Collect some key cleaning tools
Grab your favorite products so you don't have to keep backtracking. Also, consider these basics, says Debra Johnson, training manager for Merry Maids housekeeping company: * Microfiber cleaning cloths (such as Rubbermaid's Microfiber Cloth Multipack, $9). They can absorb up to seven times their own weight in fluid, and they attract dust naturally, so you don't have to use chemicals.
* Glass cleaner
* A multipurpose cleaner
* A scrub brush
* Disinfecting wipes (stronger than baby wipes and good for germy surfaces like bathrooms)
Break it down
Estimate the total number of minutes you can spend on housecleaning, and divide it by the number of rooms you want to tackle. Subtract five minutes from that, to leave yourself a little cushion of time, and set a timer for the resulting figure.
Starting with the dirtiest or most-used area, take a top-down approach. Begin with tasks that are at or above eye level, leaving the floor for last. Dust knickknacks and furniture with a microfiber cloth, and also use it (or a plain one with glass cleaner) for windows and mirrors. Use disinfectant wipes on anything that's handled frequently, such as doorknobs and telephones.
If the room has a focal point, spend extra time in that area. Make sure your living room sofa is crumb-free and the cushions are plumped, for instance; and, of course, no bedroom feels neat unless the bed is made. Last of all, sweep or vacuum the floors.
Use your remaining time to put away whatever's in your clutter basket and to make a note of what you wish you'd had a chance to do so it'll be a priority for your next cleaning spree.
Know when to call it quits
Remember "At the sound of the bell, put down your pencils" when you had a test at school? Same here. When the timer's rung and you've emptied your clutter basket, your obligations are over.
If you're feeling an urge to do one last thing, make it a preventive measure -- something that will make it easier the next time you clean. Do what Kathy Allen of Los Angeles does: Keep a trash can near the front door so junk mail never piles up on a table. Or make a note to buy a good welcome mat so your guests don't track dirt inside.
Or enlist your husband and an older child and start a new tradition of tackling one project a day. "My husband and I do the 'Great Toy Pickup' every night after we get the kids in bed," says Jill Goodrich of Amarillo, Texas. "At least we turn in knowing we've put away all the major stuff on the floor."
Deborah Skolnik is senior articles editor at Parenting.