How to tackle spring cleaning in the time of COVID-19 — and why it's OK if you (mostly) don't

Stuck at home on coronavirus lockdown? If cleaning feels like one more annoying item on your ever-growing to-do list, lean on these tips.
Father and daughter arranging utensils in dishwasher while standing at kitchen
Cluttered counters and dishes piled in the sink can get overwhelming very quickly.Getty Images stock

You know that list of things around the house you thought you’d get around to cleaning someday? Well, it’s someday, says Rachel Hoffman, author of “Cleaning Sucks, An Unf*ck Your Habitat Guided Journal for Less Mess, Less Stress, and a Home You Don’t Hate.”

While it’s strange to think of ordinary things like spring cleaning during this surreal and frightening period we’re all trying to weather, the thing is most of us are spending far more time at home than ever before. So “we're likely noticing a lot of stuff that has sort of escaped our attention,” Hoffman says.

And while not everyone is exactly wallowing in free time — many parents are balancing working from home with child care and distance learning — others do have a lot of hours in the day stretching in front of them. Either way, “your day is probably allocated a little bit differently than it was before,” Hoffman says.

For those who have those hours free, Hoffman started posting on Twitter a #cleanwhileyourehome challenge. A recent popular one, for example, was to hit "sink zero" at least once a day. “People are finding they're using a lot more dishes because we're taking all of our meals at home now,” she says. Getting the sink clean and clear can help “keep the chaos from growing,” she says. “It gives you sort of a reset every day.”

But the last thing she wants is to say we need to suddenly ramp up on cleaning. “There's this idea that we need to be super productive right now,” she said. But “everyone's in crisis mode of some sort. So I think there's a lot to be said for being a little bit forgiving of yourself if you don't tackle those huge projects, or if you don't all of a sudden clean your house top to bottom."

“Some people will really flourish under having the added time and being able to bang out a lot of these projects,” Hoffman says, “and productivity can be very distracting as well. If you're keeping busy and doing projects, it's a little easier to not fall into the endlessly scrolling through the news. But for some people, it's going to feel like one more expectation … And that might be the one thing that kind of pushes you over the edge. I think people need to figure out where they fall in that spectrum.”

Have time to do a deeper clean? Do it in 20 minute bursts

If you’re at the give-me-all-the-projects end of the spectrum, Hoffman has some spring cleaning guidance.

Start by giving yourself something to do that you're going to notice a difference with, she says. Think about the massive project you’ve been putting off. This a good time to take down curtains to launder them, vacuum under the furniture, and clean the walls. And go ahead and clear out clutter and set aside items you’re going to donate. Now’s not the time to be taking things to Goodwill, of course, but even designating an out of the way spot (she likes to use the trunk of her car) will let you tend to the over-crowded areas at home.

The key to success here, she says, is to set an amount of time to work on it — say 20 minutes — then do something that's more enjoyable or more relaxing. The idea here is “you want to make sure that you're not just going from one type of workload to another type of workload.”

With one of my 20-minute sessions I cleaned the shutters in the kitchen (while I chatted with a friend by phone, so it hardly felt like a chore!).

If you're overwhelmed, look for (really) quick wins

If that sounds like too much but you do want to to work toward getting or keeping things clean, there are other approaches. “What's neat even if you are working from home is you can do quick little one minute cleanups here and there without it making a huge interruption in your day,” Hoffman says. For example, you can clean your bathroom one minute at a time, she says. Do one thing every time you go in, whether that’s putting away anything on the counter, wiping down the tub, or a quick toilet scrub.

And that approach works throughout the house, too. “You know, we're talking 30 seconds, one minute, two minutes. But as you're regularly doing that, you're going to start to notice little by little things are getting clean,” Hoffman explains.

Keep an eye on the most cluttered surfaces

Especially helpful right now if you’re working from home or you're homeschooling, Hoffman says, is tending to the table and counters where you’re working. “Things like that are going to get overwhelming very quickly,” she says. “So one thing that you can do that will make an immediate difference is to pick your biggest, most cluttered surface and work on clearing that off and finding everything on it a home."

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Clean these surfaces with coronavirus in mind

What extra (or unusual) steps should we be taking right now? “Something I've always kind of advocated for, especially during cold and flu season,” Hoffman says, is to wipe down door knobs and light switches and handles and pretty much anything hands are touching.”

The CDC recommends cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily. “This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks,” according to their website. If surfaces are dirty, the site says, clean them using detergent or soap and water prior to disinfection.

And don’t forget about your vehicle. Auto site Edmunds.com reported that the door handle, key fob, steering wheel, and dash are the most important areas to keep clean, according to Charles P. Gerba, a professor of microbiology and public health at the University of Arizona, along with the inside door buttons, seat belts, gear shifters and touch screens.

And if all else fails, clean these three things

If the thought of cleaning is just overwhelming right now, “my suggestion is always start with the stuff that has the potential to smell,” says Hoffman. “So if you're really really stuck, and you can't figure out where to start, start with your dishes, your trash, and your laundry.”

But keep in mind: “The most important thing is to pace yourself,” she says. “Don't feel like you have to tackle everything at once. And there may be days when everything is too much and you can't get ahead on the cleaning and you know what? It's all still going to be there.”