Housekeeping and Decision Fatigue



Hi! I was reading through your suggestions about dealing with the problem of dirty dishes and I was wondering if you had ever done a similar post about dealing with the problem of a messy or dirty living space when that seems overwhelming. If that’s something you think you have things to say about, I’m sure I’d find that incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for running this blog, it’s made such a difference for me!

realsocialskills replied:

I wish I could, but I’m terrible at this and I haven’t managed to figure out how to keep my living space anywhere close to clean.

Some people have told me that they find Unfuck Your Habitat helpful. I personally haven’t really been able to use it because of the tone — it’s kind of yelly and says things like “go fucking deal with it”, and that doesn’t work for me.

But it also has very specific practical suggestions, so some people can use it.

Anyone else have suggestions?

wisdomengine said

I don’t speak as someone for whom this is a solved problem, but here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

The thing that makes cleaning/tidying overwhelming is usually decision fatigue.

Cleaning and tidying involve zillions of little decisions: “Do I save this or keep it? If I keep it where do I put it? If I put it inside something else, it will be out of the way, but will I forget about it?” and “What is the right tool to get this clean? If I use the rougher scrubby, will I scratch it? Will this cleanser eat a hole in it? Should I just get a fresh one and throw this one away?” — each multiplied by how ever many things there are to put away, file, wash, dust, or clean.

Decision fatigue is a known psychological phenomenon whereby, apparently, it takes energy to make decisions, and you can run your energy down by making decisions, such that the more you make, the harder it gets to make them.

(A brief consciousness-raising digression hobby-horse of mine: A little known fact about depression: one of the symptoms of depression is indecisiveness. Yes. Even many mental health professionals don’t know that, but it’s right there in DSM-IV, Major Depressive Episode, the second half of criterion A8, just after the bit everybody knows about concentration: “diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day”. I suspect that the indecisiveness of depression is closely connected to criterion A6, “fatigue or loss of energy”, and is decision fatigue kicking in due to not having a lot of decision-making energy available to begin with. End digression.)

Realizing the role of decision fatigue in housekeeping has been very useful to me, because it suggested a bunch of things that helped:

Planning accordingly: Once I realized that housekeeping involved lots of decision-making, I could correctly keep track of what I needed to to pace myself. Why was doing three hours of laundry less exhausting that filing one modest pile of papers? Because I could do the laundry on autopilot, but every single paper represented another decision I had to make. Also, I could make more realistic plans, such as not expecting a lot of filing to get done on days I had to make a lot of other decisions.

Investing energy in building systems: Once I realized that the exhausting and overwhelming part of housekeeping was figuring out what to do with things and where to put them and what to save and throw away, well, that meant any systems or heuristics (rules of thumb) I could come up with for doing these things would make them radically easier in the future. It takes time and energy to come up with these systems, but it’s an investment which turns out to pay handsomely in saved energy later. So, for instance, I came up with a system which works pretty well for me for how I was going to handle bills and similar important paperwork. Part of it is policy (“save everything but the envelopes and put it in the right file; figure out what you want to throw away at some unspecified point in the future” and “when you pay a bill write the date, amount, and method on the bill stub”) and part of it is resources (got an adequate file cabinet, hanging file folders, and manila file folders) and part of it is organization (each year gets its own hanging folder, in it a manila folder for each bill or company labeled “company year”), and then I don’t have to think or decide anything to use it.

Similarly, I’ve developed a method I think works well for cleaning dishes, for sorting laundry, for storing food in my kitchen, etc. I’ve gone from seeing housekeeping as this mysterious and flaily experience of trying to make things look a certain (vaguely specified) way, to seeing it as a series of problems to solve. “What is the right (for me) way to store this?” “What is the right (for me) workflow for these?” Each time I manage to solve a problem, my living space becomes that little bit tidier and cleaner, because that bit of housekeeping goes from decision-taxing to something I can do with minimal decision-making.

Pacing myself: If I know that some house-keeping tasks take a lot of decision-making and others are now systemic, I can gauge my energy level and pick tasks accordingly. Feeling spry? Filing things for which I don’t yet have a system, solving housekeeping problems. Out of steam? Filing things for which I do have a system, washing dishes. Here’s an example: I’m trying to get my books under control (ha!) and that means (1) dusting them, (2) entering them into Librarything, (3) organizing them. Dusting them takes no decision making, but organizing them on shelves does, because I haven’t entirely figured out my system for that; entering them into Librarything is also challenging, because while the actual data entry isn’t bad, I want to tag them as I go. Tagging is massive decision-making, and exhausting. So if I don’t have a lot of energy, I could… set all new books entered to have a default tag of “TAGME”, enter them into Librarything that way (after vacuuming them) and then put those books into a box labeled “TAG ME”, and set the box aside for when I have more energy. Or I can realize that I’d prefer to just do fewer books, but make sure they’re tagged as I go, and accept that, tagging being tiring, I’m not going to get as much done that way. Things I don’t do: beat myself up over WHY IS THIS SO HARD FOR ME, IT’S JUST SOME DATA ENTRY LOOK I HAVE A BARCODE SCANNER AND EVERYTHING?!?!?

Supporting myself: If I’m going to be doing decision-making-intense housekeeping, I treat my body as if I were doing something strenuous, because I am. I eat enough, I hydrate enough. I check in with myself frequently to see if my concentration might be ebbing due to hunger or thirst. If I’m doing something with repetitive motions (data entry) or demanding motions (vacuuming) I stretch and take physical breaks. I might give myself little rewards (Ooh! Five minute tumblr break!) or make a point of going for a little walk if the weather’s good.

Pacing myself, 2: This is slightly weird, but it was important to me. One of the things I figured out is that if I worked to exhaustion, if I declared “CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!”, if I did all the decision-making-intense housekeeping I possibly could, all the way up to the point I was so decision-fatigued I couldn’t decide what to make for dinner? I felt terrible. I felt exhausted, spacey, frustrated, in a fog, and I also felt bad about myself, irrationally disappointed in hitting my limits, and overwhelmed-ish about all that remained to do. But if instead I set myself a reasonable limit, like, say, “No more than filing one pile of papers today,” I could get to the end of the task with still some decision-making capacity, and I would feel optimistic about keeping going, and wouldn’t feel beat — or defeated. Thing was, this took some self-control, because I would be all like, “I GOT ONE DONE! I’M ON A ROLL! WHOOHOO! CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!” and I’d have to tackle myself and say, “No, we only get to do one pile today. We get to do another pile tomorrow.” I found it was seriously more effective if I didn’t do the decision-making equivalent of running down my batteries so far they’re hard to recharge.

In addition to the issue of decision fatigue, something else that was critical to what success I’ve had has been confronting the fact: I’m not normal. My stuff doesn’t consist of normal-people things. That means I can’t just use normal-people furnishings to store my stuff. It won’t work. I mean, have you seen home-furnishings magazines? Have you ever seen a picture of home decor which shows enough bookcases? I haven’t. My ever getting in control of my living space has meant confronting the fact head-on that I’m a multi-instrumentalist and music director, which is a pretty way of saying I’m a sheet-music hoarder. A few dinky little file boxes won’t cut it. I don’t have room for a TV or a couch, because, by gum, I have two industrial-size four-draw file cabinets, 20 linear feet of music-text shelf-space, a heap of instruments in half my clothes closet, and an “artists portfolio” for odd over-sized scores. Find the equipment you need to store the stuff you’ve got and the stuff you want, and stop trying to cram the things you have into the equipment you think you’re supposed to use, and that will be a huuuuuuuge relief.