The Wisdom of Dirty Socks: 3 Ways to Get Things Done

Note: This is a guest post by Stephen Martin. Check out his blog at Messy Quest. Then return and read this outstanding (and very funny!) post. Show him plenty of love in the comments and by sharing this article too! 🙂

A few months ago, the following dinner conversation unfolded in our dining room:

My 8-year-old son to my 5-year-old daughter: You just got tomato sauce on your shirt.
My 5-year-old daughter: Oops. That’s ok, though. Daddy will clean it in the laundry.
Visiting neighbor child: Your dad does the laundry?

In fact, I am The Chief Launderer in our house. My wife handles some things, too, like the cooking, the cleaning, the banking, the carpooling, running her own business and monitoring my toenails. But when it comes to Ragu stains, I’m the main man.

As I dumped yet another scoop of detergent into the washing machine recently, I philosophized a bit about how laundry gets a bad rap. It’s generally considered a chore that gets in the way of more exciting things, a hindrance to real productivity.

I beg to differ.

Much of what I’ve been able to accomplish over the past few years – being a father, writing a book, staying energized in my day job – came about largely because of what I learned from doing laundry.

In my rookie days, I adhered to “the laundry day” – that epic weekly undertaking where you crank out as many loads as possible, mostly because you’re out of underwear. Then you wait until another crisis of smelly socks arises before doing it again.

Similarly, I spent my 20s waiting for “the perfect moment” to get started on numerous writing projects.

The writing never went anywhere, despite the vast amounts of free time I had in those bachelor years. What did I do when I should have been writing? I don’t really remember. I seem to recall eating a lot of tortilla chips. And fretting about all the writing I wasn’t doing.

Scarcity of time, it turns out, was what I needed. And that’s what I got. First came marriage. Then a son. Then a daughter. Suddenly, I didn’t have any time even to think about writing, or not writing.

Meanwhile, the laundry baskets overflowed with burp-stained shirts and pants smeared with pureed green beans. And those were just my clothes. There were many days when the kids easily went through five or six outfits.

If I’d waited for my typical weekend laundry day, they’d have been running around naked in the yard. Although that wouldn’t have been a first in my neighborhood.

Gradually, three principles emerged for dealing with this problem.  Following them not only allowed me to keep my kids clothed most of the time. They also nurtured a personal breakthrough, taking my writing career in new directions during the absolute busiest time of my life.

1. Every Little Bit Counts

Quickly, I became a believer in incremental progress. If I had five free minutes, I’d sort out one hamper. Maybe an hour or two later, I’d do the next one.

Instead of doing five loads in one day, I’d do one or two loads a night for three days straight. True, this meant I was constantly doing laundry. I could never stand back and say, “All right, that project is DONE!”

But guess what? You’re never really done with laundry – and a lot of other things in life. I began to write the same way. Instead of waiting for totally free afternoons, I’d see what I could do with 30 uninterrupted minutes, or an hour if I was lucky.

Each time I made a little progress and built a little more momentum. And to be honest, these increments worked well. I don’t have much of an attention span anyway. The year after my son’s first birthday, I wrote six essays and published half of them. My total number of published essays in the 10 years before that: zero.

2. 80 percent is Good Enough

Not everyone will agree with this principle, but I challenge you to an independent evaluation of your sanity level versus mine.

When it came to the laundry, sometimes mistakes were made. A Kleenex left in a jeans pocket made it into the dryer where it shredded into annoying little feathery white pieces that covered an entire load. Sometimes, I’d miss a key spot or two with the stain spray. Occasionally, something marked “DRY FLAT ONLY” ended up on the high heat cycle.

But most of the clothes turned out fine, and we didn’t often have to resort to diving into a dirty laundry basket to excavate the least nasty socks.

Similarly, my writing wasn’t perfect. I could have labored longer over a phrase here and there, waited until exactly the right image came to me, stepped back and thought about things from a totally new lens. But I’d been doing that for the previous 10 years with nothing to show for it.

3. Be Prepared

Alas, my supplies did not always keep up with my new-found approach to laundry. Many times, I sorted the clothes, started pitching a load into the washer – and realized I was out of detergent, bleach or whatever semi-government-approved cleaning chemical I needed to get the job done that day.

Gradually, I learned to think ahead, taking care to have all these resources on hand and also never to mix them for fear of blowing up the laundry room. It was a strategy that carried over to writing as well. Any time I got 15 minutes at the keyboard, I already had a sense of what to write. So the opportunity was never wasted for lack of ideas, if not bad writing.

I could attempt to apply these same principles to taking care of my yard, but I won’t. Other people can write that post – and they’re welcome to mow my grass as well. I encourage you to pick one area of your life where you’re struggling to make progress and try out this approach.

Results might not come immediately. But they will show eventually, as sure as those stacks of dirty socks continue to rise.

Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at His first book The Messy Quest for Meaning, which explores how to find a calling and tap into potential, will be released by Sorin Books in May 2012.


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