April 18, 2023

Ep. 85c – Dr. Christine Koh – Cleaning House Without Messing Up Family

Today’s question is probably one of the core causes of stress in young families; ‘How to manage the household mess!’

In the episode, Dr. Koh explores… how to make cleaning into a game.
How to compromise some of our standards so we can cohabit more peacefully.
Finding our own special space where we can have ‘cleanliness control’.
And supporting each other through the relentless task of tidying a home.

Episode Guest

Christine Koh

Dr. Christine Koh is a Harvard-trained brain scientist turned multimedia creative and entrepreneur on a mission to help people edit the unnecessary from their life.

She’s the director of Women Online (a communications firm that specializes in using social media for good), founder and editor of lifestyle blog Boston Mamas, host of the Edit Your Life Show podcast, co-author of Minimalist Parenting (a book to help parents enjoy family life more by doing less), and designer for Brave New World Designs (a stylish, advocacy-oriented design collection).

Her writing is featured in The New York Times, Redbook, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, Woman’s Day, and more. She creates content and models with her own life and practices the art of living healthier, happier, and with elevated purpose and intention.

And she is the proud parent of two lovely daughters.

Additional Resources:


Ep. 85c – Dr. Christine Koh – Cleaning House Without Messing Up Family

Rachel Cram – Christine, thanks for being back for this last question. I’m really enjoying hearing your answers.

Dr. Christine Koh – Oh, thank you for having me. Your listeners are the best. The questions are wonderful.

RC – They are so good, aren’t they? I know people are writing in more and more detail. I really appreciate that. And a lot of these questions, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m choosing this question because I want to know the answer for myself.”

CK – Yeah, absolutely.

RC – Okay, here’s this week’s question. The listener writes, “My partner and I have been together for six years. We’ve been very relaxed about housekeeping procedures and standards. In general I would say our house has been clean, but not tidy. Last year we adopted twin three-year-olds who we adore.

(And I just want to say, wow, two kids at once from none is a big step and so exciting.)

They are full of energy and emotions and we are figuring those parts out of our parenting pretty well. The part we’re not figuring out well is house cleaning. The state of our home with regards to who is doing what and clutter is stressing us both out and creating a lot of tension between us. We both listened to this episode with Dr. Christine Koh, and we’re hoping she has some life edits on how to keep a house tidy. We found her podcast and we’re going to start listening.”

(which is great because I know you have quite a few episodes on this.)

“Rachel, (they’re asking me this,) can you ask her if she has a summary from all her years on this to help us right now?”

And they’ve got like three question marks and a bazillion exclamation marks after that.

CK – They need the code to be cracked. Yes.

RC – Yes. They say, “We need help right now.”

So I think this listener is saying we will listen to her podcast, but can you give us the Coles notes in this moment?


CK – Well, first of all, what an extraordinary gift of adopting twins. That’s incredible. And congratulations to your family. That’s huge. It does sound chaotic and overflowing both from a clutter and emotional perspective because three year olds are a lot.

RC – And going into kids is a lot. I just remember for my husband and I, when we had no kids it took a while to figure out how to keep our house organized. And then when you have kids, well, now you are short on sleep and time to connect and talk and time to do your own thing. So, keeping a home in order, it is a lot. It’s a lot.

CK – It’s a lot. And so the first baseline thing to remember is that these sweet, adorable little cute children are also naturally egocentric at this time of life. And they don’t really care at all about your need for ordering and clutter management. I am being a little facetious and also not because I think that one thing that I have wrestled with personally, I don’t need things to be like neat as a pin all the time. But I do feel calmer. And I realized at one point I actually felt offended and disrespected when things were messy. And I soon realized that I was having that battle with nobody else except myself.

RC – No one else was struggling with the mess?

CK – Nobody else had that priority. It was just we were all totally different. Everybody’s threshold for clutter and dealing with that was very different in my house. Actually related to one of our other short form episodes, Rachel, that you and I did. I think that with three year olds, this would be a perfect time to turn ‘everybody clean up’ type of activities into games.

RC – Oh yeah. So good. We do this all the time in our Wind and Tide preschool programs and it works like a charm, largely because when the adults join in and make cleaning up a positive and connecting experience, it can be fun. And you might as well make it fun because it has to be done. So, what would turning ‘everybody clean’ up into a game look like?

CK – So what I’m envisioning because these years are both far away and also 100% memorable, I’m imagining you get to the end of the day and I mean, by the end of the day, like 7:30 or 8, when you’ve finally gotten your kids, your two adorable three year olds to bed, you’re finally sitting down and looking at your partner for the first time square in the face all day. You might be eating something that is not dino nugget leftovers and mac and cheese. I mean, I’m sure your listeners are, like, nodding, thinking, “Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I was there like last week.”

Yeah. I mean, it’s sheer repetition that all of this is so fresh in my memory. Anyway, so all of this has happened. You’re exhausted. Perhaps you’ve even worked a full day in addition to all this at whatever job you might have. And now you’re looking at your home, and it is a complete disaster. There are toys all over the place. There are dishes still out. There are pans from dinner, the dino nuggets on the floor, all manner of things.

RC – The smell of diapers in the air.

CK – Yeah, I mean, it’s just pure and utter chaos and it just feels like, “Wait, right now is the time to be resting. Why do I need to do more stuff?”

So I want to paint that picture because I want you to know that I see your struggle and I feel it. And I’ve been there.

RC – Um hum. You are not alone.

CK – And I think that, you know, per this earlier episode we talked about with chores, one of the questions, the very good questions you asked me in that episode was, “How early can we do this?”

And I said, you know, “As soon as kids can understand commands, they can do things.”

So what I would recommend as a specific tactic, because I’m sure that’s what they’re looking for in the ‘Help-SOS-message’ is, you know how you develop your end of day routine. You have your teeth brushing, maybe you have a tubby time, you have a story, etcetera, etcetera, or whatever it is. Build into that runway, a 10 to 15 minute window, 5 to 10 minutes, even, where you put on some tunes. You have your cleanup playlist. And you have the kids, help you pick up the toys off of the floor. It’s difficult to try to overload them with everything at once, but if you have like one bucket for all the toy trucks or little toys or the well later the terrible Legos that you step on and you feel excruciating pain. You just have one bucket or basket and at the end of the day, have your five minute cleanup party. And it’ll feel like a game, especially if there’s music on and you’re dancing and you’re laughing because everything’s so silly and, “Oh my gosh, let’s see if we can throw this from a distance and land in the basket.”

So that is actually a chore slash life skill. You are teaching them to clean up after themselves and put things away. You can do the same with books, putting the books back in the bookshelf, or even just making a stack. “Hey, buddy, how high can you make this book stack? We’ve got like all these books on the floor. Do you think you could make one stack without having it fall over?”

Turned it into a game. They’ll do it. You could even have them try to operate a broom to try to sweep up the dinner nuggets or the other random things that have fallen on the floor. Like they can do these things and if it’s a game, they’ll do them.

CK – I just want to say with that too, if the music’s on and you can bring some sort of levity to it yourself and even do it together as partners, kids can really enjoy that part of the day. If we can bring it as parents, they can actually enjoy it. And you can actually get quite a bit done in those 15 minutes. Music makes all the difference. I think music is the key.

CK – It makes all the difference. It’s huge. I want to layer in, well, I have two other thoughts and then I’ll answer any other questions you have on this, Rachel. But one thought is that I think there is also a certain letting go that is really helpful if you can achieve it. Meaning that, yes, things are messy, things will look a little disastrous and it’s still going to be here tomorrow. Maybe I’ll deal with it tomorrow. I’ll say that during the week in my household, and I only have one kid at home now, one of mine has gone to college, but during the week, things just, they get just flat out chaotic. Piles of things everywhere. And then the weekend is when we reset.

RC – That can be really difficult for somebody, like you said at the beginning, somebodies whose more fastidious, someone who feels calmer when the space around them is in order. Someone who feels resentful or disrespected with clutter. The mindset of ‘leaving the clutter’ takes effort to master. But you might make the rest of your family resentful or feel disrespected by you, if you don’t.

CK – Totally.

RC – And that all part of cleaning up your house without messing up your marriage and your family.

CK – Of course. Yeah. And I get it as a person who gets a little anxious around clutter. If you have any tiny sacred space in your home that’s just yours, whether it’s a desk or your bathroom sink, where you can organize your makeup the way you want it. If there is one area in your house over which you have complete control, lean into that area.


CK – And then the last thing I want to say, and I think your audience seems very tuned in and as as do you Rachel to this kind of thing. But I would like to invite people to look at this as an opportunity to teach your kids empathy and compassion.

So when my husband and I had the realization that for me, mess and clutter and everything actually felt disrespectful, we actually had a conversation with our kids and said, “You know, I know it’s kind of a drag when mom is like, ‘Okay, everybody like, let’s tidy up.’ But for mom, it makes her feel more calm. Things don’t have to be perfect. But if the jackets could go where they need to go and the shoes could go where they need to go, it would feel really good for her and make her feel more calm. And then you know where your things go.”

And so that was again, one of those messages that we just would sprinkle in there every now and then. And so now it’s kind of a joke whenever I say, “Oh, okay, hey, let’s everybody tidy up.”

And everybody kind of springs into action and it’s not a huge deal. We take 10 or 15 minutes and do it, and it’s built a level of care into our lives that’s really, really nice.

RC – Well, I think it’s a wonderful thing for your kids to know that you have needs as a parent, that there are things that you have discovered for yourself, help you feel calm, and that they’re going to have to find out for themselves what helps them feel calm. It might be that they need time to read. It might be that they need time to listen to their music and that you’re going to respect that, is really important for them as well.

Christine, I am thinking back over the episodes from your podcast that I have listened to, and I’m wondering if I can pull out a few of the tips that I heard you give to add into what you’ve already said, which has been awesome.

CK – Of course. Yeah.

RC – I think this might also have been from your episode with Rachel Rosenthal, when you talked about the exhaustion and dread of looking into a cluttered room and not knowing where to start – feeling like the task of cleaning up is insufferable and insurmountable. And you had a really simple tidying edit. You said everything in the room will go into one of three bins. It would be trash. Are you remembering this? It would be trash or

CK – Recycling, probably.

RC – Yeah. Recycling or, what were the other bins and how did this work? It was simple and almost obvious, but not obvious when you’re struggling to clean up.

CK – Oh, man. I have a feeling this was my guest episode with Paige Lewin, who is a dear friend and home styling design maven, and she was talking, I believe she was talking about organization and this is a great tip of hers and actually, Rachel Rosenthal is another wonderful guest I’ve had who talks about decluttering an organization. But the key is to figure out where you want stuff to go and to give them a clear place, because then when you do your little speed, tidy up, you know where things are going.

So, for example, my friend Paige is a big fan of the baskets. So, you know, the big soft squishmallows go in this one and the little toy trucks go in this one and that way your kids develop this knowledge for where things go.

I think one of them might have recommended having a basket near the base of your stairs so you can just toss in all the stuff that needs to go up so that on your next trip up you can just make one trip up and go distribute all those things. So yeah, having some systems, really simple ones in place that you can teach your kids is really helpful.

RC – So get ourselves some nice easy-to-carry baskets.

CK – Or receptacles of any kind. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be whatever you have at your disposal in your house right now and develop a really simple system. So, for example, when you’re doing one of these speed edits where you just go around and tidy up, you can toss everything that needs to be in the trash in one of your receptacles, and then you could have two other receptacles, one for stuff that stays on that floor and needs to be tidied up for later, and then one that could live by the base of the stairs and anything that’s going upstairs can go in there and then you can distribute things later. But it’s sort of like a zone approach.

And actually my husband and I take this approach with our laundry. So we run the laundry, dump it on the floor, and then the first thing to do versus folding it, which I don’t like doing and actually I just don’t do. Our first thing we do is just sort it by person and then put it in the room of that person. And then they have to deal with it.

So it’s kind of like a zone defense. I don’t know. I’m not a sports person like that, but it feels a little bit like zone defense, like a preliminary plan of attack in order to get things to the place they need before actually dealing with them.

RC – And often that’s what you need is a starting point, right? Where to begin? I can so relate to this parent because I just know that feeling of I don’t know how to get my house tidy. I remember just feeling like I can never keep my house organized. I just feel so unsettled in it. I can’t wait till these kids grow up and leave so that I can have a tidy house. Well, now I’ve had six children. I have three still living at home and my house is tidy pretty much all the time because I figured it out.

CK – It does get better.

RC – It’s a learning, it’s a practice and you have to give yourself grace for that.

CK – Of course

RC – Like it takes It takes years to figure this out.

CK – It does yeah.

RC – You just can’t jettison yourself to a place of ‘housekeeping proficiency’, you have to get there one small edit at a time.

CK – Yeah, and I think an aside to this conversation is that the reality is in modern life, if you are living a life of relative privilege where you also acquire stuff, you’re going to have to eventually edit stuff out and get rid of things. So that’s another part of the equation. And especially for this listener, because kids grow out of things so quickly. If you have, like in my city, and many cities have an everything-is-free group on Facebook and that is just a wonderful source for listing stuff you’re getting rid of. And literally every time I list something, it is gone off my doorstep within like two hours.

RC – That’s another receptacle you need in your house. Another one of those baskets right? You can do this at the end of every season when kids are still growing. Pass on everything they’ve outgrown.

CK – Exactly. Exactly. So that’s another thing to consider in this equation. But certainly, one, when you’ve got three year olds because their needs will change and what they play with is going to change, too.

RC – Yeah. Christine, I thank you so much. You have been so generous in your time with me, and it’s just been such a pleasure and honor to be face-to-face with you for so long. I’m really grateful.

CK – Oh, thank you so much. I’m grateful for you giving me this time and the space and sharing me with your listeners. I always feel a deep level of appreciation for what listeners trust with us as podcasters and content creators. So thank you to them for the thoughtful questions.

RC – Thank you.

Episode 76