Zen of Housekeeping

When small jobs spiral out of control, completion may be a solitary joy

There are people who can straighten up an entire house in one hour, but that's usually if it's not their own house.
Many of us, on the other hand, start out with great intentions, but get sidetracked into elaborate cleaning expeditions. Our goal of a quick surface job evolves into a deep cleaning project. We have to be careful what we start because it can easily turn into something that borders on remodeling -- but barely shows.
My friend Marti describes this invisible cleaning tendency as a version of the children's book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," where one thing inevitably leads to another. In her case, she started with simply rinsing out the toothbrush holder, but before she knew it she'd gotten out the Soft Scrub and an old toothbrush and was cleaning the grunge out from under the faucet handles, from behind the sink and every other place she could think of.
One of my invisible cleaning projects started when I noticed that the cleaning cloths made from old towels and gym socks were outgrowing their small basket by the laundry room sink.
I realized that I needed to store some in the cabinet under the sink. By the time I finished several hours later, I had emptied the entire cabinet, thrown out old bottles and cleanser cans, and found soapy residue in the bottom of the cupboard.
I decided that the bottom surface really needed a better sealer. I cleaned the bottom, dried it with my hair dryer, sanded it and gave it two coats of varnish. I dried it again, put every thing back neatly and finally put away some of the cleaning cloths. That last task took about one minute.
It's a shame that when company comes over after such a project you can't bring them into the laundry room, open the cupboard and show off your work. And since the husband, kids and cat are all unimpressed by such an accomplishment, it is up to me to enjoy it by myself.
And I do. Several times in the next few days I opened the cupboard and admired the clean, orderly space.
Yes, I am too easily amused.
To see whether others shared this condition, I researched the books on cleaning in the local bookstore. I looked in the index section of many and found nothing on "avoiding distractions" or "maintaining focus."
I do appreciate the value of these in-depth projects, but there are times when I try to stay on task. My solution is to use a small kitchen timer. I set it for short time periods so that when it rings I am reminded that I had started out with a specific goal. I often surprise myself when the buzzer goes off and I'm on to the third level of sidetracking.
Sometimes I use the same strategy on myself that I tried on my children when they were little: "Just work for 100 seconds." It will often get me to take on a task I've been avoiding, and other times it reminds me to stay focused since I only have to work for such a limited time. Something as small as finding a mushy peach in the vegetable crisper can turn into the removal of all the refrigerator shelves and a thorough scrubbing of the inside and outside, using every tool from sponges to old toothbrushes to wooden skewers.
People with this tendency also experience times when they're more drawn to in-depth -- and invisible -- cleaning.
My friend Connie found herself completely engrossed in deep-cleaning projects last fall. Not surprisingly it was right after her daughter left for college for the first time. Her husband and son came home at the end of a day and the house looked the same to them, but she knew that underneath it was in perfect order.
She attributed this tendency to the need for a good distraction and the comfort that often comes from such accomplishments.
This deep-cleaning pattern can also be more seductive when there is something else we're putting off. I call it the "Zen of Procrastination."
I wrote about it years ago -- while putting off something else. The year as I wrote my doctoral dissertation I pruned every bush in my yard and in the yards of several neighbors.
When my 80-year-old neighbor saw me coming into the garden she would shout, "Look out, fuchsias, here she comes again!"
From listening to the stories of friends, it's clear that the inspiration pulling us into such projects comes from many sources. The need for a sense of control, the need for a distraction, some mild obsessive moment or just an appealing way to avoid another task. The value of these in-depth projects cannot be underestimated, even if their results are invisible -- to everyone but you.
E-mail Susan DeMersseman at home@sfchronicle.com.

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