5 “Real Simple” Reasons We Don’t Get the Laundry (or Paperwork) Done

Posted on: June 23rd, 2017 by Julie Bestry | 6 Comments

Did you just do a double-take? Laundry? In a Paper Doll post? While we rarely talk about organizing non-paper aspects of domestic life, a recent interview presented an interesting way to use laundry to consider how we procrastinate on other tasks, like paper management.

A writer for Real Simple Magazine contacted my colleague, the fabulous Dr. Melissa Gratias, about the psychology behind why people fail to finish their laundry. Being interviewed by Real Simple is a plumb opportunity, but Melissa – a psychologist by training – focuses on corporate organizing and professional productivity. Melissa honored me by suggesting Real Simple should get my take on the topic.

In the end, in Real Simple‘s June issue about “getting it done,” laundry ended up being just one small section. (See my quotes on page 128!) But you, dear readers, have the opportunity to learn it all!

The reporter asked:

Why [do] we have trouble finishing the laundry (wet clothes left in the machine, clean clothes not folded, folded clothes not put away) – and how we can change our habit to get it done in one swoop so it’s off our plate?

The key word in the inquiry was “finishing” but for many people, even starting laundry is the bigger obstacle. It’s funny to think about why we put off laundry as this huge, scary thing, because our great-grandmothers used finger-peeling washboards and our great-greats had to take the washing down to the river to beat the clothing against the rocks.

Meanwhile, we drop our laundry in metal boxes and push a few buttons! It’s not particularly onerous, so there must be more to it than the labor — and, as you may have suspected, much of it is psychological. However, small tweaks can dramatically improve our ability to get our laundry done and get us on our way — fully clothed, unstained, and possibly in a fashionable mode of dress.

First, laundry is not a task, but a project. Tasks are singular, but the ongoing saga of the laundry project involves multiple sequential tasks:

  • collecting our laundry from the various places we (and our children, and our spouses who sometimes act like children) drop or toss them
  • remembering what special tasks (pre-treating stains, removing accessories, securing drawstrings) must be performed
  • sorting laundry by color and/or temperature
  • washing (but the actual labor is done by the machine)
  • transferring the laundry to the dryer, making sure to remove any items that must be line-dried or hung over sweater racks or otherwise given extra attention
  • drying (again, done by the machine)
  • removing laundry from the dryer in a timely manner so that wrinkles don’t set in
  • folding laundry (clothing, bedding, towels, etc.) and hanging clothing
  • putting it all away

Wow. These discrete tasks should naturally flow from one to the next, just as the various steps in cooking a meal, but we’re much more inclined to wander away, mid-task, with laundry.

Consider the following obstacles and solutions:

1) PROBLEM: We lack timely triggers to start laundry.

At least, we don’t have them in the same way we do as for preparing a meal. (What? Do you starve for fluff & fold?) Other than in college, when students tend to put off laundry until they run out of clean underwear, most adults don’t have a natural trigger to get started on laundry.

SOLUTION: Create your own triggers.

Pick days and times when you’ll do laundry, like during your children’s piano lessons and scouting meetings on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, or on weekend evenings after dinner, because the bulk of the work can be done quickly before TV time and the folding can be done during commercials. Set alerts on your phone or computer and let them serve as your valet or butler — albeit one unwilling to do laundry, but happy to remind you that it must be done.

This concept works just as well for paper-oriented tasks. Instead of waiting for your bills to be due (or overdue) — the equivalent of running out of clean laundry — schedule a time to work on your tasks. Bill-paying is a kind of correspondence (though you’re sending money, rather than cheery news), so you might schedule other tasks, like writing thank-you notes at the same time. In your professional life, group tasks like responding to emails or drafting your business newsletter at set times on certain days, like after your staff meeting on Wednesday mornings.

The key is to identify your trigger, set an auditory or visual alert to help you focus on the trigger, and create a time block to complete the task. Maybe the new Time Timer we recently reviewed can help?

2) PROBLEM: We anticipate that laundry will be more of a pain than it actually is.

Although laundry requires multiple steps, most of them are easy and each can be completed in a matter of minutes (except for what the machines do). But many of us recall when laundry was difficult (requiring amassing adequate stashes of quarters, dragging heavy laundry bags from our dorm rooms to basement laundry rooms only to find all the washers were in use), and that sense memory makes us subconsciously rebel against even the idea of doing laundry.

SOLUTION: Find ways to make doing laundry less unpleasant.

  • Install better lighting in your laundry room, and clear the space of clutter.
  • If your laundry room is also used for other purposes, create a separate laundry zone. Corral your bottles of stain remover, boxes of fabric softener, lint remover, and everything except your heavy detergent bottles, in rubber dishpans or tubs you can easily slide off cabinet shelves.
  • Install a valet hook, a rolling clothes rack, and/or a retractable clothes line in your laundry area to make buttoning, zipping, and hanging clothes easy.
  • Get rid of (or fix) anything about your laundry area that makes you avoid it.

These tips work for paperwork, too. Do you put off filing, remembering that one time it took you all weekend to deal with six months’ worth of paper backlog? You have almost ten years of Paper Doll advice on how to create a filing system so that everything is logical and easy to find. Join the Clean Desk Club, and learn what papers you need to keep and what you can toss by getting Do I Have To Keep This Piece of Paper? Instead of filing months of papers in drudgery, do short bursts every week, and put on your favorite music to liven the mood.

3) PROBLEM: We lack systems and don’t set aside time to complete the project.

Work isn’t completed until it’s done, and laundry isn’t done until it’s put away. But that injects another problem. Because we procrastinate about doing laundry, we then feel that we have to do ALL THE LAUNDRY all at once, at which we either will fail (making us resentful of that sense of failure) or succeed (making us resentful that we’re expected to ever do it again).

SOLUTION: Create physical and behavioral systems to make the work easy to complete.

  • Only start laundry when you’re going to be around to complete a load from start to finish.
  • Don’t start a load of laundry late at night – you’ll be tempted to go to bed and leave the items in the washer or dryer.
  • Sort laundry sessions by type. Do bedding and towels when it’s more likely you’ll be interrupted. (Nobody minds wrinkled towels).
  • Do more smaller loads of clothing. It’ll wash better and dry faster.
  • Know how long your washer and dryer cycles take; if they don’t have musical alerts that you can hear from elsewhere in the house, set your kitchen timer or phone alarm to remind you to move the process along.

With papers, conquer your ingrained avoidance by making sure you have systems that make it easy. Create homes for what is to-be-paid and to-be-filed, and a filing system that is aesthetically pleasing (if that’s what gets you going) and ergonomic (with good lighting and a comfortable place to sit so you don’t hurt your back while working).

Behaviorally, you can complete small tasks in whatever time you have available, but if you’re working on a larger project, like developing a family budget, writing your graduate thesis, or putting together your start-up’s marketing plan, you need to see the big picture and make sure you’ve blocked time to take your project from start to completion.

4) PROBLEM: We resent that we’re doing all the work!

While some of us find the folding of laundry to be almost Zen-like, for most people it’s not exactly
Disney World. That doesn’t mean laundry must mean misery.

SOLUTION: Don’t feel obligated to do it all by yourself.

Delegate: If your kids are old enough, teach them how to do laundry, starting with hard-to-destroy items like towels, and help them to understand laundry instruction tags, temperature settings, etc. Start by working together, and once they’re good to go, include the least destructible types of laundry on their chore charts.

Share: Nobody says laundry has to be a solo adventure. Just as with kitchen tasks (I’ll wash, you dry), split up the effort so it seems like less work. If you get the clothes sorted, pre-treated, and into the washer, make it a tag-team event and let your partner get it from the dryer to the bedrooms and linen closets.

Trade tasks: If you really hate doing laundry, even with these tips, see if your spouse has a much-detested task of similar effort and value, and trade-off, even if only for a few weeks at a time, to give you both a respite.

Entertain yourself: If nobody else can or will help, make laundry time delightful. Listen to podcasts or favorite songs while you do the bulk of the work, and let yourself focus on fun rather than work during the washer and dryer cycles.

This advice is applicable in your non-laundry areas, too. Whatever you have to do, if it’s not something at which you’re skilled (or willing to get skilled), find a way to get it off your plate. If you don’t have a committee member, colleague, employee, neighbor kid, or pal to whom you can delegate or with whom you can share, hire someone affordably:


5) PROBLEM: Our closets and drawers are bulging. 

Here’s where the Pareto Principle really comes into play. 80% of the time, we wear the same 20% of our wardrobe; we wear, we wash, we dress out of the laundry basket. Our clothes don’t make it back to our closets and drawers because we often know that trying to squish hangers into tightly jammed spaces or folded clothing into overstuffed drawers will be futile. It reminds us that we must purge our excesses, and to avoid that discomfort, we subconsciously avoid even taking clothing back to where it belongs.

SOLUTION: Declutter!

  • Pair up with a spouse, teen, or friend, or enlist the aid of a professional organizer so that you can reduce the number of items that no longer fit (your body or your lifestyle) or flatter.
  • Arrange by clothing type (to make it easier to know where to return any just-laundered item.
  • Move empty hangers to one area, so you’ll be able to grab them for laundry use instead of fighting to untangle them amid the chaos. Move anything that isn’t clothing, shoes, or
    accessories elsewhere.
  • Pare down linen closets to what you actually use; jettison threadbare towels; donate sheets that don’t fit any size beds you currently own.

To get from to-do to halfway-done to finished with paperwork, eliminate the distracting clutter. Get the kids toys off your bill-paying desk and back to the playroom, pull and shred the household bills from 1987, and get the dust-covered knickknacks out of your workspace.

Finish the laundry. Finish the paperwork. Get on with your life!

6 Responses

  1. I love this, Julie. I think all organizing situations have similar issues and similar solutions. If only everyone would take the time to think it through, and to apply skills from other successful parts of their lives, I think they’d be happier. And congrats on at least a tiny portion of your wisdom ending up in Real Simple!

  2. Julie Bestry says:

    Thank you, Hazel. There are reasons to hate doing laundry, just like there are reasons to put off almost any task. But the idea that we’re stuck is wrong — we can make the situation better, the task easier, the environment more pleasing.

  3. We’re in a rental building where we share 8 washers and 8 dryers with about 100 other apartments, and the laundry room is only open from 7am-8pm. As a result, we don’t have the luxury of leaving things in the washer or dryer for hours (or days).

    In addition, we’re asked not to use more than 3 machines at once.

    What works for us is to do our laundry on the same day and at the same time every week. If we have a lot, it’s two loads; if not, it’s one. If it’s in between, we wash what’s needed most and leave the rest for the following week. I take the stuff down and start the washers, my husband moves it to the dryers, I bring it back up, and we put it away together. It’s usually all done before 9:30am.

  4. Donna Kuper says:

    This is great, Julie. Congratulations on making page 128. With our little washer/dryer combo in our tiny home on wheels, I keep up by doing laundry every other day and sometimes every day. What’s cool is that I can set it to go straight from washing to drying!

  5. Julie Bestry says:

    Janet, that’s great! I definitely believe in scheduling — once it’s part of your routine, you have a much better shot of not being frustrated by any aspect of the process. Yay!

    Donna, I have a small apartment-style stacked washer/dryer, but I bet yours is significantly smaller. I’m fascinated by the idea that one machine can do it all! Very cool!

    • Donna Kuper says:

      We have a Splendide – http://www.splendide.com/models.htm. They are very popular in Europe where space is at a premium. I can do up to 13 lbs. of wash and up to 9 lbs. in the dryer. (It works because I take some things out to air dry.) A typical load is a full set of queen size sheets and pillow cases or two bath towels, two hand towels, and two wash cloths. We were just visiting my stepdaughter and I was able to do about 4 normal loads in one load using her washer. I forgot how small mine is, but I am happy to have it and for two people, it’s perfect.

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