Clutter Busting – The 15 Minute Zone Defense

We’re all familiar with what some consider the Holy Grail of decluttering – that level of possessions where it’s not really possible to have clutter, because you only have several dozen things in a 1,000 square foot apartment.

But does that really describe your life? I know it doesn’t describe mine!

The reality is that even minimalists usually have enough stuff to make a pretty good-sized mess if it’s scattered everywhere – and that only becomes more true when you add kids into the mix.

Today I’m going to outline a plan that will, if implemented, help you take back your home from the constant onslaught of mess and clutter. Sound like fun? Let’s jump in!

Zone Your Home

Most homes divide pretty neatly. Each room (or in an open floor plan, what would normally be a room) is a zone. In my apartment, for example, we have a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, two closets and a bedroom (not counting the extended hallway).

For each zone, ask yourself a few questions.

How quickly does this zone accumulate mess/clutter? My parents have a storage closet under the stairs, and the answer to that question is “it doesn’t”. It’s storage; anything that goes in there is put away properly and actually belongs there. The closet upstairs, on the other hand, is where all of our boots & coats went when we were kids. It got torn apart on an almost daily basis!

How many people can clean this area at once? If you’re talking about a small closet, it’s probably only big enough for one person to tackle. The living room, on the other hand, can be a family project. Make some notes.

Is somebody responsible for this area? Living rooms are shared, and so is the kitchen. Bedrooms, however, typically have occupants – and usually the occupants are the cause of the mess. Assuming it’s feasible, assign the responsible parties to clean their own spaces.

Is somebody the best candidate to deal with this area? The closet upstairs might be a shared space, and the mess might come from the children, but if the biggest concern is Dad being able to find his coat/hat/umbrella consistently then Dad might be the best person to tidy it.

Take The Offensive

Grab a piece of paper, and lay out a tentative plan detailing the zones and the people responsible for their cleaning. Combine them as appropriate by day, and label the individual days.

Now get yourself a calendar (or a dated planner), and start assigning the numbered days to days on your calendar. Assign them sequentially, until you run out. Then start over. If you have four days worth of cleaning zones, you should be repeating them every four days.

15 Minutes Until Freedom

Get yourself a kitchen timer. Heck, get yourself a few kitchen timers if you’re having different groups working in different areas. Set them for fifteen minutes, and clean like crazy!

After fifteen minutes, stop. If you’re holding something that needs to be put away, put it away – but stop.

If you’re finding that you can’t finish an area in 15 minutes, maybe you should adjust the number of people you put on the task. Or if you can’t adjust the number of people, maybe you should repeat it on consecutive days.

You may also be in a situation where it’s going to take some time to get the initial cleaning done – feel free to schedule additional time if necessary. Once you’re rotating through your zones like clockwork, however, it should be possible to keep things tidy with the occasional 15 minutes of attention!

A Couple Of Quick Notes

Kitchens are one of the areas where a bit of advance planning is required. If you have dishes accumulating, run some hot soapy water and start them soaking half an hour or so before you do your fifteen-minute cleaning burst.

If you need to spray the shower down with shower cleaner, feel free to do that ahead of time. Anything that needs a cleaner applied ahead of schedule should be done however far ahead of schedule is necessary.

The idea is to work efficiently – and pre-soaking/pre-treating is efficient!

How I’m Implementing It

My wife and I will be figuring out zones this week. We did this for a couple of months straight once before, and things were unbelievably clean – then we let ourselves get complacent, and the mess came right back.

This week we’re going to get on top of it, so the mess isn’t a problem in the future.

What about you? Is your house already nice and tidy, or could you use 15 minutes a day to make some serious progress?

Let me know in the comments!

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17 Responses - Add Your Input!

Posted October 10, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

We really need to do this Robert! We were on top of things all summer, and then school started and we let things slide a bit.

I like the idea of taking 15 minutes a day to tidy/clean. It would be great not to spend several hours every weekend cleaning!
Jenny @ Ex-Consumer recently posted..Supersize Your Savings Winners!

    Posted October 10, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The great thing about 15 minutes a day is that it minimizes the snowball effect. A little bit of clutter today can lead to even more tomorrow, just because the first day’s stuff wasn’t dealt with.

    I know school starting can be a sudden shift – here’s hoping you can get back into the groove. :)

    Thanks for commenting Jenny!

Posted October 10, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

This is great! We already do zone cleaning here and find it keeps clutter down and makes keeping up with housework a breeze. In the kitchen, it’s helpful for us to do the dishes as we’re cooking a meal. That way, once the meal is done, we only have a few plates and glasses to wash and can get on with our day. Who really wants to do the dishes after the hard work of preparing a meal?

Great tips!

    Posted October 10, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    And even if you wait until after the meal to do the dishes, having the pots & pans soaking while you’re eating saves a ton of time!

    Just because I’m curious – if you had to guess, how much time do you figure you spend a day doing zone cleaning? Does about 15 minutes a day cover it? More? Less?

    Let me know if you get a minute. :D Thanks for commenting Jodi!

      Posted October 10, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I have three bedroom home with one bathroom, one kitchen, several closets, plus a garage. Most days, we each spend fifteen minutes on our designated room/area, and that’s more than enough time invested. If we’ve had company or fallen behind, I may take Mondays or a free evening and do two separate fifteen minute sessions to catch up. I find that if you’re on top of preventing major messes from happening, it doesn’t take much to keep any area clean. And really, once you get into the rhythm of putting things where they belong, clutter tends to stop forming altogether.

Posted October 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

We are about to move into an apartment that is many times the size of the RVs we’ve been living in for the last three years. This plan will, hopefully, keep it from ever becoming a mess. Of course, we’ll have to spend the first few rounds unpacking and figuring out where things go. Thanks to you, we’ve already discussed the idea of not bringing in more from storage than we can unpack in each round. Great idea, thank you!

    Posted October 10, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    That definitely sounds like a good idea – only bring in the stuff you can unpack. That being said, you also have to make sure the stuff makes it in from storage in a reasonable timeframe too. :)

    My biggest temptation when I moved from a smaller space (tiny bedroom rented from a friend of the family) to a larger space (studio apartment) was to find stuff to fill that space with.

    If I had it all to do over again, I’d probably print up a poster and put it on my door – “Just because I have room for it doesn’t mean I need it!” :D

    Best of luck with your move Linda, and thanks for commenting!

Posted October 11, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

This is a great way to stay on top of your home. I’ve been trying to do it since I heard of Flylady several years ago.

    Posted October 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jen! I’ve heard of Flylady (mentioned in passing on another blog or two), but I never really looked into her stuff. Does she do 15 minute bursts for cleaning?

    I was of the impression she was more into organization. I’ll have to go check her out. :D

    Thanks for commenting Jen!

      Posted October 12, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Hey Robert,

      She’s very heavy into cleaning and setting up routines and schedules. I’ve done a little reading of her website, but where I know her from is getting years of inspiration from books I’d borrow from the library. She’s written quite a bit and she has a huge following. I think she started writing in the early nineties.
      Tanja from Minimalist Packrat recently posted..How to Be a Good Minimalist

        Posted October 12, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        p.s. I love the fifteen minute concept you shared here. I find I pick up best when I give myself a short daily challenge. I don’t set a timer anymore, but Patrick and I will both announce a quick clean-up and then we bustle about until things feel nice and tidy.
        Tanja from Minimalist Packrat recently posted..How to Be a Good Minimalist

      Posted October 12, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Flylady does organization, but she also likes to tackle cleaning in 15 minute bursts. She picks a different zone (her terminology too!) to focus on each week and has specific tasks for keeping it clean and tidy. She rotates through the zones and then starts over again. She’ll also throw in special holiday missions etc.

      She has some great ideas and has really changed my perspective in getting things done around the house.

      Given your Shift415 series, I think you are kindred spirits.

Posted October 11, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

We’ve been busy and things are a bit out of control around here. There’s stuff everywhere, it seems.

It’s amazing, though, what 15 minutes of work on anything can accomplish.

Gip @ So Much More Life recently posted..Escaping A Life Of Logos

    Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    It’s definitely amazing – especially if there’s more than one person, and you’re targeting a small area. I think it’s a pretty small investment for a pretty big payoff down the road!

    Thanks for commenting Gip!

Posted October 14, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

Even as tiny as my place is, at this point 15 minutes probably wouldn’t make much progress, but it would be a start.
Mike | Homeless On Wheels recently posted..Exploring RV Living – Staying Connected

    Posted October 14, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    The neat thing about fifteen minutes is that it adds up over time. Fifteen minutes on one day isn’t going to clean a whole RV – but if you put in fifteen minutes over a whole week, that’s just shy of two hours.

    Systematic progress is the goal – not instant perfection. :)

    Thanks for commenting Mike!

Posted October 17, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

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Cheryl recently posted..great days ahead

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