The hits just keep coming from Dana K. White, author of last week’s book pick, How to Manage Your Home without Losing Your Mind and of the blog A Slob Comes Clean. Remember how I said that she had me nailed with her description of someone sitting at a messy kitchen table reading about how to clean up her kitchen, when what that person really needs to do is . . . clean up the kitchen? Well, she has another concept that is so, so me: “project brain.”
This phrase describes a mindset in which you think of your life as being made up of big items that are over with once they’re done. You’ll work and work, get whatever it is finished, and think that’s the end of the matter. Whew! And sometimes, of course, you do indeed have projects. My two big food events this past weekend were in that category. They’re over. (Although, truth to tell, I still haven’t cleaned out the car and put everything away.) The Chorale concert is over, never to occur again. Dana mentions several times in her book that she used to direct plays, another type of project, and guess what? I used to do that, too, for both church and school. I know exactly what she means when she talks about getting that performance over the finish line and then collapsing.
What’s so hard for people like me to process is that most of life is not made up of projects. It’s made up of recurring tasks. And we hate recurring tasks. We hate doing the same thing over and over. Didn’t I just clean up this kitchen yesterday? How did it get so messy today? I wish you could have seen the place last night after I made a casserole for dinner. There was still a pile of baking sheets/pans on the counter from the big extravaganza this weekend, washed by my dear husband but now needing to be put away. There was grease splattered all over the stove from frying chicken. The skillet from breakfast was still sitting on the stove, too. All the items I’d used for my recipe were strewn around. Stuff was piled on our little kitchen table. Normally I’d be sorely tempted to just leave the mess for the time being, but now I have Dana’s voice in my ear: “Wash your dishes every day.” So I did. It really didn’t take all that long. This morning, instead of being faced with a huge mess, I just have a dishwasher full of clean dishes and the big items that needed to be washed by hand on the counter. I’ll put them away as soon as I finish this post, and the kitchen will be back to normal.
I talk in my own book (see sidebar) about the concept of “return on investment”–not of money, but of time. When you operate in project mode, you get very little return on investment for those activities that are not projects. Isn’t that a simple concept? So, for instance, if you view picking up the living room as a project, you’ll wait until the place is piled high. Then you’ll wade in and clear everything out, put everything away, throw out the used paper plates, etc. Maybe you’ll spend a couple of hours. It’ll look good for half a day at most. So your return on investment isn’t much more than the time you spent cleaning. Not great. Divide that same two hours up into five-minute segments. Let’s see, that’s 24 segments. By investing the same amount of time but dividing it up into those dreaded repetitive daily tasks, you get several weeks of having a clean living room. Does that make sense? I struggle with this idea, but at least now I understand why I do so. (I can see some of you reading this with very puzzled looks on your faces: “Say wh-a-a-a-a-t?” If that’s your reaction, then you’re what Dana calls “normal.”)
Well, life is moving on and I need to get going. There’s a special treat in store this morning, as I’ve been invited to a tea at my mother-in-law’s granddaughter’s new house. We have to leave at 9:30. If I want to come home to something clean and clear, I’d better get up from this chair.
How about you? Do you struggle with “project brain”?
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