How often do you walk around your house or sit in your office and think to yourself, “if only this mess was cleaned up, my mind would be clear and I’d be able to be productive”?
This is the barrier you’re facing, you tell yourself. “If I had a clean desk, work would be so easy. I would just sit down and go.”
On some level, we know this is not true. But it’s a persuasive enough story to compel us to do – amazingly – things like physical chores. When I have real typing and working to do, I’ll find previously non-existent energy to arrange pillows and wipe down countertops.
But, if you do a good job at cleaning, you’re eventually left with the fruits of your labor—a clean house.
A place where you have no more excuses. The plants are watered. The kitchen is clean. Pillows are fluffed. You have no plans with friends.
All you have left is the life you want to live and the work it takes to get there.
It’s a scary thing to face. And that’s why, when procrastination is stripped of its silly little costumes, and you’re left face to face with pure mental hesitation, you need your greatest strength of all.
It’s what I call “clean house paralysis.” I’ll do a deep clean—take out the trash, bring things to Goodwill, wipe every surface with those fancy spray cleaners, light candles. And after all that housework, I still can’t bring myself to start my work-work. The resistance is still there, inside my mind.
It’s normal to balk at the idea of facing that enemy. I find myself going back over areas I finished cleaning and looking for things I may have missed. “I just washed a mountain of dishes, but then I had a yogurt—should I bust out the rubber globes and dish soap again to clean one spoon?”
It’s like your brain fighting against the dying of the light, knowing it’s getting closer and closer to actually doing work. Hopefully you can withstand the temptation to start a Home Depot-scale project in your attic or backyard. Accept your clean house and sit down at your desk. Half the battle is won. Now let’s see what else we can do about it.
Here are some ideas for pushing past “clean house paralysis”. (Spoiler alert: they involves more willpower.)
Start, start, start
This is first in the list as a bit of a formality. Obviously, it’s not that easy to “just start.” That’s why you’re reading this right now instead of working.
But this is the thing we all wish we could do when we sit down after clearing our metaphorical tables. The obstacle is out of the way right? “If only my room was clean – then I could work,” right? It’s clean. Start your work.
See how far you get with a burst of raw willpower. Just sit there. Stay there. Open an application on your computer. Type one word at a time. Just claw and scratch whatever tiny ounce of momentum you can from yourself, and then try to keep it up.
Beginning is the most painful and difficult part of the process. This is when you’re most vulnerable to “ooh shiny thing” syndrome – getting distracted by whatever email or text or butterfly floats across your field of vision. And when you’ve barely spent any time on your task, you tell yourself, what’s the harm in abandoning ship for now?
So stay put until the time sink is substantial enough that it would be a legitimate waste to stop. Whether that number for you is 30 minutes or 90, run out the clock. Sit there and stare at the computer if you have to.
Recognize that this is an internal battle
There’s nowhere left for your procrastination to hide. There are no external factors to distract you, no false obstacles left to conjure up in your head. You’re out of options.
It’s you versus your brain. And we know how crafty and devilishly creative your brain is at writing stories that run counter to your dreams and priorities. But we’ve played its game long enough. And we’ve taken a lot of its tools away. “Is that a smudge on my desk? No, I guess not.”
I’ve reached the point sometimes in clean house paralysis where I sit in my chair, not wanting to work, but racking my brain and failing to find a reason other than pure, unadulterated procrastination. This can be an intimidating place to be in — you’re confronting, quite literally, yourself.
But it’s also a good place to be in. You’re 99% of the way there. Just one more little push to break through that last wall, and you’ll be flying. Unencumbered.
Conquer your brain, just for this moment. Visualize it – you’re narrowly avoiding being tackled on the football field or squeezing through a tunnel and emerging into the daylight. Take off running and get as much done as you can before you get tired and it catches up with you. Then do the same thing tomorrow if you have to.
Be proud of what you’ve built
A clean house always makes me feel proud. No matter the size or scope of your living situation, even if it’s just one room in an apartment, it’s your domain. And you’ve put in a real effort to make it as functional and comfortable as it can be.
Everything being in its place feels good. It might sound like a silly idea, but it’s worked for me before: let the tidiness inspire you.
Just like those who swear by making their bed every morning, it’s like you’re packing your day with a couple wins right off the bat. You already conquered inertia and inaction by cleaning up. Now just direct that energy at your work.
Now, we can make good on what that space is ultimately there for – to keep you comfortable and to enable you to chase your goals.
What did you just clean this whole house for? To clear your plate to do what?
To do what you want to do. So do it.