I don’t know about anyone else but I am a deeply flawed individual. I have terrible memory and attention span. And there are a long list of things that I should do. I should exercise more. I should write more regularly. I should eat better. I should have a perfectly clean house etc. But I don’t.

For instance, I have a problem with laundry. I’m bad at it. I forget about it, let it pile up, then procrastinate about it. Then I have to do a huge purge, which I don’t fold or put away properly because there is so much of it.

However the secret to dealing with it was not to become this idealised person who did the right thing. The secret was in understanding why it was I failed at this, and creating the environment where I could succeed with my flaws.

My laundry and I

In my particular case, the laundry, I had a setup which might have worked for a more responsible and less distracted individual, but not for me.

We have a laundry hamper that is about two feet high and has two sections, one side for darks, one for lights.The idea is to throw your dirty laundry into the appropriate side, so you don’t have to sort it in bulk when it need to put a load on. However that was only a tiny part of the whole problem of me reliably doing laundry. I still have to get enough laundry from the hamper for a load and put it into a basket, carry it down to the laundry room and put it on. Then I have to remember to listen for the sound of it finishing and swap it into the dryer, and then later get it out again.

There were a few issues here:

  • The size of the hamper made it easy to accumulate a lot of laundry, at least four loads (two light, two dark), before overflowing. Once it starts overflowing, it’s easy to just let it go until I run out of clothes entirely.
  • Once I’ve hit the multiple load problem, I don’t want to just grab the top and throw it on because I know I’m likely to forget about it later and the rest isn’t going to get washed for a while so I need to prioritise them … which takes more time, and then I procrastinate about it

I had an ideal in my mind of what laundry is supposed to be and how it supposed to work. However that ideal doesn’t match my actual behavior and habits and I don’t care enough about it to change my habits to make it work.

The solution was to build a system that knows about my weaknesses and anticipates them.

New system

  1. I got rid of the hamper and got 4 laundry baskets. They are in two stacks, one for lights, one for darks.
  2. Each basket only holds about one load so when it is full, I just take it and put it on.
  3. I leave that basket in the laundry and future dirty clothes get thrown in the basket that was stacked under it.
  4. The fact that there is only one basket in the stack serves as a reminder that I haven’t finished doing the previous load and I might need to go put them in the dryer or bring the fresh clothes back.
  5. When the other load is complete I bring it back in same basket and put that basket back under the other one.

Why does this work?

  1. Using “one load” baskets instead of the giant hamper means that the point of overflow occurs when there is a load to put on - not after. This serves a mental reminder. Do this now. Not “oh damn, I should have done this days ago.”
  2. When this reminder occurs, all I have to do is grab the basket and take it down and throw the clothes in and turn the washer on. I don’t have to sort anything or move it into another basket or anything. I have less to do to achieve the immediate task.
  3. If I forget about the laundry waiting in the washer or drier, the single basket is a prompt for me. It means “hey, you need to go do the next step”. This is another reminder. Especially when I next throw dirty clothes into it.
  4. Because it’s just one load at a time as it becomes necessary, it’s less work to just fold it and put it away at the time as well.

This system deals with my forgetfulness but having built in reminders and prompts. Instead of trying to ensure that I did laundry before it became more than one load, the physical nature of the system prompts me as soon as I have a load that is ready to go. It leaves me little clues.

Instead of trying to overcome my flaws to achieve something, I created a system that flows around them.

It’s not just laundry

Now I’ve become much more aware of this tendency all around me, and the problems it causes. We expect that we should overcome our flaws, and that other people should do the same. This is unrealistic. Good systems and processes should anticipate our flaws and allow us to succeed despite them.

Don’t expect people to be paragons of virtue in order to get anything done. Expect them to be flawed, to be forgetful, to be lazy, and to make mistakes. Expect them to be human, and plan accordingly.