Spring cleaning: Kitchen sink constantly overflowing with mess? Here’s what to do.

Never go to bed messy.

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Speaking of pristine surfaces, there’s one in your home that you should guard more jealously from clutter’s encroach than any other. But it won’t be easy: This particular spot by its very nature invites the absent-minded to fill it with all manner of debris, including items that would more properly reside in the garbage. Even I, a person who is more covetous of these spaces than most, have been known to allow this particular one to choke with matter until it becomes a nearly unmanageable nightmare. I’m referring, of course, to the kitchen sink.

Who can account for the peculiar way in which two glasses and a stray fork resting in an otherwise spotless basin can, seemingly in the course of an hour, reproduce until the sink runneth over with ungodly masses of pots, utensils, and other kitchen implements that you’re not even sure you own? What we are dealing with here is mess metastasis, and if you want a clean home, you must use spring cleaning as prophylactic against it.  

To do that, though, we must avoid a common mistake. In most people’s minds, the gist of spring cleaning involves tackling areas of their houses (under the oven, say) that they normally ignore or performing more general tasks like mattress flipping that are really only necessary once or twice a year. These surely comprise a central part of spring cleaning, but more important—especially if our hope is for the cleanliness not to end after May—is to reassess the passive systems that help keep houses cleaner, longer.

Cheryl Mendelson calls awareness of these systems a domestic “sixth sense” that helps keep your house “running with the same kind of unconscious and effortless actions that keep you from falling when you walk down the stairs,” a kind of at-oneness with your space that “helps you foresee and forestall the minor domestic disasters … that can make life miserable when they accumulate.” While I like the mysticism of the “sixth sense” description, I worry that it suggests an inborn trait, something only “clean people” possess. This is not the case—an intuition around what needs to be done in your house can be easily cultivated, provided you understand the rhythms of mess and clean intellectually first.

Which brings me back to this notion of mess metastasis. Marvel at how the morning’s gym shorts, tossed on the bedroom chair in a hurry, have spawned a weedy garden of discarded coats, unsorted mail, and kicked-off shoes by the end of the day. Awe in despair at how a splotch of errant morning toothpaste can transform a glowing bathroom into a hellscape of soap scum, mirror spackle, and toilet marginalia by midafternoon. Here’s the problem: When we initially notice the glass or the shorts or the toothpaste mark, it seems a small thing, hardly a threat to the overall cleanliness of our homes. Plus, it seems as though it would take a disproportionate amount of effort to correct the issue at that moment; donning our washing gloves or visiting the hamper or producing our vinegar cleaner just doesn’t seem worth it. And so we ignore the flaw, going on about our business while it begins to attract mess around it. Think of it as akin to the “broken windows” crime model: Once a given space has been blighted with even a little mess, we are much more likely to add to it with less guilt—it’s already a little dirty, and we’ll clean the whole thing up later anyway, right? Maybe. But more often than not, it’s a quarter till midnight and everything’s crazy and gross and—you know what? —screw it, I’m just going to bed. See what mess metastasis hath wrought?

While fighting mess metastasis is a daily struggle, spring cleaning provides an excellent occasion to implement some preventive measures. First, identify the mess magnets in each of your rooms. These are the surfaces, corners, and items of furniture that, like the kitchen sink, seem to accrete mess practically from the ether; every home is different, but likely suspects include the coffee table, the bathroom vanity, the bedroom chair, and the nightstand. Once you’ve discovered these, set about undermining their power. In many cases, giving the space a more intentional default design will work to repel mess: Our bedroom has lovely box windows, but for years the oversized ledges proved all too easy to fill with a mass of periodicals, items of clothing, and forgotten coffee mugs. The fix? Adding a pleasant wicker basket for magazines, a votive candle, and a small antique pencil box. These three items are enough to subliminally communicate that this surface has a purpose, and that purpose is not to harbor mess. Also, consider your storage situation; if a certain class of item is always strewn around your house, you may need a structural solution—a better placed hamper, perhaps, or larger dish drainer.

Of course, you cannot easily justify placing an antique pencil box on your coat-and-bag-attracting chair; design can’t save us in all cases. Here, a more general ethic—often mislabeled “fussiness”—is needed. Do not be afraid to interrupt a conversation when your eye catches a grease spot taunting from the coffee table or when an errant sock giggles from the divan. Use spring cleaning as a training camp for practicing picking up, putting away, and spot cleaning immediately upon noticing mess formation, and soon you will have developed a very useful reflex indeed.

Also useful—never go to bed messy: My partner and I have taken to reserving a solid half-hour at the end of every evening for getting our apartment in order—this means washing all dishes, straightening and spot cleaning the living room, quick-wiping the bathroom, and corralling any stray items that have wandered out of place in the bedroom. Begin this bedtime prayer for cleanliness during your spring cleaning period, and you will likely find yourself blessed with fewer messes the whole year through.

Next up: Look at every room from a new angle—and you’ll find new messes.