“Cease endlessly striving for what you would like to do and learn to love what must be done.” – Goethe
The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does.” –J.M. Barrie
Goal: Seek to define true productivity, and also to see it and feel it.
Many of us are task-driven. We want to see things done, accomplished, finished. This is what the world tells us is productivity.
However, our life at home is not the kind of world where things are often finished. You might check off “laundry” for the day, but before the day is out, there will be more dirty laundry in the hamper. You might check off “make dinner,” but dinner will have to be made again tomorrow. Not only that, but because you made dinner today, there are now dishes in the sink to wash.
This can be supremely frustrating. It can be discouraging, disheartening, even depressing. But that is because we have the wrong framework for productivity and accomplishment and also a wrong idea of what the point of cleaning the house actually is.
Why do we clean our house at all? We do it for four reasons.
First, household chores maintain a home.
In Home Comforts, Cheryl Mendelson writes that a “traditional woman” kept house in such a way that
her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in its light and air. She lived her life not only through her own body, but through the house as an extension of her body. Part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made.
Keeping a tidy house is a way to embody love and care, to make thoughtfulness visible and felt.
Second, household chores steward our gifts.
Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had to tend the garden. Work is not a result of the Fall, but a part of what we were created to do. We are supposed to tend and keep our plot, our little portion of the Earth we call home. It is our job to care for what we have been given.
Work isn’t bad; neglect is.
Third, household chores facilitate hospitality & service
Flylady puts this in an amusing way when she asks if you’re suffering from CHAOS: Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome. That’s such a good diagnostic question and motivation. Our houses don’t have to be perfectly clean and tidy to have people over (at least, not in my circles, thank goodness), but they do have to be functional: places to sit, food to fix, an atmosphere that lets us focus on others rather than our surroundings.
Keeping up with weekly housekeeping routines helps us keep our homes ready to function in one of the ways God desires them to function: as a welcome retreat from worldly cares and anxieties, a place of fellowship and peace. “Seek to show hospitality,” Romans 12:13 says. And one very practical first step toward that pursuit is to keep up enough with the housework that the state of the house is not a barrier to opportunities that might arise – including the unexpected doorbell ring.
It can also work the other way. This has actually been a very useful strategy (or, perhaps, mind-game) for me over the years. Awhile back, we were having people over for dinner once or twice a week, and I also had someone over during the day not infrequently. The only way we could have a houseful of four young children, homeschool, and still practice hospitality was if I actually worked my weekly routine and kept at the little jobs while they were still little, so that the house was only ever 15-30 minutes away from being presentable (“presentable” has also varied greatly over the years and in different seasons and with different people – that’s ok and normal).
Keeping the house reasonably clean is a way to be available for others.
Fourth, household chores train us for more.
Christ says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” And in the story of the talents, the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.”
Our homes are small stewardships given to us as practice and training ground. If we would seek to be responsible and faithful stewards of great ministries, we must start where we are, not where we daydream we will be in five or ten years. How we execute our responsibilities in the here and now is how we will execute them in the future. More responsibility doesn’t make us better managers; being a better manager brings more responsibility.
Taking care of current duties is the best preparation for future duties.
Learn to love through diligence.
I have been the queen of boom and bust cycles. There is no avoiding it. Maintenance – daily chipping away at the work, bit by bit, over and over – is the only way to avoid chaos and filth. It feels more productive to get into a cleaning frenzy and take a room from utter disaster to sparkling clean. But keeping a home is like tending a garden: its very nature is ongoing. And, like tending a garden, the best way to weed is when the weeds are young and small, to weed often, and to weed a little bit every time you go out to pick a tomato. Weeds breed weeds, so the longer they go, the harder the task becomes.
All those boom and bust cycles did teach me a lot about what work I should be doing to make a difference, how long it actually takes, and the difference between booming and maintaining. I think each homemaker needs to find her own sweet spot for what “reasonably clean” is in her house, finding the balance between “our house can function smoothly” on the four levels developed above and “cleaning is stressing me out because it’s undone every time a child merely walks through a room” (because, of course, children never merely walk through a room). So, somehow we have to find that spot between being a frazzled mess because everything is a chaotic mess and being a frazzled mess because there are actually other people in our house.
Have you heard the Martin Luther quote about clean floors?
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays — not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.
Now, he was commenting on vocations, but it’s easy for us mothers to see that quote or others like it and think, “God loves clean floors? Then He almost never loves my home.”
After all, even when I do clean the floors daily, they never stay clean for long.
I think we need to think about it a little differently. We need to say not that God loves clean floors, but that God loves us making dirty floors clean.
See the trick? Suddenly those little footprints, the crumbs, the blowing dust, the fingerprints are not ruining our clean floor which we wanted to please God with. Rather, they are creating another opportunity to please God by working transformation from dirty to clean yet again.
It is when we bring order out of chaos, when we make dirty things clean, that we are imaging God’s work in this world, not when we accomplish ever-so-briefly a moment of attaining our ends.
There are tactics we can implement to make the job easier, but entropy is how the world works and no method will conquer entropy in this life. What is asked of us is not a immaculate home, but faithfulness. We are to keep at it, do what we can, even when it seems like entropy is winning, even when we can’t reach the standard we’d prefer, even when we don’t enjoy the job.
So, when we repeat ourselves could it be a way we are imitating and imaging God?
We get all frustrated as if the necessity of repetition is part of our finiteness and fallenness, but when we look to Scripture, we see that even the infinite and perfect God delights in the repeating cycle of day and night, of seasons, of sustaining the world today in the same way as He has since the beginning. On top of that, we see that He repeats Himself to us, as well, giving us story after story, example after example, admonition after admonition, patient hearing after patient hearing.
Perhaps there is actually glory in repetition, if we had the eyes to see it.
All these little, trivial details often wear us down. But perhaps that is because we are operating under a false paradigm, one that does not see how much repetition (breath in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out) is woven into existence.
If we want things all done, over, ended, is that not in a way wishing for death? Life is not only full of, but built with and upon, repeated actions and processes, change upon change.
Keeping house, tending to the needs of people, is one way we can image God and reflect in a small way the Story that God Himself tells us about Himself.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle
The fact that housework is repetitious, then, is actually an opportunity. If we become what we regularly do, then every day we have the opportunity to become a person who cares for her possessions, a person who serves others cheerfully, a person who offers hospitality to herself, her family, and her community by such simple acts as making beds, doing dishes, and cleaning bathrooms.
Every morning when we get up and make our beds, we are making a statement to ourselves: I am the sort of person to brings order from chaos, who cares for her environment, who beautifies what she touches. Every evening when we clean the kitchen after dinner, we are making those same statements again. Every time we perform any act of housework, this is what we are saying, what we are living.
Learning to love what must be done is not only 1) knowing what must be done, and 2) learning why it must be done, but also 3) feeling affection for and delight in the what and the why.
Although we think we want to be productive, what we actually want is to feel productive. We don’t want simply to go through the daily litany of our responsibilities. We want to enjoy ourselves. Too often, we think those two things are mutually exclusive.
Being productive while feeling crummy about it stinks. I don’t want a groundless or frivolous feel-good, but neglecting the feel-good doesn’t work either. When productivity feels good, it feels energizing. That energy, in turn, helps us keep going. When productivity feels bad, it feels like walking dead, like the slow sapping of vitality with each check made on the stupid list.
So, here are four couple ways to cultivate the feel-good while you’re working on the do-good:
1. Sleep is a huge factor to the energy and feel-good equation.
It simply can’t be ignored or downplayed. How much sleep we get at night is often beyond our control. However, there are always factors that remain in our control; we have to make good choices in the evening if we want to be good mothers during the day and not be weepy messes at night.
2. Pay attention to the voice in my head.
A huge part of feeling bad is usually the story we allow to run wild in our heads. Mine often sounds like, “Yeah, you did sweep the floor, but look at what a huge pile you swept up. Clearly you are a train wreck if the pile on your floor is an inch tall.” and “Sure, you x, but y.” In other words, for every single positive thing that I really did do, my mind was spinning it into a negative.
No wonder I felt run down.
As mothers, we know that to help our children progress and learn and grow, we need to support their efforts with encouragement. Do we think we’re too good [or too bad] for that ourselves?
3. It’s better to stop, pause, and regroup than to push on in negativity.
Don’t resist pausing and getting a grip.
- Get a glass of ice water.
- Take a turn around the yard.
- Read a chapter in a book.
- Make a list.
We should pray, not that God would magically take away the difficulty and make our lives easier, but that God will grow us through it, that we will respond to our situations in faith and trust and not with a stiff neck. Because that’s a prayer He’s told us to pray. That’s a prayer He has promised to grant.
An internal negative spiral is a response of the flesh and not a response of God’s Spirit and of faith. May we each have the courage, the willingness, the meekness to lay down our fleshly responses and to take the time and have the humility to pray rather than fret. God does give grace and strength. In fact, He gives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The question is, do we actually want them enough to take them up when they are offered?
We have things we do need to get done every day. We have people we need to build up. We have homes to manage. We have good works God has called us to walk in. But the real source of a productive day is when we respond in trust, with steadfastness and faithfulness, to the circumstances God sends us. That is how He produces in us the fruit of His Spirit, which is the productivity He desires.
Perhaps it is precisely what we are resisting that will bring us delight in our duties.
We can’t delight in something we’re fighting against and grumbling over. After we switch our internal chatter from negative to true, we will open up to the possibilities of satisfaction in work done well. To do work well, we have to practice it. We want to commit certain things not only to our cognitive memory, but also to our muscle memory and to our reflexive memory. The way we do that is by repetition, not by fiat. Repetition is the way we internalize not only words and habits, but also ideas and skills.
We actually grow in affection for and delight in our work when it grows on us, when it becomes ingrained in us. This is habit formation: repeating behaviors we want to cultivate. Virtue, goodness, love, happiness grow not from any one-time act, but in making the right choice so often that it becomes a matter of automaticity rather than deliberate, pain-staking self-denial.
A habit is an acquired behavior pattern, done regularly until it has become almost involuntary. So practice makes perfect. Repeating the same thing over and over is working toward becoming good at the thing, even if it’s as simple as making the bed or starting chores after breakfast. It also means we don’t expect to get it right the first time or every time. Deliberate practice is work, but it bestows excellence after consistent, persistent application.
“By seeking and blundering we learn.” – Goethe
Goal: Find joy in the repetitious and delight in the small things.
Motto: Practice makes perfect.
- Watch how you speak about yourself, your house, and housework. Speak, even in your own head, God’s truth about all three, instead of what might be true about your feelings. Change your feelings by changing your thoughts and words to align with what is True. This is taking every thought captive, as God calls us to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5.
Remember that you are practicing and improving, you are living and walking in faithfulness, not striving for static outcomes. List three adjectives you want to grow toward and use those as your “goals,” rather than specific and concrete outcomes.
Pick one task you dislike that you would like to improve your skill in and grow to love. Deliberately work at making it a consistent habit and nip in the bud any and all negative thoughts about it or yourself while you do it. Pair it up with something you love – coffee, music, an audiobook, talking on the phone – or reframe the time as personal development rather than self-denial.