I thrive off to-do lists. My planner is stuffed with color-coded grocery lists, a gentle reminder calendar, tiny checkboxes, and monthly touchpoints. Checking off those miniature boxes, numbering items in order of importance, and writing everything down gives me a righteous high. I thrive to cross things off. Sometimes, I write down what I accomplished just so I can check a box. I must live a life of manageable structure.
And I’m lucky I love chores so much. Because being an adult is a never-ending to-do list. But, is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.
We can find joy in chores. And in a way, we have to.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, once said you should “wash the dishes to wash the dishes” versus washing them to just get it done. And if you think about it, beyond the dirty soap water, that’s beautiful. I imagine myself washing the dishes and paying attention to the little magenta-neon rainbows in the bubbles, admiring a shiny dish or finding satisfaction in rinsing the suds, letting them slip and spin down the drain.
In chores, there’s a secret. And that secret is using chores as an excuse—an excuse to slow down. This was easy to discover during the pandemic. Suddenly, everything rushed came to a halt. It became obvious that we had to slow down.
Emotionally, I was incapable of doing anything fast, and I took the time to organize my things, thoughts, and priorities. Every afternoon, I called my mom on FaceTime (something I do as a habit now). I read more books. I went on more walks. Things like washing my dishes gave my life more meaning because they had to. Taking out the garbage couldn’t be motionless or mind-numbing anymore. I was aware of everyone around me in my apartment hallway. Venturing out to go to the post office was a full-fledged adventure. Things that weren’t typically beloved became sensually beloved: how the sunlight hit my bookshelf, how the plants grew on my deck, and my safe bath routine.
So, how we can use chores to invest more in our surroundings? And what does it mean when we do?
If we’re incapable of finding joy in things like doing the dishes, we’d zap the joy in the remainder of our life. We would spend too much time with the heaviness of waiting for joy; the false joy in accomplishment. We’d hustle too hard. We’d boss lady ourselves until we couldn’t boss lady ourselves anymore. So, maybe we have to change how we think about productivity, too.
Jenny Odell writes in her book How to Do Nothing about productivity and resisting the attention economy. “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way,” she writes. Essentially, self-care is the opposite of productivity. Chores are activities that don’t produce something new exactly, but they plainly keep things in order. And finding peace in routine is a crucial way we care for ourselves.
If we’re incapable of finding joy in things like doing the dishes, we’d zap the joy in the remainder of our life. We would spend too much time with the heaviness of waiting for joy.
Odell suggests that the ability to listen, the practice of doing nothing, has something broader to offer us: “an antidote to the rhetoric of growth,” she writes. “In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative.” Okay, pause to read that again, because that quote almost moved me off my couch. She continues, “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way. But we should.”
I think this is why I love chores so much. Part of me has always seen chores as a form of self-orderliness; as personal care. Filling my sink with Pine-Sol water and wiping down surfaces around my house can be soothing and repetitive, a routine-like motion that gives me a chance to be with my thoughts, clean a flat surface, and figuratively connect the two ends of a circle (if a circle had ends).
Chores give my life meaning. They aren’t meaningless. Preservation is profound and caring for the things around us—whether it be a plant or a lampshade—are the ongoing, unfinishable projects of our existence. These chores aren’t expectant of concrete productivity. I won’t get a raise because I did my laundry. I did my laundry with intentions of care and no expectations beyond that. And next week, I’ll do it again. Chores are a flat circle and they exist to nourish us, with no endpoint.
To think that chores are here to seek self-satisfaction and ownership is the most beautiful thing. Washing dishes isn’t just washing the dishes. Suds and clammy hands remind us that life isn’t always about grand expectations. Sometimes we exist to clean the dishes. That’s the most simple and non-stressful thing I’ve ever written.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “If I am incapable of washing dishes joyfully, if I want to finish them quickly so I can go and have dessert and a cup of tea, I will be equally incapable of doing these things joyfully. With the cup in my hands, I will be thinking about what to do next, and the fragrance and the flavour of the tea, together with the pleasure of drinking it, will be lost. I will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment. The time of dishwashing is as important as the time of meditation. That is why the everyday mind is called the Buddha’s mind.”
Preservation is profound and caring for the things around us—whether it be a plant or a lampshade—are the ongoing, unfinishable projects of our existence.
The everyday mind. The version of our minds perhaps we all actively try to bury with emails and text messages and meetings and binged TV shows.
The other day, at my doctor’s appointment, I had to partially undress and sit with one of those human-sized tissues to wait for my doctor. Naked from the waist down, I left my phone in my purse and waited. My doctor was running late, so I sat on the table without a distraction for a healthy twenty-five minutes. And let me tell you, my everyday mind was all over the place. In short, I was mildly frightened by it—and debated letting the cold air hit my butt for a long while to fetch my phone. And yet, perhaps that’s my problem. I should be left alone in that place more often. Time is limitless. And chores allow me to sit in that space safely. We have a lot to teach ourselves.
So, here’s to the everyday mind. And washing the dishes.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.