When I was in my twenties, new to a busy teaching career and newly married, I remember having a conversation about housework with an older colleague. The conversation went something like this:
Me: How do you ever manage to get everything done? By the time I am finished my marking and course prep I can’t imagine coping with all the laundry and the dishes and the housecleaning…
Her: Well now, I just don’t go to bed until everything is done.
That was the last time I asked her for advice.
Instead, I opted to adopt the philosophy of housekeeping espoused by my great-aunt Molly.
My grandmother’s sister Molly was a creative woman who spent much of her adult life applying her creativity to managing a farm household with limited resources. Molly’s resourcefulness was of the variety that could turn a scoop of leftover chicken fat into melt-in-your mouth sugar cookies. While her culinary creativity may not translate well into the 21st century, I did learn from her other very important lessons that have stood the test of time.
Aunt Molly’s School of Sensible Housekeeping consisted of one fundamental principle, which she explained with this scenario:
You are sitting relaxing and you look up and notice a dirt spot on the wall. You have two options.
- You can obsess about the fact that you are now going to have to find a pail and fill it with soapy water and thoroughly wash all the walls, which of course will involve moving all the furniture, which will mean that you are going to end up washing the floor as well— and that sounds like way more work than you have the energy for today. Or tomorrow. So you leave the spot on the wall for days (weeks? months even!) during which you will become increasingly oppressed by the knowledge that you are a failure at housekeeping and probably by extension a failure at just about everything else.
- OR, you can stand up, grab the damp cloth that is probably already hanging by your kitchen sink, and wipe off the spot. Then you can go back to sitting and relaxing.
Aunt Molly advocated option #2.
Now, don’t assume that to mean that Molly was a lazy housekeeper. I am certain her walls, floors, and everything in between got a thorough scouring on a regular basis. But there is wisdom in Molly’s spot-cleaning approach to housekeeping that has translated itself into a wealth of life lessons as I have contemplated her words over the years. Here are a few of those lessons:
- You are your own worst critic. When you look at the wall, do you see a small and insignificant spot, or do you see the whole world judging you because your entire house is a massive expanse of filth? Chances are someone else doesn’t even see the spot!
- There is always something you can do now. When life gets overwhelming, sometimes just exercising control over one tiny piece of it helps me regain a sense of perspective. If you can’t afford that big purchase you desire, can you put aside the first five dollars? If you can’t run the marathon, can you walk around the block?
- Solve the immediate problem. Sometimes I get stuck because I am trying to solve the wrong problem. Or too many problems. When that happens, I have learned to reframe the problem into something I do have the resources to address. Is the problem really that my whole house needs cleaning from top to bottom right this minute? Or is the problem that at this particular moment this particular spot is bugging me?
- It’s important to know what constitutes “enough.” Having been inclined, in my youth, to an unhealthy degree of perfectionism, I have spent a long time learning that you don’t need to do everything to have done something worthwhile. Don’t load unrealistic expectations on yourself when you should really be patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.
- Planning makes the big things more manageable. Eventually you will have to wash the whole wall, but in the meantime a little spot-cleaning can make it bearable. And then you can plan to wash the wall when you have more time. Or energy. Or helpers!
- A lot of little things together make a big thing. Does washing a wall mean you need to wash all the walls? Can you do one room today and another one tomorrow?
- And perhaps most importantly, it’s better to do the simple thing that’s right in front of you than to just think about doing something grand. Getting out of your chair and going for a walk is more productive than thinking about running a marathon. Writing a two or three blog posts a week may not be writing a best-selling novel, but it is several steps ahead of just thinking about writing a novel.
Of course it’s good to do the grand things too. But you’ll never get to the grand things if you spend too much time worrying about how clean the walls are.