12/26/2008 09:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your Best New Year's Resolution: Do Less Housework!

Most people think of procrastination as a simple bad habit, but it's often much more than that: it's a strategy we employ when we're afraid of the outcome of an activity or project. So, someone who hates his job might procrastinate on looking for a new one because he's afraid of not getting any offers, or landing one that's even worse than his current one.

A novelist with writer's block (blocks being an extreme form of procrastination) may be afraid of not selling her book, getting a bad review, or offending relatives or others with what she's written.

Someone whose lifelong dream has been to start a business may procrastinate on doing so because he's afraid of failing - or succeeding and having many new responsibilities and demands placed on him.

In the short term, procrastination works well: by not finishing (or starting!) your project, you are indeed protected from its scary potential outcome(s). In the long term, however, procrastination can lead to a bitter, unfulfilled life. So it's a good idea to work with coaches, therapists or others to learn to cope with any fears holding you back.

It also helps if you understand the specific form your procrastination takes. One common form, of course, is escapist or mindless activities such as video games, Web surfing or television. While a little of these kinds of diversions can be fun and a stress reliever, too much is a tragic waste of time - or a life.

There's also another, even more pernicious form of procrastination: activities that mimic productive work.

So, the unhappy employee reads endless want ads and career books, but never gets around to applying.

The novelist does endless research, but never gets around to writing. Or, he writes the same chapter over and over...and over and over...again - sometimes for years.

The would-be entrepreneur takes business classes, but never gets around to doing her business plan. Or does the plan, but doesn't carry it out.

All these people probably believe they're making progress toward their goal, so they don't feel as guilty as if they had played video games. They may not even recognize their "faux productivity" for the procrastination problem it is. But they are still unlikely to reach their goal, and still at risk for a bitter, unfulfilled life.

Faux productivity also takes two other common forms:

1) Good works, in which the procrastinator spends a lot of his or her time helping family members or friends, or doing volunteer or community work. I am not against good works! I'm not even against doing them full-time, if that's what you really want to be doing. But it's all too easy to get sucked into helping other people at the expense of your own needs and priorities, particularly if you're afraid of possible outcomes. The solution is to budget and schedule your time so that you help other people AND take care of your own needs; and you will probably also have to learn, if you don't know it already, that essential time management skill, saying "no."

And the other common form of faux productivity is...drumroll...

2) Housework. The way it works is often this: it's your scheduled time to work on your project. Suddenly, however, you feel an irresistible need to do the laundry, mop the floor, shop for groceries, mow the lawn, or clean out the garage. Probably, the need isn't truly urgent -- or, at least, no more urgent than it was a few hours ago, or will be a few hours from now, after you've finished your work. The sudden, irresistible urgency is the clue that it's not really the laundry itself that's important, but your need to procrastinate and avoid making progress.

Here's the thing about housework: it's really boring and unfulfilling. And often actively unpleasant. And then, after you've done it, you need to do it again in a week or two. Blech.

19th and 20th century feminists recognized housework for what it was: tedium, and an impediment to individual and societal liberation. Thankfully, it's a lot easier to keep house today than it was 100 years ago; and yet, many people continue to fritter away their lives doing excess housework when there's something more meaningful they'd like to accomplish. That's partly because there's usually something around that needs cleaning, so it's a handy excuse, but also because some societal elements have long made a fetish of housework. For centuries, literally, social conservatives have promoted the idea of the selfless (in both senses of the word) wife and mother who devotes herself 100% to housework and others' needs. And the media promotes an unrealistic, perfectionist view of what a "normal" home looks like because that view sells products and advertising. (The latter afflicts both women and men, as any guy who spends his Saturdays doing yardwork when he'd rather be doing something else can testify.) Of course, conservatives and the media rarely discuss the costs, in time, money and lost opportunities, of maintaining a showpiece home. (And these aren't the only costs: doctors believe that antibacterial and other "hypercleanliness" products can actually make us sick by impeding immune system development and triggering allergies and chemical sensitivites.)

And people do get the message. I have found that a major reason people do more housework than they want is that they're fearful of family criticism. (Women seem particularly fearful of criticism from their mothers and sisters.) There's also a lot of intra- and inter-family competition out there on this front.

Another common problem is not knowing how to manage time. Many people think time management is about stuffing as much as possible into your schedule, so they think it's reasonable to expect, for instance, that, even though they have a job, they should be able to do the same amount of housework as their stay-at-home mom did. What time management is really about, however, is eliminating as much as possible from your schedule so you can get the important stuff done. It's also about making conscious decisions about how you spend your time. So, assuming you have 112 awake hours in your week (which you do if you get 8 hours of sleep a night), and 50 of those hours go to your job and commute, how will you spend the remaining 62 hours? That's a huge amount of time, when you think about it: enough to create art, do civic work, or build a business, while also nurturing your family, having fun, staying healthy and, yes, doing some housework. But you will need to make deliberate choices about how you will spend your time and not procrastinate much.

How many of your precious 62 hours will you devote to mopping, laundry, food shopping, etc? As few as possible, I hope, especially if you've put your life dreams, health, relationships, or other important values on the back burner.

To be clear, I'm not against you doing loads of housework if that is indeed what you want to be doing. I only object to it when it conflicts with more important goals.

I'm also not saying to give up the activities you happen to like. If you enjoy garden work or cooking, then go for it! Just make sure your motive isn't procrastination.

I am also not saying you should live in a dirty home. In fact, here are steps you can take to reduce the time you spend on housework and still live in a clean space:

(1) Live simply, and don't buy too much stuff. Everything you buy costs you twice: the initial purchase price, and the time and money you spend keeping it cleaned and maintained. For this reason, also be ruthless about getting rid of furniture, clothing, appliances and other possessions you no longer use.

(2) Organize your space. A well-organized home with adequate storage space, and where everything is stored close to where it is used, takes much less time to clean than a disorganized one.

(3) Organize your time. Treat housework not like an open-ended stream of chores, but a finite project you need to complete within a fixed period of time each week. Time-budget each chore (dishes, dusting, etc.), and also each room. Then keep track of your actual time use. By doing this, you will often work more efficiently.

(4) Invest in quality tools and supplies. Buy a good vacuum cleaner that gets all the dirt on the first pass, or a powerful lawn mower that makes that chore go faster. (And let at least part of your lawn go au naturale.) Keep a broom or mop conveniently in every room that sees heavy traffic. Buy closet and other organizers, and any time you see a cleaning gadget you think will save you time, or make an unpleasant task easier, buy it.

(5) Delegate. Everyone in the household should be helping with the housework. Everyone. Even two year olds can pick up their own toys.

It can be difficult to ask people to take on chores you have been doing, but the key is not just to ask for help but explain why you need the help. Often, when we explain our cherished goals, and ask for help attaining them, people willingly pitch in.

It's also a good idea not to simply tell people what chores you'd like them to take on, but solicit their input on solving your (really, the household's) time problem. That makes them feel more involved and valued, and they'll also be more invested in a solution they helped create. So don't just say, "I really need Bob to do the laundry, and Sarah to take charge of the dog, and Billy to cook two meals a week..." but something like, "As you know, I've always felt so bad about not finishing my degree, but I would really like to finish it by next year. To do that, I need to take two classes each semester, but to do that, I need to do less around the house. Could I have your ideas on how this could happen?" Then, during the brainstorming part of the ensuing discussion, you can list your ideas along with everyone else's. And if Bob volunteers to do the laundry, and Sarah, to take care of the dog, and Billy, the meals -- or, if they come up with even better ideas - so much the better.

What if, despite your best efforts, people won't help? That's a sad situation, but doesn't leave you optionless. You can still look at the way you spend your time, and make at least some changes to it.

(6) Outsource. Of course, I know it's a bad economy, but if you happen to have the money, then by all means hire a cleaning, laundry or lawn service. Or, get takeout meals or use a grocery delivery service so you don't have to stand in line at the supermarket and lug heavy bags home. If you feel guilty doing any of this, (a) don't, and (b) pay or tip the workers lavishly: I promise you they won't mind. Don't think that only rich or decadent people pay someone to help with household chores: plenty of "ordinary" people do as well, including plenty with impeccable progressive bona fides. Outsourcing is a key strategy for people with an ambitious life mission such as art, activism or entrepreneurship - or who simply would rather devote their time elsewhere than cleaning up.

And, finally, (7) lower your standards! Yes, you want a clean, well-organized home - but do you need a fanatically, perfectionistically clean one?

Is it really necessary for you to mop the floors every week?

Is it a terrible thing to leave the sheets on the bed for an extra few days before laundering them?

Is it a sin to serve your family a take-out meal or (my favorite) bring a store-bought dish to a pot-luck dinner?

Is it necessary to keep your lawn trimmed to golf-course neatness?

The answer to all of these questions, for many people, is "no." Everyone's situation varies, of course -- and a high-density household generally requires more cleaning than a low-density one, just as one with companion animals requires more cleaning than one without. Or, if you are a highly visual person, you may require an exceptionally neat home, or a higher-maintenance one with more furniture or other design elements. All of these are fine reasons to do more than the minimum level of housework, but just make sure you're not overdoing it, or doing it at the expense of more important goals. In general, if the only reason you are doing a household task is because, (a) you think you're supposed to, or (b) "what will people say?" then get over it and start living your life comfortably and guilt-free according to your own values.

I tend to be skeptical of New Year's resolutions, which tend to be grandiose and built more around impulse than planning. But if you're going to do one, how about this one: 10% less time spent on housework in 2009.

Or, if you can achieve 20%, even better.

Here's to a happier, more relaxed, more productive -- and slightly messier -- 2009!