Knowledge as motivation

Many people find no pleasure in routine household chores — cleaning the bathroom, washing the car, paying bills, preparing meals, doing the laundry. These are activities we have to do if we want to take care of our spaces, but I’m certainly not the world’s biggest fan of doing the laundry or dishes or toilets.

However, one thing I’ve learned about myself since I’ve been living as an unclutterer is the more I know about a chore, the more eager I am to do it. If I research sponges to learn which ones are the most durable, least likely to transmit bacteria, and best at cleaning a bathtub, I’m excited to use that sponge when I do the chore. Add to that research about methods for scrubbing and the most effective and safe-for-the-environment cleaner, and I’m downright giddy when I clean the bathroom.

A few years ago while having dinner in New York’s East Village, I saw a sign hanging on the wall of the restaurant that sparked this personal revelation:

“Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.” — Voltaire

I realized that knowledge about food is what makes eating and preparing meals more pleasurable to me. When I understand the science, the ingredients, the style of preparation, and the choice of pairing foods and drinks together, I actually enjoy making dinner. It was at this point in my life when I started studying cooking and trying to learn as much as possible about food so that preparing the daily meals wouldn’t feel like such an awful burden. Now, I really enjoy cooking because it’s an adventure. Every day I get to put my new skills and understanding to the test.

If you learned more about the daily chores you don’t like to do, would it actually change your perspective on them? Would you appreciate sweeping the floor more if you knew the most efficient style? How about your office work — would you like to file more if you knew the history, details, and styles of filing? If learning more about something isn’t a motivator for you, what is? Discovering this about yourself can go a long way to helping you in your life as an unclutterer.

31 Comments for “Knowledge as motivation”

  1. posted by Rob Lee on


    This is an interesting concept – I hate those jobs – but thats a fresh way to look at it.

    It reminds me of playing guitar – sometimes when I love a song, I go search for, or work out, the chords to play that song. Sometimes it demystifies the song to a degree that I no longer love the song as much . . . . .

  2. posted by Laura on

    Yes, exactly, yes. It’s a great joy that so much of life’s drudgery (and so much of life IS drudgery) can be so interesting. Like: grocery shopping. Necessary, but mindless and neverending. But if I learn, like I just did on, that the best-stocked least-busy day of the week to shop is Wednesday, then I get the delight of efficiency and the thrill of beating the game. And if I combine my chores with the knowledge that running errands counter-clockwise is the fastest way to navigate traffic, then the boredom lifts and I’m engaged.

    And hooray for Voltaire!

  3. posted by Marie A on

    Agreed! I find of my friends the people who LIKE to cook (and are good at it) are also geeky about how it all works, so they can be experimental and really get into it, not just follow the instructions and wonder where they’re making mistakes. I love Alton Brown and Good Eats, I know so much now! If only I could get geeky about tossing all my extra crap…

  4. posted by Tabatha on

    its funny you mention filing, I’m taking a filing and records management class for my college degree and the rules are really complex!

  5. posted by Emily on

    So will you share your findings on best sponges etc. so that our cleaning can be more pleasurable too?

  6. posted by Rachel on

    It seems as if the end product only (bathtub with no ring, shiny glass with no finger prints) would take the drudgery out of many chores. Technically, there are a lot of things that could be–and are–tolerated in their somewhat dirty state. That’s what separates the very clean from the so-so clean. Super fussy people can’t tolerate the dirtiness, so that need for cleanliness motivates them to a higher standard. There are others who can tolerate a lot of dirt and mess, so they are less motivated to clean.

  7. posted by Susan in FL on

    “If learning about something isn’t a motivator for you, what is?”
    Well Erin, for getting me to do the mundane every-day household chores I’ve been putting off forever, nothing beats learning that someone is coming to visit my home – SOON!

  8. posted by Jay on

    Kids find adult chores (taking out the trash, doing the dishes, sweeping, vacuuming, laundry, etc.) to be fun. They don’t see the activities as chores.

    Similarly, I try to adopt a positive attitude towards chores. One thing has worked for me: I try to live in the present while doing chores. I try to do the following: focus on the details and sensations of what I am doing; think about nothing but what I am doing; NOT think about what I would rather be doing; NOT think about how long the chore is taking; and NOT think about the stresses of the day or what I need to do later.

  9. posted by Kirstine Vergara on

    The problem with knowing a more efficient style in household chore or anything for that matter is that you won’t be able to appreciate the way other people do it because you believe that your style is much better. In times like this, you will need to let go because you have to let others find out for themselves a style that works for them. 🙂

    P.S. Sharing with you an article on Self-Improvement. Hope you find something useful here. Thanks!

  10. posted by chacha1 on

    When DH moved in with me, I had been literally cleaned out by my ex. DH and I both saw it as an opportunity to really start fresh. I had bad housekeeping habits and little knowledge, so I bought a copy of Cheryl Mendelsohn’s “Home Comforts” and read it cover to cover. Very illuminating, and while I am no Martha Stewart, I am confident that knowing more about the whys and wherefores of housekeeping has been key to the peace and comfort of *our* home.

  11. posted by MamaCat on

    Well this is interesting, and actually highlights something that I think stands in the way of efficiency for me.

    It goes something like this: In order to get motivated to do tasks that I don’t like, I spend a lot of time researching them (yeah, I read all those books on natural, home-made cleaning supplies, too!). And I keep charts of what I am supposed to do. And cross stuff off when it’s done.

    But then I have found, at times, that I am spending more time researching and tracking and planning (which is fun in a geeky way) than actually DOING whatever it is I am supposed to be doing. I’m actually trying to rein myself in on this kind of thing and just do it, for Pete’s sake!! So it is amusing to me to see your “take” on it.

    The exception is cooking, which I really actually enjoy. I love reading about food, going to cooking classes, meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking … and of course eating. I’ve come to think of this as a hobby rather than a chore. And in this case, the more I learn, the more fun it is.

  12. posted by Jude2004 on

    Nah, knowing more about something doesn’t make me like it more. I’m glad that works for you. But then, I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t enjoy eating either–I eat to live, and avoiding things that make me feel sick is a trick (I seem to have developed seven new food allergies this year).

  13. posted by ajeanne on

    Hmm…. Well, you’re losing me with the sponges & cleaners & the bathroom, but I came back again about the filing.

    There was a time in my life when I felt I was way too busy to file everyday things. I had several piles of bills that had been paid, but not piled. Months and months worth (maybe more than a year, to be truthful). THEN, I got audited for a question the IRS had about part of a tax return.

    OMG. I had to find EVERYTHING. It was a huge hassle.

    Now I have the most fabulous method for filing my financial records & I’m so happy with it that I actually do not mind filing things & I always admire my little system every time I open the file drawer.

    Plus, I now file things the minute I’m done with them. A task isn’t complete in my mind anymore without putting whatever paper artifacts (or electronic ones, for that matter) away before getting started on the next thing.

    I’ll have to really give the whole “learning about sponges and household cleaners” some thought. It’s possible that learning more would help. What helps me is having a picture in my mind of how I want things to look and to be & then making that picture come true. I think about the desired state as motivation rather than thinking, “Oh, I have to clean that.”

  14. posted by Amy on

    Like Santa Claus, I have a list and I check it twice! Everything gets done on time that way. Since it’s just me & DH & the cat, I clean house every other week. I keep up with the furballs (Feline & Human) that way. Occasionally, I deep clean an area, when it becomes necessary.
    Having an orderly home is motivation enough for me. My mother was a borderline hoarder, and cleaned house like Lily Munster.

  15. posted by klutzgrrl on

    Hmm. Yeah. Guilty of spending many hours researching but still not a lot of time doing.

  16. posted by javamonster on

    Nope, not knowing if my vacuum is the spiffiest, or about what washers and dryers are the most efficient, or what mops sops up the most grime off the kitchen floor will simply *never* make me enthusastic about housework. Ever. It still remains a job, and a grimy, thankless one that is like a perpetual Sysiphisean mountain that never allows you to stay on top of it all. The ball is always going to roll downhill again, and the job is going to have to be redone all over a-freaking-gain.

  17. posted by JJ on

    When I read the title of this post, i thought it was about expanding your knowledge by listening to audiobooks or iTunes U whilst doing dishes or folding laundry!

  18. posted by John on

    Erin, seriously…you need to get out more, lol! It’s a sponge…by all means put the research in on larger purchases but surely this is taking it to the ‘nth’ degree? I propose that the time you spend researching sponges would probably be better spent just, you know, using the sponge – any sponge – to clean with. ;0)

  19. posted by Trish on

    Need motivation to clean your toilet? Simple: take a minute and imagine having to live without one. Or being bed-ridden and having to use a bedpan instead.

    When you wake up and start to feel gratitude for your porcelain toilet and indoor plumbing, you will discover taking care of it feels not so much like a chore, but becomes instead an expression of thanks & appreciation. When you learn to be grateful for all that you have, instead of taking everything for granted, your perspective will change.

    Still whining about how you don’t like to do it? Well, I suggest you take a minute or two and reflect on how fortunate you are to a have the health & strength ~ the fundamental physical ability ~ to even be able to do these chores at all!

    These daily (or weekly, etc.) household chores et al are not unpleasant drudgery unless you decide they are. Your mindset is what needs changing ~ not your sponge or your scrubbing technique!

    Of course, if that fabulous sponge environmentally-friendly cleanser bring added joy to your efforts, by all means use them! But I suggest you take a moment to be grateful for those thing as well…

    But, it is of course ultimately all your choice. All I can do it offer up the suggestion for your consideration…

  20. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    I use Erin’s style of thinking (knowledge sets you free)to cope with our excessively hot summers (40 degrees C – equivalent of 107 deg F – or above is normal here in Western Australia). I know the art of keeping a house cool to start with, we purposefully built a house with windows on every side to catch any stray sea breeze and I take pride (silly as it may sound)in not having to put the airconditioner on until well into the afternoons as a result of my knowledge.

    Shame though that the knowledge both my boys are allergic to dust isnt enough of a motivator to keep the house spotless. Instead, I’m looking for a cure to the allergy ; )

  21. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    ps: I also agree with Jay. The other strategy I use to cope with the heat is to pretend it isnt there. If you whinge about how hot it is, how much you’re sweating, how you may as well go shove your head in an oven because that would be cooler (as a recently emigrated Englishwoman kept saying)and continually wonder how long the heat will last, then it will win over you each and every time. If you just accept it as a fact and try to get on with what you’re doing, life is so much more plesant.

  22. posted by gypsy packer on

    New research indicates that heat, by itself, will help firm muscles and reduce fat–another reason to appreciate it. Doesn’t make me go out looking for heat, but it’s a little easier to tolerate, now.

  23. posted by Kathy Sierra on

    Beautiful. And so true, though I would qualify that the motivation you get from knowledge depends on your ability to apply the knowledge as an ever-increasing skill…

    The clearest example for me came when I moved my horses onto my own property for the first time, a year ago. I figured the job I would dread the most would be mucking out the stalls. But that dread led me to research ways to make the stalls less overwhelming and now, well, the stalls are cleaner and more inviting than any room in my house. I am kind of an “expert” now… In shoveling horse crap ;).

    Seriously… from finding the bedding that offers the best absorption *and* is visually pleasing, to developing zen-garden-like raking skills… I even know the exact time of day when the setting sun makes the bedding sparkle.

  24. posted by Kay on

    Nope. Knowing about sponges, etc. will never motivate me to clean. But I say Know Thyself and figure out what does.

    What works for me is:

    – people coming over soon! (as mentioned by Susan)

    – listening to good music or a good audio book while doing drudgery (as eluded to by JJ)

    – not putting too many things on my daily list

    – and checking things off the list!

  25. posted by JenO on

    @ Susan in FL – Have to admit, this is still what gets me going too! But this is what has led me to much of my clutter/dustball problems, so I have to find myself a new motivator.

    @ Trish – I like this idea, especially since I have a dear relative who is in this situation and it will make me remember what you’ve said. Thank you for putting housework in a completely new light.

  26. posted by Robin on

    Laura – Do you have the link to the lifehacker grocery shopping post? Sounds interesting, but I can’t find it.

  27. posted by leonkehoe on

    Distraction, that is my biggest motivator. Finding something to do alongside my chore that I’m genuinely interested. This usually involves listening to a podcast or some music but I’m sure if I actively worked at it I could expand the options available to me.

  28. posted by Elizabeth on

    Worked for me – I knit a washcloth out of scraps of yarn I had, and wiping up is a bit better. And, I’ve added lavender oil to the water for iron steaming. The scent makes me cheery while I iron. It all comes down to the little things, doesn’t it?!

  29. posted by Caren on

    So Erin,

    Have you tried this yourself with your challenge, the laundry? How about reading about fibers and surfactants etc? And get to know a clothesline, you will feel so superior and all green by not using energy to dry your clothes!

  30. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Caren — Actually, laundry is one of the places where knowing more doesn’t help me much. I went to North Carolina State for awhile and seriously considered going into fiber engineering. I have a spinning wheel, make my own yarn from time-to-time, and used to design and make a lot of my clothes (sewing, knitting). Knowing a load about fabric and its construction and destruction doesn’t help me with laundry. With laundry, it’s the time involved in the process I dislike.

    In fact, I know that hanging clothes on a line outside in the sun, heat, and wind is sometimes worse than putting a garment in a dryer (on the fabric, that is).

    Also, I don’t usually go around feeling “superior” about myself because of a personal choice, like using a clothes line. My assumption is that people make the best decisions for themselves, and simply because their decision is different than mine doesn’t make it inferior.

  31. posted by Caren on


    Just kidding about the superior comment! should have put in my happy smiley face! Did not mean to imply that you come off as a superior feeling type person!

    Yes, I see that if it is the time involved part of laundry that you dislike, knowledge will not help!

    hmm, the only other thing that helps with laundry is having a minimum number of clothes/linens.
    Wanted to help since I have read this for years and know that you hate laundry!

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