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How Do You Stay On Top of Household Chores?

By: Jen Shoop

One of my friends recently asked how I stay on top of household chores. Though my initial response was a cloudy “um, I don’t know? I just do it? Do I even have a system?”, I realized, over the course of our exchange, that I do have some fairly fine-tuned strategies for staying on top of household chores, and a lot of it has to do with grouping tasks at specific points of the day (or week) and doing them repetitively, religiously, such that it would feel strange not to do it.

The conversation was precipitated by her discovery that her older sister cleans the first floor of her house and makes all the beds every morning before leaving for work with a specific litmus in mind: “It should be clean enough that I could host a dinner party that evening after work and not need to do any additional tidying when I et home.” I thought that was an interesting, specific bar to set. My home is generally tidy, but there are about five discrete things I do before any guest sets foot in our home, and nearly all of them have to do with the clutter associated with small children. For example, we keep our dining chairs covered when the children are eating on them. We made the regrettable decision to buy upholstered linen Louis XIV chairs that the children have made quick work of destroying, and the coverings are the only way we prevent them from becoming fully saturated with berry stains, crusty yogurt, etc. (A Magpie reader, commiserating over this absurd purchase, commented: “I get it. I feel you. We have a rug under our kitchen table and there is only one question to ask for this design choice: Why?”). Anyhow, the towels over the “why” chairs in our dining room are an absolute eyesore. When I am feeling on top of things, I will remove them during the daytime, but usually, we just leave them on the chairs to prevent the Sisyphean cycle of removal and replacement at 2-3 mealtimes each day. So if guests are in approach, I will tear those off, clear the drying rack, shuttle all of the tiny toys that — despite our best efforts — find their way into our family room, shove shoes into the bench storage solution designated but rarely used as their home, etc.

But – I digress. Though our daily tidiness bar is a less impressive than my friend’s sister, it is maintainable and well-observed. My tactics are as follows:

+We make our bed first thing in the morning. A requirement for a clean slate to start the day. I do not make the children’s beds unless we are having guests. This is just one of those battles I’m not interested in tackling. I so rarely go in their rooms, the melee does not even register. Mini is almost of the age where it will become a part of her daily chores list (I had mentally dogeared “six years old” for this task), and at that point, I plan on pontificating about the benefits of starting the day with a clean room (“an organized house is an organized mind,” etc). But for now, I just say no and close the door. This is very unlike me, but everyone has a limit. Ha!

+Every day, we empty the dishwasher as soon as we descend to the first floor (we run it nightly after dinner) and clear anything we’ve left out to dry overnight (typically pots/pans stay out on the range to air-dry, and there are always miscellaneous implements).

+Once children are at school, I do a quick sweep to make the first floor tidy. This usually means putting away all breakfast clutter/dishes, wiping down the table, stowing the toaster in its cupboard, moving random discarded pajamas and socks up to the laundry bin, returning toys to their proper places. Having the house cleared of the breakfast madness makes me feel ready to tackle the day and makes after-dinner tidying much more manageable.

+We clear the drying rack during the dinner prep hour. Inevitably, it has accrued implements from lunchtime and dinner prep.

+I do laundry every Saturday morning — religiously and invariably. I will not otherwise run a load unless there’s an emergency of some kind. I then force myself to fold it all and put it away by Sunday evening. This is only true for garments belonging to Mr. Magpie and I, as our nanny handles the children’s clothing. If we did not have a nanny, I would probably do laundry Tuesday and Saturday and commit to everything being folded and put away by Wednesday/Sunday respectively. For some reason it is like mounting Everest to get myself to actually put the clothes away. I always look sadly at those baskets wishing they’d unload themselves, so I need the arbitrary deadline to lock me in.

+I launder the sheets every other Friday. This works well with our housekeepers, who blessedly come on Fridays — they will put fresh sheets on our bed and I will promptly launder and fold the spare set they’ve removed.

+I strive to keep counter papers to a minimum. My goal is to shred* or file every piece of paper that arrives in our house within a day, but sometimes, this stretches out to a week for various reasons, e.g., my children’s incessant flow of adorable artwork, which they love to show off and often ask to show to multiple members of the family. I feel like I need to keep these for a suitable amount of time before surreptitiously tossing them. (I do keep maybe 1/20th of the artwork that comes home, stowing it temporarily in my desk drawer, and then either chuck or keep in the large art storage bin in our attic.) I hate mail; the minute it arrives, I stand in front of the recycling bin tossing out all of the junk (90% of mail), and then place important items on my desk / Mr. Magpie’s desk. I also use clear folders to corral the mess of forms, permissions slips, receipts, etc into their appropriate categories. These really help me feel better about the flood of paper. Otherwise, that daunting pile just haunts me all week long! *If you do not have a shredder, I cannot recommend more. This one gets great reviews on Amazon. In Chicago, I had so many weird things happen to me and we discovered it was because someone was going through our garbage and selling the information.

+I go through my desk drawer once a month. This is my holding place for receipts, invoices, forms, art and notes from my children, and other miscellaneous important paperwork. I usually shred as much as possible but there always things to keep for taxes, in case of emergency, etc, and these I file in Bigso file storage boxes kept in my office closet.

+Back in New York, my girlfriend and I used to joke that once our children were asleep, we’d frantically race around apartments erasing every trace of them. This is a New York thing, but you have so little space that you need to reclaim it! I’ve remained in this headspace, though, even with a lot more room here in Bethesda. Every night, after the children are tucked into their beds, I clean the entire family room, even refolding the throws and rearranging the pillows. I make sure all toys are out of sight. I usually light a candle, restore order to the decorative tray with coffee table books/small objets, and move all children’s cups/water bottles into the dishwasher or onto the drying rack. It feels so good to have all of that put away before we can sit down to have a glass of wine or go through our “STPs” (Shoop Talking Points).

+Sometimes, I let clothes pile up in my closet or on the chair of my office over the course of a day or two, but this always feels like distracting background noise to me. One of my resolutions this year was to put my clothes away as soon as I am done with them. Sometimes that is not possible if I’m rushing out the door, but I do try to make sure all clothes are on hangers/folded in drawers ASAP.

+I keep two bags at the foot of my office closet: one for items to donate, and one for items to give to family members/loved ones. I try to proactively move items that are too small for the children into these bags as I observe they’ve outgrown them, but sometimes this happens in batches at the turn of a season. Having these bags ready facilitates the process considerably. I will stow anything I want to permanently keep in storage boxes in my children’s closets, but place other items here. Once the donate bag is full, I’ll take it to a local donation spot.

+Groceries — we keep a shared shopping list using the iPhone’s native “Reminders” function. Then, whoever is at the grocery will buy everything on the list. We aren’t particularly regimented about when we go to the grocery — to be honest, we’re there every other day or two — but that jives with our style of eating, which usually calls for herbs, veg, etc. that might not make it hanging out in the fridge for a full week.

+We also keep a shared “Costco” list and once it’s fairly full, we make a trip to stock up on the basics — you know, Bounty and Bonne Maman jam.

+STPs — this is one of the most useful habits we’ve instated as a family. Most nights, after the children are in bed, we sit down to quickly go over STPs (“Shoop Talking Points”). This is a great way of making sure we collectively stay on top of everything related to the house, its maintenance, organization, etc.

+Related to STPs — I think it is important to be clear and open about who will handle what, and under which circumstances. I have several close friends who handle the lion’s share of household admin with no recognition and no clear assignment of the role either, and have grown resentful of or frustrated with the arrangement. I always encourage them to have an open conversation with their partners: here are the things I am doing, would you be able to handle X or Y? Or can we take turns handling X?

Whew. I know there are other elements to running this house, and I will say Mr. Magpie handles a lot of the more substantive home care pieces, like HVAC, technology, gutters, yard, car, etc. But those are the top of mind activities.

How about you? What strategies keep your house in motion? How do you stay on top of household chores?


+On being seen.

+On being truly happy for friends.

+What secret talents do you have?

Shopping Break.

+All of my favorite household care gear.

+Thinking I need these white culottes.

+This sweater gives me La Ligne vibes.

+These heels are fab and remind me of Alexandre Birman. (Under $120.)

+Love these reasonably-priced colored glasses.

+Waiting for these to go on sale — such great colors this season.

+OO the wash of these jeans.

+Just love these silver metallic flats. They remind me of this angular Marni bag.

+FAB everyday dress for vacation. Throw on over a suit and go!

+This dress was so popular with you all — and sold out in the blue option; still avail in red. You’ll be happy you have this for Memorial Day / FOJ!

+Pretty new floral spring jammies.

+Proper Peony’s spring collection just launched and…swoon! swoon!

+This dress is spectacular.

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18 thoughts on “How Do You Stay On Top of Household Chores?

  1. I can’t tell if this comment will be helpful or frustrating, but here goes: our secret to managing household chores with two adults who work full time and a small child is to outsource as much as humanly possible. Our nanny does the dishes everyday during our son’s nap, our Saturday night babysitter does the Friday night/Saturday dishes and folds the entire house’s laundry while watching TV and the baby monitor, our cleaning service comes every Friday and washes and dries the sheets and puts fresh ones on the bed. The grandparents come visit the baby every day in the afternoon for an hour and during this time our nanny straightens up all of his toys and does a toy and book rotation to keep things fresh for the next day. All of this means that my husband and I rarely do any chores at all and can spend all of our time devoted to our child, ourselves and our work. I realize this is a privileged position and that not everyone can afford to outsource but I share for a few reasons:

    1) Realize that if you can’t keep up, most of the people who seem to have it all together have an entire cadre of household help behind the scenes. Do not expect to be able to do it all yourself, it’s IMPOSSIBLE. Give yourself grace!

    2) Find ways to make hired help do double duty. Can you hire a babysitter to come after the kids are asleep so you can go out to dinner and get a date night in? If you pay that person a little more (usually $5 an hour more) can they also fold the laundry for you? Can they run the vacuum? We find that by having our sitters do very little actual childcare (sleeping child!), we can have them do more housework which means weekends actually feel like a BREAK. If you have a nanny and have a child that naps or goes to school, they also may be willing to do some things around the house to help if you pay them just marginally more. Mother’s helpers are also great for things like this – a neighborhood junior high school student may love to come make $10-15 an hour by loading your dishwasher and folding some laundry while you and your husband watch a show or take the kids to the park!

    3) Get a robot vacuum that mops. Seriously, The best investment. On that theme, automate AS much as possible. Use the hell out of subscribe and save. We have everything possible on subscription (foil, ziploc bags, snacks for our son, vitamins, diapers, wipes, shampoo, face wash, razors, toilet paper et al et al). It takes time to set up but is magical in terms of freeing up headspace that previously was occupied by: “we are out of…”.

    1. Thank you for these practical tips – I wouldn’t have thought to ask the sitter to help with aspects of household upkeep! I especially appreciate your comment: “Realize that if you can’t keep up, most of the people who seem to have it all together have an entire cadre of household help behind the scenes. Do not expect to be able to do it all yourself, it’s IMPOSSIBLE. Give yourself grace!” It’s so, so true.

      Thanks, Serena!


  2. I am in the minority here since I am single, childfree and live with my parents (yes I am in my mid-30s). I help but am not in charge of maintaining the house. By moving home, I was able to remove a significant amount of stress to focus on myself, saving for down payment, travel, retirement, etc. Here is my ‘system’ and where I get help.

    I make my bed every morning but not until after I am ready since I do my makeup in bed while watching a show each morning.

    I had Ikea PAX cabinets installed in lieu of dressers and the concealed storage is key! This also means the only flat surfaces in my space are my nightstand and bed. Clear surfaces are one of my love languages. I keep a. box for any mail that I don’t sort/shred/address immediately inside my cabinet. When it is full, I make sure to go through it. I’ve found that having spatial boundaries works well for me. Once an allocated space is full or disorganized, I need to address it, declutter, organize, etc. I also have a small file cabinet in my closet for storing important papers like taxes, medical records, etc.

    We wash our sheets on Thursdays because that is when our cleaners come. First thing, we wake up and strip our beds and begin the sheet/towel laundry. My mom does laundry almost daily so I rarely have to do it but when I lived alone, I typically did laundry 1x weekly. We also hang dry everything except sheets and towels. We installed a tension rod across the laundry room. Each person also takes all empty hangers from the clothing we wear that day and puts them in the laundry room so when it is laundry time, we don’t scour the house looking for loose hangers.

    Dishes go in the dishwasher after use and we run overnight unless it is practically empty. Dad unloads the dishwasher in the mornings.

    A big thing is if you use something, you put it away immediately after use. This is easier when the youngest person in the household is in his/her 30’s and both ‘grownups’ are retired and have cleaning service, lawn service and have been in the same house for almost 40 years. They have their maintenance contacts and schedule well regimented.

    I automate as much as possible and digitize as much as possible. I also add everything to my calendar (google) and color code. Time blocking and scheduling tasks, even ones like make doctor appointment, helps keep me accountable. At the beginning of the year, I make a list of all medical appointments I need for the year so I can tell if I am getting off track. Regarding prescriptions, I joined the CVS care pass ($48/year) and get all prescriptions delivered for free. Saves so much time not needing to go to the pharmacy! I can add any shopping items needed and they’ll be delivered together.

    Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts if you got this far. I am proud of all the Magpies who manage SO much. Remember when a 40-hour week was created, it was under the assumption that there was someone (likely the wife) at home full time to manage the home. If you are struggling to manage everything, the American work/life balance is unrealistic.

    1. Hi Melinda! I love these tactics and especially the way they graft onto your sense of self/how you know you operate. For example, the note about “having spatial boundaries.” I am totally this way — sometimes, I just need to corral all the miscellany strewn over our kitchen counter in one corner and I immediately feel better. Going to see if I can further operationalize this insight, per your note!

      Also – your note about being “proud of all the Magpies who manage so much” was so lovely. Reading through these notes was such a reminder that we are all doing SO MUCH all the time! Thanks for the sweet note.


  3. This is helpful – I love hearing how others do these things. I am always streamlining and refininig our household chores/daily tasks. Two things –

    1. I am interested to hear a perspective from two spouses working outside of the home. When I WFH (I do a hybrid), it’s easier to do many of the tasks you mention, but I find it incredibly hard when both my husband and I go into the office. I am always rushing in the morning and then my nightly commute makes me want to lay on the couch for 30 minutes when I get home, ha (no kids yet). Perhaps you have a girlfriend or family who would be willing to share?
    2. I cannot reinforce your last point enough about clearly defining roles. My husband and I do this 1-2 times a year. Like literally we outline all of our daily, weekly, and monthly tasks and put our initials by it if that’s something we own currently or would like to in the future. It is SO helpful. It avoids 98% of conflicts about these tasks. Conflicts do still arise, but we are much more equipped to tackle them. We also have recognized that I’m a “holder of more things/information” versus my husband. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the laundry being put away it just doesn’t bother him the way it does for me. So that helps me a lot when we are discussing these matters.

    1. Hoping some Magpies come out of the woodwork to answer the question about two spouses working outside the home! I don’t have any good insight there!

      I love the idea of formally role-defining 1-2x a year! So smart.


      1. I am half of a couple that works outside the home most days of the week. My strategies include allowing my child two shows when we get home to give myself some space to unload and wash lunchboxes, prep dinner. (I figure the poor kid also needs her own time to unwind after a too-long day.) When she is finally in bed I am usually dead on my feet so I give myself an hour or so to unwind. After that, I almost always do an evening sweep downstairs at around 9PM so that the house looks put together. If my husband joins me, I call this a “lightning round cleanup.” If it’s just me, I try to make it relaxing by turning on a podcast or nice music. But in any event, lots of heavy lifting has to happen on the weekends to keep the house in shape.

        1. Hi! I have to write that I SO appreciated this note. I skimmed it while totally run down after a CRAZY day, hurrying to make dinner and pack lunches, the other night, and I read it out loud to my husband, and we said: “You know what? We’re going to go easy on ourselves tonight.” We let the kids watch the iPad while they ate dinner, something we don’t usually permit, but your note came like a hug: “My strategies include allowing my child two shows when we get home to give myself some space.” Yes! Just what I needed that day. Thank you!!


  4. When I went to college my mother advised me to choose one day a week that would always be sheet laundering day. I chose Mondays and have been a religious practitioner of “Clean Sheet Monday” for ten years now. Every Monday morning I groan about it then every Monday night I am elated. Mondays are the pits so the extra work doesn’t seem that much worse than the rest of the grind, haha then the reward is SO APPRECIATED. The perfect finale/antidote to the Monday blues.

    Clean Sheet Monday aside, I sometimes find myself clenching my teeth thinking of when my household includes children. I honestly can’t imagine doing it without help (house cleaner, etc) which makes me wonder, is the real hack just having enough money to outsource what you can? I can manage my own household easily now but children chaos is just so. much. work. whether you’re doing it all yourself, have a supportive partner or get weekly house cleaning. I think this is just a neutral fact and there’s no better/worse analysis but something I ponder when future-planning and considering what kind of mother/wife/female I want to be.

    1. I agree — a designated laundry day is the way to go. Otherwise, it’d just loom and loom and you’d put it off and feel vaguely guilty at all times. This way, I don’t even think about it until Saturday morning!

      My husband and I handled the cleaning of our NYC apartments even with children (with the exception of a handful of thorough cleans each year by a cleaning service) because I felt like, “If I can’t keep this small space clean…!” I don’t know — I look back and wonder why I didn’t outsource it given that we could have afforded it. Could I have used that time to spend with my children? Read? Work? On the flipside, I was determined in a weird way that my children would see that nothing was beneath us/them? I’m not sure. I don’t have great answers there, either, and of course the conversation invokes a conversation about privilege. A tricky subject.



  5. Oh, man. My answer would be “I don’t.” I try really hard though! I do have some things on a schedule, I wash sheets and towels every Sunday, and mine and the girls’ clothes on Monday (the last few weeks I have also folded and put away the clothes ON MONDAY and feel I should be lauded for this accomplishment). I have a reminder to mop the floor on Monday during my toddler’s rest time…but this usually only happens about once a month in reality. And I run around the house emptying all the trash cans on Tuesdays so it can go out to the curb weds morning. We make our bed every day and have started asking our 5yo to make hers, too. I try to vacuum/swiffer the main floor every Friday and/or Monday (our living room rug is constantly shedding, ughhhh). We have the kids tidy their toys every evening before bed (like pulling teeth) and I empty the drying rack while I make dinner. But clearly I need more systems in place! We are constantly overrun with papers! And I feel simultaneously behind on housework and overworked/exhausted by housework. I’m the stay at home parent so almost all the housework falls to me and hiring a cleaning person isn’t in the budget. It’s the age-old question of how to balance quality time with my babies and keeping the house from being a disaster. And finding time to do some things for me, too (working out, reading, etc). It’s especially hard this week, as we’ve got a cold running through the house and I’ve been too wiped out to do more than the bare minimum, plus the toddler is home sick from school. I still feel like the dusty surfaces and sticky floors are judging me! Does one ever make peace with the enormity of the task and our own limitations?

    1. Oh my gosh, Stephanie – I actually think you sound very on top of things! Very calendar/event-driven. I think every mom is in the same boat, though – there is always something I could be better at staying on top of. My children’s rooms are pits. I’ve tried lots of tactics but at the end of the day, have just made peace with closing the door. Haha! Maybe there are things like that — shove the paper chaos into one contained bin. But honestly, you sound like you are rocking it out!! It’s a lot!


  6. I am also a devote bed-maker, but a good tip I learned that I religiously adhere to is not making the bed immediately after you get out of it because the sheets need to cool down first. And maybe I was warmer than expected during the night, they might even be a little damp. So I peel back the sheets and let them cool down/dry out for about an hour while I do my morning routine (exercise, shower, etc) then make the bed at the same time I get dressed. Just helps keep it fresher longer!

    Also, because the laundry room is in the basement of my building next to the trash/recycling room, I always bring down whatever is in my recycling bin whenever I go down to change the laundry to save myself an elevator trip.

  7. Hi! Just wanted to leave a recommendation for these chair covers: https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/B07XR1PRXF/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&th=1

    They come in lots of colors and blend in much better than using a towel, and they are machine washable! We keep two on our kids’ chairs and trade them out to wash every few days (and as needed). They obviously don’t look as nice as our chairs without, but we color matched and from a distance you can hardly tell they’re on. Strongly recommend!

    1. OMG! That is so clever! I had temporarily used like a plastic type cover but my daughter REFUSED TO SIT ON IT. I get it. Not the most comfortable. But this looks genius! Thank you!


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