A lie I tell myself with dismal regularity is Ugh, fuck, I am too tired and burned out to tidy up tonight, I’ll do it in the morning. That is not how it works. In my more caffeinated moments, this is obvious.
What happens, what always happens, is: Leaving it for the morning turns into Bleary-Eyed Morning Me leaving it for the afternoon, which then turns into Frantic, Overloaded Afternoon Me loading the dishwasher and wiping down the countertops literally right before I cook dinner, filling the kitchen with more dirty dishes and soiling the countertops I just cleaned. Then, after dinner, the dishwasher is still running with the load I put in right before cooking, so I can’t load it with the dishes from dinner, so I leave them for the morning. And so on. The result is the persistent background sense of having transformed my own life into an absurd purgatory in which my living spaces are tidy and pleasant and livable for only a tiny fraction of the time that I spend actively working to make them that way, and never—never—when I have the time and bandwidth to just live in them in that state.
But the thing is, even when I’ll straighten up in the morning isn’t a damn lie—even when I follow through on it instead of punting it farther along to a more energetic version of myself—leaving it for the morning still sucks. Don’t leave your messes for the morning! Leaving your messes for the morning means depriving yourself of one of life’s true pleasures: Going to sleep and waking up in a place that is already the way it is supposed to be, that does not need to be put right but is right already. Beginning a day ahead of the entropic curve of a household, needing only to do the light work of keeping things orderly instead of the heavier and more miserable and futile-seeming work of ordering them. It’s the best way to start a day.
What’s easy to lose sight of, in the routine of continually shoving minor housekeeping shit down the road to the most harried, necessity-handcuffed version of yourself, is that the feeling of being too tired/busy/overwhelmed for this shit, and needing to put it off until some later point, is both the output of that routine and the means by which it perpetuates itself. The experience of existing in a mess is more tiring and stressful and overwhelming than the experience of existing in a neat and orderly place, and leaves you with fewer internal resources for the next bout of drudgery needed to set things straight. All the while, the mess only gets bigger; you don’t stop eating, or absently adding to the pile of mail on the tabletop, or feeding discarded skin cells to the prehistoric dust bunnies in the corners of the room, just because you took a break from cleaning up after yourself. And then the effort you put in, in those 15 frantic minutes before cooking dinner, or the 20 seconds you spend half-assedly “making the bed” right before you climb into it, or making as big a dent as you can in the pile of dirty laundry, or straightening up the horrifying interior of your automobile literally right before jamming a fucking Christmas tree into it, has no chance to pay off in the pleasant feeling of entering or waking up into or comfortably existing in a clean and neat and orderly living space: All you did was clear space for the new, miserably familiar mess already pulling into the parking spot you just now emptied.
If you did not already, you start to see your own labors as merely facilitating each next mess, and mess as the natural state of affairs, and tidiness as the weird deviation. That’s not how it’s supposed to be! But much more to the point, that’s not how it has to be. It can be better than that.
The solution to this problem is not for you to become, magically, a new, wholesome, well-adjusted version of yourself, who does not feel the whirlpool suck of inertia and procrastination tugging his or her pants leg at virtually all times. That’s not possible. Maybe there are people out there to whom the rhythms of maintaining orderliness and tidiness come naturally, who do not have to resist the urge to leave it for tomorrow because the urge never comes to them in the first place, but I do not know any of them, and I think I’d rather not, for the simple reason that I could never be sure we were members of the same species and not natural enemies. In any case I will not be one of them, and if you’re still reading this, I doubt you will be either. No offense! You’re great already! Being this kind of person, the haggard kind improvising a path through each harried day, has much to recommend it, I think. It’s just, waking up in a mess each day fucking sucks.
There really is no solution, I think. There’s only the frankly awful act of dragging your sorry ass into the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, and wiping down the counters, after dinner, before you land on the couch like an anvil and give up the last of your energy for the day. Just start there. I’m sorry. It’s terrible. It’s a nightmare. But just do it.
One of the reasons you left it for yourself in the first place, to do at the last second when the only alternative left was figuring out how to prepare dinner in a whole other part of your home, is so that you would not have to do the psychic labor of actively choosing this task over any other; the work is easier when it feels involuntary. So, one thing you can do is, take choice out of the equation. Treat yourself like a child, or a prisoner. Set a timer.
I am talking about an actual, literal timer, like on your phone, the kind that makes a noise when time runs out. For the next 20 (or however many) minutes, nothing will take precedence over tidying up this room. Because what you’re otherwise doing all day long is deciding over and over again that there’s some other task at hand that you’d rather do right now, or that you can convince yourself is more important than wrangling your living space into an acceptable state of neatness; all day long you are granting yourself the freedom to assign urgency in real-time, like someone who can be trusted with that responsibility. But then, at the end of the day, when you are tired and wrung out, what will seem urgent is the bottom-rung self-care of plotzing onto the sofa and watching garbage television until you get drowsy. It’s inevitable. That way lies madness. The mess you leave behind to go plotz on the sofa will land on the psychic wellbeing of Tomorrow You like a duffel bag full of bricks.
Set a timer. For 20 minutes—not for however long it takes to perfect your surroundings, but for a discrete chunk of time with a predetermined end—you will give every internal resource to tidying your living space, as a favor you are doing for yourself. It’s the sprint to the finish line! Dig, you damn zombie, dig for the finish line! Load the dishwasher, wipe down the countertop and tabletop, put a fresh bag in the trash can. Round up the stray socks and schlep them to the hamper. Make the kids take their damn toys to wherever the damn toys belong and put them there. The detritus of mail and school papers and pens and shit that built up wherever those things accumulate in your home: Deal with it now. And then, when you finally crash, no part of your psyche will be doing the work of tuning out the mess you will have to get to in the morning. That mess does not exist. Every part of your mind can join every other in viewing the friggin’ basketball game on TV or whatever. The rest you get will be real, actual rest. For once.
Do it tonight and see if you don’t feel a little better in the morning. See if Bleary-Eyed Morning You, waking into a neat and orderly living space that does not require anything more than a minute of bed-making, doesn’t feel a moment of actual gratitude toward Tired And Bitterly Resentful Yet Dutiful Evening You for taking care of the mess instead of leaving it. See if Frantic, Overloaded Afternoon You doesn’t feel a small but noticeable wind of momentum to address entropy as it occurs, rather than after it has produced a mess.
Eventually, with enough of this, all these different Yous may even begin to feel like the same person, knit together by something I’m given to understand is called “self-esteem” and by living in steady, stable neatness and order, but I don’t know anything about that and frankly am skeptical that it’s possible. In the meantime, shit might run a little better around the house, and hey, that’s something.