Completing the cycle

Completing the cycle

File under: a little self-awareness makes everything better.

I have known for a good long while that when it comes to projects, I am an excellent beginner and halfhearted finisher. I love big ideas, and bog down in the nitty-gritty. I enjoy the process … except when it comes time to tidy up the loose ends.

Of course this applies to big picture scheming and dreaming, but you know what else it applies to? The laundry. The dishes. The mess that is my office.

If being an adult means learning how to clean up after yourself, I am really struggling with this adulthood thing. Still.

When it comes to habits like this, self-awareness is the first step, but where to go next? I’ve never been able to frame a solution in a way that enabled or inspired me to follow through, the goal here to not leave a path of devastation (or general untidiness) in my wake as I move through my home each day. I knew the problem, but couldn’t figure out a good system for doing something about it.

(The personality geek in me wants to explain this in Myers-Briggs terms: as an INFP I need good systems and habits, and can “work” those systems once they’re in place—but have a terrible time creating them.)

But recently I stumbled on an Apartment Therapy post that framed the problem—or rather, the solution—in a way I could grasp.

In it, the author explains that having a home that’s generally tidy is a matter of habit. She called this habit “completing the cycle,” and it means, basically, that you finish what you start. You clean up after yourself. But isn’t “completing the cycle” so much more satisfying to say, if only to yourself?

(Timeout to say: this isn’t about having a perfect home. If that makes you happy, that’s great, but that’s not my goal. This is about having clean, unwrinkled clothes, clear-enough counters, and a level of organization that allows me to actually find my stuff when I need it.)

It’s clear to me that my own frustrations come from not completing the cycle. For an obvious, oft-repeated example: Saturday morning, I started the laundry. An hour later, I dried and folded half the load. Those clothes got put away. Two days later, a bunch of socks and t-shirts are still sitting in the dryer. But the cycle isn’t complete until the dryer is empty and all the clothes are put away.

Earlier this morning, I made breakfast. (Three fried eggs + Trader Joe’s sweet and spicy jalapeños, every morning.) Last week, I would have made breakfast, put the eggs away, left the jalapeños out, and put off washing the skillet till later. Today, I put everything away and cleaned up—because I wanted to complete the breakfast cycle while it was still breakfast time.

I take a lot of pictures for this blog. I usually wait till afternoon—when the light is good—and then I drag everything (books, plants, odds and ends) to a big window and start shooting. Then, more often than not, I leave everything where it is and rush out the door to pick up my kids from school. And later, probably not till tomorrow, I’ll be annoyed with the mess I left behind, because who wants to clean up yesterday’s project, today? That happens when I don’t complete the cycle.

There aren’t any miracle tricks here: I still have to clean up after myself. But I believe in the power of a well-articulated problem, and a corresponding solution. Adulting is hard, but “completing the cycle” sounds so satisfying it just might work. This week, I’m resolving to give it a try.

What systems do you rely on to keep your spaces in a state of non-chaos? Do you talk to yourself about “completing the cycle”? I’d love to hear your answers and your favorite organizing tips and mantras in comments.

P.S. The secret to faking a clean house, and the best book you’ve never heard of on organizing.

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83 comments

  1. Babs says:

    I really have a hard time completing the cycle also. It just seems like 1) I never designate enough time for anything and 2) Life is always getting in my way.

  2. Jess says:

    Thanks for sharing! I, too, struggle with completing the cycle – especially when it comes to big ideas and projects. What I’m curious about is whether tasks that are done together with one’s spouse can have this same “completing the cycle” mentality applied. For example, my husband does the laundry and then I *am supposed to* fold it – but sometimes it takes me a few days to get the folding done. So I’ll be off experimenting with and practicing this idea when it comes to group activities/chores!

  3. Mary says:

    I have an Excel spreadsheet with the same 10 things listed for each day under a column for each day of the week (7 columns with 10 things each and leave a little room to write extra to dos in as well as special activities/gatherings), one column for weekly things, one column for monthly things, and a column of blank space that I fill in with extra things to do and notes. This helps me keep track of what I got done because I don’t cross something off until it is completely done. I break down steps to fill the 10 things; for example, I don’t write laundry – I put wash, dry, fold, away. Once I have a habit established, I can put things back as one step if I want. If I am trying to focus on something that isn’t a habit yet, I make sure to include it in my 10 things. My goal each day is to cross off at least 3 of the 10 things which I find to be doable even on a very busy day. Usually, I manage about 7 things being crossed off. This helps me feel positive when I look back at the week when I feel like I got nothing done but can see clearly that I did. It also helps me keep track of what hasn’t been done that month…awareness throughout the month is HUGE.
    Keep fighting the fight! The last 10% is soo hard!

  4. Jen says:

    Im just so relieved that Im not the only full grown adult who leaves a trail behind her constantly. Fellow INFP here so maybe I should try “completing the cycle” also.

  5. Lisa says:

    This post has been the best thing for me! There is something rewarding about ‘completing the cycle’ that isn’t there for ‘clean up the dishes’. I think it is the idea that something is done – even something that will have to be repeated in a few hours. At any rate, I just wanted to thank you for this. It has meant an improvement in just the dishes cycle by at least 50% in the last month! Looking forward to other posts…

  6. kerifei says:

    This is me! Since I’ve had my son who just turned 1, I find that I’m leaving everything half done. The baby food jar is still on the table from dinner and the high chair needs to be wiped down when I’m ready to go to bed. About 2 months ago, I decided I had to start “looping back around” (based on David Allen’s Open Loops in GTD.) It’s still a work in progress, and I like “completing the cycle.” It makes me feel like I’m not redoing, but finishing!

  7. Deb says:

    If you have not yet read it, you need to look at “It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized” by Marilyn Paul. It’s one of those “best books you may never have heard of” types and it talks about this idea. It’s a wonderful book for INFPs.

  8. Libby H says:

    It’s hard to complete the cycle when you have small kids — and then it’s hard to break that habit when they are no longer so small! When my kids are all asking me for things at the same time, I find myself telling them, “I can only do one thing at a time; I am only one person.” So completing the cycle (love this term!) when they are not around is me telling myself, “Finish the thing.”

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