A few years ago, millions of people watched and shared the video of Admiral William H. McRaven’s commencement speech. He had lots of good ideas to share from his life and his training, but what people remember most is this: If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.
As we study what catches on and “goes viral,” as they say, we know that simple messages like this tend to stick. You could also change the world by building an impressive military career and making very difficult decisions in the course of your special forces service that turned out to work. But that advice is harder for people to act on. Whereas everyone can make his or her bed. So that’s the message that came out of this speech.
But should you? I woke up in a hotel room this morning, so I probably won’t be making my bed. I’d say my bed at home is a 50-50 proposition. There’s also the question of whose responsibility it is to make the bed. If you share it with someone, do you change the world by making the bed? Or do you change it by not automatically taking this on yourself?
In any case, as I study how people spend their time, and how they work best, I see that for some people, outer order contributes to inner calm. For some people, making a bed might count as a tiny victory, and that might convince them that they can do bigger things.
But for others, that’s probably less true. They don’t mind outer order, but they also don’t want to spend a ton of time pursuing it. If having a few things scattered around the floor, or having an unmade bed somewhere in the house is going to bother you, you could literally spend your entire life cleaning in the vague hopes that “life begins when you put your house in order” (to quote Marie Kondo). Or you could recognize that those things will just come out again tomorrow, but you’ll never get that time back.
I have also seen that organization and tidiness are not the same thing at all. I’m incredibly organized (I have the camp spreadsheet to prove it!) I’m also not that tidy. I stack papers on my desk, and I clean off the desk once every few weeks if that. I have 632 unread messages in my main inbox, which to me means “zero.” Somebody asked why I didn’t go through and delete those 632 unread messages if I’m not going to do anything about them, but they do not bother me at all, so I’m not sure why I’d do that.
Because of my personality, I probably wouldn’t succeed in the military, which tends to attract the tidier sorts. If you sleep in a barracks, lots of people see your bed, so there’s more a question of group norms than in a private house. But I don’t spend my time looking at my bed during the day, and no one else does either, so whether it’s made or not just doesn’t enter into my conception of whether I’m succeeding.
I don’t agree that if we can’t get the little things right, how can we do big things? No one can do everything. We all have to choose some things not to do.
But obviously, people have different takes on this. So let me know: do you make your bed each morning? (Or does your partner? Whose job is it?) Why do you make it or not?