Most housecleaning and design guides are aspirational, offering gorgeous photos of impractically perfect living spaces that fail to account for how real humans could actually, oh, live there. Within this universe, messes either don’t exist or are portrayed as a mental or moral failure. Advice can range from demoralizing to infuriating: who besides the Really Bored Wives of Wall Street could glean anything useful from platitudes about how all you need to achieve domestic tranquility is motivation, a daily bouquet of luxe Calla lilies, and a $16,857 closet renovation?
Luckily, there’s now a book for the rest of us. With Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess, Rachel Hoffman bursts into the genre like a cursing, #realtalk-spewing big sister determined to help us get our acts together. UfYH is a rehab manual for anyone taught to feel like our clutter defines us. It’s for anyone who breaks out in a cold sweat at the thought of a surprise houseguest. Who was raised by hoarders, or by fastidious parents who punished anything less than perfection. Who’s tried to tame our disaster areas only to fall off the wagon … again.
Blending compassion with realistic strategies for change, UfYH aims to convince readers to identify with the book’s subtitle: to believe we really are better than our messes. While the book concludes with handy resources and instructions, Hoffman’s biggest accomplishment may be in helping readers overcome shame, perfectionism, or feeling overwhelmed to the point of impotence. Below, she talks with Jennifer L. Pozner, media critic and self-described queen of clutter, about the difference between reasons and excuses, media-manufactured myths about gender and housework, and how messy people can get unstuck.
JENNIFER L. POZNER: Unf*ck Your Habitat reads like an antidote to picture-perfect shelter magazines, Instagram feeds, and decor blogs where no one ever leaves their clothes on the floor, a mere eight dishes and bowls are always pristinely organized in airy open shelving, and nothing as banal as a kitty-litter box dares to exist. While paring down is usually useful advice, the cult of minimalism advanced by design media often ignores economic realities for low-income people (who can’t afford to chuck things they may need later), time struggles for women (who shoulder a heavier share of child, elder, and home care), and immigrants and refugees (who may feel more attached to their stuff because it reminds them of home, or because they had to leave so much behind). Where does UfYH fall in the great minimalism debate?
RACHEL HOFFMAN: I don’t want to say I’m anti-minimalism, but it should be looked at with a fair amount of caution. If you’re on a quest to live with as few possessions as possible, I’m not sure that’s any healthier than surrounding yourself with lots and lots of things and constantly feeling like you have to acquire more. It’s two sides of the same coin. The healthiest path probably lies somewhere in the middle. A lot of these design blogs and IG posts ignore the reality of what it is to live life, especially an American life. There’s a certain amount of stuff that goes along with life these days. Some people really do benefit from having very few possessions on hand, but for most it’s very difficult to live this way. I look at these IG pictures and I’m like, “Have these people ever been to Costco? Where are your 24 rolls of paper towels?”
If you have a big family, minimalism is not achievable. You can certainly pare down, but it should be about finding a balance: “This is what I need or want in order to live my life, how can I incorporate that without my stuff taking over?” There’s a limit to how much effort you should be expending. I’d much rather see people have a healthier relationship with the stuff they do have, because if you’re still putting too much focus on getting rid of most of what have, you’re not really enjoying your life.
The most famous book in this genre, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, pisses me off because author Marie Kondo equates minimalism with an almost holy superiority, and her anecdotes about throwing loved ones' things away without permission are abusive. So, as an in-joke to myself, I took it from a clothing swap to use as a doorstop that only “sparks joy” by making me laugh. Does that make me a bad “Unfucker”?
I don’t think so. If there were one system that worked for everybody, nobody would ever write another book like this. There are people that system really spoke to; it’s an all-or-nothing approach. For me, taking everything out of my closet means in 30 minutes I’ll be on my bedroom floor sobbing, “What did I get myself into?” What works for one person isn’t necessarily relevant for someone else, especially if the system is rigid and doesn’t allow for flexibility. The minimalism and holiness thing is a lot like the old “cleanliness is next to godliness.” We’re putting a lot of moral judgment on the state of our homes. Messiness is not a moral failing; it’s just a character trait that you can change. You can improve. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
People who are precious about profanity may consider UfYH crass, but I found it deeply empathetic. Unlike far too many household instruction guides, you meet messy people where we are. Talk to me about why you spent the first 50 pages on the psychology of messiness instead of nitty-gritty how-tos.
When you’re looking at how to overcome messiness, a lot of focus is placed on the how-to: how to clean a bathroom, how to organize your cabinets, do your laundry. But it’s important to understand the why? behind it all. Why do you have trouble staying organized? Why do you have difficulty accomplishing certain tasks? That hasn’t been explored much in guides out there now, but it’s such a big component. If you can figure out where your challenge is, you can devise a strategy to get past that to a place where you can start actually cleaning your bathroom. A lot of times we just say, “Well, my house is a disaster so I’m a messy person,” or, “I’m lazy.” That’s doing a lot of people a disservice.
Your first chapter is titled, “Nice Ass, Now Get Off Of It.” Tough love, but necessary for someone like me where housework is concerned (if “ass sitting” was a sport, I’d have lettered in college). My boyfriend and I just moved and UfYH tips, such as cleaning off the counter in the three minutes it takes to nuke a bowl of soup, are already helping us maintain our new place. But it’ll take months to clear out my old apartment, because I never had a chance to set up any kind of organizational system eight years ago when I moved in while finishing a book on deadline. It feels like UfYH tips are for apartments less Def Con Mess than mine, homes less far-gone. Yet I know that you didn’t write this book just for folks who feel like they already have things under control. So, where should the cluttered masses yearning to breathe fresh air — rather than the stank of three-foot piles of laundry, musty old books, sinks full of dirty dishes — start first? When we’re so overwhelmed that the thought of ever really conquering the mess feels Herculean, how can we begin to see success?
We tend to look at the whole project; the entire disaster of the apartment, or the house that’s trashed from roof to floor. My approach is to focus on smaller chunks of time that you can invest, and learn to look at the project in much smaller stages. When people say they feel buried in their mess, I tell them to start with the things that have potential to smell bad: laundry, dirty dishes, obvious trash. That will free up a little space, and make everything feel more clean and sanitary. From there, I’m a huge proponent of timers: the UfYH 20/10 system (20 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break) forces you to break up the whole overwhelming, daunting process. In 20 minutes you may not feel like you’ve made a ton of process, but I can guarantee you’ve made some. You can do as many 20/10s as you have time for — just one, or all day long — as long as you remember to take breaks. Instead of saying, “I barely made a dent in this giant mess,” focus on smaller successes: “Today I cleared all the stuff off the couch, I can see the surface of one end table and two square feet of floor.”
Wherever you are in the process, whether you’re starting fresh or even if you’re at hoarder level, reframe your thinking about cleaning. It doesn’t seem like much, but celebrating small victories is really important, and more useful than focusing on everything that’s left to go.
Why is standard “marathon cleaning” detrimental, and why is two-thirds effort-to-reward more effective?
With marathon cleaning, you do everything top-to-bottom all at once. Your home is clean for 12 hours, maybe a day if you’re lucky, before the mess starts accumulating. You leave it alone, save it up, and things get progressively worse until the next time you spend all day cleaning, top to bottom, again. It’s exhausting, you’ve got a million things you’d rather be doing, and you have to live in [chaos] until your next marathon. Most people have a very negative association when they think about cleaning, like, “Oh my god, it’s such a time investment, it makes me tired, and now I’m angry because I have to spend my limited time off from work or school on this thing I hate doing, and it eats up my whole day, or weekend, or life!”
If you’re doing a little bit every day instead, it’s not the most fun part of your day, sure, but it’s over in 20 mins, or an hour if you’ve done two 20/10s, and then you can move on. It’s not this huge undertaking that you’re dreading. You’re resetting your home back to a semblance of clean by putting clothes away, clearing off flat surfaces regularly: it’s a gift to your future self.
I can’t remember reading another housekeeping expert acknowledging that people with physical or mental disabilities are not just “making excuses” for not cleaning as vigorously or regularly as others. You state straight away that “[i]t’s not about being lazy; it’s about not being able to accomplish […] impossible tasks because of factors that are entirely beyond your control.” What’s the difference between “excuses” and “reasons,” and in practical terms, how can people with capacity challenges still unfuck their homes?
Reasons are things like chronic illness, mobility issues, anything that limits how much effort you can reasonably expend at any given time. There are legitimate reasons why some people can’t follow traditional housekeeping systems. A reason: “I’m having a pain day today, and I can’t stand for more than 10 minutes.” An excuse: “I’d rather be doing X, Y, Z. I don’t want to, I’ll just have to do it again. I’m a perfectionist.” There’s a difference! People with physical or mental health challenges have been told for a long time that they’re lazy, they’re making excuses, that they should be able to do what everyone else does exactly how everyone else does it. I don’t think I’ve seen it really acknowledged before [in the genre] that people have varying levels of ability, and energy, and there are times when you just legitimately cannot do it.
We need to be less hard on ourselves [if we’re working within these constraints]. Rather than getting stuck thinking there’s something wrong with you — because there’s not — we should be able to say, “This is my reality, these are some ways I can work within that reality.” We also need to show more compassion for people living in messy situations who may have reasons why things get difficult.
Can you suggest some strategies for readers with, for example, mobility challenges or depression?
It’s all about making modifications. For example, if you can’t stand at a sink, one UfYH contributor set up a dishwashing station seated at her table with dishpans to do her dishes a little at a time. You can fold your laundry seated, though you might have to wait a while to put it away. Long item-grabbers can be very useful in nontraditional ways, like taking clothes off the floor or out of the dryer while you’re sitting down. As for depression: There are days when getting out of bed and taking a shower is like an insurmountable obstacle. For times like that, just keep it very, very small. If you’re in bed or on the couch, look at the surface nearest to you, whether it’s your nightstand, your coffee table, and just clear that one thing off. When you’re finally out of the depressive cycle, you can look at this one thing to give you a little bit of hope that you can keep going. “I did this when I felt terrible, so it’s something to be proud of and I can continue doing more.”
The housekeeping advice genre is marketed primarily to women, but you’re writing for men as well — and you have strong feelings about the gendered nature of homemaking. What should our male readers understand about the insidious (and political) nature of learned helplessness, or assumptions about who has and doesn’t have “natural talent” for cleaning and maintaining homes?
Most of our assumptions about cleaning are faulty and damaging. Learned helplessness is reinforced in so much media. We see commercials and TV shows and movies where the man doesn’t know what to do in the home, it isn’t “his job,” he tries to clean the kitchen and everything explodes, the kids are running around covered in whatever. That’s garbage. There’s no innate ability attached to gender that allows us to know how to clean. We assume men aren’t good at doing laundry, but we also have all these related assumptions that men are good at machines, and problem solving, and organization. Those are all things that go into doing laundry! So men can excel at all these components of household work, but not the work itself? Today we have so many resources — YouTube, Google. There’s no excuse anymore for “I don’t know how.” In a lot of relationships, there’s this implicit “If I don’t do it well once, I won’t be asked to do it again,” and that’s a whole bunch of bullshit.
I’ve struggled with messy tendencies throughout my life, largely because I grew up with a hoarder mother, and a control-freak father who regularly burned every toy, book, and item of clothing I owned down our building’s incinerator chute as punishment if I left anything out of place. How can people interrupt poor patterns ingrained since childhood? Alternately, how can parents help their kids develop healthy housework habits?
A lot of people have experienced cleaning as a punishment for misbehavior, or were punished for not cleaning well or often enough [which leads to] negative associations with cleaning. It starts with modeling behavior. The example you set will impact how your children will interact with cleaning for the rest of their lives. Make it a regular, normal expectation, just part of the household. They learn by repetition. Start early. Set a neutral association, and understand that they won’t work to an adult’s standards of cleanliness. They won’t do things very well right away. A lot of parents have trouble with that.
If someone grew up in a hoarding household, or was berated for not cleaning well enough, it takes work but it’s not impossible to get past that. It can be done. Reclaim your own space. In childhood, you’re not in control. As an adult, work on asking, “This is my room/house/apartment/dorm, I want to be comfortable in it, how can I make that happen?” Try to see cleaning from another perspective: rather than what was imposed on you from a parent or authority figure, reframe it as a gift you want to give to yourself.
After I wrote a book about reality TV as backlash to gender and racial justice, strangers wanted to confess their favorite shows, as if I could give them absolution for watching The Bachelor. Do people tell you secrets about the way they live? If so, what are your takeaways?
Back when UfYH was a Tumblr blog, people submitted before-and-after photos. It was the first time people were seeing real homes that weren’t Instagram pics or design blogs where everything looked perfect. It opened everybody’s eyes to the idea that, wow, there are a lot more people like us than there are living in these beautiful, pristine homes. So many things come up that people think are so shameful but, honestly, I’ll get 10 of that same question, whether it’s “I haven’t washed my dishes in six months, where do I start, do I just throw it all out?” or “I have bugs!” or “I’m buried under three feet of garbage and I don’t know how to start digging out.” There’s a lot of commonality.
I’ve heard just about everything. Every possible story. Some are disturbing or tragic, but from some of those have come some of the best success stories. From completely unwinnable situations they thought would literally kill them, people changed their habits a little at a time and eventually they made huge progress. It makes me so happy and proud to see how far they’ve come, saying anonymously or in an UfYH Facebook group, “Hey, this is how bad it was, but look! There’s hope! I did this, so you can do this. We can all do this.” The things so many people think are so unusual and so shameful are really universal. Being able to help people understand they’re not alone, that’s the most important part of what I do. Letting people know there is hope.
Jennifer L. Pozner, author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, unpacked three boxes, organized her medicine cabinet, and cleaned her kitchen counter while editing this piece. Her next book will be about media complicity in Donald Trump’s rise to power, and journalism in times of authoritarianism.