Unf*ck Your Habitat Got Me To Finally Start Cleaning My House

My office is a mess. So are many areas of my house, to be honest. I don't like cleaning, so I tend not to bother with cleaning books. Even if they motivate me to clean, everything gets dirty again and, well, what's the point? But then I met Unf*ck Your Habitat.

There are no weekend-long decluttering purges in Unf*ck Your Habitat, no pulling all your clothes out of your closet and having a good hard think about each item. Instead, the book is geared to get you moving right away.

Somewhere in the first few chapters, the book had a mini-challenge: Take a "before" picture of the nearest flat surface, then pick up five items. Well, I could do that. Later in the chapter, after making the case for tackling work in 20-minute bites, there was a challenge to spend 20 minutes on that same surface. Fine, I thought. I'll play this game once.

Twenty minutes later, my desk was cleaner than I'd ever seen it -- and I had enough extra time to rearrange things on a nearby bookshelf. The job was short and self-contained enough that I didn't have time to get overwhelmed. And now I was done for the day. This, I thought, I can live with.

Who This Book Is For

Unf*ck Your Habitat is for people who are overwhelmed with their mess, whether it's a little or a lot. And if it is a lot, that's totally OK. No need to pretend you've scrubbed your floors... ever.

On the other hand, if you're already a neat person but want to reach some next-level minimalism, this isn't the book for you. Instead, head over to The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Author Rachel Hoffman understands that her audience includes people with all kinds of reasons for being overwhelmed. Besides just being a busy human being, you might be struggling with depression or with a physical disability that makes it hard to find the energy to clean, or you may have emotional issues stemming from, say, being the child of a hoarder.

While the book is super inclusive, she takes the focus off of the traditional homemaker role that many cleaning books and systems have in mind. Kids get two pages in Unf*ck Your Habitat, but dorm room living gets a whole chapter.

What You'll Get

Much of this book's value is its tone of pep talking you into tackling your mess in bite size pieces, and keeping up the good work even when the things you cleaned betray you by -- horrors -- getting dirty again.

Hoffman doesn't include many details on the mechanics of cleaning, and points out that you can google that stuff yourself. Instead, she gives a big picture overview of how to get a living space into some semblance of order, and maintain it that way. It's more about managing your time and your attitude than learning the chemistry of cleaning products or a specific way to sort knick-knacks.

Here's the chapter breakdown:

  1. Getting Started: This section addresses all the mental blocks that might be in the way of getting off your butt and beginning to make a dent in your mess. It also introduces the "20/10" system: 20 minutes of cleaning, followed by a 10 minute break. The break is not optional, which seems shockingly wasteful at first -- but the idea is to stop you from going on cleaning benders that leave you loath to ever clean a thing again.
  2. Unf*cking Your Own Habitat: This section gives the basics on the most important things to clean (anything that could smell gets priority, followed by tables and countertops) and includes tips on organising and on building habits.
  3. Troubleshooting: Dealing With Other People in Your F*cked-Up Space: Here comes the human element -- how to deal with your messy roommate, and how to give or accept help.
  4. Special Cases: This features two excellent walkthroughs -- one for emergency cleaning when company is coming, and one for how to tackle a move. It also includes chapters on cleaning up your digital life, and on applying the book's principles to tackling mountains of work or schoolwork.
  5. Conclusion: The best part of this section is the chapter of Unf*ck Your Habitat fundamentals, which might have worked better if it came earlier in the book -- but whatever, here it is.
  6. Appendices: This section of resources includes a bunch of checklists for what to do daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally, as well as room-by-room lists to give you a road map when you see a messy bathroom, say, and don't know where to start.

After you've devoured the book, don't forget to check out the Unf*ck Your Habitat tumblr, which inspired the book. You'll find an advice column, a series of challenges and a bunch of before and after pictures that people have sent in. Hoffman encourages taking a lot of pictures to document your progress.

One Tip You'll Take Away

Besides structuring your work into 20-minute chunks of time, the most valuable tips in this book relate to maintaining cleanliness on a daily basis.

The pithiest of these: Put things away, not down. As soon as I read this, I realised I am an inveterate put-downer. Why shelve a book if I can just set it down on this table here? Why file papers if I can just put them on top of that book? Before long, this habit leads to... well, to the exact situation in my kitchen that took me three 20/10s to unf*ck last week.

But with the new rule, it's been surprisingly easy to keep surfaces clean after their initial decluttering. I'm a big fan of a list from the tumblr that didn't make it into the book: Things You Think Take Forever But Really Take Less Than a Minute. For example: Putting rubbish in the bin instead of leaving it on the counter.

Our Take

Unf*ck Your Habitat is the perfect housekeeping guide for somebody who is overwhelmed with their mess and can't figure out how to start -- or somebody who is always starting marathon cleaning projects only to watch everything go to hell again.

My biggest gripe about the book is just that I wish there was more of it: Guidance on dealing with kids, on yard work, on the mess in your car, on how to budget your time when you're not done decluttering but need to start maintaining the things you've already cleaned. I can't fault the stuff that is there. And as a solid member of its target audience who gave the whole system a try for a few weeks -- I believe.

This is part of Lifehacker's book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we've decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life's most important topics.


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