Just pick up the sponge: productivity wisdom from doing dishes


One of my friends—Jonah, a data-scientist who loves Scandinavian design and probably maintains inbox zero with no effort— is also impeccably orderly in his domestic life. What impresses me the most? Right after he eats, he immediately does the dishes. No questions asked. 

His process looks something like this: 

And here’s mine. 

This is why I had dishes in my sink all the time. All that decision-making tired and overwhelmed me

I felt inspired and shamed by Jonah's no-nonsense tidiness, so I gave it a shot. Right after eating, no matter what I was in the middle of— a TV show, a conversation with my partner, reading an article—I would stop what I was doing. I would get up. And I would just do the damn dishes. 

What it's taught me is a mantra that applies in all sorts of non-kitchen situations: 

Just pick up the sponge. 

When I don’t feel like doing the dishes, all I have to do is walk over to the sink, roll up my sleeves, and pick up the sponge. Then I'll feel so grossed out by the sponge and the greasy disarray of the sink, that I'll feel the compulsion to clean. That’s how the entire sink of dishes get done. 

This “just pick up the sponge” mantra works for a couple of reasons: 

  1. It reduces the daunting task of doing a sink full of dirty dishes to something easy, insignificant, and small.

  2. It forces me into an environment and context in which I would naturally do the dishes… standing over the sink with a sponge in my hand.

  3. It makes me feel like I’m already invested in seeing this task to completion (ie, to stop this process, I would have to put down the sponge, wash my hands, and step away).

Why it matters

Doing the dishes seems trivial, but the mantra, “Just pick up the sponge,” serves the same purpose as that car washing mantra in the Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off. It’s a lesson in mundanity, but each time we do it, we're exercising our capacity to deal with our psychic resistance to difficult tasks. 

If you know how to "just pick up the sponge," you'll know how to form daily habits, do hard, creative work, withstand tedium, and tackle daunting, yearlong goals. If you focus on overcoming that first bit of inertia, the other steps come easily.  

Some examples  

If I'm trying to run everyday, I'll focus on just putting on my shoes and running clothes. It will feel like too much wasted effort to change out of them, and taking a loop around the block will seem like the natural thing to do. 

Picking up the sponge here is sitting at my computer with my writing app open, the door closed, my web browser closed, and my hands on the keyboard. I'll start a timer and tell myself: just do a minimum of ten minutes. Sometimes I'll get in the flow and end up writing for thirty, forty minutes. If I don't, that's okay.

I'll remove all my distractions, sit up in a chair with my spine straight, and close my eyes. Those triggers are enough to cue me to start paying attention to my breath. 

Introducing yourself to someone at a networking event  
The equivalent of "picking up the sponge" here is physically approaching someone, trying to catch their eye, smiling, and saying hello. Don’t think too far beyond that. The words will come. 

Quitting your job and going freelance
The first step I took when I was considering quitting my job was writing down why I wanted to quit. I tried to be really specific, and dug until I found the reasons that felt most true. 

How to apply this Method to anything

Let's define "picking up the sponge" as the gateway task, and doing dishes as the target task. Here's how you could go about designing an effective gateway task. 

Ask yourself: what can I do that will reduce friction for my target task? The goal is to make it incredibly easy for yourself. The easier, the better. If your target task is doing design work, you could set up templates in Photoshop and dump in some bad images and bad type. (h/t my wise typography teacher Jason Heuer). 

The gateway task should always lead to your target task. In other words, it's unambiguous. When I pick up the sponge, there is no question in my mind what happens next. On the other hand, if your goal is to write a difficult email, it doesn’t make sense to browse your favorite blogs. Think specific context, not proximity. 

Think of the gateway task as the act of gathering your tools and preparing your mis en place. What can I do to gather my tools for this task? What do I need to dive in, fully prepared and with as little friction as possible? Having all your ingredients prepped, chopped, and neatly arranged on the counter will make cooking infinitely easier.

Breaking paralysis 

Whenever I feel great inertia to do something (all the time), picking up the sponge is the only way I know how to break the paralysis.

Let me through another analogy at you. It's like putting on your bathing suit. Now, it would feel wrong to take it off without using it; getting a little wet, or at the very least, rolling around in the sand. 

If there’s a task that you dread or makes you feel anxious, next time, ask yourself, what’s the equivalent of picking up the sponge here?