well, but the opportunities are much rarer. He simply does not ask me for as much as my child does.
Try this technique out today. Bide your time and wait for a request from a family member. You might already have something in mind that you would like them to do for you; in that case, you’ll have a quick response. But the real secret to this technique is to always give yourself that pause before acquiescing. Look around and consider if there is something they could tidy up for you first.
How To Think Like a Server
- Pay attention to your surroundings. This means always visually scanning a room before you leave it.
- Think strategically about your movements. Where are you going and what other rooms are in that direction? What can you accomplish on the way there?
- Don’t go anywhere just to “put something away.” Instead, develop the habit of grabbing stray objects whenever you are journeying around your house for more direct purposes.
- Find key spots in your house to gather objects that need to be put away. For example, you might have an area near your staircase where you toss things that go upstairs. That way, the next time you happen to be going up the stairs, you can quickly grab whatever has accumulated.
- Learn to pause before immediately acquiescing to your child or spouse’s requests. Is there anything they could do for you? Now’s the time to ask.
These are easy habits to implement that have a big impact on my happiness with my own living space. It’s a natural way to keep things tidier on an ongoing basis.