The Victorian Advice I Ignored

At the beginning of last year, I set a challenge for myself of learning to keep house from Victorian homemaking books (a surprisingly prolific genre, as it turns out). I faithfully followed the Victorian advice on making beds, opening windows, organizing my to-do list, and (in general) connecting my domestic endeavours to the greater purpose I wanted my home to serve. I was keeping house like a Victorian.

With one exception.

it is impossible for a novice to start, at once, into a universal mode of systematizing, which none but an adept could carry through. The only way for such persons is to begin with a little at a time. Let them select some three or four things, and resolutely attempt to conquer at these points. In time, a habit will be formed, of doing a few things and regular periods, and in a systematic way. Then it will be easy to add a few more; and thus, by a gradual process, the object can be secured, which it would be vain to attempt by a more summary course.

Catherine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home, ch. 17

“That’s a fantastic point,” I thought when I read this. Of course it makes sense that you have to learn to stick to routines and habits. Of course it makes sense that diving headfirst into a complex schedule is doomed to fail. “Wise advice,” I thought.

Then I proceeded to do the exact opposite.

Instead of picking three or four aspects of homemaking to focus on, I spent literal hours poring over Victorian housekeeper’s manuals, magazine articles, and advice columns, trying to piece together a complete Victorian homemaking routine—which I immediately tried to implement in its entirety, in spite of the fact that I had never been in charge of a home before and (frankly) had never really developed the habit of doing repetitive tasks with any kind of consistency.

Needless to say, I failed. I could maintain that level of housework for a few days, but I would inevitably get tired, overwhelmed, or discouraged—and then I would quit, chaos would quickly take over my home, I would dive into a homemaking routine to try to “fix everything”—and I’d end up right back where I’d started. Trapped in this cycle for week after week, month after month, I grew more and more convinced that there was something wrong with me—that I had some fatal flaw preventing me from developing the kind of consistency and discipline I wanted to have as a homemaker.

Which, of course, was exactly what Catherine Beecher’s book warned me would happen.

It is not unfrequently [sic] the case, that ladies, who find themselves encumbered with oppressive cares, after reading the remarks on the benefits of a system, immediately commence the task of arranging their pursuits, with great vigor and hope. They divide the day into regular periods, and give each hour its duty; they systematize their work, and endeavor to bring every thing into a regular routine. But, in a short time, they find themselves baffled, discouraged, and disheartened, and finally relapse into their former desultory ways, in a sort of resigned despair…

Catherine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home, ch. 17

I had read this. Multiple times. Intellectually, I knew it to be true: trying to change everything all at once doesn’t work.

Yet I still resisted the idea of starting small, because of course I wanted to do more than three or four things a day! I needed to do more than that to get my home into the state I wanted it to be in. So I carried on with my cycle of “great vigor and hope” followed by a “relapse” into “resigned despair”, over and over again throughout the year.

It wasn’t until after my miscarriage that I was forced to acknowledge my own limitations. Faced with a body that couldn’t stand for longer than a few minutes at a time and a mind that was so battered by trauma I crumbled at the slightest hint of self-imposed pressure, I had to accept the reality that I wasn’t going to be able to dive into a full-blown routine of cooking, cleaning, and laundry, not to mention all the more modern things I wanted to fill my time with as well.

I had to start small.

In her book The Lazy Genius Way, Kendra Adachi describes her own failed attempts to develop a yoga practice. Like many of us, she started with her ideal: “yoga for thirty minutes four times a week.” And, also like most of us, she repeatedly failed to live up to her ideal, growing more and more frustrated with herself with each attempt.

And then, one New Year, Kendra committed to the smallest possible step: one down dog a day.

It doesn’t sound like much at first. As Kendra says, “What a joke to think thirty seconds of yoga meant anything.” And yet by committing to those thirty seconds every single day, she writes, “I had developed a daily habit of yoga.”

Here’s the thing about starting small: the barrier to success with our goals isn’t usually doing the thing. It’s doing the thing regularly, consistently, habitually. Or, as Catherine Beecher says,

There is nothing which so much depends upon habit, as a systematic mode of performing duty; and where no such habit has been formed, it is impossible for a novice to start, at once…

Catherine Beecher, The American Woman’s Home, ch. 17

If I want to be the kind of person who does 30 minutes of yoga every day before dawn, the first step is to be the type of person who does yoga every day. Now, inspired by The Lazy Genius Way, I do. I’ve been doing one down dog every single day for the last couple of months. Some days I do 10 minutes of yoga, some days I do 30, but I always do that one 30-seconds-or-less down dog. I do yoga every day.

Similarly, if I want to be the type of person who keeps my house clean and tidy all the time, the first step is to be the type of person who sets aside time to tend to her home every single day (or at least every single weekday).

This is where I went wrong with my homemaking at the beginning of 2021. I tried to do multiple hours of housework every single day, and I burned out. Why? Because I had not first developed the habit of doing something every single day. The habit comes first—before the elaborate routines, before the grand and complicated systems.

After my miscarriage—when both my body and mind simply would not do more than the bare minimum each day—I decided to, finally, take the advice I’d read in both new books and old.

I began by getting dressed.

For a couple of days, that was all I did. Get dressed. Usually in a t-shirt and jeans, or a t-shirt and a maxi skirt. And then—I was done for the day. Back to the couch.

After a few days, I added making my bed.

After another week, I added emptying the dishwasher. Then starting the laundry.

At the time of this writing, four months after the miscarriage, I tend to my home every single day. Do I do everything I would like to do? Not nearly. I don’t always finish all the cleaning tasks I would like to. I don’t always fold the laundry on the same day I wash and dry it.

But I do something every. single. day.

If you’ve already hit a wall with your goals or resolutions for the New Year, take some advice from me (and from our Victorian friends):

Start small.


Pick three to four small things you want to work on—or, better still, choose just one to start with—and stick with those until you’ve mastered them.

Then add one or two more.

Better to grow slow than to grow so frustrated you give up—and never grow at all.


  1. Nicanelle said:

    “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” –Anthony Trollope

    February 8, 2022
  2. Danielle Banerjee said:

    Loved reading what you shared Amy. I love this idea of beginning with a habit first, no matter how small the task , it must be a habit first. That really helped me out a lot. Beautiful writing and I so appreciat how intimately you share .

    February 13, 2022

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