Why It’s so Freaking Hard To Do the Dishes, According to a Procrastination Expert

Photo: Getty Images/Zak Kendal
If there were ever a relatable yet inexplicable vice, it's this one: You make a meal, dirtying some dishes in the process. You know you should wash them right away, but you think, I'm busy, I'll do it later. Another meal passes in this manner, and then another, and before you know it, you have a sink full of dishes and a stomach full of dread. You continue procrastinating until you can procrastinate no longer, whether because someone has scolded you, you've run out of clean dishes, or you've just become too disgusted with yourself to let the pileup continue. And when you're finally pushed to empty the sink, the task may be annoying, but—all things considered—really not so bad.

Experts In This Article

Since this is true every single time, why can't you simply do the dishes sooner, rather than torturing yourself with chore procrastination that makes the task loom larger and longer? Well, chores like dish washing are not typically all that challenging, especially when compared to the rest of a day's to-do list. After all, it's not like rinsing a plate requires mental or physical strain. But, there's often an emotional component associated such chores that can make completing them feel like the most difficult thing you do all day.

"The mental hurdle is often the simple truth of resentment," says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD. "When life feels busy and messy, the last thing we want to do is deal with more messiness—especially the pesky tasks in our lives. This can lead to an unconscious buildup of resentment toward our big and little cleaning tasks."

Sometimes, she adds, negative sentiments in areas of our life that we can't easily control—like work or relationship issues—leaks over into the more concrete space of cleaning our personal space, which we can simply choose not to do. "It’s generally safe to take our resentments out in our personal spaces—where unwashed cups and laundry can’t talk back or complain—so cleaning tasks can carry quite an emotional load," she says. It's a similar line of logic that explains why some put off going to sleep to exert personal control, a phenomenon referred to as revenge bedtime procrastination.

"It’s human nature to avoid or put off tasks that don’t hold personal value. If cleaning is far down on your list of priorities, you may surely procrastinate." —Carla Manly, PhD

Of course, some people like to clean. But, according to Dr. Manly, if you don't, making yourself do it anyway can prove difficult. "It’s human nature to avoid or put off tasks that don’t hold personal value," she says. "If cleaning is far down on your list of priorities, you may surely procrastinate when it comes to doing the dishes or taking cleanser to that buildup in the tub."

It's also human nature to avoid unpleasant tasks in addition to those we don't value, adds Joseph Ferrari, PhD, a professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done.

The good news is, there are relatively simple strategies that may prove helpful for changing chore procrastination behavior—and they're certainly worthwhile to try. Procrastination behaviors, after all, can compound feelings of stress, anxiety, and depressionnone of which is beneficial to your mental health. Dr. Ferrari adds that procrastination has also been shown to impact physical health, too, as it's been linked to chronic illness and an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. "It isn't the procrastination itself that causes this—it's the stress, which causes procrastination side effects," says Dr. Ferrari.

So, ready to stop being perpetually tortured by the contents of your sink? Below, find a few strategies for eliminating chore procrastination from your life.

9 tips to stop chore procrastination from leading to a dirty dishes pileup in your sink

1. Reframe the task as a break

According to Dr. Manly, simply reframing tasks or chores you dread as opportunities to take a time-out can be helpful. "Vacuuming, folding laundry, and even cleaning the bathroom can become soothing if you light a candle, put on some favorite music, and let go of your worries," she says.

2. Find ways to make the task feel novel

Dr. Ferrari points out that human beings don't like to do repetitive things—we seek novelty. So, he suggests finding ways to change the chore a little bit each time so it feels different. While there aren't all that many ways to make dish washing or laundry feel new, you can get creative.

Dr. Ferrari recommends, for example, breaking up the order in which you do things, so whatever you would normally do first, you do last. If you normally tackle dirty plates first, for example, try scrubbing pots instead. It won't totally transform the task, but it may be just enough to keep you from thinking, same old, same old.

3. Turn the task into a gratitude practice

Dr. Manly recommends reframing your relationship with chores so you don't automatically see it as a burden. "Try giving gratitude for your cleaning tasks rather than seeing them as a curse," she says. "For example, washing dishes is a perfect opportunity to give gratitude for the food that nourished your body, mind, and soul."

4. Count the task toward your exercise or movement goals

Dr. Manly suggests doing so can help with motivation because time spent on chores contributes to an overall energy expenditure of the day. Not convinced? Research shows that a 150-pound person burns 99 calories in 30 minutes of housework, for example.

5. Partner up

"If you have a partner or roommate, taking a team approach can make certain tasks bonding and fun," Dr. Manly says. "By sharing certain tasks or divvying them up based on personal preference, cleaning can feel more like a positive choice than a negative chore." Dr. Ferrari likewise recommends this strategy, which he refers to as "social sharing."

6. Do less in order to do more

In some cases, we may procrastinate on tasks because they require a significant amount of effort to do them "right," or as completely as we might like. If this is the case for you with respect to any or all chores, Dr. Ferrari suggests loosening up your standards a bit.

7. Add a "carrot" as incentive

You can also employ what's known as the Premack Principle to incentivize yourself. It holds that you can use a probable or desirable behavior, like binge-watching Netflix, to reinforce a less probable or desirable behavior, like washing the dishes. Put simply, you can couple your chores with an activity you actually enjoy in order to motivate yourself to do them. For every 10 dishes you wash, for example, Dr. Ferrari recommends allowing yourself 10 minutes of your favorite show so that in order to get the full show, you have to wash a full sink of dishes.

8. Do unpleasant chores first thing in the morning

The concept of "decision fatigue" holds that the more decisions we make in a day, the less self-control we have, and the less able we are to regulate ourselves, says Dr. Ferrari. In other words, by the end of the day, we are so worn out from all the micro and macro decisions required by everyday life that we tend to get worse at making good decisions (e.g. doing the dishes now rather than allowing them to pile up for later). To avoid this pitfall, he recommends trying to do some of your least favorite chores first thing in the morning.

9. Outsource your least favorite or most stressful tasks, if you are able to afford to do so

Of course, not everybody can afford to hire someone to help with household chores, but if doing so fits within your budget, you might want to consider outsourcing some of the unpleasant tasks adding stress to your daily life. If you consider the pricelessness of your health, after all, this math might just start to make sense!

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