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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 18 - How clean is too clean?

DanBrady, Flickr

Have you ever felt like by the time the house/car/garden is finally "clean enough", the day is done and it's time to go to bed? Worse, do you never really reach the point of "clean enough", no matter how hard you work?

This is yet another manifestation of our obsession with stuff: we want everything to be spotless. 

Decluttering is good, as is keeping relatively clean surroundings. Spending endless hours dusting, wiping, scrubbing and polishing? Not so good. 

In addition, there are a variety of things that do not need to be cleaned at any point in time; in those cases, cleaning can even be harmful. Random examples include power cleaning your driveway, removing fallen leaves from your lawn, wiping your baby's face in between each spoonful of puree, giving a bath to your cat, or using scented wipes on your genitals. Don't do it!

By no means do I consider myself a clean freak, yet I have pressured myself into making sure my house immaculate before I let anyone show up. I know it has sometimes gotten in the way of spontaneity: on a random Friday night, feeling like having some friends over, I will hesitate because I haven't had time to clean. Or I will get in a cleaning frenzy instead of relaxing while I wait for them to show up. Foolish of me. When your friends show up and exclaim "wow, your house is so clean", it might be a sign you overdid it (note to myself here).

Last summer, I became very resentful toward all the weeding work that kept me away from the beach. Eventually I went on a multi-week strike, left the flowerbeds to fend for themselves and allowed myself to fully enjoy the true pleasures of summer. I never regretted it, but I did feel the need to apologize for the state of my garden to impromptu visitors. Why?

When it's not us worrying about the state of our house and property, it's others: I have heard countless stories of well-intentioned parents and in-laws showing up and ending up cleaning their grown children's house while the latter would prefer just enjoying each other's presence. Offering help to young parents is definitely commendable, but it will probably make them feel like they have to join in the hard work when in fact they might simply want to chat with you.

Our obsession with cleanliness not only robs us of our precious time (and money, thanks to all those unnecessary cleaning products we feel compelled to buy, or thanks to the people we hire to do the work), it is also bad for our health and for the environment. The types of products we use and the frequency at which we use them deserves to be questioned. 

Some questions to ponder:

  • Does cleaning get in the way of other more meaningful activities? For example, do you refrain from inviting friends over, from playing with you kids, from going on a little trip - or from resting - because the house or garden is not quite up to your standards?

  • How often does one really need to wash their hair or their clothes (with the exception of underwear of course) if they do not show signs of dirt and in the absence of significant sweating?

  • Are our bodies and houses so dirty that we need to use the strongest detergents, disinfectants and abrasives on them? Really? Or are we destroying our skin's protective oils and useful bacteria, and breathing toxic fumes?

  • At what point do we cross the line between preventing common colds and minor odors and giving ourselves cancer?

  • What impact does all that cleaning have on the environment? How much water and harmful products do we use, and how much trash do we create (e.g. disposable wipes and other such horrors)?

  • Do you sometimes "cover up" problems with strong products instead of actually tackling the underlying issue? For example, do you keep swirling the mouthwash (a useless product) instead of seeing your dentist about that recurring bad breath?

  • Do we want to be the "victims" of marketing, which creates a false need for cleaning and beauty products that we could in fact live without?

What is your relationship to cleaning?

For more on alternatives to "traditional cleaning", click here.



I succumbed! I bought one piece of clothing I did not really need. It was right next to the one piece of clothing I actually needed. In a moment of weakness, I took both. The price was good, it won't take up that much space, and I truly love it and will wear it a lot... but I still broke my rule, and I'm not proud to report it. I won't bring it back to the store, but I will make an extra effort to get rid of other clothes in an effort to "compensate". Lesson of the week: you can still have relapses five months into a new habit. Vigilance is essential!

What is your weakest area, and what do you do to prevent relapses?

Donations (good riddance)

On the bright side, I am very happy to report that I finally pulled up my sleeves and took care of the one room I was apprehensive about: my home office. Paper is the worst, when it comes to decluttering, because you need to look at every single sheet and read it to assess where it belongs. This is probably where the "touch it once" rule came from: if you file or discard your papers as soon as you receive them, they don't accumulate in piles everywhere! The office now looks like a place where organized thoughts can happen. And I can quickly access any document I need now that I know where everything is.

What room, cupboard or drawer are you tackling this week?

Observations and cogitations

This ongoing reflection on my consumption habits and their impact on my health and well-being, the environment and the economy has me question my intake of animal products. I have been a vegetarian in the past (although not at the moment). From an ethical perspective, being a vegan sounds even more appealing. But it all seems so complicated in a society that gives meat (and dairy) such an important place. 

Any advice?

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  1. "By definition, a weed is something you don't want growing in your yard. Once you start wanting them, and appreciating them, they are no longer weeds. Problem solved." Calvin Dewitt (use the google)

  2. My parents are both Virgos so cleaning could become obsessive for them. Dad set a good example for me when he told me how he would constantly clean things in the yard, then one day he decided to just stop noticing! That helped me and him, lol

    I minimize the use of harmful chemicals used in cleaning around the house. There is a sign over a door in the operating area of the hospital telling us to wash our hands unless we do not have germs or our germs do not cause infections. I've only had one serious post-op infection in a patient (Pseudomonas), and that resolved with a stronger antibiotic, so I must be doing something right.

    As for cleaning, perhaps an artistic saying may apply: It takes two artists to finish a painting. One to do the painting, and the other to tell them when to stop!

    1. "Stop noticing". That is the best advice I have ever heard when it comes to cleaning. And I really like that artistic saying!

  3. My husband was in the environment field for years, so he likes the backyard to be “natural” which means – let it go. As for me, I think the way one is brought up reflects in later life. Fortunately while growing up we had maids at home, so I never had to clean. If I went in the kitchen, I was told to leave, so I never learnt to “clean” proper. I do try to keep the house neat – kind of - but it has never been a priority – going on trips or reading come always first on my list. Thanks for coming to my blog.

  4. Imagine: A cat licking their paws after walking across a floor still damp with a bleach-filled cleaner.

    1. Good point. I've heard of pets dying after being exposed to some very common floor cleaning products. :-(

  5. In Australia we have a common weed known as scurvy weed. In fact it is a indigenous ground cover that has a small blue flower which I think is lovely and the bees love. So I let it grow when it is flowering during the warmer months and if needed weed it during winter when it dies back. If people think I have a garden full of weeds, well that is not my problem, the bees and I know better.

  6. Oy! Well, I fear I am a total slob - I think it's genetic as my mother was even worse than I am. The thing is, it's not like being a slob makes me any less obsessed and self-critical about cleaning - it just makes it all the harder for things to be presentable.

    In terms of the vegetarian/vegan thing. I was a vegetarian for 20 years, but I finally gave it up for health reasons. I have very mixed feelings about the whole vegan movement. As an animal lover, I totally understand not wanting to contribute to the suffering of animals, on the other hand, there are no indigenous human cultures that eat a vegan diet. This tells me that humans are really not designed to be vegans, and judging by my own experience I have to say this rings true.

    The other thing that concerns me about the modern vegan movement, is that it seems to rely pretty heavily on soy and processed foods. I know there are some vegans out there who don't eat the packaged stuff, but I think it's difficult. I have to question if a diet high in processed foods isn't doing as much damage to the environment as the vegan part is helping - "robbing Peter to pay Paul" as the saying goes.

    Anyhow, I've landed in a place where I really try to listen to my body and give it what it needs. I cook pretty much everything from scratch and try to buy organic and cruelty free animal products (don't always succeed, but I try.) I eat much less meat than the typical American (only a few servings per week) but it's made a huge impact on my health so I can't see myself going back.

    1. Thank you so much for your input on the vegan diet! I agree that it has to be done mindfully, making sure it is indeed better for our health and the environment.

  7. All such individual things. I could not cope with exposed clutter and tidiness impresses visitors ahead of cleanliness. Obsessive concern by parents about germs and children not being exposed to them has come to be counter-productive with children often now having poor immune systems and many allergies.

  8. I am not a clean freak. Or a neat freak. A little more of both probably wouldn't go astray.
    I continue to declutter, and discard. And weed. And intermittently (why isn't mittently or gruntled a word?) I clean.
    This week, as respite from hospital visits I weakened and bought some bulbs for the garden. With little guilt.

    1. Let us know how the bulbs do! I am really liking my crocuses right now. :-)

  9. I think a house, a home,should have a welcoming lived in feel about it. Of course it is good to look at show homes and perhaps have your own home as a show home if that is what you want ... but the best house is one that is lived in and enjoyed by all. You can almost hear or feel the happy vibes coming from within ....

    Have a great week

    All the best Jan

    1. You make a good point Jan. Let's strive for balance: welcoming lived in feel AND uncluttered. :-)

  10. If I am having company I want them to feel welcomed without feeling like they can't eat without dropping a crumb or go potty and not mess up the towels or even bring their dogs with. We have a lived in home that is small and comfortable. I still am decluttering and have a few clothes that have to go, a few knick knacks that need to go but have a dead line coming up for it all with the church garage sale fast approaching. I did keep the bowls but gave away the extra cups and glasses to make room. I am having a bit of an issues getting rid of the last daycare toys. I don't have daycare any more but have some special toys I haven't parted with yet. No grandchildren in sight so really need to just do it. For the garage sale?
    Love reading your posts and have been working a bit on it all. Keep up the encouragement and inspiration.

    1. You seem like you are making progress on the decluttering front while maintaining a good balance! :-)

  11. I have to say that at home I have never been bothered about people coming by no matter what my house looks like - mostly because dust doesn't bother me but clutter does so I keep things clutter free all the time:)