The Grey Plague: How You Get It (And How You Get Rid of It)

I. Hate. Cooking.

Hate it. The time spent in the kitchen chopping vegetables, browning onions, stirring pots and doing the dishes is time utterly wasted in my opinion. So much time and energy is spent planning, shopping, prepping and cleaning up that you’re no sooner done with one meal then you must turn your attention to the next.

Not only is it a massive time-sink, it is, by its very nature unfinishable. It hangs over your head, like a little stormcloud. A few clouds on an otherwise sunshiny day is fine, but too many of them will sap your energy and drag you down. This is the nature of the grey plague.

Housework is a hot-button issue in every co-living situation, but it can be particularly bad for people who work from home. You’ve got to-dos coming at you from all sides, and it can be hard to compartmentalize them from the work you need to be doing.

This article is not about cooking, by the way. Just to be clear. I’m not going to be cliche and make little ‘jokes’ about how my husband is blind to filth and his idea of cooking is beans and weenies. My husband is a hell of a lot cleaner than I am, and he makes half the meals. No, this post is about household chores as a proxy for any of the tedious, un-cross-off-able tasks in our lives. Let’s call them chores.

Chores Aren’t Distasteful Because They Are Difficult. They Suck Because They Never Amount To Anything.

This idea took shape when I got into an internet fight on reddit the other day and used the classic essay “The Politics of Housework” to bolster my argument. You might want to give it a read, if you haven’t checked it out before. It’s short, and in some quarters, no less true today than when it was written 45 years ago. (Not just in marriages. The person I was arguing with was trying to justify the fact that the only woman in the office had taken over cleaning the communal kitchen. “Hey, she’s obviously the one who cares that it’s clean!” No, buddy. Just, no.)

There are a lot of great quotes in it, but the one that caught my eye was:

A great many American men are not accustomed to doing monotonous, repetitive work which never issues any lasting, let alone important, achievement. This is why they would rather repair a cabinet than wash dishes. If human endeavors are like a pyramid with man’s highest achievements at the top, then keeping oneself alive is at the bottom. Men {with great achievements} have always had servants (us) to take care of this bottom stratum of life while they have confined themselves to the top. It is thus ironic when they ask of women– Where are your great painters, statesmen, etc.? Mme. Matisse ran a military shop so he could paint. Mrs. Martin Luther King kept his house and raised his babies.”

Whether you divide the household chores equally with your spouse or not, I think we can all agree that the “keeping oneself alive” is a very tedious and time-consuming process. And this is with washing machines and grocery stores and take-out. Think back a few generations to when these amenities didn’t exist! Business chores like data entry, scheduling and administrative duties, even things that are objectively valuable like review and reflection, can be time-consuming without actually contributing to a sense of completion or even achievement.

It’s not just cooking. It’s not just housework or laundry. It could be emails, it could be shipping, it could be maintenance and updating. And, most likely, it’s several of these things and more I haven’t mentioned. Each one a little stormcloud. Each one darkening your outlook a little more.

Chores Are Not Just Tedious. They Are Demotivating.

Personally, I’ve noticed that when the percentage of “monotonous, repetitive work with no lasting achievement” in my workweek gets too high, I’m quickly disgruntled. I don’t want to do anything in particular, so I piss around on the internet “researching” random things. I take a million breaks. I clean the kitchen. I hate my life, even though I know I’m the one being stupid.

Just a few weeks ago, I made this note in my journal: “I’ve noticed that when the day-to-day responsibilities of business — going to booksales, writing, accounting, etc, are taking up more of my time, and I’m not working on novel projects, I get really bored. Or, not bored, but dissatisfied.”

Please understand, I have written this sentiment to myself before. What usually happens is that I feel dull and uninspired, I hate myself for wasting so much time, and I sit down to work out why I feel this way. 9 times out of 10, this is the answer.

And I’m not alone. Studies have even shown that being paid highly for work that didn’t make an impact was demotivating and unengaging. Even harder on productivity and morale is work that comes undone almost the moment it is finished.

In one study, they paid people to make Lego models. In one group, each completed figure was set in a pile of “completed work.”

In the other, the researchers, dismantled the creations as soon as they were made. Even though they explained, “We’re dismantling them for the next subject,” (ie, it’s nothing personal, it’s necessary,) participants quit building the models much sooner, even though building models was actually something they liked to do. [Source: The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, page 66-74.]

Even doing things you enjoy can lose their luster when they don’t make an impact on your world.

In fact, Dan Ariely (who was one of the researchers) said that they had actually dubbed the work in the second group as the “Sisyphean condition.” If you’re not up on your Greek myths, Sisyphus was a guy who was doomed to push a stone to the top of a hill, only to have it perpetually roll back down again. Sounds a lot like a chore, doesn’t it?

That’s one of the things that attracted me to construction, back in the day. When you worked, you could see that you made a dent! That’s incredibly satisfying, and one of the reasons I try to structure my work like manual labor.

Chores are a Necessary Evil. Necessary. So Deal With It.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should remove any and all chores from our lives. For one thing, that’s nearly impossible. For another, you can use chores for good.

You can use them as working meditation. You can redefine them as an act of service or love. You can challenge yourself to optimize them. Whatever you do, don’t burn the energy hating them. I use cooking as an act of love. I optimize mowing the lawn. I use laundry as meditation. And so these tasks don’t weigh on me too much, as long as I’m doing other, more meaningful things with my time. The stormclouds are there, but I start to think of them as shade on a hot day, rather than a plague I can’t escape.

And that’s the other thing I wanted to bring up:

Chores Can Never Be Allowed To Take Over Your Life

Many microbusiness owners have an agreement with their spouse that they will manage the household for the most part until the business takes off.

In general, I think this is fine. Not contributing to the household kitty generally requires economies to be made in other places, and the person staying at home is in the position to save the household a lot of money.

But these economies typically come with a trade-off in the form of time. Some times it’s just the freedom to schedule your time– for instance, you can be home for the washing machine repair man and not have to go to the laundromat for eight weeks until you can snag a Saturday appointment. But typically, it comes at a significant cost of time spent.

Again, this is often a necessary trade-off. Reducing your income means finding ways to reduce your expenses.

But be careful that you actually do spend significant time at your business. In the words of the famous NBA coach John Wooden “Don’t mistake activity for progress.” You’ll easily find all your hours filled by things to file, to clean, to maintain. Without progress, your motivation may be sapped, which of course fuels a vicious circle.

Even if you can only wrangle two hours a day, make a plan that will ensure you make progress on your business goals and work that plan. If you can’t find two hours, my free guide Be The Boss will help you.

It’s not that running a household like a Swiss timepiece can’t be tremendously rewarding. But you didn’t set out to run a household. You set out to run a business. So no progress on the household front is ever going to feel as satisfying to you as progress on the business front, except where household progress directly enables business progress.

Yes, if money is tight, you’re going to experience a struggle between priorities. But only business achievements will enable you release some of the more time-consuming household economies, so push for progress. Two hours a day. You can do it.

You can do it not only when you’re just getting started, but also when you’re busy with your business doing all the things that need to get done. Let’s face it, sometimes business chores can swallow up the joy that brought you to this work in the first place. We all have to be proactive against that tendency.

Is Two Hours Enough?

From my own experience, two hours is a good rule of thumb. It’s not that you need two hours to make progress. You can make progress in half an hour and feel satisfied that the day wasn’t wasted. But two hours is a significant break from drudgery. It says, “I take care of myself. I take ownership of my goals and commit the time to move them forward.”

The two hours are your apple a day, your ten thousand steps, your 8 glasses of water. The two hours are the prescription for keeping the grey plague at bay.

Those two hours are for you, and what’s important to you to create.


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