We went for a walk and vacuumed at the same time. This isn’t all that interesting in itself; we’ve had a robot vacuum for over a decade now, and we almost always run it while we’re off doing something else so we don’t have to listen to it.
What was different this time was that I realized I had forgotten to move something out of its way. I was able to whip out my phone, pause it from a quarter mile away, and mark off the area as off-limits.
(It turned out not to work, but that’s a story for a different time).
This is a feature that I used to joke about, and now it’s real. (Kinda?) I also used to joke about it emptying itself, and now that’s a real feature, too.
Yet another robot joke I used to make was about getting a robot lawnmower. We don’t have a lawn anymore, because we live on the 5th floor, but that is indeed a robot that somebody can buy now.
What I’ve learned is that I am really, really good at predicting consumer tech that will be available in the 5-10 year range.
(Now if I can just learn to design and sell it, we’re all set...)
The obvious question is raised. What else could a home robot do if we let it?
The case for robot vacuum cleaners is very strong, from my perspective, which is why it is a total mystery to me that so many people resist the very idea. Well what if someone gave you one?? Would you totally refuse to use it?
They’re cost-competitive with other vacuums, they go under the bed and the couch, and if something like a Lego or an earring accidentally gets picked up, you can get it out with much less mess than a traditional vacuum. The only real issue is that you have to go around and arrange your cords and cables in advance.
The robot mop is a little higher maintenance, in that it can’t drive itself on and off the charger, but it is much faster and quieter and doesn’t try to eat the bath mat, so that tends to make up for it.
Talking about chores in terms of robots was good for our marriage. We could play a game - “We live on a space station with robots” - rather than argue about housework. Because of this, we refer to dishwashers and washing machines and dryers as robots, too. Dishbot! Washbot! Drybot!
We would stroll out the door on the way to the movie theater, chortling about how All the Robots were Doing All the Chores. Laundry, dishes, and floor all at the same time.
There’s a natural transition from this concept to the question of what else a robot could do to help.
For us, the next natural transition was, how many of these features could be built into a home’s infrastructure?
My dearest wish has been to have a robot that can fold the laundry. I didn’t even care whether it put the laundry away somewhere, I just wanted the socks all matched up. It turns out that this is on the very far end of difficulty for an AI. Something that a preschooler can do - match socks - can defeat the same robot that can play chess and solve differential equations.
By the time a home robot can fold and put away laundry, it will basically be capable of doing everything.
Not just everything around the house, but basically everything a person can do.
It’s obvious why robots should do certain things instead of people, like sanitizing public restrooms or washing adult diapers. What isn’t so obvious yet is all the things that will be automated, say, fifty years in the future.
Dude! Did you know the dishwasher was first patented in 1850???
And it took 120 years before they were common in the suburbs?
The microwave oven was invented in 1946, but wasn’t all that common until the 1980s. At that time, they cost an average of $425, which is like $1300 now.
The reason all this matters is that anything a machine can do frees up a person to do something else.
You can go ahead and mock me for my foo-foo robot mop, but it is one of the reasons that I will be able to go back to school for my doctorate.
Other people will unblushingly share that they have a maid/housekeeper/cleaning service come in. But hey! That is also a person who could be doing something else! I cleaned houses once upon a time, too, and I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Coming back around to the problem of the missing laundry-folding robot, there are actually a bunch of different ways to get around this problem. 1. Reintroduce the lovely and flattering toga. 2. Do everything virtually with an elegantly dressed avatar, and just walk around nude. 3. Buy only wrinkle-free fabrics and some extra laundry baskets, and just shake everything into them. 4. Have only one outfit, like a space unitard, and have it sanitized while you sleep. 5. Print outfits on demand, then drop them back into the unit to be melted down into something fresh for the next day. 6. Spray-on body paint.
Probably more also. In the meantime, folding laundry takes 15 minutes per load, and when else would we listen to podcasts?
Something I learned when I was working with hoarders is that a lot of people are conceptually married to the idea that you do chores the 1920s way. Grimly, no music, no modern cleansers or tools, for your sins. It astonishes me to this day how resistant people are to changing up their routines. Rather than gratefully accept modern improvements, it’s more likely that people will quit doing it entirely.
Is some of this financial? Sure, of course. At the same time, the robots that I’m talking about are in the same price range as the gaming consoles and stand mixers that I often see. They’re also far cheaper than automobiles, a modern convenience that we have chosen not to own for four years now.
The question behind the question “Could a robot do this?” is, Is there a better way to do this? The question behind *that* is, If this didn’t have to be done personally by me, what else would I be doing with my time?
It’s a week from Thanksgiving. No matter what you’re doing or with whom you are doing it, I’m pretty sure you’re probably planning to eat something. Care to join me in the annual fridge and freezer clear-out?
The reason I do it a week early is to make room for all the leftovers. We have this thing I like to call Fridge Tetris, where all the containers have to fit just so. There is no way I’m going to hang on to some sketchy old jars if they’re going to block my nice pan of cornbread. Out they go!
I used to be terrible about this, because I have food hoarding tendencies. As I resolved to change my ways, I picked up a pro tip from someone else in an organizing article. She said she likes to clear out her entire fridge at the New Year so she knows nothing in there is older than that point.
One thing I can tell you from working with the chronically disorganized is that fridges? Tend to be the most squalid places of all. I have literally found condiments, tahini, salad dressing, etc that are over a decade old.
Halt! If you’re muttering to yourself “so what” then I challenge you to open your fridge, take a picture of it, and post that picture to your social media. No staging no edits.
I say it with love because I have fought that fight with my own self.
Hold onto your old friends, hold onto your memories, but please don’t hold onto your ancient mustards.
There is another thing I picked up from someone else, and that is the concept of the “silly amount.” A silly amount is whatever is left in a container that is smaller than a serving, like a quarter teaspoon of jam or a dribble of milk. It’s silly to let a whole huge container take up space waiting for someone to be disappointed by this sad smidge. The rule with the silly amount, then, is to either finish it off on the spot or throw it out.
My husband caught me doing this once with dry beans. I was saving something like eight dry beans in the bag because I had already measured what I needed. He looked at me, utterly incredulous. What are you doing?? I explained my reasoning and he explained his, that adding the extra few beans wouldn’t be noticeable in my gallon soup pot. Aha. I froze in place, stunned at how much sense that made and wondering how much of my life I had spent dealing with silly amounts of food.
Those silly amounts add up, you see. Maybe the exact same amount is spent on groceries, down to the penny, and in one household the foods are eaten when they are fresh. In another, the silly amounts add up and start to get stale or moldy or runny. Kitchen One is spotless and full of fresh things. Kitchen Two is scary and full of hidden oozes. Both may operate on the edict to Save Money and Don’t Waste Food.
Gives you chills, doesn’t it??
Here’s another thing we do. This is a tradition of my own, and I call it Freezer Surprise. It’s a little running joke. I reached a point in my cooking abilities where the stuff I threw together on a whim started to be better than what I made by strictly following a recipe. The idea is to look at whatever random things in the fridge or freezer Need to Get Eaten Up, and then try to cobble them together into a pleasing meal.
Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, my goal is to finish off as many tubs, jars, bottles, or other containers in our kitchen as possible. This doesn’t necessarily include pantry items like canned soup, especially this year, but it definitely includes anything that has been opened. Better to eat it now than to discover it’s full of weevils a year from now.
Usually this has been a more straightforward goal, because we often travel for at least a week in November or December. Coming home from vacation to a fridge full of turquoise leftovers is not my idea of fun. It’s easier to run a little lean for a couple of weeks, eating up what’s on hand and then restocking in January.
This year is going to be different, since we’re staying home for the first time in a long time, and we’re going to be sad to miss out on being with family. On the other hand, since we aren’t traveling, we have more time to focus on things like cleaning out the fridge.
It’s a time to remind ourselves how lucky we are that we have maybe a little too much, rather than too little. We can nudge ourselves with haunting memories from March 2020, when entire aisles were completely empty in every grocery store for two towns in any direction. Yes, we’re keeping more food supplies at hand now, but no, that doesn’t mean that a single smear of something in the back of the fridge is what’s going to save us.
Cleaning out the fridge is a sign of abundance. It’s a way to anticipate nice meals, a way to bring a little peace of mind into a home that could probably use more. It’s also a way to remember, oh yes, I was making my own wild bread yeast earlier this year and maybe I can let that go.
As I clear out our fridge and freezer before Thanksgiving, I plan our meal. I think about what I’m going to cook for my family the next time we’re all together. (Yeah, yeah, the stuffed mushrooms, I gotcha). I also plan my gifts to the food pantry and the soup kitchen. May all be fed.
This is the secret to “doing it all” when you’re really too busy to do any of it.
Simply: don’t do most things on most days.
This is a corollary to the idea of only doing one thing at a time. Choose the most important thing you think you could be doing, and do that. Even more importantly, consciously choose to not do certain other things.
This is how I finally started being early to things, instead of late. I made a list of all the stuff I would try to do in the mornings before I left, and I decided to quit doing those things. I allowed myself to:
If I wanted to do additional things such as bathe or eat breakfast, I had to count backward and make sure I got up earlier. Those were my incentives. Otherwise I was going to be eating a protein bar out of my purse. Which is fine! And certainly better than the sick, hurried feeling I would have been getting by running out the door late.
The idea was to replace that lateness feeling with some kind of reward. What I realized was that if I got somewhere a few minutes early, I could just sit and read something on my phone. Relaxation instead of consternation.
Let’s transfer that idea to other things such as errands, paperwork, and chores.
I’m a fussy housekeeper, and I clean things when I’m stressed out. This can snowball quite badly when you suddenly find yourself under a kind of house arrest for several months. I can’t document this? But I’m pretty sure it’s not a legal requirement to dust your baseboards every day. I knew I was going to need to set limits or I would be doing circuits around my house like a cuckoo in a clock.
My main goal in housekeeping is to only do it on weekdays. I like to know that I can kick back for a three-day weekend and not feel like there’s something I should be doing. Other people might like to bang it all out in one day, which is a perfectly valid system in its own right. Personally I just don’t want to spend four hours doing housework unless someone is handing me an envelope full of cash afterward.
Competing with this minimalist system is my other goal, the subconscious one that keeps overriding the sensible one. That is to have every surface 100% tidy and speck-free at all times. That way lies insanity.
One of the areas that I could be cleaning perpetually is the bathroom counter, including the sink and mirror. If I started doing it every day, how long would it take to morph into twice a day? It has its designated cleaning days, and the rest of the time, the rule is: Don’t do that today.
I remind myself of all the other things I want to do, and that I never feel I have time to do. Reading! Learning to draw! Lounging around listening to music and learning the lyrics!
Granted, I don’t always do those things, because I am a restless spirit, but at least I don’t waste all my time doing housework.
There is an opposite extreme here, the end of the spectrum that would rather live in a certain amount of chaos than, again, waste all the time doing housework. That is legit. At a certain point it also makes life more complicated. I would list off here: respiratory issues, any kind of trip hazard, not being able to find stuff, paying late fees, being late everywhere or missing appointments, relationship stress, and generally being unhappy and dissatisfied with the results.
Entropy is not the same thing as inspiration or creativity.
Three things happened when I decided that I just wasn’t going to do most things on most days.
One, I just... worked 44 hours a week and collected my paychecks.
Two, I started reading a bit more again.
Three, and unexpectedly, when I would go around to do whatever the day’s thing was... it would sometimes... already be done?
I created space for someone else to step in and do things.
The problem with being super-organized and efficient is that everyone in an ever-broadening gyre around you starts to relax and abdicate more. It’s not necessarily that anyone in the circle is unwilling or unlikely to do these things... They’re just not going to be the first person to do these things.
Unless you step back and make space for that to happen.
Most individual chores only take 2-5 minutes. Wiping down a countertop or squeegeeing a mirror. Taking out a bag of trash. Wiping down a shelf in the fridge. Putting a load of laundry in the dryer. Et cetera. I know this is true because I spent a couple of weeks running around timing everything I did with a stopwatch. The only exception is folding laundry, which is more like 10-12 minutes per basket.
When someone around you starts to realize that a 2-5 minute contribution will be noticed and appreciated, it starts to happen more often.
These are the goals:
Keep weekends chore-free
Do laundry once a week and don’t do it the other six days
Grocery shopping no more than two days a week
Automate everything possible.
Automate, delegate, eliminate!
Then what do you do with the remainder of the time? Where do you put the former feelings of habitual stress, worry, anxiety, or resentment?
My recommendations would be along the lines of: relaxing, making something beautiful, going back to get your degree, training for a marathon, or writing a book. That’s where the flip side of my directive comes in. Definitely do that today!
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
Now that 99% of my social life is being performed virtually, I’ve discovered the advantages of multitasking. It’s not that I’m not listening to you - it’s that sitting still on the phone makes me restless and impatient. I got through large lecture hall classes in college by crocheting a massive afghan that I still use today. Think of these activities as ways to help me pay closer attention to you.
Things I have done while my phone was on mute:
Squeegee my sliding glass door, inside and out
Unload the dishwasher
Make a sandwich
Wipe out the microwave
Draw in my bullet journal
Floss my teeth
Update our whiteboard
Feed my parrot
Dust the baseboards
Eat a bowl of oatmeal
Organize my desk
Wipe fingerprints off my tablet
Make a fairly large breakfast
Wash the pans
Have a sneezing fit
Change into my gym clothes
Make the bed
Get in the elevator and ride down to the lobby
Examine my hair for split ends
Give my parrot a vigorous scalp massage
Sweep the floor
Look at your photo and wish we were together
I’ve done a lot of things while I was talking to you with the phone on mute. One thing you can’t accuse me of, though, is texting anyone else at the same time. At least the only person I was talking to was you!
How would we find out if we had/have COVID-19?
Recently a friend stopped by to visit after being on a cruise ship. He had a very scary cough. Now my husband is sick. Coincidence?
But maybe not?
The thing is, at this point in technological development, most people never get tested for anything when they get sick. We probably misattribute symptoms all the time. We say we have “the flu” when it might be a bad cold, salmonella poisoning, or some other type of virus that is not technically influenza. How would we know?
A hundred years ago people thought tuberculosis was genetic.
In trying to be rational during an outbreak, the most important step is to err on the side of hygiene. If we get anything out of this epidemic, hopefully it will be a higher regard for basic hand-washing. I did a speech on Ignaz Semmelweis last year, and I was appalled to learn that there was no specific date when it became universally required for doctors to wash their hands. I wanted to throw in a tidbit like “He was ignored for 80 years.” It’s worse than that because it never happened at all.
Humans, we get pretty offended and defensive if anyone suggests we aren’t quite clean enough!
Even as we walk around coughing into space, getting up from tables without even pretending to wipe our crumbs or pick up our cups, and turning a blind eye when our kids stick their ABC gum under their chairs.
(Hey, SOMEONE is doing it and I’m pretty sure it’s not squirrels).
Last night I had to move someone else’s wet laundry. (72 units, 7 washing machines; don’t hate the player, hate the game). It was still sitting where I left it when I came down to put my stuff in the dryer, so I put the other load back in the washer where I found it.
“They think it’s clean! Now they’ll never know that someone touched it!” I told my husband when I came back upstairs. If coronavirus gives us anything, maybe it will encourage more people to set a timer and quit bogarting the washing machines.
It didn’t occur to me until just now. What if that wet laundry was sitting in the washer because the person who put it there suddenly fell ill?
How would I know?
The indicators that we might be sick or in trouble tend to look just like regular, sloppy old human behavior.
I don’t know any of my neighbors by name, and I’ve lived here over six months. People are not very friendly in our building... and will probably be less so as time goes by and epidemic preparedness becomes more culturally ingrained. I recognize a dozen people, but I don’t know who lives in which unit or what kind of schedule they normally keep. I wouldn’t know who to check on or what to ask.
“Hi, are you dead yet? No? Okay great.” *clears throat* “TEN O’CLOCK AND ALL’S WELL!”
There will probably be a digital solution for this. We all have a switch that we press at designated times and it lights up on a reader board somewhere. Everyone at 123 Main Street is still up and kicking.
More likely this will be a sensor provided by Netflix. Still viewing, still breathing... unless they’re on auto-play, because it’s actually plausible that someone might not move for 8 hours with the right show on.
We already know we can’t count on Amazon because sometimes those packages sit in the lobby for days. There’s an entire Instant Pot that’s been down there since January.
Starbucks might know. Joe hasn’t been here for his regular order in three days, that can’t be right! Although one day I’m convinced we’ll have custom coffee spigots that dispense our regular beverages with six-sigma precision, right out of the sink.
It’ll all be delivery robots, dropping off food on our doorsteps, sanitizing the sidewalks in little damp trails as they go.
...Have crows and gulls figured out delivery bags yet?
Fortunately for us, we started prepping approximately five minutes ago. We actually have soup and stuff on hand. While we understood that we were very unlikely to be quarantined, and also very unlikely to die of COVID-19, there is nothing wrong with stocking up on two or three weeks’ worth of dry goods.
It’s almost embarrassing that one of us got sick within the week. Like, why haven’t you been doing this routinely every September for your entire adult life?
It actually is quite possible that we both have been exposed to COVID-19 and wouldn’t know it. Apparently the main reason it has propagated so quickly to the level of “community spread” is that most people who are exposed to it either don’t get all that sick, or don’t have symptoms at all.
Why is my husband coughing and I’m not?
I feel a little weird, tired and a bit lethargic, but it’s almost impossible to tell whether that’s due to the change to daylight savings time. It could be psychosomatic. I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like me for going to work and running errands just like normal. This is kinda the daily reality of middle age. “Like a young person but tired and stressed out.”
The difference between us right now is that any time I’ve been on the bus or out in public, and I heard someone coughing or blowing their nose, I would take my special zinc tablets that night. Hubby only takes them if I wave them in his face, because they taste strongly of garlic and mushroom. Bouillon cubes! This is now the third time he’s picked up a cold (or something, she said ominously) and I haven’t gotten it, even though we live together and eat mostly the same meals.
Also I drink green tea and he drinks black tea, but who’s counting?
In the end, we have to consider that there is a virus in our apartment and that both of us are probably contagious - with what, who knows? How could we ever know? Supposedly the standard-issue flu killed up to 80,000 people in one winter, and that has never been enough to inspire all that many people to get the flu shot, much less wash their hands more carefully or actually stay home when they are clearly ill.
We’re taking precautions because we can, and because suddenly this year it seems to matter more. Whatever we might have, we’re pretty sure you don’t want it.
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.
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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