Dear Drudgery: Clean This! (In Which I Trick Chores Into Being Fun)
I was waging a straight-up assault on the relentless non-funnitude of my life’s necessary tasks, and I named the next institution Ten Minutes of Cleaning.
Cleaning is yuck, sure, but drudgery is not just a matter of the work itself. Drudgery is time-worn ruts and the same damn thing over and over. Drudgery is waking up knowing that today’s dishes will get just as dirty as yesterday’s, and that tomorrow they’ll need washing yet again, world without end.
Although it wouldn’t affect the dirtiness of the dishes, Ten Minutes would lower my drudge factor, I figured, because it would at least be a togetherness thing. Beyond that, I thought no conscious think about magic, education, or the power of the unexpected. But that’s just because I’m shortsighted.
In its most basic form, Ten Minutes of Cleaning looked like this:
1. Shortly after dinner, each of us drew a slip of paper from the Jug of Endurable Tasks (which I had populated easily on a quick, note-jotting wander through the house).
2. After the drawing, if necessary, we held a brief training period (Eldest: “What’s a baseboard?”)
3. We set the timer. For a focused ten minutes, we worked the tasks we had pulled.
4. The timer made its timer sound. Cleaning halted.
I figured we’d give it a try. Then, a few nights in, it was clear to me that Ten Minutes of Cleaning wasn’t just working. It was working like a freaking charm.
I have thoughts.
First, cleaning a house that teems with children and life is a never-ending task, and Ten Minutes rendered that infinite finite. “Done” had no relationship to whether the house was clean (it wasn’t). By definition, cleaning was done when the timer went off. If you’d fished out an easy task—Windex the handprints on the banister*—well, score! But even if the Jug had handed you a monster—Clean the fridge—no one was expecting you to finish. Just make that little dent. Zip! Ten Minutes left no time for paralysis, for dread.
That timer also ushered in my favorite part of the whole operation:
Me: Time’s up! Stop cleaning!
Child: I only need another minute! Please!
Me: Rules are rules. Stop cleaning I say! Stop it at once!
Ten Minutes also taught us that, for such an itty-bitty snatch of time, ANYTHING is actually endurable.
That cooler we picked cherries into last July, then abandoned on the back porch? And now we’re so afraid of what’s going on in there that we pretend the cooler does not exist, even though we keep tripping over it? Yes, that. Chop chop. It’s just ten minutes.
Our new practice let me introduce a world of housekeeping skills, bit by tiny bit. The constant struggle just to keep their beds findable meant my kids were rarely exposed to weird, occasional tasks, like discarding the decade-old cleansers and shriveled sponges that bred beneath the bathroom sink. Now, the tasks I used to tackle late at night (or on a rare, empty-house Saturday, or not at all) were open season for anyone: That thing under the stove burner, catching all the drips? It comes out. Let me show you how we clean it. . .
Is it imperfect? Yes. Jobs get done incompletely and not to my occasionally pathological standards. But I’m okay with it because ten minutes after we start, my house is still about fifty minutes (ten minutes times five people) cleaner than when we began. Yes, sometimes the living room remains piled in toys and backpacks while its baseboards and furnace vents are deeply clean; I do not recognize this as problematic.
And let’s talk about fairness. Yes, Middlest, you’ll get more done than your little sister does even though she makes more messes, but it’s just ten minutes. In fact, today, how about if you don’t choose anything from the Jug? Just help Youngest with whatever she picks. That way, she’ll get better.
I had an inkling of the Fun possibility inherent in Ten Minutes when I first created the jug. (Full disclosure: We actually started with a saucepan. It worked okay.) Still, I didn’t tell anyone I was adding a few non-cleaning tasks, because I didn’t know yet if it would be brilliant.
But hopes were exceeded the moment Eldest arched a skeptical brow, shoved her hand into the ceramic pitcher, and pulled out a task I had included just for her:
“Wait,” a sunrise was happening all over her face. “This says ten minutes of READING! Are you SERIOUS?!” She fled for her book, hooting.
Expecting, at best, a Windexing task, Eldest had instead pulled out a gift. Unearned and unasked for, and ten minutes long.
From then on, whenever we reached for the Jug, there could be magic. And there could be magic is the mortal enemy of drudgery. Once we adopt the possibility of unexpected gifts as a world view, life is never so drudgey, ever again.
The year I Committed to Fun, I wanted us to live into the truth that sure, there’s a whole lot of stuff we have to do to keep our lives running … but inside it, something excellent could happen. Maybe you have to make it happen, but the magic is out there. The dishes will still get dirty, so: Let’s not let the dishes be the whole story.
* Hint: All children love tasks where there’s spraying.
Illustration by Christine Juneau