How Do You Stay On Top of Household Chores?


One of my friends recently asked how I stay on top of household chores. Though my initial response was a cloudy “um, I don’t know? I just do it? Do I even have a system?”, I realized, over the course of our exchange, that I do have some fairly fine-tuned strategies for staying on top of household chores, and a lot of it has to do with grouping tasks at specific points of the day (or week) and doing them repetitively, religiously, such that it would feel strange not to do it.

The conversation was precipitated by her discovery that her older sister cleans the first floor of her house and makes all the beds every morning before leaving for work with a specific litmus in mind: “It should be clean enough that I could host a dinner party that evening after work and not need to do any additional tidying when I et home.” I thought that was an interesting, specific bar to set. My home is generally tidy, but there are about five discrete things I do before any guest sets foot in our home, and nearly all of them have to do with the clutter associated with small children. For example, we keep our dining chairs covered when the children are eating on them. We made the regrettable decision to buy upholstered linen Louis XIV chairs that the children have made quick work of destroying, and the coverings are the only way we prevent them from becoming fully saturated with berry stains, crusty yogurt, etc. (A Magpie reader, commiserating over this absurd purchase, commented: “I get it. I feel you. We have a rug under our kitchen table and there is only one question to ask for this design choice: Why?”). Anyhow, the towels over the “why” chairs in our dining room are an absolute eyesore. When I am feeling on top of things, I will remove them during the daytime, but usually, we just leave them on the chairs to prevent the Sisyphean cycle of removal and replacement at 2-3 mealtimes each day. So if guests are in approach, I will tear those off, clear the drying rack, shuttle all of the tiny toys that — despite our best efforts — find their way into our family room, shove shoes into the bench storage solution designated but rarely used as their home, etc.

But – I digress. Though our daily tidiness bar is a less impressive than my friend’s sister, it is maintainable and well-observed. My tactics are as follows:

+We make our bed first thing in the morning. A requirement for a clean slate to start the day. I do not make the children’s beds unless we are having guests. This is just one of those battles I’m not interested in tackling. I so rarely go in their rooms, the melee does not even register. Mini is almost of the age where it will become a part of her daily chores list (I had mentally dogeared “six years old” for this task), and at that point, I plan on pontificating about the benefits of starting the day with a clean room (“an organized house is an organized mind,” etc). But for now, I just say no and close the door. This is very unlike me, but everyone has a limit. Ha!

+Every day, we empty the dishwasher as soon as we descend to the first floor (we run it nightly after dinner) and clear anything we’ve left out to dry overnight (typically pots/pans stay out on the range to air-dry, and there are always miscellaneous implements).

+Once children are at school, I do a quick sweep to make the first floor tidy. This usually means putting away all breakfast clutter/dishes, wiping down the table, stowing the toaster in its cupboard, moving random discarded pajamas and socks up to the laundry bin, returning toys to their proper places. Having the house cleared of the breakfast madness makes me feel ready to tackle the day and makes after-dinner tidying much more manageable.

+We clear the drying rack during the dinner prep hour. Inevitably, it has accrued implements from lunchtime and dinner prep.

+I do laundry every Saturday morning — religiously and invariably. I will not otherwise run a load unless there’s an emergency of some kind. I then force myself to fold it all and put it away by Sunday evening. This is only true for garments belonging to Mr. Magpie and I, as our nanny handles the children’s clothing. If we did not have a nanny, I would probably do laundry Tuesday and Saturday and commit to everything being folded and put away by Wednesday/Sunday respectively. For some reason it is like mounting Everest to get myself to actually put the clothes away. I always look sadly at those baskets wishing they’d unload themselves, so I need the arbitrary deadline to lock me in.

+I launder the sheets every other Friday. This works well with our housekeepers, who blessedly come on Fridays — they will put fresh sheets on our bed and I will promptly launder and fold the spare set they’ve removed.

+I strive to keep counter papers to a minimum. My goal is to shred* or file every piece of paper that arrives in our house within a day, but sometimes, this stretches out to a week for various reasons, e.g., my children’s incessant flow of adorable artwork, which they love to show off and often ask to show to multiple members of the family. I feel like I need to keep these for a suitable amount of time before surreptitiously tossing them. (I do keep maybe 1/20th of the artwork that comes home, stowing it temporarily in my desk drawer, and then either chuck or keep in the large art storage bin in our attic.) I hate mail; the minute it arrives, I stand in front of the recycling bin tossing out all of the junk (90% of mail), and then place important items on my desk / Mr. Magpie’s desk. I also use clear folders to corral the mess of forms, permissions slips, receipts, etc into their appropriate categories. These really help me feel better about the flood of paper. Otherwise, that daunting pile just haunts me all week long! *If you do not have a shredder, I cannot recommend more. This one gets great reviews on Amazon. In Chicago, I had so many weird things happen to me and we discovered it was because someone was going through our garbage and selling the information.

+I go through my desk drawer once a month. This is my holding place for receipts, invoices, forms, art and notes from my children, and other miscellaneous important paperwork. I usually shred as much as possible but there always things to keep for taxes, in case of emergency, etc, and these I file in Bigso file storage boxes kept in my office closet.

+Back in New York, my girlfriend and I used to joke that once our children were asleep, we’d frantically race around apartments erasing every trace of them. This is a New York thing, but you have so little space that you need to reclaim it! I’ve remained in this headspace, though, even with a lot more room here in Bethesda. Every night, after the children are tucked into their beds, I clean the entire family room, even refolding the throws and rearranging the pillows. I make sure all toys are out of sight. I usually light a candle, restore order to the decorative tray with coffee table books/small objets, and move all children’s cups/water bottles into the dishwasher or onto the drying rack. It feels so good to have all of that put away before we can sit down to have a glass of wine or go through our “STPs” (Shoop Talking Points).

+Sometimes, I let clothes pile up in my closet or on the chair of my office over the course of a day or two, but this always feels like distracting background noise to me. One of my resolutions this year was to put my clothes away as soon as I am done with them. Sometimes that is not possible if I’m rushing out the door, but I do try to make sure all clothes are on hangers/folded in drawers ASAP.

+I keep two bags at the foot of my office closet: one for items to donate, and one for items to give to family members/loved ones. I try to proactively move items that are too small for the children into these bags as I observe they’ve outgrown them, but sometimes this happens in batches at the turn of a season. Having these bags ready facilitates the process considerably. I will stow anything I want to permanently keep in storage boxes in my children’s closets, but place other items here. Once the donate bag is full, I’ll take it to a local donation spot.

+Groceries — we keep a shared shopping list using the iPhone’s native “Reminders” function. Then, whoever is at the grocery will buy everything on the list. We aren’t particularly regimented about when we go to the grocery — to be honest, we’re there every other day or two — but that jives with our style of eating, which usually calls for herbs, veg, etc. that might not make it hanging out in the fridge for a full week.

+We also keep a shared “Costco” list and once it’s fairly full, we make a trip to stock up on the basics — you know, Bounty and Bonne Maman jam.

+STPs — this is one of the most useful habits we’ve instated as a family. Most nights, after the children are in bed, we sit down to quickly go over STPs (“Shoop Talking Points”). This is a great way of making sure we collectively stay on top of everything related to the house, its maintenance, organization, etc.

+Related to STPs — I think it is important to be clear and open about who will handle what, and under which circumstances. I have several close friends who handle the lion’s share of household admin with no recognition and no clear assignment of the role either, and have grown resentful of or frustrated with the arrangement. I always encourage them to have an open conversation with their partners: here are the things I am doing, would you be able to handle X or Y? Or can we take turns handling X?

Whew. I know there are other elements to running this house, and I will say Mr. Magpie handles a lot of the more substantive home care pieces, like HVAC, technology, gutters, yard, car, etc. But those are the top of mind activities.

How about you? What strategies keep your house in motion? How do you stay on top of household chores?


+On being seen.

+On being truly happy for friends.

+What secret talents do you have?

Shopping Break.

+All of my favorite household care gear.

+Thinking I need these white culottes.

+This sweater gives me La Ligne vibes.

+These heels are fab and remind me of Alexandre Birman. (Under $120.)

+Love these reasonably-priced colored glasses.

+Waiting for these to go on sale — such great colors this season.

+OO the wash of these jeans.

+Just love these silver metallic flats. They remind me of this angular Marni bag.

+FAB everyday dress for vacation. Throw on over a suit and go!

+This dress was so popular with you all — and sold out in the blue option; still avail in red. You’ll be happy you have this for Memorial Day / FOJ!

+Pretty new floral spring jammies.

+Proper Peony’s spring collection just launched and…swoon! swoon!

+This dress is spectacular.

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