Make the bed, clean the sink


My father did not start out a tidy type, and I am my father’s daughter: most of my life has been a battle between me and stuff, me and dirt, me and disorder.

Oh, I could (and did) endlessly re-label and sort the files in the canary-yellow file cabinet I requested and received for my 13th birthday. That’s not real order, I now realize: that’s low-level OCD masquerading as order. A disorder, manifesting as order. Because while I worked and re-worked taxonomies in my head, on paper, then on the file tabs themselves (this long, long before I knew what “taxonomy” was), I was not preparing myself for work or for thought or for anything; I was soothing myself as best I could in a time (pre-teen) and space (my maternal grandparents’, a.k.a. “Gloomy Manor”, a.k.a. House-o’-Alcoholics and the Enablers Who Keep Them Going) that were very anxiety-provoking for me. (My sister and I also indulged in the sitcom-perfect passive-aggression of singing rousing choruses from “If Mama Was Married” while we did the dishes together, but that’s another nugget of tragicomedy gold for another day.)

These days, I have all but abandoned my poor, poor file folders. Oh, they’re there, and they’re (reasonably) neatly labeled, but there are so few, it doesn’t take long to find what I’m looking for even with only medium-good filing habits. I spend more time keeping the IKEA desktop they support clean and cleared of clutter, because that does seem to help me get my work done. The fewer things I have lying around me in stacks and piles and other smoldering and/or moldering piles, the easier it is to write, to think, and most importantly, to keep my spirits up. I am of little use to myself or anyone else when they are otherwise.

This is why I have added “clean dishes” as my last household task before heading for bed, the bed that is always made 10 or 12 or 16 hours before: it lifts my spirits at the beginning of the day to see a clean, fresh sink just as much as it soothes me at the end of one to slip into a made bed. I feel cared for, I feel safe, I feel hopeful. My friend Gretchen Rubin says this is the #1 change her readers tell her they’ve made which has had a significant impact on their happiness, and I can see why. It’s do-ably small, but has a magically high ROI. Maybe it’s because, as she implies, it instantly creates a look of order. A bed is a rather large thing, after all. But I also think there is something about starting out the day with a small bit of control that is a big part of the benefit. And so, to cap it, for the past several weeks, I’ve been playing around with finishing off the day as Dan Owen does, by making sure the kitchen is ready to go first thing in the morning.

The result? I feel so much better on days that begin with a clean sink that it’s now a regular part of my routine. No matter how tired I am, I clean the dishes. And because I’ve had to do it a few times when I’m very, very tired, I’ve also gotten a bit better about clean-as-you-go maintenance.

I am very aware that without awareness, this lovely, Fly-Lady habit could morph into another manifestation of OCD. My sister and I also joke about how, in the last decade or so of our father’s life, you could not leave your iced tea on the end table while you went to the other room for a magazine, for fear it would be “cleaned up” while you walked there and back. If it’s possible, he decluttered too much; in the end, he had no tolerance for any personal artifacts, save a photo or two that, if I’m honest, were probably mostly there for showin’, not blowin’, as the saying goes.

On the other hand, I have no doubt he held us in his heart, which is where these things really matter. And that is what I try to remember matters to me: what and whom I hold in my heart, and which habits and actions go the furthest towards keeping them secure there.

Making the bed and cleaning the sink are my signals to myself that I am still fortunate enough to be able to exercise some control over my destiny. They are actions that show respect for the space I’m lucky enough to inhabit and the time I have been given to work on what I want. They mark the beginning and end of a day lived the way I want to live: deliberately, thoughtfully, with enough order and support that creativity can flourish. I do not make the bed to bounce quarters off of nor shine the sink to see my face reflected within: I attend to structure, to the vessels, and trust that whatever it is that keeps floating ideas my way will keep up its own good work. We each of us have our part to play.

I am grateful I can make the bed; I am happy I can wash the dishes.

God, or whomever, or whatever, can take care of the drying…



Image by DDFic via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Tremendous post, Colleen.

    You point out something here that I think lurks unacknowledged behind a lot of productivity writing in Blogland, and that I think Merlin Mann, in his inimitable way, has made it his life’s mission to assault head-on: mistaking “productivity hacks” for neurosis. My “dishwashing epiphany” came when I realized how I was using the act of starting my day by washing three days of dishes as a way of avoiding doing actual work. Likewise, the day a client walked into my office and saw the towering piles of paper on every horizontal surface and said, “My, you ARE busy aren’t you?” was the day I realized I was no different from a drunk whose feeling of self-worth revolved around making people laugh in a bar.

    On the other end of the spectrum, referencing your library book post last week, a very hip friend of mind — size 2, super-cool glasses, great hair — watched me diligently enter library book due dates into my Outlook calendar immediately upon arriving home from the library, and said to me, “You have an OCD problem.” “No,” I told her, “I have an OCD solution. I once paid an $18 overdue fine FOR A BOOK I DIDN’T EVEN READ!” But — as the kids say — whatever.

    When I finally got the kitchen clean every night, and my desktops clear, I saw what I’d been hiding under all that crap, and, believe me, it had been worth hiding. It’s not for nothing that we develop these neurotic coping mechanisms. And, appropos of that, I was at a friend’s house a couple of nights ago for a “family dinner” in which the three GROWN ADULT daughters spent the meal singing songs from The Music Man. In perfect three-point harmony. Instead of making conversation with their dinner guest. Whose polite expression gradually morphed into perplexity, then exasperation. But in that house, whoever sang the best got Daddy’s approval, so what else are you going to do — Daddy having been translated to heaven years ago — when you have a handsome bachelor eating dinner at your Mom’s table?

    This is how it is with workaholism too — the most socially acceptable addiction of them all. Complete strangers admire you from afar. I’m curious: now that you’re four months or so into the process of slowing down and doing less — washing the metaphorical dishes in your psychic kitchen sink, if you will, and clearing off the piles of metaphorical papers on your psychic desk top, in you will — what are you uncovering?

    Also, I note approvingly the very direct and focused presentation in your writing here. This is an extremely well-written post — a gold star on the fridge for you.

    1. To be fair to Merlin, he equally rails against the defense of neuroses masquerading as hack-i-fying. There’s a type that likes to hack, and the hacking type can easily let the hacking overtake the reason for the hacking—removing the objects that get in the way of what we’re supposed to be doing next.

      On another note, when I read your comments, Dan, I simultaneously long for and dread the day you start blogging in earnest, rather than serving a lucky few of us by commenting on our own scratchings. Because boy, would I like to read a whole post about Bachelor at Dinner with Three Dateable Ladies. But boy, will I miss having these big, juicy posts of yours here.

    1. There should be one. Seriously. It would be great to read about selective order, and which selections are just manifestations of nutball-ism, and which are The Good Stuff, baby.

  2. I wish I could also bring myself to dry the dishes before bed. But then, what would I do while the kettle boils for morning tea?

    Great post.

    1. Meh. I am relieved, to tell you the truth, that I’m good with leaving the dishes in the draining rack. I get that when you’re manually washing after a big party, you have to dry some to clear room for the rest. But once that left-side of the sink is clear, off to bed.

      I’m also glad I don’t have echolalia and have to touch something 72 times before I pass by it. My OCD is VERY minor, as I understand it.

  3. Thanks for prompting internal exploration as well as external inspiration. I looked up taxonomy — added a new word to my vocabulary — and made my bed for the first time in months. Feels so good! A great start to the day.

    1. I can’t remember when I learned “taxonomy”—it had to have been in the past seven years, though.

      Like scratching a deep itch I didn’t know I had. Beautiful!

  4. Like your post, and Dan’s response.

    I’m one of those people who 99% of the time makes the bed in the morning and washes dishes as I dirty them. It gives me pleasure to see clean and uncluttered spaces, and it seems easier to me to do a little bit of work more often (when it’s a task, sometimes even a pleasurable one) than to face a lot of work all at once (when it’s a chore). I consider these kinds of routine tasks to be part of being a sensualist — I enjoy feasting my eyes on beauty, open space, clean lines.

    1. Isn’t Dan wonderful? Love that Dan Owen.

      That’s a good note, about how it becomes pleasurable, cleaning as you go. A way of noting, honoring, thanking as you go about your daily bidness. And boy-howdy: once you’ve had land, lots of land, under starry skies above, how DO you go back to being fenced in?

  5. “Damn you, Colleen!” probably shouldn’t be the first words I ever utter to you, but I was happily avoiding the mountain of dishes by visiting your website. Now that e-mail i was considering sending you will have to be delayed considerably.
    Gee Thanks! Emma

  6. Colleen, thanks for another great post. I’m a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin, and knew exactly where you were going when I saw the title of this post. I’ve always been the OCD type to make my bed when I get up, but this before-bed routine is something relatively recent. For Husband and I, setting up the coffee before bed is huge. It’s a huge help to getting out of bed in the morning (“There’s a hot pot of coffee just waiting for me when I drag my butt downstairs.”) and starting the day right. Really simple yet important.

    Re: your dad uncluttering in his later years. I hear ya! My mother-in-law did this too. Hilarious, really.

    1. Oh, Gretchen is woooooonderful. Even better in person. The real frickity-frackin’ deal, straight up!

      I can’t bring myself to get the coffee ready b/c I so enjoy that smell and taste of freshly-ground beans in the morning. (And I use a moka pot, not a fancy grinder/combo thingy, so I would require a very costly type of maid service or a not-currently-desired significant other service to make that happen.)

      But maybe I’ll give thought to another thingy or two I can do for myself to make the morning pleasurable. Hm…

  7. Oh, Gretchen is woooooonderful. Even better in person. The real frickity-frackin’ deal, straight up!

    I can’t bring myself to get the coffee ready b/c I so enjoy that smell and taste of freshly-ground beans in the morning. (And I use a moka pot, not a fancy grinder/combo thingy, so I would require a very costly type of maid service or a not-currently-desired significant other service to make that happen.)

    But maybe I’ll give thought to another thingy or two I can do for myself to make the morning pleasurable. Hm…

  8. Dear C…Seems like you got a “rise” out of alot of your fans; especially considering it is Monday morning. But then I must admit, considering that I am one of them . . . you have a pretty savy fan-club of early risers.
    Updating you:
    Still working on website that I BEGAN updating over a year ago.
    When it goes live I’ll send it your way. I still need to design a far better blog than I’ve got. You mentioned that when I am ready for that, I should contact you…remember? I vaguely remember you mentioned it in passing. I contacted the German friend of yours and he was unavailable.

    I want to do a blog like YOURs. (GridTheme?).
    What wordpress theme would you recommend, since I want it rather less complex than more + I do love yours (it is interactive). There is this NEW local news-blog coming out of Newark NJ…using an updated v. of a “newspaper” layout.
    I’ve been following …it is now one of the most admired site designs in “wordpress” land. I’ve also kept an eye on “clouds…something”…a newer wordpress design (more picture friendly)…just a few rambling thoughts. What is your suggestion? Thank You dear ONE…Suzanne Silk

  9. How’s this for a coinkydink, Colleen — I read your delightful blog post between making my bed and unloading the dishwasher?! As an artist I resisted my natural neat-freak tendencies for a good long while, thinking they made me less creative…but now I embrace and celebrate them and all those friends who keep suggesting therapy can just slink back to their grubby cubbies. I say that with love. Really.

    1. Yes! That’s a huge thing to get over: the idea that b/c the creative process is messy/chaotic, we have to live in chaos to be creative. There are just as many stories, though, of artists who embraced rigid discipline in order to let the chaotic art flourish within. Twyla Tharp is all over that shit, and she’s right right right.

  10. I love the way you wrote about tidy, the clean, pretty slate of it but also the messes underneath it all. Really well done. I think the world is ready for a book on organizing that’s not about systems so much as it’s about story, that’s not instructional but reflective. Every person with a clutter issue has a lengthy story, but too often the story is given in the context of a case study or case in point and the humanity of the person in question isn’t given its due.

    1. Thank you! That’s a mighty interesting idea for a book, Melissa. I think you’re right. I’m sick to death of numbered lists and prescriptives and such. Would much rather read a good story and be provoked into action by it.

      Maybe it’s time to start reading fiction again.

  11. Okay, yeah, I want Dan Owen to come over and comment on my site. He was almost as thoughtful as your post.

    The making the bed thing, the cleaning the dishes thing – oh yeah – and for me, uncluttered kitchen counters. I have a hard time putting into words why it matters. It seems so mundane. Thanks for taking care of the prose.

    Order among the disorder of life makes things just a little easier to confront, and that helps everyone. Great post. Important.

    1. I know how you feel. Every time Dan leaves a comment I feel like it’s my birthday and Christmas on the same day.

      Counters, yes. It took me running into the opposite of it to really get it—hitting rock-bottom, as it were—but I finally learned that the secret to the joy of horizontal spaces lay in not seeing them as places to keep things permanently.

  12. I, too, make my bed immediately when I wake – now, I’ve taken to spritzing the sheets with lavender water…oh joyful fragrant bedtime that awaits! And I love waking to a clean kitchen – thanks for reinforcing this habit. But my favorite habit is what I call the Rule of Threes – whenever I’m in a room in my house, I try to remember to pick up or hangup or straighten up just “three” things – a manageable number. It makes me laugh as I count off each thing.

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