My mum recently asked me to write a blog about mindful cleaning. I am one of the messiest people I know so I suspect she was joking. But it got me thinking – housework (or living with the lack of it) is an unavoidable part of life. For some people (apparently) household chores are enjoyable, while for others they are a chore to get through. So what can mindfulness tell us about cleaning?
As I have already said, I am pretty untidy. My husband and colleagues could both vouch for that. I like to think of it as creativity! But I do find housework and organisation to be quite a challenge. I wasn’t particularly brought up to do chores at home. I was an only child and I think my mum found it easier to just do it herself. And on the occasions when she insisted that I tidied my bedroom we often ended up doing it together and ended up playing with toys that I hadn’t seen for a few months! It was fun! In some ways my untidiness is a trait about myself that I don’t particularly like – and I am often finding ways to work with it. Sometimes this means slowing down, taking a few things off the to-do list so that housework can move up the list of priorities. Sometimes it means practising acceptance – I can’t do everything and that’s ok. Sometimes it means embracing myself just as I am. So although I don’t spend a massive amount of time wearing my marigolds, it is an area that interests me.
It could be easy to start comparing ourselves to others. We could always do more around the house – we could always find someone whose house is neater and tidier. But because of the busy lives that we lead we can’t all live in show homes! And because of our tendency towards negativity bias, we tend to notice the areas of dust or things that are out of place rather than the areas or order and cleanliness. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break. We are human and we are trying our best. Give yourself the credit for everything you do and remember that sometimes it is more important to take a break and appreciate yourself. At the end of the day I find it useful to remind myself of all the things that I have done rather the focusing on what I might have missed.
I have a tendency to under-estimate how long tasks will take. This often results in an unrealistic to-do list. One method I find useful to manage my time is to schedule in more space between activities. Meetings often generate paperwork. Cooking creates mess. My tendency is to move from one activity to another leaving a trail of mess behind me. But when I put pauses in my schedule, not only do I have time to clear up after myself, I also have time to stop and reflect – taking a mindful pause between activities – and making sure I am more effective in the next one.
Self-kindness does not mean letting ourselves off the hook. We have tendencies but we also have choices. We have choices about how to spend our time and choices about how we prioritise. For me, being slightly untidy and disorganised means acknowledging that I have prioritised other things – such as working, meditating, training for a half-marathon, spending time with friends and family. Every so often it is useful to stop and notice our habits and ask ourselves whether this is what we have chosen and whether this is really what we want. Maybe we can challenge our habit of vegging out in front of the TV and choose to do some hoovering or dusting. However, maybe we can choose to leave the ironing this once and spend some time nourishing yourself. What’s important is recognising that we do have choices – just not always the choices that we think we have!
One choice we might make is the attitude that we take to our chores. We can do housework resentfully, muttering under our breath that it isn’t our turn, or that our partner/ children/ housemates don’t do their turn. This makes the whole thing a more unpleasant experience and means that we are more likely to break things. Instead of this, why not try mindful washing up? Notice a sense of being grounded through your feet as you stand at the sink, notice the temperature of the water, the smell of the washing-up liquid. Observe the colours and patterns of the bubbles and feel the sensations of movement as you wash up. You might notice what you can see out your kitchen window or the sound of any background music. And notice what you can appreciate about the experience. Yes really! We can appreciate having hot running water (something that we usually take for granted). We can appreciate the fact that we have just had a nice meal and that we have a human body that is able to experience all of the senses. Notice how the experience of washing up transforms when you bring a different attitude to it.
Taking a mindful approach to cleaning doesn’t mean doing more than your fair share. Sometimes making a choice means mindfully asking to somebody that you live with if they would mind doing more. When we practice acceptance, we don’t need to become passive and put up with other people taking advantage. Maybe we come in from work to a sink-full of dishes. In that moment we can accept that this has happened, and accept our initial emotional and physical response. Then we can choose whether to do them ourselves – or whether to take a breath and ask someone else to take their turn. And when others do take their turn it gives us an opportunity to practice appreciation!
So mindful cleaning means getting to know yourself, your habits and tendencies. It means making a self-compassionate choice about how to prioritise your time and then doing whatever we do with awareness and appreciation. And now that I am done writing, there is a pile of dishes with my name on it…!