Ask UfYH

Ask UfYH: There’s No Right Way to Clean

Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of ineffective ways to clean, but most of them involve whatever you’re cleaning ending up dirtier than when you started. For almost everything, though, there’s no one correct way to clean something, and thinking that there is just leads to a whole lot of nothing getting done.

We’ve talked a little bit about perfectionism and all of the ways in which it’s self-defeating before. The concept of there being a “right” way to clean is just as counterproductive. Sometimes that concept has been imposed upon us, by parents who have told us we’re doing it wrong, by people who we live with not being satisfied with the method we use, or by any number of examples from modern media (commercials, aspirational home magazines, etc.) showing us that we need special tools and special methods to get something clean. Sometimes, we do it to ourselves; there are an awful lot of people out there who think if they clean something “wrong,” they’ll somehow be exempted from ever having to do it again. All of this? Bullshit. We need to get over it.

The concept of cleaning “wrong” comes up a lot in any kind of shared living situation: parents and children, roommates or housemates, romantic partners. Everyone’s standards and methods are different, so this leads to a lot of people being told (or passive-aggressively hinted to) that the way they do things is wrong. “Wrong,” in this instance, means “not the exact way I would do it, and therefore expect it to be done.” Not exactly inspiring anyone to pitch in and do the dishes.

For those people who have the high standards and expected methods, ask yourself: is my way of doing this the only way it can possibly be done? Because the stricter your expectations of how it’s done, the less likely it is to get done. So you need to let go of a little bit of the control of how it’s done in order for it to actually get done.

Parents, giving your children chores is less about having perfectly done chores and more about teaching them that they are expected to help around the house and that things don’t get magically clean without some effort on everyone’s part. If you are constantly criticizing the methods by which your children do things, you’re doing more harm than good. Sure, direct them to what you think is the most effective way to do things, but keep in mind that the effort and the action is what counts in the beginning, and the more critical you are, the more likely it is that you’ll turn chores into an extremely negative experience.

Guess what? This goes for adults as well. I can’t tell you how many people write to me, asking how they can make their spouse/significant other/roommate/housemate clean things the “right” way. Here’s the thing: the way that they’re doing something may not be the most effective or the most efficient (“I can fit 18 plates in the dishwasher and my husband only fits 11!”), but is it being done? Is [dirty thing] not dirty at the end of it? Hell, is it measurably less dirty, even?

When you’re the person with the stricter standards, you have two options: either do it yourself and give up the right to complain that it’s not being done, or unclench a little bit and recognize that if you’re continually belittling someone’s efforts, sooner or later, they’re going to stop trying. If you’re the person whose efforts seem to be wrong, ask yourself if you’re half-assing it because you really don’t want to do it or you’re hoping you’ll be told to stop trying, or are you putting in a legitimate effort and doing the best you can? If it’s the former, cut it out and actually do it; if it’s the latter, time to use your words and explain that you’re doing it to the best of your ability and ask Captain Perfectionist to maybe back off a little.

There are about a hundred different ways to wash dishes, and that’s before we even get into the magic machines that do it for us. We all have a way that we prefer or that we think is best. What you need to be asking yourself is not, “Is it being done right?” but instead, “Are the damn dishes clean?” If the damn dishes are clean (and yes, sometimes you need to ask someone to rinse them a little better because soap is gross, but come on and just have a conversation instead of slamming shit around), then it was done right. Unclench. Embrace the imperfection. Celebrate the effort.

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