Taming the Dishes, 2021 Version [en]

If you know me just a little, you’ll know that doing my dishes is an everlasting challenge. It’s not that I hate doing it so much (I’d have got a dishwasher years ago). It’s just that… it never seems important to do it now, and then it piles up, and it’s the thing I constantly feel bad about not doing, so I tend to push it away.

My dishes have been under control for some time now and I thought I’d share how I did it. Worked for me, not sure it will work for you, but the underlying method is something you might find interesting.

Background

I was inspired by what I’m learning at my training at the IGB (it’s the brief therapy approach developed at the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute back in the days).

To sum things up (too) briefly, the general strategy is the following: when faced with a problem one is stuck with, trying and trying to solve one’s way out of it, the obvious conclusion is that what is being tried is not working – otherwise the problem would not be there anymore. Worse, what is being tried is actually keeping the problem alive or making it worse; if that were not the case, chances are the problem would go away at some point. If it remains despite all our efforts to get rid of it, then we are unwittingly participating in its persistance.

The “simple” solution is to identify what it is that we are doing which makes the problem worse, or at least maintains it, and stop doing it. It is not easy, firstly because we are generally unaware of our participation in the systems we are part of, and second, because if we are doing what we are doing, it is because on some level we firmly believe it is a solution to the problem at hand.

The “simplest” (again, not “easy”) way of not doing something is to head in a radically opposite direction, and do something that is incompatible with what we desire to stop. Think “U-turn”. This is very tricky to think through, and even trickier to implement (this is where the hundreds and hundreds of hours of training to become a therapist come in), and leads to these weird and counter-intuitive paradoxical prescriptions: instead of trying to stop doing x, do more of it!

Addictive/compulsive behaviours

So, to get back to our dishes, I had just come out of a couple of days of training where we had discussed some “typical” ways to deal with addiction/compulsion issues and – very much related though maybe not obvious at first glance – procrastination. Generally, in situations where excessive consumption (of all nature) is problematic, our attempts to get out of it take the shape of “stop it”, or “do less”. Like “I have to stop smoking”, or “I have to eat less chocolate”. Well, we all know how well that works, don’t we? So, how do we stop doing that? How do we stop telling ourselves to not smoke, drink less, etc., when our goal is precisely to stop smoking or excessive drinking?

Well, in this case, the prescriptions will have to go in the other direction: “smoke more”, “eat more chocolate” – but of course, not in any crazy way, because we do not want to abandon the goal of getting the excessive consumption under control. For example, one classic prescription is of the form “do it once, do it x times”: instead of trying to stop smoking, have a rule that each time you smoke one cigarette, you have to smoke 5. Or each time you drink a glass of wine, you finish the bottle. Of course all this needs to be tailored to the specific situation and the person, but the way it works is the following: it “breaks” the mechanism of fooling oneself that one can smoke/drink/eat “just one” (assuming that is the problem). “Oh, I’ll just eat one bowl of ice-cream!” And three bowls later: “Heck, I really need to stop eating ice-cream.” See the idea?

Procrastination

Now, what does this have to do with procrastination, you will ask me? Procrastination is actually very similar in its underlying mechanism. But instead of “I’ll do it just once” it’s “I’ll not do it just once”. “I’ll do it tomorrow” is in fact “I’ll just skip doing it today.” Procrastination is telling ourselves that it doesn’t matter if we don’t do the thing just now, because we will (for sure!) do it later. So we apply a similar but opposite prescription: “if you don’t do it once, don’t do it x times.” Or, in positive terms: “skip it once, skip it x times”.

Let’s take an example. Say I’m trying to write my dissertation or prepare a class. I’ve decided I was going to work on it each day for 2 hours. What usually happens is that I don’t manage to get to work on it today, I get sidetracked, or I feel off, and I think “oh well, I’ll skip today and do it tomorrow.” And tomorrow, the same thing happens, and it gets worse and worse. Sound familiar? Now, if I have a rule that if I skip one day, then I am not allowed to get back to work on it for another 4 (e.g.) days, how will that make me feel? Can you feel the tension increasing?

Applying this to my dishes

This is very much what happens with my dishes. It’s the evening, I’m tired, I look at the sink and think “meh, I’ll do this tomorrow”. But then, as we all know, tomorrow brings more dishes and even less desire to deal with them and even more “meh, I can’t deal with this now, I’ll do it tomorrow, for real.”

This is what I came up with:

If I don’t do the dishes, I can’t do them for the next three days.

I came up with three days because it’s scary enough for me to be a deterrent, but not so much that it makes things impossible. For example, if I’d said “10 days”, that would not work for me because it’s just not tenable to not do the dishes for 10 days. Three days works for me because I know I have no desire whatsoever to have to deal with three days of dishes. Your mileage may vary, if you try this.

More than once, I have found myself in the evening in front of the days dishes thinking “meh, I really don’t want to do this” – but right after, I picture the three days of dishes that not doing it tonight will imply, and I get to work.

Soon after I started with this, I found myself in the evening thinking “oh, the dishes!” only to realise I had already done them. Now that I’ve been at this for a few months, I can feel it’s turning into a habit like brushing my teeth before bed is. I “don’t feel right” if I haven’t done it.

Some concrete details:

  • “do the dishes” means I wash everything that needs washing at that moment and see the bottom of the sink
  • I don’t dry things, and haven’t got a system in place for putting clean dishes away yet (thinking about it)
  • because “things happen”, I have built some flexibility into the system (because it works for me without endangering the system): I am allowed an “exception” every now and again (imagine: guests or a lot of cooking in the evening so really too tired to deal with it) but the condition is that I must catch up  the next day. I’m aware that with this system I could end up doing dishes every other day, but it’s not the case, and if it were, I would change this “exception clause”
  • I’m now starting to think it would be nice to do dishes earlier in the day too, so there is less in the evening. This is not a “goal”, but more of a drive, I’m starting to want to do dishes during the day.

So there we are. My dishes seem tamed. What is there in your life that you might try applying this approach to? Let me know in the comments!

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