I love the feeling of starting over with a clean slate. The truth is that the majority of stuff we beat ourselves up about doesn’t really affect anyone else; it only matters to us. That means we can look at it as a pure gift to ourselves, no pressure, no deadlines.
For me, though, my absolute favorite thing is to wake up on the morning of New Year’s Day and feel like I have a whole fresh calendar, no weird leftovers from the previous year.
This is what I like:
My place - the cleanest it will be the entire year
A basically empty fridge and freezer, no scary leftovers or containers with no expiration date
A clear desktop
Empty email inbox
No notifications pending on anything, anywhere
Some space on my shelves, some empty hangers, and room in my cabinets
No fines, fees, or borrowed items waiting to go back
Pets bathed, trimmed, etc.
The great thing about this fresh-start feeling is when you have the day off for the New Year. It means you have absolutely no chores to do and you can lounge around quite shamelessly, enjoying all the gleaming surfaces before everyone else messes it up.
*gives side-eye to flying feather duster and Mr. Muddy Paws*
I look at December and January both as buffer months. They don’t really count toward resolution time, most especially for fitness or body transformation purposes. December is my month for planning, and January is my grace period for finishing off any loose ends from the previous year.
Those loose ends usually mean closet-purging and other organizing projects, and books I was reading that I left off partway. Every single year I resolve to quit doing this, and every single year I somehow find myself midway through a dozen or more books. This probably started around the time I got into chapter books...
The goal around all this tying of loose ends is an emotional state. The idea is to avoid any kind of feeling of MUST or SHOULD or HAVE TO. We want to be fully aware of what we choose and what we do because it makes our lives easier - like paying taxes, staying out of traffic court, and maintaining a comfortable living environment.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that way close to 100% during our off hours?
I’ll share an example of a “clean slate” project that I’m focusing on this month. It’s honestly the dumbest thing I can think of, something that almost all sane people would think is beneath their attention, and they’re correct in that.
Our new apartment has glass shower doors. Unlike every previous set of shower doors I’ve ever had, these are not frosted, pebbled, textured, or coated in any way. This makes it obvious that there is some kind of grimy build-up. I have tried SO MANY different cleansers and approaches to getting this stuff off, and at this point it’s part intellectual puzzle and part battle of wills. What is this muck and filth??
I’m a “daily squeegee” person so it’s even more infuriating.
I’ve tried: white vinegar; white vinegar mixed with dish soap; CLR; Lime-A-Way; rubbing alcohol; Bon Ami; and each of these with a battery-powered scrubber with two different scrubbing heads.
Whatever it is, it evidently isn’t soap scum, calcium, limescale, or ordinary dirt. I suspect sorcery.
Nobody on earth could conceivably care about these grubby water droplets on my shower doors as much as I do. No way. Most people in my age group probably wouldn’t even see them without their glasses on. This has nothing to do with external pressure, social rules, feeling judged, or guilt or shame or whatever. It’s just a challenge. GAME ON.
A clean slate is what we need when something keeps clutching at our attention.
If we can’t convince ourselves to quit caring, and we don’t plan to remove ourselves from the situation entirely, then it’s time to vanquish it, whatever it is.
Stuck drawers, loose buttons, scuff marks, stacks and piles, the trunk that’s so full it can’t be used - anything that simply bothers and annoys and distracts us is a candidate for the clean slate.
There are several approaches to determining what projects to tackle for your clean slate. What works depends on your situation, your mindset, and even your daily mood.
One, the brain dump. Write out a list. This can be really fun because there are few delights quite like the satisfaction of crossing stuff off a list. If you share your household with others, you can tape the list to the inside of your front door and let everyone else compete for most items completed.
Two, the perimeter check. Start at the front door and work your way clockwise through the room, then clockwise to the next room. Either handle stuff as you come across it, or take notes and move along with your clipboard. This is a good method if you have a fix-it person under your roof who can barter peace of mind for pure action - and a little quid pro quo. There must be something this person would love for you to finally get done that would feel like a fair trade.
Three, the hot spot. Start with whatever is bothering you the absolute most. Even if that’s the only thing you do, at least you are free at last.
Four, the comfort zone. Start with the area that is most important to you and do everything that needs doing in that area. It might be the inside of your car, or the area around your bed, or your dining table. Imagine your dream version of that space and see if you can come up with an upgrade.
For me, the biggest question is always, would I choose this? Was it intentional? I don’t ever want to feel like I am tolerating a perpetual problem if I have the ability to do otherwise.
The next question is, when you’ve finished liberating your mental bandwidth, what are you going to do next?
If you haven’t already seen the cover of Fair Play popping out everywhere you go, you soon will. Tucked under arms, clutched on mass transit, sliding off a passenger seat, maybe even on your spouse’s bedside table. Equity in household bandwidth is an extremely hot topic these days, with good reason, and Eve Rodsky’s book is a user-friendly take on the subject. Because it’s made into a game, it can be put into use without both parties needing to take a highlighter to it.
(Other titles on this issue, like Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up or Megan Stack’s Women’s Work, are going to be a much harder sell to a recalcitrant, unreformed mate and may not be as easy to implement).
The premise of Fair Play is that in traditional households, even when both parents work full-time jobs, the mom typically gets stuck doing 2/3 of household labor. This appears to be true even when she both earns more money and works longer hours. Yikes! Natural results: resentment, exhaustion, fighting, and perhaps even divorce.
Fair Play not only has a system for diving tasks, it also has scripts to follow for introducing the idea, getting buy-in, dealing with problems, et cetera.
In my experience with two chore-doing and dinner-cooking husbands, the direct approach and clear, specific requests really do work. “I’m doing X, Y, and Z before our friends get here, so will you do A, B, and C?” “Would you rather do Chore 1 or Chore 2?” Various men in my life (roommates, dad, brothers, travel buddies) are often more efficient than I am, and many of them have been objectively better at cooking and cleaning. Credit where it’s due. Division of labor tends to be far, far more about how it is structured, incentives, and communication than it is about motivation or competence.
The incentive part of Fair Play is that both partners get Unicorn Time, which in research is referred to as High Quality Leisure Time. This is so huge and so important! My husband and I build our schedule around our hobbies, classes, club memberships, workouts, vacations, and favorite weekend activities, with the understanding that we can easily fit housework and errands into the crevices that remain. We take turns cooking, not because it’s fair, but because we both specialize in certain dishes that we prefer to eat “our way.” Done right, housework can go virtually unmentioned because it feels like it handles itself.
While Fair Play is a truly great starting place for happier homes, happier kids, and unhappier divorce attorneys, there is one area where it could be improved. That is including kids in the gamification of the household. This book will work for couples with infants and toddlers, sure. In my opinion, any child old enough to play sports or have after-school activities is also old enough to start learning some skills. I didn’t love chores as a kid, nobody does, but it turns out that childhood chores were the reason my husband, brothers, and I all know how to keep house as adults.
Let all adults feel equally competent and equally free of drudgery and bickering!
The hours of my life are as valuable as yours and we both get to make choices about how we use our time.
As it is with time, happiness is an equal right.
What is fair is not always equal and what is equal is not always fair, so don’t expect a 50/50 split. The goal of Fair Play is equity, not equality.
Recognize that you and your partner have already been communicating about domestic responsibilities, just not in the most positive or constructive way.
When I read the term “hose-down house” in an article in an architecture magazine, I thought, “Is that a thing?” Because that’s exactly my goal for my own home, and what a great way to describe it. If there were a way to install a set of sprinklers in the ceiling and clean my place overnight like a car wash, I’d already have it done. Hose it down and hope the door latches behind me when I go out to do something more fun.
This is the opposite of what I find on home visits. My people want no part of automated cleaning. This is partly because they automatically resist new ideas; for instance, every time I say I like ebooks they will say they like paper books. It’s not a debate? Nobody is making you try new things? The main reason, though, is that it would take a lot of setup before their homes could be cleaned this way.
Take the dishwasher, for example. Not everyone has one, but they have been a common feature of houses and apartments for at least forty years now. They’re more energy efficient and sanitary than washing by hand. You can even buy a countertop or rollaway model for around the same price as a stand mixer. I’m in love with mine since I didn’t have access to one until I was past thirty.
My people see them as an obstacle, if they use them at all.
In a chronically disorganized house, it is never clear whether the dishwasher is clean, dirty, or empty. It’s nobody’s job on any given day. There are far, far too many dishes to fit in it and many or most of them are not dishwasher-safe, or at least nobody is too sure. Even though there is this marvelous dishwashing robot ready to please waiting in the kitchen all day, nobody wants to feed it.
Another example is the robot vacuum. I’ve been using mine for nearly a decade now, and I also have a robot mop. THE BEST. Yes, I’m privileged, and yes, these items also cost less than a smartphone. Amortized over several years, they’re less than a store-brand soda habit. I might also point out that my household doesn’t have a car, and that frees up a lot of folding money.
Since we have a parrot and a dog, our floors are a constant mess. Feathers, muddy paw prints, kibble crumbs, you name it. Every time we leave for an errand or go to the movies, we get ready to clean the floors. This means picking up the dog bowls and checking for dangling cables. One of us can do this while the other puts the critters in their crates and checks the bus schedule.
In a chronically disorganized home, this is not happening. My people aren’t even attracted to the idea. Why? What’s on their floors? Anything and everything!
Laundry and lots of it
Stacks of magazines
Stuff that fell over
Here we start to understand that the problem is not in acquiring the robot vacuum, which many people could suggest as a holiday gift. The problem is that the floor of every room is considered a viable storage area. It’s not a cleaning problem, it’s a tidying problem.
Putting things away that don’t even exist in a hose-down household like mine - that’s the problem.
There’s no laundry on my floor because we don’t own enough clothing between us to cover our floor. If we didn’t do laundry at least once a week, we’d have to wear it twice, and we’d constantly be covered in dog hair.
Flat surfaces are the main aspect of what, architecturally, would be considered a hose-down house. Kitchen counters, bathroom counters, the dining table, coffee table, end tables, and desks. While I have been known to use my robot mop on the kitchen counters, when we had a normal-size suburban ranch house, that would be overkill in the sub-900-square-foot places we’ve had since. When your kitchen counter is one foot square, all it takes is a swipe with a rag.
I guarantee that I could wipe down my kitchen counters, dining table, and bathroom counter in under one minute. Not only that, I could do them in a direct path and probably take only fifteen footsteps.
The reason is that we don’t pile things up on our tables or countertops. We don’t even own a coffee table because they are clutter magnets and I got tired of stubbing my toe.
What makes a hose-down house is the absence of clutter.
When there’s nothing in the way, it’s quick and easy to clean everything. When every room is filled with stuff, it’s complicated and exhausting.
The kitchen is full of double what it could reasonably store, so there’s no “away” for the dishes. The sink is always full and the counters are always covered. There are special wooden or pottery items that can’t go in the dishwasher. The chore known as “washing dishes” could take an hour or more because it only gets done every three days.
The floors are covered with laundry. The bathroom has eighty-seven bottles. Every other surface is covered with mail and other papers. For some reason, there are always shopping bags that someone went out and bought but nobody opened afterward.
Another problem is sheer size. My current place is 650 square feet, home to two adults and two messy pets. We haven’t had more than 900 square feet in five years. Prior to WWII, this was standard for middle-class families, and it still is in most parts of the world. Anyone living in a post-Brady Bunch-sized home simply has a lot more room to clean, or to clutter up.
I can wipe down all my flat surfaces in a minute, empty the dishwasher in four, clean my bathroom in ten, and run the dishwasher and vacuum while I go to the gym. That’s my hose-down house. Why would I want anything else?
Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
Have you ever had a bad houseguest? It’s okay, you can tell me.
I’ve had a bunch, because I’ve had a lot of roommates over the years, because we used to host a lot of Couchsurfers, and because we tend to like an open house. It helps to make a person patient and flexible. The more people who are around, the more likely that some of them are more demanding than others.
The one who left huge clumps of hair in the drain every day. The one who left their notifications on high volume and got pinged several times an hour, all night long. The one who basically ate everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. The one who rearranged the furniture while we were gone. The one who invited a bunch of people over, one of whom looked at me when I came home and asked, “Who are you?”
Um, I live here? And who are YOU?
We have to ask our stuff the same questions that we would ask of a bad houseguest.
What are you still doing here?
When are you planning to leave?
Am I your personal maid or were you ever planning to pitch in a little?
You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve seen, both in photos and in home visits. Piles of stuff covering half the bed, so the owner only has a little sliver to sleep on. Piles of stuff covering most of the couch. Piles of stuff blocking doorways, blocking the stairs.
If this were a person, we’d be inclined to say, “Excuse me but could you please MOVE?”
When it’s our stuff, it blends into the background, taking over the joint while we just make our own space smaller and try to ignore it.
Stuff doesn’t just hog the couch or bogart the dining room table. It leaves the kitchen and bathroom a mess, has no intention of cleaning up after itself in the laundry room, and furthermore, it’s taking over the garage.
Sometimes it even rents out a storage unit and starts billing you for it.
If stuff were a person, we’d be writing to advice columns about it. People all over the country would be reading it over coffee and dropping their jaws. Oh my gosh what next?? The nerve of some people! Then what did they do??
Stuff can be so outrageous that way.
It doesn’t earn its keep.
It never helps out around the house.
It has no intention of ever getting up off the couch.
It has no future plans or goals.
It will just sit there and let you do all the work, no problem.
It will expect you to step around it and it’s never going to move itself out of your way.
It doesn’t care if it sets a bad example for your kids.
It doesn’t care if it embarrasses you in front of your friends.
It doesn’t care if it gets into your photos and messes up your shots.
It’s happy to let you pay for all the household expenses, and it will never pitch in.
It’s never going to cook you dinner.
It’s never going to walk your dog.
It’s just going to make your life difficult until you finally decide to do something about it.
What’s going on in our heads when we tolerate an annoying situation? I can tell you what I’ve thought when I’ve had bad houseguests. “She’s having a tough time right now.” “It’s only for a few more days.” “Our dog loves them.” “Well, they didn’t set anything on fire.”
I had a supposed roommate when I was 19. He moved in, and not only did he never pay any rent, not one dollar, but he also ran up my long-distance phone bill and refused to pay it. I had a two-bedroom apartment, and the rent was about 80% of my income at the time. I couldn’t afford to carry both of us, nor should I have had to, since this guy was just a friend of a friend.
I felt bad for him, though, and I didn’t want to make my friend mad, and I believed all his stories about why he quit or got fired and all the interviews and new job opportunities he had coming up. It never crossed my mind to just say, “Pack your stuff,” and get a different roommate who would actually pay.
Finally my boyfriend got mad for me and took action for me. He even found me a replacement roommate, a friend of his who needed a place.
I had a typical young person’s passive attitude, not realizing that a lot of things were my responsibility because not long ago, “real adults” handled those things in my life. I focused on the stuff a teenager would focus on. It didn’t cross my mind that nobody else was in charge.
Sadly, a lot of “real adults” have the same attitude even when they are decades older than I was in those days. They don’t notice things in their situation or their environment because it hasn’t occurred to them that nobody else is in charge.
What things? Things like falling into debt, missing tax deadlines, leaking pipes, infestations of insects or rodents, mold, asymmetrical power dynamics, or, of course, piles of clutter.
What, you mean all that stuff is up to me to deal with?? What are you saying??
Taking full accountability can be very painful at first. It requires a perimeter check.
Going to the dentist after several years, checking bank balances and figuring out how much you owe to how many lenders, writing a list of overdue action items and understanding how much work it will be to dig out. Getting a bunch of bags and boxes and starting to haul clutter out the door. Setting boundaries with people, including those pesky bad roommates and houseguests.
It’s a good thing, though. Clarity about what to do is a huge part of finding motivation. What do I do next? This, this, and this. Clarity leads to solid boundaries, and boundaries lead to peace of mind.
Is your stuff being a bad houseguest? What are you going to do about it?
“Happy families are all alike,” claims Tolstoy, and it’s fair to say that organized people are all alike as well. Chaos, though, is personal.
This is the fascinating thing about working with the chronically disorganized. Their living and work spaces may have a lot in common, as far as the stacks and piles and dust. But the reasons they have for letting things get to that state are all distinctly individual.
The family with small kids and the confirmed bachelor. The teenager and the retired lady. They are only alike in that they can’t figure out what to do about their personal chaos.
You’d think, from all those squalor-sploitation reality TV shows, that all my people make the same mess. They don’t, though. Most of my people are not true hoarders, even though they think they are. They’ll cheerfully get rid of truckloads of stuff and never look back. They just need someone there to help them figure out what to keep and why.
There are usually isolated islands of calm amidst the chaos.
The one who owns a carefully curated capsule wardrobe with plenty of space between hangers
The one who keeps an immaculate living room
The one who is always photoshoot-ready (outside the home, anyway)
The one who lets go of hundreds of books but keeps expired food
Chaos is personal because stories are personal. We live the way we do because we’ve internalized messages about how the world works. We explain things to ourselves, or memorize the way others have explained them. Sometimes we even talk to ourselves, convincing ourselves all over again, in the sense of “how dare they!”
The one who had more stuff than any of my other clients, but somehow managed to keep a nice living room: I want it to look good when my friends come over.
The one whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe are always on point: I could never let myself go.
The one who hoards food but not books: I already read that and now it can go to someone else.
That one is fascinating because it posits that books are consumable, that they come and go, but that food belongs to some kind of longterm storehouse. It’s perfectly fine to read a $25 book once and then donate it, but it is never okay to throw away a five-year-old bag of pasta that cost $1.99.
In my fantasies, the ones I indulge when I’m working through a particularly gross and smelly forgotten area, in my fantasies I host a symposium of chronically disorganized people. They debate amongst themselves whose stories make the most sense.
Often I find myself challenged by these stories, because they don’t match mine, and sometimes my client has a point. For instance, the one who would never, ever leave the house without perfect hair and makeup. I’m more or less the opposite. I’ve left the house in my nightgown because I wasn’t feeling well, but I would never let my HOME go.
The first sign that something is wrong with me is when I somehow “don’t feel like” making the bed. This happens two or three times a year, and without fail, it means I’m either getting a migraine or coming down with a cold.
My client’s story is that the way you present yourself says everything about you. It makes or breaks your reputation.
My story is that I’m not going to bend over backwards to impress other people, and if they require me to look photo-perfect before they’ll talk to me, then I don’t want them for a friend anyway.
My client believes that real friends will accept your home in any state, that they come over to see you, not your house.
My story is that since I work at home, I need and want it to be orderly. I clean my house for myself, not for anybody else. My story is that my home reflects my mental state and my self-respect.
What if we’re both right?
What if everything about us has the opportunity to make a first impression? What if we’re better off attending to both our personal appearance and our homes?
I sure don’t want that to be the answer!
On the other hand, what if we’re both wrong? What if our real friends don’t care if we look a little sloppy OR if our living rooms do?
There’s no right answer here. It depends entirely on whether you care more about your own inner standards or about the judgments of others. It’s also true that people are different, our situations are different, and the values and opinions of our friends vary person to person.
People are often afraid to have me over, because they know about my work. There are people I’ve known socially for many years who have never allowed me to visit them at home. It’s ironic because out of everyone, I’m the *least* likely to judge! I have seen it all and I have smelled it all and I have climbed over it all. I know that people rarely manage to keep up with their own image of what they wished their homes looked like.
Part of what fascinates me about working with chronically disorganized people is that learning about them helps me to learn about myself. Every time I come back from a home visit, I get rid of stuff. I recognize that my clients’ daffy stories about why they “need” to keep certain things sound... hauntingly familiar.
So much of it is aspirational. I’ll wear that one day, I’ll read that one day, I’ll learn how to do that one day, I’ll file that one day, I’ll fix that one day, I’ll sell that at a yard sale one day, I’ll eat that one day.
What about today?
What are we doing about today?
If my stuff doesn’t match my routine, then why? Why am I not taking advantage of these opportunities that I’ve provided myself? Why do I plan to do one thing and then spend my time doing something else instead?
Only one thing is guaranteed. The stories I tell myself about why I’m doing one thing instead of something else are not obvious to anyone but me. My story is my own, and my chaos is my personal chaos.
It was certain doom when we realized we were both marching band geeks. My husband and I still sometimes go around whistling Sousa marches together. He played tuba and I played (but you knew this) clarinet. Therefore we can do a reasonable rendition of Fairest of the Fair.
Our musical training also helped when I taught him various ballroom dances. He knew what I meant when I taught him to swing dance and suggested we try double time.
Then, triple time!
I kinda do everything triple time now.
I just discovered that one of the library smartphone apps I use offers a higher playback speed than the other one. For the enthusiasts, that’s Hoopla vs. OverDrive. Although I was in public at the time, I bounced in my seat and let out a little ‘woohoo!’
Earlier this year, I finally figured out the secret of how to input ebooks into my speed-reading app, Outread. Depending on what it is, I can read at triple or quadruple speed.
This is probably why I have little patience for TV or movies. Sometimes I want to watch something terrible purely for pop culture reasons, and I feel stuck at regular playback. It creates a weird paradox, where it takes me longer to absorb something that doesn’t really interest me than it does to indulge in something I enjoy.
Note: I have seen some unbelievably, staggeringly bad horror films...
...a genre which, at high speed, might quickly morph into screwball comedy.
It often does at my house, because my little parrot likes to walk behind me on the couch, making smooching sounds and imitating games of ping-pong.
Doing things faster is funny. Sometimes, when I bust through my chores, I think of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth.
The way we look at our daily routine is entirely our own choice. It’s equally as possible to take great pride in drudgery as it is to resent even the lightest duties. That’s because we don’t necessarily care about the nature of work; we care about whether we feel like it’s our choice or someone else’s.
Example: I find nail art mystifying. I utterly cannot understand it. I once had to wear a coat of clear nail polish for a gig, and I was counting the hours until I could remove it, because I couldn’t escape the smell. If I had some job where I was forced to sit still and have nail polish applied on a regular basis, and then wear it all day, I’d be climbing the walls. Yet a lot of people wear it for fun. Go figure.
We should all be more aware of what we enjoy for its own sake and what we’d rather trade off for something else.
I like hustling and bustling around, getting things done. It doesn’t even really matter what I’m doing, because I’m listening to a book. Might as well keep busy.
Often, I play Beat the Clock, trying to get a set number of tasks done before a timer goes off. That’s because I no longer have a washer and dryer.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s little that annoys me more than folding laundry. Carrying fifteen pounds of sweaty workout clothes across the apartment complex, and back again when it’s clean, is not my idea of a fun time. Sixteen washers and dryers are shared by 332 units, which is probably 400-500 tenants. This creates some interesting constraints, and constraints are all you need to make up an interesting game.
Can I find a block of time when two or three machines are available? How much can I get done in 28 minutes while waiting to put the wash into the dryer? How much can I get done in 44 minutes while waiting for the dryer to finish?
Part of my game is refusing to do housework on the weekend, and that includes Fridays. I try to avoid Mondays as well, because several holidays include a Monday. And I’m busy on Wednesdays.
Okay, to tell the truth, I only really do housework on Tuesday and Thursday.
Most of it on Thursday.
My game of doing things on triple time means that five or six days a week, I don’t have to do anything but walk the dog. No laundry, no errands, nothing!
Imagine that. Five or six days a week, I have zero stress about cleaning my apartment.
Oh, but you don’t have kids, I hear. Yeah, I’m about to turn 44. Most people don’t have little kids around at my age. Also, both of my parents saw children as little mini chore machines. My mom would tape a chore list for each of us on the front door every morning. We weren’t allowed to go out and play until our chores were done, and this started at kindergarten age. We were gradually considered competent to do every single household task except cleaning the bathroom, and I took that over in high school. I won’t claim that my brothers and I looked forward to doing chores more than any other kid, but I will certainly say that we did our share.
If you live in a home, and your chores stress you out, well, it’s your own home. You’re in charge of creating the rules there. If you insist on burnout, resentment, and annoyance, that is your seigneurial right. Far be it from me to tell anyone to quit being irritated or exhausted if they want to be.
There are lots of games that can be played with task lists. Chores can be regarded as claiming or expanding territory. There can be a race between players or against a timer. There can be bonus points for one thing versus another. Something like a list of business calls can be regarded as a treasure hunt or Mission: Accomplished. Kids are great for this as well, because their ability to continually generate new games is more or less infinite.
Triple time is irresistible to me. It puts a spring in my step. It adds a bit of interest and excitement to what could easily be a boring, routine day. It’s not for everyone, obviously, but... why not one and a quarter time?
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
Secrets to getting things done:
Nobody likes to be micro-managed, and it should be obvious why. The time that the micro-manager spends leaning over someone’s shoulder is time that they could be doing something at a much higher level.
Example: a top-level manager literally leaning over my shoulder and watching me update page number formatting on a document while paying me overtime and making me miss the gym. If anyone had bothered to delegate the task to me days or weeks earlier, it would have taken me ten minutes and never hit this person’s radar. Instead, the company winds up paying this taskmaster to do nothing more than annoy me. How much does this guy make per minute, and why is he wasting his time on this?
That happened fifteen years ago and it still annoys me.
Asking someone to do some something specific is a task. That’s true whether it’s your employee, your kid, your roommate, your romantic partner, or yourself. I tried asking my dog to bring me some tea but honestly he’s not very good at that kind of thing.
CLEAN YOUR ROOM
STOP THAT BARKING
LEARN TO DRIVE, LOSER
Asking someone to do a task is always going to generate a power struggle. If this person (or animal) had any desire to do that task, they would have done it already without your input. They probably have a violent desire to NEVER do that task, and they’ll fight it with every last fiber of their being. Just like my clients do when I suggest that maybe they consider possibly letting go of some of their expired food.
Try it another way, maybe?
Reframing a task as “a problem” or “a situation” is completely different. I’ll offer some examples.
Sitting on my porch, I want to charge my phone and my tablet. There are no electric outlets outside like there have been in previous places we’ve lived. I don’t want to leave the door open for an extension cord because we have a mosquito problem. What am I going to do?
Use a back-up battery
Do only non-electronic things outside
Charge one device at a time inside, and go back and forth retrieving them
Install a power outlet outdoors
Ask my husband to apply his engineering expertise to my problem
My husband and I have a running joke, dating back to our backpacking trip to Iceland. It goes like this: “YOU’RE the man, FIX THIS!” The truth is that if I asked him to do something very specific, like “save me from this hornet,” I know he would drop everything and rush to my aid. In the case of the missing power outlet, I don’t know what to ask for. If I had a solution, I most likely would have done it myself. I’m not going to TASK my husband, I’m going to ASK my husband.
What I mean by this is that I’m going to pose the problem to him and see what he would do. I believe that he will find a different way to solve the problem, something I would not have thought of, and I believe this because he’s done it a thousand times. Part of why we got married is that we have a lot of non-overlapping skills. Rather than berate him for not being good at the same things I am, I praise him for being good at all the things that I am not.
The vocal tones and facial expressions involved in asking someone for their opinion and advice are extremely different than those of someone who is demanding that someone else complete a task.
I tell my husband how much I love working on the porch. I point out what a beautiful day it is and how happy our pets are, dozing in the sun. I say I wish I had a way to charge my devices. I suggest digging out the dog door insert and setting it up so I can run a cord through the dog door.
Approximately four minutes later, he pops up with an extension cord. He rocks the screen door up slightly on its little roller wheels and slides the extension cord under it, then settles it back in position.
I’m so happy I surprise myself by bursting into tears, which completely freaks him out. I then have to explain exactly how much this means to me. I’ll be able to work outdoors all day, all spring and summer long! His solution to my problem is the ergonomic equivalent of adding an entire room to our apartment, a very nice one.
He nods and shrugs and goes back to reading his robotics textbook.
Another example: I want to celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. I task him with telling me when he is going to have his party so I can buy my plane tickets. This does not work. Back to the drawing board. I ask our other brother to talk to him. This does work, because they have different planning styles, but it does not result in firm plans.
I change the task to an ask. I tell my brother that he deserves to do something fun and special for his birthday. He says he is fun and special every day. I ask if he would be willing to cooperate with a surprise party, if we plan something for him and just tell him what to wear and what to pack. He’s fine with that. I figured he would be. Then I ask our other brother to help with something mutually fun and weather-appropriate. We work out in about 20 minutes what I couldn’t make happen in three months by tasking someone.
Notice the difference between “MAKE PLANS AND TELL ME ASAP” and “How can we make your birthday something fun and special?”
It’s just like the difference between “STOP NAPPING AND GET YOUR TOOLS” and “Can you help me make this area into a lifestyle upgrade?”
I’ve found this method really useful in motivating volunteers, also. Rather than ask people to do something specific, explain what it is that you’re trying to do. Every single time, without fail, people will step up with better, quicker, and easier ways to get stuff done. Often they’ll enlist other people you didn’t even know and get them to help. Sometimes they’ll point out that the job has already been done and share materials with you. This is why telling people what to do is pointless: your way is probably the worst way!
There are lots of ways to solve persistent problems if you “ask, don’t task.”
Get your kids to clean up: Plan a party or game night and say you want to make it special. Rather than nagging everyone to pick up after themselves, set a timer, put on some music, and race to “get ready.” What does “get ready” mean? More than you thought, probably! My mom used to do this and I would do extra stuff like making hand-drawn place cards. I still associate parties and housework.
Get your partner to help with yard work: Find out their vision for their ultimate dream yard and get them talking about it. Hammock for napping? Yard parties? Climbing roses? Wood-fired hot tub? Vegetable garden? Home roller coaster? Walk them out to the yard and stand there together while they get rolling.
What’s going on here is a shared vision that is communicated clearly. If other people dislike your vision, they will reject it, and they will fight you til the bitter end. If nobody is on board with your vision, why is that? Are you willing to do the work yourself if you have to? Have you given thought to other approaches? Are you simply in the habit of feeling stressed out, resentful, and irritated?
What would it take to turn the energy around this from “WHY WILL NOBODY DO MY BIDDING” to “hey, you know what would be fun?”
Ask, don’t task, and see if you can find out.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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