Key Ingredients for New Habits

How clip art, laughter, and Fred Astaire help me embrace my mop.

Posted Sep 25, 2018

Wellcome Images/wikimedia commons
Source: Wellcome Images/wikimedia commons

I’m working on a new habit, and in true form, get through one week reasonably well, and then as the eighth and ninth day pass, suddenly realize that I am not doing it anymore.  I can rationalize why: I am engrossed in a pressure point in my writing project, I have unusual social events on the weekend, I have a lot of appointments with clients.  Other things take up space in my brain, in other words. 

I really like the effects of the habit I’m trying to form.  (I find myself a little embarrassed to say what it is, because, like most things we consciously try to habituate in mid-life, I feel like I should have been doing housekeeping regularly for decades!)  There!  The secret’s out.  I’m working on getting in the habit of cleaning my house.  Don’t tell!  I know from experience that shame will hinder my habit-formation.

It’s been a slow and deliberate process.  About three weeks ago, when I was enjoying a visit to my friend’s beautiful home in Vermont, I realize (again) that I love her home because it is immaculate.  Not in the stuffy, “don’t touch!” way—her lifestyle is informal and although she has beautiful things, she is relaxed.  She has a puppy, she wears shoes inside, she doesn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher the instant a meal has ended.  She’s normal, in other words! And her home is very soothing.

Sitting in her house while she is out walking the dog, I decide that perhaps it is about time I start to cope with the cat fur, kitty-litter grit, and mash of dust-dirt-autumn leaves I bring in on my shoes; perhaps it is time to get the soap scum off the shower floor; time to figure out if there is any cleaning product on the planet powerful enough to clean the vent over my stove.  You get the idea: it’s time to do some basic stuff that—radical thought!—my friend does on a regular basis. 

Having contemplated the need, and the possibility, of making a change, I take the next step (for me, anyway) and make a list of things I would like to change in my home’s cleanliness (I use the word very loosely). 1.  Kitchen 2.  Bathroom.  3.  Papers.  4.  Laundry and ironing.  5.  Floors.  6.  Dust.  7.  Grocery and cooking.  I do not immediately become a Domestic Goddess, but I start to see that I have it in me to become a Domestic Duchess.  But don’t hold your breath!  I’m aiming high.

The list of potential changes sits quietly in my journal for about 10 days.  One evening I have a little free time and my journal sits near my computer (clearly an alignment of the stars). I decide to make the list official (i.e., type it up) and assign tasks to each day of the week, which reminds me of little girls’ panties decorated with cursive “Monday,” “Tuesday, “Wednesday,” so one knows which pair to wear when.  I never had any such panties as a girl, which may be why I never mastered housekeeping, right?  (And lest you think I was deprived, I will report that some of my panties had flowers on them and were very pretty.  Thanks, Mom!)

The list looks manageable, but I know myself.  No new activity is as manageable as it looks.  I’m busy, I have lots of interests, and frankly, housekeeping is b-o-r-i-n-g to me.  I resolve to motivate myself with neon and laughter, and therefore roam around in clip art to find an illustration for the list, and print the finished schedule on bright orange paper.  I am, if I do say so myself, quite pleased with the result, which makes me laugh.

By now, of course, I’m into the project but haven’t done a lick of housework.  I post the list in all its orange glory on my grubby white refrigerator, and take a much-needed break (three days) before actually embarking on any of the chores.  I start on Saturday.  I like laundry, and do it regularly with ease and pleasure.  Always a good idea to start a habit with something easy, so I have immediate success.  “Laundry” means putting clothes in the washer and dryer (which I am fortunate enough to have in my home), and putting the clean clothes away in bureau and closet.  While I am in the closet, I notice two really, really big heaps of clothes that need to be hung up.  And a third pile of things that need to be ironed: tablecloths and napkins, as well as things that probably wouldn’t need ironing now if I had hung them up before. Stop! No blame! Stay in the moment!    

It is too hot to iron where the ironing board is set up, so I put everything currently on the ironing board, including many papers that await filing—on the schedule for the following Friday—on my desk, knowing as I do so that this is a housekeeping sin: I must not move stuff from one place to another; I must put it away.  But I see this housekeeping project as a long-term effort, and so I break that rule. 

Ironing goes reasonably well: I iron all the clothes, and make a tidy pile of linens for next week.  “Shirker!” said the ambitious Duchess, but she is silenced by the cranky, sweaty serf wielding a hot iron. 

On Sunday I go to the grocery and buy food for the week.  Living alone, I make batches of a couple of things and have permutations of them throughout the week.  I also eat a lot of vegetables, some of which rot if I don’t eat them promptly.  I may need to amend my Sunday plan and have a second grocery day.  Habit-formation includes revision of the original plan if pragmatic reasons for change occur. 

Monday, I have a ridiculous amount of fun spraying the shower with foam cleaner, letting it sit, and scrubbing (hard!) with my new scrub brush.  The shower walls clean beautifully; the shower floor is better, but far from squeaky clean.  Mountains of soap scum do not dissolve on the first Monday, apparently. I’m disappointed, but remind myself that this is not a one-shot deal.  I’ll work some more on it next Monday (that was yesterday) and will gradually make it shine.  In the meantime, let’s get the cat hair plastered to the base of the toilet.

Tuesday is a housekeeping pleasure: such satisfaction in getting recycling out, and litterboxes changed!  Such ease and reward in making that grubby fridge a sparkling white again.  Coffee maker, vegetable bins, cabinet doors, stovetop—ahh, yes!  I could almost be at my friend’s house in Vermont.  Well, not really, but I’m an optimist.

Dust-and-sweep is a compromise: I sweep the dust.  I water the plants on the shelves instead of dusting underneath them.  It seems more important.  And Wednesday’s poker game is more fun than dusting.

Thursday I do the most rewarding day: mopping the bathroom, the kitchen, and the wood floors throughout the house is always a success.  The floors gleam, the house smells clean, and I get a work-out too.  Of course, my blood sugar drops too low, and I don’t have time to do the stairs, but remember, work-in-progress.  And a lot of catching up to do from eons of (shhh!) no mopping at all.

I pay a few bills on Friday.  I go to lunch and a movie on Saturday, run a couple of loads of laundry and iron some napkins.  I pick up some salad on Sunday. I ignore the soap scum on Monday and give only a desultory swipe to the other bathroom fixtures.

Today I plant myself face-to-face with the schedule on the refrigerator.  Looking at the schedule, I feel like the snarky Clip Art Girl, and want to be Meghan Markle.  (Hmm, she has an entourage who keep her home(s) very clean.  She doesn’t have to do anything like mop.  But I’m looking to be a tongue-in-cheek Domestic Duchess, remember?  Not real royalty, whose actual wealth and privilege make me bristle.) 

My brain leaps (gracefully, of course) from Clip Art Girl to Fred Astaire.  Remember the scene in “Swing Time” when Astaire pretends to not know how to dance so he can woo the teacher (Ginger Rogers, of course)?  He sings (and they dance) to the wonderful Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields song, “Pick Yourself Up.” Lines from that song are my mantra whenever I’m consciously learning to do something new (sing cheerfully): “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” 

Today’s Tuesday.  I’m leaving yesterday’s Mountain of Soap Scum for next week and have already dealt with the kitchen, recycling-and-compost. (I will add that I spilled the whole container of compost down the stairs this morning, which means that the stairs definitely-and-without-question need to be mopped this week.  I did wipe up the gobs of rotten eggplant, but who knows where a carrot peel might hide?)  The litterbox awaits.  As soon as I post this, I’ll go deal with that. 

The cats and I look forward to a few more weeks on schedule, when the habit will be in place and I won’t even think about soap scum. 

 a souvenir)/wikimedia commons
Source: David (An Unguarded Moment: a souvenir)/wikimedia commons