Let it soak (secrets of the most productive people series – installment 3)

IMG_0128Note: I am running a series this week looking at some of my favorite productivity tips, with stories and strategies behind them.

Another month is here, which means it is time for a new post on Real Simple. (Longtime readers know I have a thing with this magazine. I believe it perfectly captures the modern, upper-middle-class 35- to 45-year-old woman zeitgeist. However, I often find this zeitgeist incredibly funny).

The article for discussion this month is called “How to live with a messy person and not go insane.” There is a little line noting that one could add “or a neat freak” — as in how one might live with a neat freak and not go insane. But it is assumed that the reader of Real Simple is the neat one in her relationship. Indeed, editor Kristin van Ogtrop discusses this in her monthly editor note, which specifies that “it takes a certain kind of neat freak…to work at Real Simple.” They have discussions about husbands who do not put the top back on the toothpaste because “we at Real Simple know that whether a husband puts the cap back on the toothpaste often has a disproportionately big impact on our day-to-day. Because a toothpaste cap left lying next to the tube leads to a feeling, and that feeling might be that your whole life is out of control.”

Um, OK. I do not have this feeling. I have posted before that I do not believe my cupboard is a metaphor for life. However, that philosophy is out there, and writer Jancee Dunn explores it at length in an article on how she and her husband have tried to navigate their differences of opinion on housekeeping.

Thankfully, Real Simple had hubby Tom annotate the article. I quite liked Tom. Jancee writes that if it were up to her, she would “live in a pristine, minimalist dwelling.” Tom notes that there is an easy way to achieve that dream: “By committing a crime and going to live in a jail cell.” Jancee frets that she is “the sort of twitchy person who leaps up before dinner is over to start cleaning.” She cannot fall asleep until she feels that the house is perfect. Tom notes that “I have a pretty low bar for the house being perfect: The carbon monoxide alarm is quiet,” and nothing is making him itch.

Indeed, as the article went on, my sympathy for Tom grew. Jancee patrolled their apartment looking for anything in the waste baskets so she could empty them. Tom does the laundry, but not as frequently as Jancee would like, which I imagine would be hourly. The organization experts have to convince her that it is no crime that her husband has stacks of paper on his desk. It is his desk, his organization system.

The good news is that Jancee comes to see that this philosophy toward life, “let it soak,” is not a bad one. I would venture that it may be one of the lesser-sung secrets of the most productive people. In I Know How She Does It, the range of hours spent on housekeeping and errands was 2 to 25. This is quite a difference. In an extra 23 hours a week, you can work more (and thus advance your career), and spend more time interacting with your kids, exercise, read, volunteer, mentor worthy people, and generally enjoy yourself.

But it is not just about productivity. I think there is an important point here on gender relations and housework, which I have been thinking about since writing my Fast Company article on The Second Shift (please go read and share this essay if you have not yet — my ability to keep writing such pieces hinges on people reading them, and this one is on the low side right now).

A 2008 analysis of how married parents spend their time found that in 2-income couples, mom does 0.69 hours more of housework daily. That is about 42 minutes. I am quite sure that Jancee was doing at least 42 more minutes of housework daily than Tom. But is that a second shift she should feel indignant about, or is that preference? After all, Tom was doing the laundry. He was doing the dishes — just in a longer time frame than his wife wanted. If Jancee is patrolling the house, looking for anything in the wastebaskets, while Tom is watching TV, is that because he is a lazy man shirking the second shift, or is something else going on? Not all housework needs to be done. Sometimes the solution to the second shift is not that the guy should start doing more.

In my speeches, I have a line that always gets a laugh. I talk about ignoring, minimizing, and outsourcing. “People say Laura, it costs money to outsource household chores! Which is true. But it does not cost anything to lower your standards.”

My husband and I have not reached what I would say is a satisfied equilibrium on the childcare front. However, I generally do not feel like I am doing a lot more housework than he is. We outsource a lot of it, a privilege to be sure, but something most Real Simple readers could do. My motto: If you can afford $400 linen pants, you can afford a housekeeper. But also, I am fine with doing something fun even if the house is messy. I do not twitch. Sure, I would like to have a clean house, and often I do. But I will not make relaxing and enjoying myself contingent on that happening. Housework does not keep me from having leisure time because I prioritize leisure time. I think that is often as much the solution to the second shift as anything else.

In other news: I am writing a piece on “successful people who work 40 hours a week.” I would love to hear from people who work reasonable hours in unreasonable fields. As always, you can email me: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

15 thoughts on “Let it soak (secrets of the most productive people series – installment 3)

  1. I think the woman mentioned in the article (cleaning before everyone’s done eating) is a little neurotic. I am too busy enjoying the food I just spent an hour cooking to clean up just yet.

    At the same time, I am currently dealing with a cockroach infestation (they weren’t here when we moved in, so…) due in part to “letting it soak” a few too many times this past year. Bedrest, a preemie, NICU experience sort of threw a wrench in my house cleaning habits.

    And leaving the lid off the toothpaste is a bit like not flushing after using the toilet: nothing earth-shattering is going to happen, but it does make the experience a little less pleasant for the next person coming after you. The toothpaste gets all clogged and gross looking at the opening. I see it as a matter of conscientiousness.

    The answer for my marriage? I have my own tube. My husband can deal with the unpleasant consequences of his habits (a gross, clogged tube that won’t squeeze when you want it to, then shoots a spray of toothpaste all over the bathroom)

    1. @Carrie – we have our own tubes too. That way each person can make their own choices and deal with the consequences!

      Sorry to hear about the cockroaches. When we moved in here we got ants every April and September but after 4 years of pest control regular treatments we got almost none last year (knock on wood…) Good luck dealing with it.

      1. My husband doesn’t leave the toothpaste tube open but two tubes is absolutely a great way to end that problem.
        We had (have?) a mouse problem that sort of came with the house (likely came from sharing walls with not-as-clean people) but it keeps us making sure the kitchen is spotless every night because we do NOT want to encourage them. “let it soak”? no way. we are not providing a mouse buffet every night! But I have definitely lowered my standards on everything else…I stopped cleaning up kids’ toys, worrying about unfolded laundry/unfiled papers/etc…

    2. YES! I had never even thought of the toothpaste thing as an issue because as soon as we got a bathroom with 2 sinks, we have all our own stuff. Also, our toothpastes have flip caps generally, so they seem to mostly stay closed without all that effort?

      I can’t imagine being bothered by that sort of thing, though bugs are quite another.

  2. I prefer to do a daily quick clean because I hate when things pile up and then I have to spend a long time cleaning. It’s probably not a big difference at the end of the week time-wise but it is a total psychological thing for me. 15 minutes a day I can live with. 2 hours all at once seems so awful.

    However, there are moments where I definitely apply the let it soak idea. Sometimes you just can’t get everything done and you need to let something go.

    I’m big into minimizing my possessions so I have less stuff to clean/manage in the first place. Although I am far from an actual minimalist this does really help.

    1. YES! I know Laura is not a fan of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” but another article I read about it – about NOT being the shepherd of all this STUFF (author used another word) in her house was making her crazy so paring down to what she used/loved was actually helpful AND time-saving. I totally agree with that sentiment (and I’m not an accumulator to begin with, but 12 years in the same house naturally will do that.)

  3. I am Tom, so it’s hard for me to understand that some people won’t let you keep your glass after dinner because that’s when the dishes are done, but alas.

    1. @snm – exactly. You wind up needing a new glass, and that’s not particularly efficient (or good for the environment in terms of excess water use). If dishes aren’t that dirty (like there were just pretzels on a plate, nothing that’s going to be crusty) I will re-use them.

      1. do people do this? we use the same glass for 24 hours. and I would never wash a plate that only had dry food on it! are these the same people that wash a towel after each use?

  4. I think I have lowered my housekeeping standards with each additional child. It helps immensely to just enjoy the stage I’m in, and know that one day I can keep a pristine house if that’s what I decide to do with my time and energy. It is just not worth the extra stress at this stage of life. Thankfully my husband and I are generally on the same page.

    I read the beginning of that article in the waiting room for the dentist and had the same sympathy for poor Tom. It sounded a little exhausting.

    1. @Katherine – I know! Tom is managing to work, be an involved-enough parent to be the one taking his kid to school, he bikes competitively, AND he does the laundry and the dishes. Sounds perfectly productive to me!

      I, too, have a list of home projects that will happen when my kids won’t completely destroy them. Our family room furniture is falling apart but it will annoy me a lot more to have the children creating forts out of cushions I care about.

  5. I like the advice of Australian painter, Margaret Olley.
    “You can spend your whole lifetime cleaning the house. I like watching the patina grow. If the house looks dirty, buy another bunch of flowers, is my advice”
    Do a google images search of ‘Margaret Olley house’ to see the resulting glorious color and chaos 🙂

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