Perfectionist Slob

I used to be a slob. It wasn’t pathological, but it did get pretty bad for a period of time.

I started a new routine a few weeks ago where I applied the mechanics of my daily drawing practice to cleaning up my house: do it regularly, and don’t worry about doing a perfect job. Just establish the habit/practice/routine of doing it regularly.

My main goal was mental health: I realized after cleaning up one weekend how much I preferred the experience of a clean house over a messy one. I joked to myself, “Why do I ever let it get messy if I like it clean so much?” But then it struck me that it was no different than my previous lack of effort in creating art regularly: I needed a routine.

But as I was cleaning the house the second weekend, the deeper reality of why my cleaning habits were so lax become apparent: it was a side-effect of perfectionism. 

External Identifications

Most people misinterpret the word perfectionism to mean that someone is a neat-freak, or has OCD and there would be no way for them to allow their house to become dirty. However, perfectionism isn’t global — you can be a perfectionist in just certain aspects of your persona. And perfectionism isn’t always about achieving perfection, but about the standards one sets for themselves. And these standards are often not easy or impossible to attain (perfection is impossible). The perfectionism, in fact, needs to be impossible to attain for it to function properly as the psychological defense mechanism it is — it’s an excuse to avoid doing the work.

The perfectionist also has individual and specific aspects of themselves that they have come to externally identify with. For some, their talents are the external reflection of who they are. For others, it may be their house, their children, their car, their yard. Therefore, they may be a perfectionist in that externally-identified area, but not in others which they do not identify with as reflecting who they are.

Thus, your house can be a total mess while your yard is meticulously manicured. Perfectionism is like a laser, not a floodlight.

House As Mind

Part of my “clean the house” motivation was based on my sneaking suspicion that our living environment is a reflection of our mental state. It may not be obvious how to maintain a positive attitude, but it’s pretty apparent when your house is a mess. So, clean the house, clean the mind.

So as I am cleaning up one afternoon, it strikes me that my former lack of cleaning habits were rooted in perfectionism. I saw the objective of cleaning your house as “having a clean house”. Often in the past when I’d cleaned my house, it was far from “clean”. Sure, cleaner. But not clean. I’d see things I missed, did poorly, skipped, etc. It was frustrating to see this half-assed job all around me. Eventually the perfectionist thinking would take over the reigns, see the behavior as futile, label myself a “slob”, and stop doing any future cleaning until it was critically bad.

Of course, astute readers see this as yet another form of procrastination — avoiding doing a job that can’t be done perfectly the I first time, particularly on a project that one identifies with or perceives as a reflection or extension of oneself.

But I had the eureka moment that the goal wasn’t about “having a clean house”, but rather “cleaning your house”. Not only was it about process over product, but it was also about the cultivation of being someone who cleans their house — not merely “having a clean house”. Cleaning the house was more about you, than about the house.

Don’t Do Your Best

The perfectionist wants “a clean house”. The recovering perfectionist aims for “becoming a person who cleans the house regularly”. In fact, my rule is that I am allowed to do a bad job! The goal is only to perform the cleaning. With repetition and over time, it will get better and better. Build momentum and maintain it.

And each week, I realized that I was noticing new stuff than needed cleaning, but I was also getting faster at cleaning the main stuff, and by doing it regularly it needed less time, work and attention. That way, in the same amount of time I could hit these newly-noticed areas. I actually find myself getting into and enjoying the process now! I think this has a lot to to with the Inertial Mind. That’s why it’s so key to just set a rule of doing a poor job, as long as you do it for at least 15 minutes.

I’ve found myself actually extending my cleaning sessions, looking for more stuff to clean while I am “in the zone”. It also extended into the de-cluttering of my closets, which is another liberating experience in itself.

Perfectionist Slobs

So yes, perfectionists can indeed be slobs. In fact, I suspect that being a slob could actually be an indicator of perfectionism in another area of one’s life. I suggest you give a regular cleaning practice a try for a few weeks from this perspective and see what sorts of insights you gain for yourself.

Cleaning Tips For Perfectionists

I’ll close this post with some tips for fellow recovering Perfectionist Slobs out there. And don’t forget we can be “slobs” in many intangible and non-physical areas of our lives. But for now, this focus is on our immediate, physical environments.

  • Cleaning a house is an ongoing process, habit, routine. It is not finished at once. In fact, it’s never “finished”. It’s like brushing your teeth. The Perfectionist sees its not done in one day and gives up.
  • Do a half-assed job, but do it consistently.
  • Understand the goal is to “clean your house” not to “have a clean house”.
  • Your house will become cleaner over time, and you will get better at it and more motivated to do more as time goes on. Even during one cleaning session.
  • Use this simple rule: take everything off the surface, put it back. You do not even have to clean the surface, but it would seem silly not to once it was free of clutter. But the rule is only to take everything off, and put it all back if you choose to. The secret here is: the less surfaces, the better. That way, nothing to clean. Nothing to get cluttered. Get rid of tables that just hold up stuff.

Aim to become a person that cleans their house once a week. That’s it. Do not attempt to do a good job, succeed at cleaning it all, and if there is a surface with things on it, take all of them off, wipe it down, put them all back (or whatever else you decide to do with them, but you are only required to take them off — not to organize, sort, deal with or decide what to do with them).

Oh, and for those of you clueless as I was about how to clean, just start simple: get a sponge, a spray bottle and mix a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water. When you need some extra scrubbing power, use some baking soda. This will cover 90% of your cleaning needs. For the bathroom, you’ll probably want to use some bleach. But don’t forget the main goal is to become a person who cleans regularly, and it’s OK to do a half-assed job. Establish the habit first! Get better at it over time.

Set a goal to spend one 15-minute session per week at minimum. Do this for just 2 weeks. While you’ll enjoy the cleaner house, I think the more satisfying result will be the tidiness within.

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