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What a giant pile of laundry taught me about productivity

Create systems that work for the person you are—not the person you want to be.

By Breetel Graves · January 10, 2022
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For as long as I can remember, I've thought of myself as a messy person. It's not something I'm proud of, but change never felt feasible either. 

When I was a kid, my parents would try every trick in the book to get me to clean my room, but the neverending pile of Barbies and dirty clothes and crayons sprawled out on my floor felt insurmountable, and eventually, they would give up. In adulthood, my own mess-shame was enough to get me to clean my house before guests came over, but it was never something I could be consistent with, and the clean-up process itself was fraught with anxiety. I've always been jealous of people who could just clean up—like it was so simple. Like it was something they just instinctively knew how to do. 

After I had children, the mess increased ten-fold, and despite my attempts to change my behavior, I continued to get quickly overwhelmed by mess and disorganization, then fall back into patterns of avoidance and denial of the mess—until eventually guests were coming over again and I was forced to confront my mess-fears because my fear of social rebuke is greater.

Then the pandemic happened. 

Guests stopped coming over. My house became a disaster. 

The mess

The mountain of clean laundry in a pile on the floor of the laundry room became the bane of my existence. It would grow and grow, and I'd look at it with disgust, painfully wishing it didn't feel SO HARD to put it away. My husband and I split the household chores between the two of us, but I couldn't hold up my end of the bargain. Because he's an angel of a person, he never made me feel bad, but he didn't take over my responsibilities either, because he has boundaries and I love him for it. 

So it continued to grow. The Pile became a staple. My whole family knew to search for their clothes in The Pile rather than in their dressers, and I continued to feel guilt and shame about it, while still feeling helpless. 

Why can't I just put the laundry away every day? How do normal people do this? Is this something that's taught? Am I going to pass the legacy of The Pile down to my children? This shouldn't be so hard!

The mess of my house was making me miserable. I wanted my home to feel like a safe and beautiful refuge. I spent all my free time plotting home decor renovations, but I knew I could never follow through if I couldn't get through The Pile. I felt utterly stuck.

Just before New Year's, I read a beautiful piece of writing by author, poet, and Twitter extraordinaire Saaed Jones, where he discusses productivity, how feelings impact what we're able to do, and how to work with our feelings when we can't be productive:

"Generally speaking, I think 'productivity' is about quantity. It's about more. I can create more. I can do more. I can accomplish more. But sometimes—or often!—we find ourselves lost in the canyon between goals. We want to be more productive, but just can't squeeze more tasks or pages or emails out of ourselves. That happens; we need to recharge. In the meantime, what can we be instead? Maybe I'm not productive right now. But can I be curious? Caring? Kind? Attentive? In other words, is this perceived canyon actually an opportunity for you to take a worthwhile detour?"

I love this within the context he intended, but I also love this with regards to my feelings on mess: I want so badly to be a clean person. I am not. 

Instead of lamenting what I'm not, what else can I be that will serve my greater goal of creating a home that feels relaxing and safe and beautiful? Instead of fighting against myself, how can I work with the person I am to find that peace?

I had to look at the problem of The Pile without all the judgment and anger it caused in myself in order to find a way out. I needed a system that worked for the person I am, and not for the person I thought I should be. 

The system

I sat in the middle of The Pile, and I felt my feelings: There is just too much here. I am overwhelmed. I don't know where to start. It feels pointless to start, when I know the mess will return.  

And then I forced myself to respond with honesty, compassion, and curiosity: There IS just too much here. The problem WILL return if I don't change things up. This is not a personal failure, this is a project that needs loving attention. 

When I'm starting an essay or creating a training module, I start with a few lines. An idea. A train of thought. I make the project smaller. I tell myself, "Just write the next small thing."

The Pile is too big. What's the next small thing?

I bought extra laundry bins for each member of my household and put them next to the dryer. Slowly, I started to pick up a few pieces of clothes and sort them. I made a rule that we could only do one person's laundry at a time, and instead of dumping it in The Pile, each person's laundry would get dumped into their bin. This was progress. 

The system started working. The Pile was diminishing.

But we noticed another Pile started forming downstairs where my children and I would dump all the dirty clothes that got shed after playing outside or after school. "We just need to bring them up and sort it every night!" my husband exclaimed. But we didn't. We weren't. That's not who we are. 

I bought more laundry bins to keep downstairs—one for each person. Bringing up the already sorted laundry felt entirely manageable. 

Extending the system

As The Pile went away, I looked around my house toward other big problems that I could make smaller. 

The Kitchen Table Mess stared back at me. TikTok's #cleantok trend tells me, "Don't put it down, put it away," but that's just never worked for me. I can't make myself do that consistently. Instead, I started using "go-back boxes": a box for each key area in the house to be kept in a central location. If I can't make myself put everything away, I can at least put items into a particular box. Once a week, everyone in my family can empty a box. I can make the problem smaller. 

It's only been a few weeks since I've been using these systems, and I'm not gonna lie—my house is still messy. But it's much better than it was. The pile of laundry isn't growing, and more importantly, I'm proud of myself for finding something that works for me instead of stewing in my anger about not being someone else.

Cleanliness and organization don't come naturally to me. That's just not how my brain works, and that's ok. What I can do is more important than what I cannot, and I can always do the next small thing. 

Find your next small thing

For me, this was about laundry. For lots of people, it's about work.

It's wired into our brains that we need to be productive at work. Projects start to feel overwhelming, processes start to get complicated, and soon enough, impostor syndrome kicks in. We want to be something we're not—something no one is, really.

Just like I did for my mess, you should be creating systems for who you are, not who you think you should be. For me, it's about starting small, so here are a few ideas for how to make The Pile of your work seem smaller. Try them out, keep what works, and ditch the rest.

  • Try to make one small improvement each week. And don't expect to be done by Monday lunch.

  • Create your own work go-back box in the form of a "Do later" section of your to-do list. 

  • Rely less on willpower, and set up a concrete system for accountability, whether it's a simple calendar reminder or a more extreme automatic deduction from your bank account when you don't do the thing.

  • Automate your calendar, to-do list, and work environment, so that more of the burden is on your computer instead of on you.

Whatever your Pile is, I know you can find your extra laundry bins to make it feel more manageable.

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