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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85 comments

    • Katy Reeve says:

      Me to a T! I have to make myself finish a task before staring something else. Life runs more smoothly when I complete the cycle – mainly because I can remember what I am doing! When I jump from task to task I find I loose things and can’t remember what I have done with them. I have created some routines that help my kids learn how to complete the cycle – maybe they will do it more naturally when they are older.

  1. Michaela says:

    Oh my gosh. This is LITERALLY 100% me, but I’ve never been able to articulate it this way. It frustrates my (super type-A clean freak( husband to no end, too haha

  2. Grace says:

    What great phrasing! I’m lucky that “completing the cycle” comes naturally to me (though not my husband and that can cause some conflict sometimes, haha). For example, when we make dinner, the pots/pans/utensils are usually washed and sitting in the drying rack by the time all the food is done cooking and has been put on our plates. I LOVE this feeling. I have friends who let their dishes stack up on the counter for days, which is fine for them if they’re okay with it, but I don’t think I could handle it.

    • ~Amy F.~ says:

      My great-aunt ALWAYS has the pots and pans washed by the time we sit down to eat. As a young teen, I remember being incredibly inspired by her example–clean-up goes so much faster after a meal when the dishes are the only things left! Now, I try to do as many of the prep dishes as I can before we eat, and I completely agree with you that it’s a wonderful feeling!

  3. Debi Morton says:

    Anne, this whole post just made me laugh. Not at you, but I hope, with you. I do think this is a function of your personality type, as you said; although, I also think it is a strong function of training and habit. My mom taught us to completely finish a job, and this meant cleanup, as well. Although, she let the kitchen build up dishes and cookware all day, then did a marathon clean each evening. Correction: one of her three daughters did a marathon clean. So I learned to clean up after myself, but also extended it to the kitchen, because I’m tired at night and don’t want to do more than I have to. So all I have to do then (now that my 3 sons are gone) is the supper dishes. I taught the same to my boys. However, they live with wives who do varying degrees of this; and each one has developed the habits of their wives. Only one loads the dishwasher as he goes through the day 😒, and one rarely even picks up his clothes! So much for all those years of good training!

  4. I think that, for a seventeen-year-old at least, I am pretty good at “completing the cycle.” It drives me up the wall when I have half-finished things lying around. It truly is easier to do things now rather than later. 🙂

  5. Kari says:

    This reminds me so much of something Gretchen Rubin has talked about lately on The Happier Podcast — be good to your Future Self. When you really don’t want to ‘complete the cycle’ think of your Future Self who will have to do those annoying tasks later and be good to that person by doing them now.

    • Kaia Strand says:

      Kari, I was going to tie this into a Gretchen Rubin hack, too! “Completing the cycle” reminds me of a “try this at home” strategy from her “Happiness” podcast about doing all things in the moment that will take under a minute.
      The phrase “completing the cycle” adds that much more of a visual impact of anticipating the positive impact that tying up loose ends will have in my life. Love it and completely relate!!

  6. Janice Rine says:

    Completing the cycle is a winner. I also find if I have a morning routine (make the bed, wash the breakfast dishes, get dressed) then the rest of the day flows easily from there. It makes me think I’m organized.

  7. Janis says:

    I see ME in this post!! ENFP is my MB personality, and the planning and process are so much fun for me, while I’m not a completer. I do work on developing the habit. Do it now! Put it away! I once ordered a program ( metal box of index cards) called S.H.E. =. Side-tracked Home Executive to help me with housekeeping. I misplaced it!! Thank you for sharing!

  8. Trudie says:

    I like this mantra ” complete the cycle”. I will use it. Another self-talk I have is “touch it once”. How many times do you pick something up in the house only to put it back down or move it to another spot where it doesn’t belong. Mail for example. It comes in and is put down to be dealt with later. Now, I go through it immediately, junk mail gets trashed, bills go to the appropriate spot on the desk ( I’m working on this one…they still get touched at least twice), documents to the to-be-filed in box (ditto above). This mantra helps to keep clutter down.

  9. I saw, but didn’t read, the Apartment Therapy post because, like you, I am not interested in a perfect home. I know a few people who have “perfect” homes, and they are not happy, nor is anybody who enters. Around here, perfection is not a goal. However, I more or less do complete cycles, and our house is more or less orderly and neat, but not perfect, so one can always find a nit to pick. To them, I say, “Leave.”
    My mother, on the other hand, was a perfect example of someone who never, ever finished what she started. At the end of her life, it was because she was old and tired and weak. But younger, I think it was almost calculated–that if she managed to get everything done, she would be expected to pull it off again and again ad infinitum, or that (more likely), by trying to play the perfection game, someone (my dad? my grandma/her MIL?) would say, Aha! You missed that! and nitpick her to pieces. So she didn’t play the game. And the house was a MESS.

  10. Margie says:

    My mental trick is a variation on the cycle theme. I’ve stopped thinking of ever being done with laundry/dishes/cooking/filing. It’s defeating to think you’re ‘done’ when of course you never are. Instead, my focus is ‘do the next step in the cycle’. Empty the dishwasher, take the whites downstairs, empty the fridge before shopping, etc. I stay on top of things and it’s made all these routine tasks more of a zen process.

  11. Theresa says:

    Great phrase that makes complete sense, “complete the cycle.” Never thought of it that way. I guess I am a cleannie and will work until I am bone tired to complete a task. I was taught by my mother not to stop or play until the task was done. So this is my motivation. Get my daily tasks done and then I have the evenings off. Besides it saves me so much time the next day because I have cleaned up after myself and completed the task. My husband is more of a play and take a break kind of guy, so he has introduced a lot of moderation into my life and now I think I am more balanced.

  12. Kim says:

    In my house, we turned this into the mantra, “Touch it, complete it.” I will admit, though, that last load of laundry is the toughest one to do! (Confession time – there is a dried load of laundry in the dryer right now.)

  13. Ruth says:

    This is exactly me! But how do you talk yourself into actually doing the steps to “complete the cycle”? I think of a million reasons (excuses) why I can’t finish it right then.

  14. Melodee says:

    I think how we frame the issue has a huge effect on our ability to follow through! I like “complete the cycle.” I have a friend (who now has six grown children and a few grandchildren) who plays “the laundry game.” The object of the game is to do all the laundry and get it folded and put away before the end of the day. By framing it as a game that she can “win” or “lose,” she motivates herself to complete it. (She also does her ironing in high heels and pearls with a glass of wine. She is the coolest.)

  15. Leyla Meza says:

    I’m not sure if I close the cycles, but as I go through the house in the mornings I leave doors opened or lights on to remind me I have to go back to these places to: pack my cellphone in my purse, to get my eyeglasses, (lights on in the bathroom) for the last look of my face in the mirror before leaving, lights on in my daughter’s room so that she can also take an eagle’s eye-view to check if she’s not leaving anything behind, etc. I also have various Chapstick tubes and one is located by the kitchen window which our last stop before leaving. Apply enough before locking the doors on your way out. I like my system, it hasn’t failed me.

  16. Renee says:

    I am also an INFP and your description is me to a T! I’ve been trying to keep on top of the kitchen (you must start somewhere, right?!) and I love the idea of framing it as Completing the Cycle!

  17. Jamie says:

    This post reminds me of a part of one of Charles Duhigg’s books (not sure if it was Habits or Smarter Faster Better) when he discusses how Febreeze became such a household phenomenon. At first the marketing campaign was all about how Febreeze covered up smells (which is does – a chemistry miracle!) but it wasn’t taking off like the company hoped it would. Then, through some twist of fate or research that I can’t quite recall, the researches realized the test markets that were BOOMING were using Febreeze as a ‘finisher’ for their cleaning routine instead of a ‘cover up’ for bad odors. They realized that people want their cleaning efforts to end with some sort of flourish or reward to reflect how hard they had worked. Thus, Febreeze! When the cleaning was done, the testers would spray Febreeze in the room and it would give them that fresh scent that they knew they ‘deserved’ because of their hard work. It completed the cycle – they cleaned, it was clean, now it actually SMELLED clean.

  18. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    I love this idea/phrasing! I’m working on teaching this habit to my children, especially when cleaning up Legos and the like…you aren’t done until you’ve looked at the whole area, lidded the box and put it back on the shelf. Thank you for sharing this great information!

  19. As a mom of littles, I feel like I spend all of my time putting out fires. But, even if I’m interrupted 1000 times, completing one task sounds so much more gratifying than my current system of attempting 10 half completed chores at a time. I’m going to give this a try, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it might just save my sanity!

  20. Ina Koerner says:

    I am the same way, but didn’t realize that being an INFP personality had anything to do with it. I am 74 and have decided that I have ADD because I go in the other room to get something I need for completing a task and start looking things up on the computer or starting another task. It is especially bad because I recently took up quilting. Cutting and piecing go great, but then the quilt top sits waiting for quilting and the binding. I’ll have to try your method.

  21. Angela says:

    I didn’t realize it, but I do “complete the cycle” in a lot of things, but as an INFP like you, I had to get a system in place. With laundry, I fold as I take the clothes out of the dryer. Then from the dryer, I hand-carry clothes straight into the closet. If I use a laundry basket, the cycle will never be completed. I have a system with dishes, too. But with mail, packages, and things I bought…no system yet! What helps though, is listening to podcasts (like yours!) and audiobooks. Like, this podcast is an hour long, so I have an hour to finish this or complete the cycle.

  22. Erin K says:

    I am very similar to you. I know it’s better to do things immediately, and I often do, but at some point I’m exhausted and start leaving things undone and then the next thing you know the house is a mess. But for the last few days I’ve been thinking of it as “completing the cycle” and you’re so right, it helps! Love it!

  23. Sarah says:

    This is definitely me, too. (Also an INFP!) I think the hardest part for me is that I have 4 kids age 8 and under, and homeschool, so it seems there are always multiple cycles at once. Maybe I could complete one. But all of them??? Anone have any advice? I do want to get better at this!

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