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Doing dishes: The mundane task that keeps us sane

Originally published on the Seattle Collegian

Image: a pile of dishes (coffee painting)

Waking up in the morning with a cloudy brain from restlessness, I dragged myself to the bathroom and turned off the screaming alarm clock on my iPhone. Outside the window there was no sunlight, only the dullness and cold air of fall. No need to pack my lunch and rush out to catch a bus to school. All of my school chores are packed on my laptop. At least that’s what it feels like. I just need to have breakfast, boost my brain cells with coffee and carry on my day from the comfort of my home in my most comfortable outfit. Working and studying from home is no longer a dream; it’s real. 

That sounds good, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. I love this comfort, freedom, time, and cost-effectiveness so much that I would choose to do all those from home even if the college were open again. However, that doesn’t mean that the virtual world of work and study gives me peace of mind all the time. 

The whirlwind of virtuality

I embraced the whole online culture completely when I started the first quarter of my program last spring, which was the first quarter of the college’s remote operation due to COVID-19. It saved time and money, and sure enough, it was much safer from the virus. However, I had no experience with working and studying simultaneously and entirely online. It’s hard to know what to expect.

So, here’s what happened: I found myself stuck in front of my laptop for eight to ten hours a day, trying to finish some lessons, read lengthy instructions, do assignments, send emails, and put in some hours of work. No matter how much I learned or accomplished on the laptop, it felt like I got nothing done in reality. I felt empty. It was like this is all a joke. I even wondered if my classmates with tiny profile images popping up here and there on our discussion boards existed, or if they were just virtual characters like in an online game. 

This transition blurred the boundaries between working and resting all together. I didn’t know how much screen time was too much till my eyes strained, the soreness in my lower back and the tiredness of my arms from being in the same position for hours building up to real pain. Even though my brain was exhausted, it was wide awake at night and ruined my sleep. My energy level was horribly low. That’s when I realized I needed to fix the issue. 

I learned this the hard way. 

There was a time when I spent several hours on a screen and reached the point that my brain couldn’t process properly anymore because it was overwhelmed. So, I stopped right there and turned away from the laptop. Then I saw the piles of dirty dishes waiting for me to clean on the kitchen table. I gathered them into a dish rack and carried them into the kitchen. After that, I came back into my apartment with clean dishes, neatly placed in the container with water drops all over. I sensed the calm and relaxation growing in my mind. It was refreshing. 

Doing dishes for the sake of doing dishes

Although doing dishes gave me the satisfaction of physically getting things done by hands, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I only tried to get the job done before gluing my eyes back to the screen again, which didn’t feel like a break. So I tried approaching the task differently. Instead of rushing the cleaning process, I slowed down and fixed my focus. Instead of thinking about the amount of work I had to do next, I gave my brain a pause. I forced myself to be present with this one task in front of me. When I scrubbed a plate’s surface, it felt like I scrubbed out all the concerns and worries. When I rinsed out bits of food scraps, it felt like I rinsed out the noises in my mind. The softness of lather formed with the sponge and water was like a therapy that reconnected my mind and body.

To my surprise, there is research about how doing dishes (and other housework) is beneficial to our mental health. In the article, “The Science of Why Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates Still Do the Dishes” by Jessica, the author mentioned that: “Working that sponge can be an opportunity to focus on the now, but it can also be a chance to relax and daydream. And creativity experts say it’s just this sort of loose mind-wandering that allows the brain to make some of its most innovative and unexpected leaps (which is why so many good ideas come to us in the shower).”

Alexandra, in her article “Washing Dishes Is a Really Great Stress Reliever, Science Says” shares that: “ … researchers found that people who washed dishes mindfully (they focused on smelling the soap, feeling the water temperature and touching the dishes) upped their feelings of inspiration by 25% and lowered their nervousness levels by 27%. The group that didn’t wash the dishes mindfully did not gain any benefits from the task. ”

That sounds about right as far as my own experienced. I used to listen to a podcast about programming while doing dishes hoping to keep my productivity high. The result was my brain getting jam-packed with endless conversations about coding, which caused even more anxiety. No matter how good my hands felt to be occupied at that moment, my mind was too occupied to sense it. The task became pointless. 

Do more dishes or take a ‘real’ break

With the layer of the pandemic’s stress added on top of the existing ones, I found that it’s so easy to slip into the habit of multitasking whenever possible. We have more pressure to get ahead of our personal situations, otherwise we may not survive. Therefore, we unconsciously double the hours on screen. Sometimes we don’t take a break because it’s not a priority. Or we put in some work while on a break, which makes the break meaningless. But breaks are crucial to our sanity. No one wants to acknowledge the consequences of an overworked brain and body; the stakes are too high. So, this is the time to take a real break once in a while – with intention. Hand wash dishes mindfully or do other work around the house. It can make us feel much better than we could imagine. It can bring us joy and boost our energy levels, helping us to tackle the task ahead in a healthier way.

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