Some days in my life are so full it feels like I’ll never get everything done if I don’t use every spare second. If the cornbread muffins are going to take 12 minutes to cook, that’s 12 minutes I can spend grading papers. And if one of those papers is taking a long time to load (as frequently happens with BlackBoard), I can use those extra moments to wash a few dishes, sweep the floor, or bring in the eggs from the henhouse.
On days like this, I push myself through each task with a vision of the quiet rest I’ll enjoy in the evening once everything has been crossed off my to-do list. The only problem is, by the time the moment for quiet rest arrives, I’m too exhausted to enjoy it. All I can do is flop on the couch and stare at the TV. The reward doesn’t seem quite sufficient.
One Friday night a few weeks ago, I had a revelation. My husband and stepdaughter went out for a little father-daughter bonding time, and I realized that, beyond the pile of dishes in the sink, I had no plans for the evening. Instead of rushing through the dishes with the aim of getting on to some hypothetically more pleasurable activity, I decided to approach the dishes without haste.
I took the time to enjoy the feel of the warm water flowing over my skin. I listened to the gurgle it made descending the drain. I looked out the window at the sun setting behind the baring branches of my neighbor’s princess tree. Most importantly, I let my mind wander instead of employing it every second in determining the fastest possible way to get the dishes clean and in the rack. How many glasses should I soap up at one time? Is it more efficient to rinse a whole stack of plates at once? But then I need to clear this little space for the soaped and scrubbed dishes to wait…. My calculations of efficiency would normally go on and on. But, instead of doing all those mental aerobatics, I put my mind on autopilot. Let it go wherever it wanted.
The result? What was normally a chore became an actual pleasure. That Friday night, while others were out dining in fancy restaurants, watching the latest blockbuster at the movie theater, or cheering on the local high-school football team, I was having a grand old time washing dishes.
Afterward, I wondered why it seemed so strange that I could enjoy dishwashing. I always enjoy taking a shower, after all. And washing dishes has many of the same elements: warm, flowing water; suds; pleasing smells; a resulting increase in cleanliness. So why do we love taking showers and hate washing dishes? We probably shouldn’t underestimate the pleasure of being nude, but I don’t think it can entirely account for the difference. I think the difference comes more from the attitude with which we approach the activity. When we approach anything as a chore to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible–when we just want to “get it over with”–we are going to enjoy it less than when we approach it as a relaxing, sensual activity to be drawn out as long as possible.
Granted, it will probably take me a little longer to do my household chores if I insist on enjoying them. Vacuuming will be more time-consuming if there’s dancing involved. Feeding the chickens will take longer if I linger to watch the hens take their dust baths. But, while I may spend slightly more time this way, I bet I’ll expend less mental energy. Which means that, later in the day, when I’m normally starting to work less efficiently because of fatigue, I’ll still be alert and capable of tackling new things. I may actually be able to accomplish more this way. But I think it would make it worth it just to reach the evening hours feeling inspired instead of exhausted.
After all, I don’t have to accept efficiency as the proper measure of my daily success. Why should the number of things one accomplishes be more important than one’s enjoyment of those things? We can’t delay gratification forever. If we try, we may come to the end of our toil and find ourselves capable of no greater pleasures than spacing out in front of the TV. And, while I enjoy some TV from time to time, I want to be capable of more demanding pleasures.
So I’d like to trade in my efficiency-crazed Protestant work ethic for a little more being-in-the-moment. A little more taking-my-time. If I can just figure out how to accomplish that on more than the occasional Friday night.