Getting Back to Zero


How do you tackle big projects? Do you take them on piecemeal, scheduling bit by bit until the whole thing is done? Or do you go full-force and get everything done all at once?

What about if you have multiple things to do? Clean the kitchen one day, the living room another, write an essay a separate day? Or do you try to do everything in the same day?

It should be obvious that, ideally, we should be handling everything bit by bit, possibly as they present themselves, rather than killing ourselves doing too much and stressing ourselves out to hell and back every week.

In a perfect world, we would clean up our messes as we make them, and start our homework as soon as we get home so we can get it out of the way (and have enough time to do it adequately). Indeed, when the dishes are clean, I find it easy to clean my glass as soon as I’m done with my drink. It takes less than two minutes. Or just five minutes to clean up all the dishes from breakfast.

But we have to start somewhere.

I do this through a process I call “getting back to zero.” I don’t know where this expression came from—either I picked it up somewhere or it’s my own expression, who knows. The point is this: It’s so much easier to deal with the clutter of our daily lives when there’s less of it.

If you’ve ever moved house, you already have an inkling of what this feels like. Once you’ve moved all your belongings, figured out the best setup for all your furniture, designated a place for storage, and the whole place looks new and fresh, you want it to stay like that forever. So, at least for a while, you stay on top of keeping the place clean, because you want to take pride in it.

Then that initial wave of motivation dies down and you ease up a little. You let things get a little dirty, saying you’ll clean it up later.

Jump ahead a few cycles of this and you’ve got an entire house to clean. Not a single clean glass to drink from, piled up recycling from neglecting to move it out to the bin, clothes and sheets strewn about the house. It’s a mess. It’s cluttered. It might even make you feel like you’ve failed and wonder, “Where did I go wrong?”

Deep inside, though, you know that you can get everything back to looking clean and new like it was when you moved in. You just don’t want to do it.

If you tackle it room-by-room, you might be effective after a week, although you’ll have to keep the clean rooms clean while cleaning the messy ones.

Instead, I like to get back to zero all at once. It’s hard, it takes willpower, and you might get to a point where you say “good enough” even though you know it’s not.

But this process is important to me. Occasionally I clean my entire house all in one burst and feel great when it’s done. Not only does it have the obvious effect of leaving me with a clean house, but it has the side-effect of decluttering my mind. It eliminates one more excuse I have for not doing more important things—like writing.

This is best done during your week of freedom. Once you’re bored enough from doing nothing and you’re still abstaining from your time-wasting activities, create a master list of everything that needs to get done.

You can list out every area of the house that needs cleaned or just go room by room. Don’t forget the fridge. You’re your own boss in this project, though—don’t let yourself off the hook.

You can also list out every homework assignment, every upcoming essay, every out-of-the-house errand.

Sacrifice one day to this effort, and in the end you’ll look back on all the hours you spent working and feel like you’ve just freed yourself even more, by eliminating stress and clutter of both the literal and psychological variety.

When we give ourselves over to being productive for just one day, what we’re essentially doing is creating a void that needs to be filled. The point of taking time off from the things that you waste time on is to make room for better uses of your time. You’re stealing time back from yourself that was otherwise being misused.

Likewise, when our space is clean and there’s nothing left to clean, we only have to put in a tiny bit of daily effort to keep it so. And having your space in order opens you up to spending more time doing the things that are important to you.

Why Zero is Better

The whole point of this exercise is to eliminate the number of obligations you have to deal with. When you have a hundred things that need to be done around the house, you have a hundred different excuses. Once everything is dealt with and you no longer have anything that you could be doing around the house, your list of excuses is zero.

So what happens when you make a mess? Your list of excuses goes up only by the number of messes you have to clean. Say you make breakfast. You use two pans, a spatula, a fork, knife, and plate. And maybe a glass for a drink. Seven dishes in total. If you continue to make meals without cleaning the dishes immediately after, then your number of excuses could be as high as twenty by the end of the day. Let that continue a few more days and you literally end up with over a hundred different dishes and utensils to clean. And the more that piles up, the harder it is to get yourself to take care of it.

So try to keep your number of excuses as low as possible by taking care of things when they need to be taken care of. I think this is the point of that book The Power of Now, but I haven’t read it so I’m not totally sure. The important part is in the title, anyway: If you take care of everything now instead of later, you end up with a lot more time to use later for the things you want to be doing, rather than piling up the things that you have to do (but don’t necessarily want to do).

This is an important concept to me, by the way, and it’s probably something I’ll come back to in some way or another. For now, I’ve said enough.


About David Shank

David T. Shank spends most of his time in worlds of robots, dragons, and robot dragons. He gets his cardio vicariously through video game characters while carbo-loading on Killian’s. His perfect vision lets him see everything but the fact that he’ll never defeat those walls he keeps punching. When he’s not doing the novel-writing thing, he can often be found in public reading his Kindle and being antisocial.

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