20 Minute Clean-Up

Every now and then I come up with something that’s REALLY good.

Most of the time I come up with good ideas and they’re good for a little while and then our needs and abilities change and we need a new idea. (Sometimes I come up with ideas that seem good at first glance but really aren’t feasible but that’s beside the point..)

But every now and then I think up a real golden nugget of an idea.

This is one of those golden nugget ideas. I really think so. I give you our:

20 Minute Clean-Up

The basic idea is simple, really. Set the timer for 20 minutes and clean. But it’s bigger than that. The rest of the idea (the golden nugget part) is that you give your children, and yourself, a specific task or tasks to do during the 20 minutes– and then whatever time is left before the timer goes off is theirs to keep. To read or sit or whatever. I cannot assign more tasks or anything until the timer goes off.


I know. Sounds crazy. But stick with me, okay? Don’t give up on me yet.

Here’s why this is so great:

  • Manageable Pieces – 20 minutes is a manageable chunk of time for children to clean without overloading their brain and inducing resistance and whining.
  • Manageable Tasks – specific tasks suitable for their age and ability allows the child to focus only on the task(s) at hand, not the whole list of everything that needs to be done that day.
  • Time Management – HOW MANY times a day do you find yourself saying, “If you’d just hurry up and get it done it would be over with.” ? My children are actively learning that the longer they spend on the task, the less time left over at the end of 20 minutes, the faster they get it done the more time they have to themselves.
  • Work Ethic – The kids are encouraged to do their best and work hard first, then enjoy a rest after. They’re learning how to mop, vacuum, fold, etc.  They’re working together for the purpose of keeping our house picked up – just because it’s the right thing to do and not for reward of money, bribery, or threats of punishment.
  • Built In Breaks – If you need to repeat back to back 20 minute clean-ups, the kids have built in “breaks” with their leftover time so they feel ready to begin the next 20 minute session — again with no whining.
  • Work gets done faster – It really does. The kids and I, working in the four main living areas simultaneously, can completely tidy the house in 20 minutes. We can clean the house well in one hour (3 sessions.) The lack of whining, feet dragging and bickering that normally slows us down helps us get more work done in less time.
  • Kids work independently – Before this method, the kids did not work well without my husband or I standing in the same room, micro-managing. I despise micro-managing. I ADORE knowing that they are working, really working, in one room while I’m getting work done in another.

Can you see how good this is?! We’ve been doing this for about six weeks now and IT IS BEAUTIFUL. I can’t tell you how good this has been for us! So far I’ve used this tactic at random times here and there. At least once a day most days. 2 or 3 times a day on Saturdays for work days.

I’ve been trying to add the 20 minute clean-up to our regularly daily schedule — after breakfast, lunch and supper. I haven’t been able to stick to it, so for the month of March we’re going to be working on that habit. I’ve added alarms to my cell phone to remind me. 😉 Now we’re not only training ourselves to clean quickly and efficiently but we’re setting good habits of cleaning up immediately after meals and keeping the house picked up throughout the day.

More beauty.

Here’s how we implement this plan here at our house:

  • Call for 20-minute clean up (this was explained beforehand, what I expected, how it was going to go, etc.)
  • Assign tasks.
    • For random clean-ups I look around to see what needs to be done and assign things to do. I give tasks that I expect to take about ten-fifteen minutes, less if they hurry, longer if they dawdle.
    • For regular after meal clean ups I have zones assigned. They rotate zones after each meal so that by the end of the day everyone has cleaned each zone. (Except me, I do the kitchen each time.)
  • Set the timer.
  • Work on your task while the kids work on theirs. Feel free to call out time remaining a couple of times, or call out and ask your kids how it’s going. Or you may actually need to step away from your task and teach a child how to do something. It’s fine! Teaching is good. Then get back to work. Lead by example and work hard.
  • Expect, require, good effort. When they kids say they’re done with their tasks, I run and check. If it’s not good enough, I point out what’s left and ask them to finish. This prevents rushing through with sloppy jobs to earn more free time.
  • Expect, require, participation. Younger children who throw a fit, older children who want to be lazy, need to be gently reminded that we all have to work together and that it’s not optional. I’ve only had this happen twice! I reminded them that the earlier they finished the more time they would earn. I also informed them that if they didn’t finish because they didn’t try, they would have to keep working until it was done, however long they made it take.
  • Discipline for defiance/disobedience – ONCE. One time I had to discipline the 5yo for defiance and refusing to clean in the middle of a clean up session. I gave him a 5 minute time out right then. That means he also lost 5 minutes of cleaning time and as a result had no leftover time when he was done with his task. The next time he started to complain I reminded him and he has worked with us ever since.
  • “Reward” hard work – The kids are not penalized for not finishing their tasks in 20 minutes if they really did work hard. It doesn’t happen often but it has a few times. I don’t require that they keep working once the timer is up, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my kids a few times when they stuck with the task until it was completed, despite the empty timer. =) When this does happen, though, I give a 5 minute break before starting another 20 minute clean-up (if we need to.)
  • Encourage and praise your children. You have an opportunity here to TEACH your children (how to clean, how to have good habits, how to work hard.) Make the most of that. Wrapping that up with a “Y’all did a good job, the house looks great!” or “We got that done so fast without whining, I’m so proud!” will really help to seal the deal.

This is really the most simple idea ever, isn’t? But yet so laden with great things for my kids to learn and practice.

I’m starting to feel a bit like an infomercial: “Yes, YOU TOO can get your kids to clean! Act now and never listen to a whine again!”

Well.. at least not a whine about chores. =p There’s one more thing I want to give you. The next question to ask is:

“What kind of tasks are age appropriate? And what about littles?”

First, YES, your littles can do this, too! 2-5 year olds can help mom with her tasks, or even an older sibling. Give them something specific to do. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Cleaning off light switches & doorknobs with a step, a cloth and a small spray bottle of your favorite preschooler safe cleaner–kill those germs! (We use Nature’s Source)
  • Wiping down the front of stoves/dishwashers/lower cabinets.
  • dusting the tv screen
  • checking under furniture for ‘lost’ items
  • wiping down dining chairs

My 5 year old is often assigned many of the above and also:

  • cleaning off the dining room table (yes, he takes dishes to the sink and returns stray items wherever they go!)
  • cleaning under couch cushions
  • tidying and wiping down the bathroom sink/counter
  • cleaning in his room
  • he’s learning to sweep (but needs a little help)

The 7 year old is given tasks such as:

  • Cleaning sinks and mirrors
  • Sweeping and mopping
  • Cleaning the microwave
  • Vacuuming
  • Starting/switching loads in the washing machine/dryer
  • Folding clothes

The 10 year old is given tasks like the above for the 7 yr old and also:

  • Scrubbing toilets and tubs
  • Organizing and other tasks requiring more attention to detail
  • Putting dishes away and other tasks requiring more height (and more care)
  • Cleaning/oiling wood furniture
  • Sacking up and emptying trash

How do I decide to assign tasks? For regular clean ups, as I mentioned, they have assigned zones (rooms). If a zone still looks clean and picked up since the previous clean-up (which you’ll find happens A LOT when you do this regularly throughout the day.. HUH.. IMAGINE THAT..) I can assign a couple of  ‘other’ tasks for deeper cleaning, like dusting, vacuuming and toilet scrubbing. I just pick some things that need to be done.

Our house is staying CLEANER than it ever has before!

Messes still happen. Things still get left out from time to time. I’m working on cleaning up messes right away and reminding kids to put things away but at least once a day we have a REAL,  ‘Good Effort’ clean up that makes a whirlwind of a difference in just a few minutes.

It still surprises me how much work we can get done so quickly.

Yesterday we cleaned for an hour, 3 sessions back to back (because my Dad was coming so we did yesterday instead of today.) In ONE HOUR we: tidied the living room, vacuumed (under the furniture and couch cushions, too), cleaned off & wiped down the dining room table and chairs, swept & mopped the dining room, tidied the bathroom, cleaned the mirror and sink, scrubbed the toilet and tub, swept and mopped the bathroom and hallway, unloaded/reloaded the dishwasher, washed hand dishes, cleaned the stove and counters, scrubbed the sink, swept and mopped the kitchen, emptied the trash and the kids cleaned in their bedrooms for 20 minutes.

Maybe that’s normal for your house but up until six weeks ago that could have easily taken us the majority of the day.

Gone is the whining. No more nagging, begging, threatening or bribing. For the first time ever I have what I have always wanted — chores getting done JUST BECAUSE it needs to be done, family members working simultaneously in different rooms, everybody working together.

I am thrilled!!

AND ONE MORE PERK – I no longer feel like housework is competing with school work. Which is just such a big, big relief. Twenty minutes after breakfast, or after lunch is enough to tidy up and get right back to school. Keeping the house picked up more throughout the day relieves me of the pressing feeling that I need to be working on housework while the kids are doing school. I can’t tell you how much of a weight that has taken off of my shoulders!

I hesitate to even share this with you because every time I share a golden nugget on my blog it seems to suddenly go bust in my home. But we’ve been doing this for six weeks now. It’s stuck, it’s stayed, and I really hope that it helps somebody else out there. It’s working for us. I hope it works for you, too!

Part of my 3 in 30 journey and also linked to Works for Me Wednesday and Helpful Homeschool Hints.

Image Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Theresa Thompson

P.S. This post contains amazon affiliate links. Every penny goes toward homeschool curriculum.

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Sam @TheKelleyEight
Sam @TheKelleyEight
February 26, 2011 4:57 pm

We have built-in chore times throughout the day to keep things tidy, but I think I will take your 20 minute idea and adopt it! I know if my brood senses free time as the result of a mad cleaning dash- they will gripe less! Thanks for the tip!

February 26, 2011 7:08 pm

Sam – Exactly! It’s amazing how content they are to have just a few minutes to do whatever they want to do. Of course, they have times during the day when they are free to play how they want but having this built in as an incentive at the end of a work short period really does motivate them AND teaches them the natural reward to working hard and getting the job done without dawdling. I’ve begun to use this as a reminder when we’re doing other things, like MATH. “This is just like a 20 minute clean-up. You can… Read more »

Sonita Lewis
Sonita Lewis
February 27, 2011 1:43 pm

WE do something similar-only we all have ADD so we only clean for 15 minutes! LOL

No seriously though-this is the most valuable thing I ever learned from FlyLady-set a timer! We couldn’t LIVE without a timer at my house!

I did a series of blog posts one day, throughout the day to show what all you can accomplish in 1

Sonita Lewis
Sonita Lewis
February 27, 2011 1:44 pm

oops-hit send too soon

What you can do in 15 min is AMAZING!

This is the first post http://cowsdontmoo.com/2010/03/the-miracle-of-15-minutes-before/ and there are 3 after it.

February 27, 2011 5:46 pm

I know, I love using the timer! (I tried the FlyLady once but it wasn’t right for me at that time..maybe I should look again?) We’ve been using a timer for a while but just setting the timer and telling everyone to clean wasn’t as efficient as it could be. Even telling the kids “Clean up the living room.” wasn’t good enough unless I was standing there directing traffic. But telling them “you clean under the couch cushions and vacuum the couch, under the couch and the rest of the floor,” for example, seems to be a much better approach… Read more »

Sonita Lewis
Sonita Lewis
February 27, 2011 6:12 pm

Her system doesn’t totally work for me either-but God bless her for telling me about dressing to your shoes and using a timer!

It also helped when my oldest son was young, he had a very hard time transitioning from one activity to another (no matter what it was) so I learned to tell him 10 more mins then we….5 more minutes then we…. 2 more mins then we… and once the timer went off-he transitioned smoothly.

February 27, 2011 7:13 pm

Oh the shoes!! That was one of the ones I just couldn’t do. Some days, yes. But most days.. I’m much happier when I’m barefoot. =p

Sonita Lewis
Sonita Lewis
February 27, 2011 10:09 pm

Oh-I kick my shoes off as soon as the house is clean! LOL That’s just that much MORE motivation to get it done! hahaha

March Goals » A Classic Housewife in a Modern World
March 1, 2011 9:26 pm

[…] other day I told you about our new “20 Minute Clean-Up” that we’ve been using to get chores done and how well it is working for us. I started […]

SAHMmy Says
SAHMmy Says
March 2, 2011 9:25 am

Thanks for the details on your method! I love your all-together-now attitude–no wonder everyone plays along! I really like the idea of using the leftover minutes as free time to break up the cleaning bursts; we do something like that between lessons but I didn’t think to apply it to housekeeping.

March 2, 2011 9:34 am

Great idea! Anything that gets the kids cleaning is a win/win in my book!

March 2, 2011 5:32 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your inspiration. I love the built in reward for working hard. Great idea!

March 2, 2011 8:10 pm

SAHMmy Says – I’m enjoying the “all-together-now attitude” myself. It’s a refreshing change from, “Okay everyone let’s clean..” and being greeted with grumbles and foot stomping. =p Funny you should mention lessons because I’m thinking we need to apply this more toward lessons too. =) Melinda – AGREED. Erin – The built in reward is my favorite part. Because when they grow up they need to take care of their space and their things for the reward of having free time or a clean space or well maintained things. No one will be there to make them do it. (I… Read more »

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Angie @ Many Little Blessings
Angie @ Many Little Blessings
March 8, 2011 4:18 pm

I really need to do something like this more often. The kids don’t generally grumble about cleaning up messes, but I think I need to work on this at certain times of the day, even if there isn’t a big mess. Maybe then they house would get cleaned (and not just straightened up) more often.

March 9, 2011 11:29 pm

Angie – Exactly what I’m thinking — if we did this more often we’d been keeping the house clean instead of cleaning it back up again. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

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May 30, 2011 11:48 pm

[…] on and on. The thing we use now, that we like the best, that works the best for us is our “20 minute clean up.” We can use it at regular intervals throughout the day, or spontaneously as the need arises […]

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