Things I’ve learned from cleaners

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Just before I started writing this post, I reviewed my last one. I must say that I’m very glad I said no to those three tempting activities that I’d been considering. I’m not committed to as many things this year as I had been, but somehow the ones that I’m committed to are all expanding to fill the available space in my diary (and my mind). BUT! Here it is, mid-February, and I’m writing another post, on schedule. Being a strength-based social worker, I think I’ll dwell on that for a moment. (Sighs happily.)

I’ve possibly commented in an earlier post somewhere that the appearance of my desk offers a clue into the state of my mind. It’s something I comment on fairly often. At the moment, this will depend very much on which working space you look at – my desk at uni is looking very organised but the dining table at home is a complete disaster, and not because of an over-supply of dining equipment. There’s a very powerful feedback mechanism happening in all this, too. I get up in the morning keen to get on the bus and in to uni. At uni, I have lists on my whiteboard, and a wall planner with targets and coloured dots and sparkly smiley faces. I even have a shelf of good books arranged in size order from tallest to shortest (it’s a beautiful thing, don’t knock it.) I tick things off as I accomplish them. My workspace is quiet and focused.

In contrast, the dining table is strewn with fliers, articles, charging devices, coffee cups, and a laptop that’s gasping its dying breath but still responsive enough that I can get in and retrieve the occasional file.

Needless to say, this is not my favourite place to be.

However, I learned something very useful from a cleaner that I employed several years ago – let’s call her Ivanka – and yesterday I started putting Ivanka’s advice into practice again.

1. Put things into piles.

At the time that I employed Ivanka, I had two small children and was working and studying. I didn’t spend much on clothes or entertainment, so having someone to clean my house became my treat for myself. Ivanka would come in and the first thing she would do was sweep everything on every horizontal surface into piles. No thinking was involved, it was a purely physical activity: clothes, toys, books, papers, the children…well, not the children (they didn’t like her much, by the way. But I loved her.). It was amazing how things looked instantly more manageable, and even if she couldn’t get through all the piles in her allotted time it left me with a home that I felt I could conceivably wrangle back into a presentable condition by myself. And how you feel about things matters….

2. Sort the piles.

Obviously. Having spent a few minutes creating jumbled piles in each room, she would go through one room at a time, one pile at a time, and order would follow in her wake.

3. Every now and then, take a moment to stand and look at the places where the piles used to be.

It wouldn’t be a long self-congratulatory wallow, but once each pile had been sorted into non-existence, Ivanka would stand and look for a moment at the space. These places were evidence of her (your) effectiveness – you transformed that square metre of floor from chaos to clear space! Go you! It’s important to remember to look at these spaces regularly, or you are in danger of forgetting that they are there, and more importantly how they came to be like that, and it’s important that you balance the ‘must do’ thoughts with ‘I can, because I did’ thoughts.

4.  Once a room is clear of piles, give it a joyful going-over with the duster and vacuum cleaner.

Sing while you’re doing it – Ivanka would. If it’s not appropriate to sing out loud because of shared workplaces, have a little sing inside your own head. Remind yourself that you’ve risen over the hump, and now you’re looking at the promised land. Live in the moment – muttering to yourself about how long it will stay looking like this and how no-one appreciates it anyway is Not Helpful. It’s not the point, and don’t do it.

5. Then rest.

Ivanka had a time limit. What she couldn’t do in the time didn’t get done. Well, not by her, anyway. Or perhaps it would wait till she got back to it the following week. Either way, she had a set time, and she would put her head down and slog for that period of time, and then she would walk away until it was time to do it again.

Now these lessons obviously translate well into research and other study activities too.

Literatures? Data? Piles of random and diverse documents on your dining table? The basic approach still works, and I can assure you that seeing the chaotic mountain of stuff shuffled into smaller piles/categories is amazingly empowering. Once I’ve piled/sorted/dealt with the stuff on my dining table, or even one corner of my dining table, I’m turning my attention to my as-yet-incomplete data set. Different mechanical process, same theoretical principle. Bring it on.

PS: You might be wondering what happened to Ivanka. I was about to type that ‘things went pear-shaped’, but as part of the story was her pregnancy, that metaphor probably isn’t in very good taste. But she did indeed become pregnant, and rather than stop cleaning, she decided to sub-contract to her newly unemployed husband, to clean under her direction. Unsurprisingly, his transition from mechanic to domestic cleaner didn’t go smoothly. In the end, we agreed that it was probably time for all of us to start a new phase in our lives. I never did find another cleaner who was up to Ivanka’s standards.

About postgradpanda

I'm a full-time PhD student, researching the perspectives of parents who are caring for a child with high-level physical care needs, on their relationships with diverse service systems and on their identity within or outside those systems. In December 2014 I left my social work position with a genetic support group but remain associated with the group as President of the Committee of Management. In other hours I write poetry and short stories, go sailing, and am learning to play my double bass.

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