Interview with Mindy Starns Clark: Does The House That Cleans Itself Really Work?

I've really found the concepts in Mindy Starns Clark's The House That Cleans Itself extremely helpful. Although I'm still slowly (very slowly!) working my way through our home and applying Mindy's techniques, I've already found that where I've given my home The House That Cleans Itself treatment, things stay neat and tidy. If you've always considered yourself a messie, I hope you'll read Mindy's book. To wrap up my posts about The House That Cleans Itself, Mindy agreed to let me ask her a few questions. Her answers were so comprehensive and full of info, I'm going to divide them up into several posts. This one focuses on how she came up with the idea for the book and how her method works in real life.

Kristina: The House That Cleans Itself method is much different from any other home keeping or organization book I've ever read. The idea of changing our homes to make cleaning easier is pretty revolutionary - especially for messies. Can you tell us how you came up with this idea?

Mindy: First, it helps to understand that I am absolutely horrible at housekeeping. I don’t like it and I don’t do it well. Much of my life, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t get a handle on this particular set of skills.

The cleanliness of my house went from bad to worse when I sold my first novel and became a full time author, leaving even less time for cleaning. Once I had several books published, I was making enough to be able to hire a housekeeper to come in and clean once a week, thank goodness, but even that was not enough. She would turn our disaster into pristine perfection every Wednesday morning - but by Thursday night, you wouldn’t know she had ever even been here. Even when things were clean, they were just waiting to explode into mess again!

Then came The Trouble with Tulip, my sixth novel and the first one in the Smart Chick Mystery series. The series focused on Jo Tulip, a cleaning expert who uses her knowledge of household hints to solve crime. (Think Martha Stewart crossed with Nancy Drew.) As I wrote this series, I had to do an enormous amount of research into Jo’s field, and as the second novel, Blind Dates Can Be Murder, came out, I realized that I had already managed to make my way through 42 different books about household cleaning and organization.

I decided it was pretty pathetic that after having read 42 books on the topic I still couldn’t get a handle on my own mess. But then I had a major epiphany: Every single one of those books had been written by someone who loved housekeeping and was naturally good at it. No wonder their advice didn’t work for me! No wonder the many little sayings and rules of thumb that the experts threw out there had been useless around my house! All the experts in the world were never going to be able to help me because they didn’t think the way I did. They didn’t live the way my family lived. They wanted me to change, but I was never going to change. I was born this way! At 43 years old, despite a lifetime of struggle, I still couldn’t “fix” the behaviors that were supposedly creating my mess.

When I finally wrapped my head around all of that, I realized that housekeeping is a talent, one that simply hadn’t made its way into my gene pool. Given that fact, I decided that instead of trying to change myself, as I had for years to no avail, maybe I should change my house instead. Rather than continuing to beat myself up for all of my household shortcomings, maybe I should throw away the guilt and shame entirely and focus on using my strengths to tackle this problem in a whole new way. Maybe the solution was to ignore all of the “expert” advice in the world and try to come up with my own way of doing things.

Armed with this new outlook, I began to study my surroundings almost like a detective. Instead of looking at a big pile of papers and thinking, “I’ve got to be better with my filing,” I thought, “Okay, obviously filing doesn’t really work for me. What could work instead?” Instead of looking at a mountain of clean clothes waiting to be folded and put away and thinking, “I’ve got to do better keeping up with the clothes,” I thought, “What’s wrong with the way we have set up the laundry processing in this house that there’s always a backlog?” For every messy dresser top, every cluttered floor, every disaster of a closet, I forced myself to be studious and analytical and devoid of all “emotion.” It was a problem to solve not a personal character issue. Once I removed the emotion from the process, I could see things much more clearly and I began to have some great ideas about what was wrong—and how to make it right. As a creative, out-of-the-box person, I found that I was a natural at thinking up fresh new ways to handle our mess, ways that would work in our house for our family, not in some perfect home whose inhabitants are gifted at housekeeping.

Here’s the shocker: As I slowly went through our home and made changes that made sense for us, the house started staying cleaner. The more changes we made, the cleaner it stayed. Finally, one day my husband remarked that the house was so consistently clean that it was almost like it was cleaning itself.

Voila, the concept was born. Within months, I had begun documenting my process, testing my theories on others, and assembling a proposal for a book about it. That book became The House That Cleans Itself.

Once it was published, I’ve been gratified to find that though there are some people who just don’t “get” it (those who are naturally gifted at cleaning), the ones who do get it find that it can change their messes and thus their lives. It has been incredibly gratifying to see big disasters turned into Houses That Clean Themselves all around the world.

Kristina: How long did it take you to implement the method in your own home? And are you able to consistently keep your home clean and orderly?

Mindy: It took a long, long time to convert my house to a House That Cleans Itself, because I was starting from scratch with nothing but some ideas and a theory. If I’d had the book (lol!) I think I could’ve done it in a few months. As it was, it took me a year at least, maybe a little more. But it was worth every minute, especially because in the end I was able to help others by sharing my own struggle.

I love the second question here, and I’m surprised how rarely anyone asks me that. The answer is yes and no. Yes, my house today compared to my house ten years ago is ridiculously better. We use HTCI thinking for every new item we acquire, every rearrangement of furniture, and so on. The order and cleanliness of this house, relatively speaking, is amazing.

However, the system does fall apart once in a while, and always for the same three-fold reason:

1. We acquire new stuff,

2. but we don’t get rid of any old stuff,

3. and we don’t assign a place for the new stuff.

In the book, I state that NO house can be consistently clean if there’s simply too much stuff in it. Given that both my husband and I are pack rats by nature, that’s our biggest ongoing challenge. For me, it’s not that I have trouble getting rid of things, it’s simply that I don’t take the time often enough to do so. Sometimes, we do reach that tipping point and I know it’s time for a big purge. If that doesn’t happen, then after several months things will start to get out of control again. With a House That Cleans Itself, it’s easy to see what needs correcting and fix it, but I’d be lying if I said it’s something you do once and never have to worry about again.

In fact, over time, the most important lesson I have learned is that a House That Cleans Itself is more of an ongoing mentality than a one-time process. As long as we remember that, the system continues to work like a dream.

And less anyone read this answer and feel discouraged, let me reiterate: I DO live in a House That Cleans Itself. My home is always fairly clean, and for those who have known me a long time, it’s SHOCKINGLY clean. But even at its worst, my house, compared to how it used to be, is like night and day. For me, that’s a dream come true.

Kristina: One of the things I LOVE about your book is all the little stories you tell about your most embarrassing housekeeping moments. They not only make me laugh heartily, but they make me feel better about my own housekeeping skills. What would you say is your all time most embarrassing housekeeping moment?

Mindy: Actually, the Most Embarrassing Messy House Moments in the book aren’t from my own experience, they are stories I have collected from others. My favorite is the grass growing out of the bathmat. Yikes! I take comfort from those stories, glad at least to know I’m not the only one these sorts of things happen to.

I can’t even pinpoint my own most embarrassing moment, there have been so many over the years. I do remember one of my saddest housekeeping moments, though. That happened when I told my five-year-old daughter over breakfast that “Today, we’re going to get this house clean.” She broke into a big smile and replied, “Oh goodie! Who’s coming over?”

Isn’t that just awful? Even at five, my kid saw more than I did, that about the only time I ever got a handle on our mess was when we were expecting company. Even though I laughed about it at the time, that was a real wake-up call for me. In a way, it broke my heart.

Watch for PART II of this interview, where Mindy tackles some difficulties moms often face when it comes to keeping their homes organized and clean.
Share |

1 comment

  1. My children would ask that same question each time I announced we were cleaning house. It made me feel terrible! So, I made a chart and deligated house duties for each of us to complete by the end of the day. I told them no matter if company comes or not, we should appreciate,and take care of what we have been blessed with. Now, they just know to look at the list and get things done.