I don't think I spend more time cleaning and organizing my home, but people often assume I do because it always looks pretty tidy. While it's hard to estimate exactly how long you spend cleaning, the advice below from me and my self-confessed tidy friends should help you cut down on housekeeping chores — or at least reduce the mental energy you spend.

In my mind, it's all about two things: 1. automatic habits and 2. efficiencies. There's a third aspect to consider: When you have to do more than a spot of cleaning, make it fun for yourself and your house members. (I save my favorite podcasts for cleaning time.)

When it comes to a tidy home, it helps to think about day-to-day chores and weekly or less-frequent cleaning, so I'll break up the advice into those two categories. Now, as you'll see, I'm not going to give you a list of what should be done every day vs. every week because that varies from household to household.

I've lived on my own, in a house with 10+ animals and my grandma, and with roommates and partners in old houses and apartments as well as brand-new construction. Each type of housing and situation has advantages, disadvantages and challenges, and each requires a different schedule. You probably already know about how often cleaning needs doing in your place — and it can depend on what you use to clean, too. (See Sarah Chandler's vacuuming advice below, which turns what is a weekly chore for many into a daily one for good reason.) So, consider the info below a guide, though there are some key pieces of advice that can benefit anyone, anytime.

woman with pony tail prepares to clean Clean smarter — but not harder — with these tips. (Photo: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

Day-to-day chores:

1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. One of my favorite old-fashioned expressions, this one goes for housecleaning as well as health. You can prevent some cleaning by:

  • taking shoes off at the door to cut down on dirt and toxins tracked in. (Most of my tidy friends mentioned this one as key.)
  • hanging up coats, keys, and bags in their designated spots when you walk into the house
  • putting clothes in the hamper (or away if they don't need washing) when you take them off
  • placing dishes directly in the dishwasher, not stacking them on the counter or in the sink first

2. Some of the above cleaning preventions are also part of one of the smartest housekeeping rules there is. If you can absorb one thing from this article, I hope it's this one: "O.H.I.O. = only handle it once," Amy Angelastro of Connecticut writes. I hadn't heard of this acronym, but I immediately knew what she meant. Why deal with something three times when you can deal with it once? "I apply this to mail — if it's junk or useless, put in recycle bin instead of accumulating on table; receipts go in recycle bin if there's no chance of returning something. I put in envelope if I think I'll need it," says Angelastro.

3. Once you get O.H.I.O. down, you can extend the idea to taking care of something now, not later: "I remind myself that if a task will take a minute or less, do it right now. Don't put it off. Picking clothes up off the floor, carrying in things that accumulate on the passenger seat of my car, etc." says Angelastro. "I clean the kitchen immediately after/during cooking," says Vibe Veda who runs a clean lifestyle store. Veda also cleans the tub after each use and keep things simple keeping "only one trash can under the sink in the kitchen, and nowhere else in the home," they say. A single can means garbage day is a lot easier and faster. Unless you're disabled or live in a huge home, having separate trash cans creates more work than it saves.

4. Small chunks of time make a big difference: "Spend 10 minutes every other day to tidy common areas" advises Angelastro. "Load the dishwasher and restack coasters one day. Sweep the floor and wipe kitchen and bathroom counter another day," she says. I do this at night before I go to bed; because it's an evening ritual, it actually gets me sleepy, and also I like waking up to a clean kitchen in the morning. My grandmother was the opposite; she did this every morning as part of her wake-up routine as she made coffee. It doesn't matter when you do it; just pick a time and take a few minutes each day to keep kitchens and bathrooms clean and organized and then you won't ever walk into a huge mess that feels daunting to have to clean up.

5. Make consistent rules to suit your life and tools: My partner vacuums once a week because it's just the two of us and a cat who doesn't shed much, and we live on one floor. But you might need to vacuum (or sweep) more often in certain very busy rooms of a home that get more traffic, and less in others. (In my former three-story home, I vacuumed the first floor twice a week but the upstairs floors only every 10 days or so.) Sarah Chandler, who lives in Brooklyn writes, "I have a cordless Dyson that sits in its charger in the closet. The battery only lasts about 12 minutes, so I do 5-10 minutes per day — if I wait all week to vacuum, not only am I living in filth, but there isn’t enough time on the battery to do the whole place!"

6. If you don't have a dishwasher, have a system: Dishes can be a daily, annoying challenge, but you can make it easier on yourself. "I don't have a dishwasher, so I keep a small tub with soapy water on one side of the sink. I put all of my dirty dishes in it, then when it comes time to wash, they're pretty much clean and just need a rinsing," writes Vanessa Harrison, who lives in New York. Even if you do have a dishwasher, there is stuff that gets sticky while cooking or is too big for one. Same rule applies: soak it! "I use something big (a pot, blender or large bowl) to put all the dirty utensils in," writes Washington-based Michelle Kailash Gage, who loves to cook with her new husband. "Not having dried food stuck on everything to clean off as well as having all of the dirties in the same spot somehow makes us both willing to just get it done."

The bigger chores

cleaning oven naturally A mixture of baking soda, vinegar and water can tackle burnt-on grease. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Larger chores might be bimonthly or seasonal, and will take more than the 10-minute sprints above. If you do the smaller stuff regularly, you house will generally look and feel clean, but you'll still need to think about window washing, dusting, cleaning the oven and/or microwave, and washing floors or rugs at some point. I tend to wait until things really need a clean (more often depending on the season and amount of use a room gets) but other people prefer schedules (like washing the floors or dusting every fifth Wednesday). My biggest piece of advice is to make it somehow fun and enjoyable. Maybe that's listening to your favorite podcasts, or blasting some great music as I do, or rewarding yourself with a treat or a glass of wine when you're finished.

7. Do it once, do it well: When I was growing up, I had a lot of chores assigned by my grandmother, who raised me. While I didn't love it at the time, many of my grandma's "old school" rules have followed me in life, including this one. When I was taught to vacuum, for instance, I was shown how to use the corner tool to get under and around furniture and plants after I vacuumed the main rugs and floor spaces. If there was a missed corner, I had to get the vacuum out and do it again, no excuses. So, don't go into cleaning with a lazy, negative attitude — it will ultimately just create more work. Do it right the first time.

8. Periodically review closets, cupboards and drawers. I regularly clean out drawers and hideaway spaces when I take a work-break (I work from home) or when I get restless while watching TV shows at night. Apparently, I'm not the only one: "Anything that is 'not in view' (I mean, anything that is in a drawer/cupboard, in a box, in a closet, etc.) I review at least once a year. At the same time, I clean that space — that closet, that cupboard. This avoids wasting semi-perishable items (some foods and other supplies), and speeds future clean-ups by reducing 'stuff accumulation' (instead of just dusting/cleaning AROUND all the stuff)," advises Canadian Adrien Larose.

9. Set limits. Maybe even set a timer. This can work well for kids or even recalcitrant roommates. It's amazing how much you can get done with two or three people working steadily for just 20 minutes. For instance, rather than saying "clean up your room," to a younger kid, set up a timer you can both see and say "I'm going to vacuum (or whatever) for 20 minutes and you can pick up all the clothes on the floor and put them away, put the toys away, etc. for the same amount of time." Setting a specific limit is motivating and focusing. "We limit all cleaning to one hour. So if it's the whole house (light clean) one dusts while the other follows with the vacuum and then one mops while the other cleans the bathroom. One hour - max!" says Kate Black, founder and publisher of the site MagnifECO.

10. If you're dealing with a lot of random clutter, that's a slightly different problem than cleaning. After all, one can have a clean, cluttered house, or a dirty, minimalist one — clutter and cleanliness don't automatically go hand-in-hand. For that one, the old maxim is still true: "A place for everything and everything in its place," writes Angelastro, and I couldn't agree more — everything has a "home" (mostly out of sight) in my house. And as Angelastro points out, "If I don't know where to put something, ask if I really need it."

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.