Saturday, February 13, 2016

Best advice I ever received was to never scrub a toilet again

Note. Since I've been accused on not being fair and thinking of other people as less worthy by asking them to do chores for me, which is definitely NOT my intention, I have made a few edits to clarify things. I just hire people to do jobs that they are already doing and I pay them fairly with the money I have available.

When I was a grad student, I attended a luncheon with a very successful female scientist. When asked if she had any particular advice for us young women starting out, she said to learn to maximize our time and to never ever waste it with tasks that don't push your career forward, like cleaning the bathroom. She told us to just hire people to do these types of things because our careers would become more and more busy, family obligations would fill every free moment and scrubbing a toilet was not worth our time. Over and over again this type of advice was repeated by successful scientists at "women in science meeting": "Find the right housekeeper and pay them their weight in gold" "Find the right people to help you manage your life".
In grad school I had friends who paid for a monthly cleaning service, but I felt I should still do all my housework myself. I didn't hire a cleaning person until my postdoc and I could only pay for her to come once every two months, but I was hooked. That was around the time the "outsourcing your life" craziness exploded on magazines. If you missed it, these are some articles from The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post. The idea is that time is money and you want to spend your time on things you want to do, on things that enrich you personally, emotionally or financially, and everything else should be taken care of by someone else. Apart from hiring a personal assistant in India, which I've been dying to do for years, but which would require giving someone access to may banking and financial information, I pretty much tried everything.

I have repeated multiple times that as you rise in the academic ladder, the amount of things you have to do continues to increase and you just become a better juggler or weightlifter, so things begin to take a toll. I am that person whose unread email count always had to be 0 and I used to be as obsessive at getting my mail. Nowadays, if I pull my mail out once a week or twice a month, it's good. My cable box broke maybe 10, maybe 14 weeks ago, I have no idea, but the people I need to talk to leave at 9pm and if I do get home before 9pm, I'm usually too exhausted to pick up the phone and deal with stupid Comcast (I should probably call them right now instead of writing this, but I hate Comcast). Most of the time, I feel my life outside the lab is kept together by a thread, but that thread consists of multiple lovely people who do all the things that do not require my Social Security Number.

1) I don't clean. That is a bit of a lie, as everyone who has a cleaning crew knows, all surfaces must be free and clothes must be put away when they come, as a courtesy so that they only have to do the deep cleaning and don't spend one hour puttin away you stuff. But apart from one hour on the morning before they come when I madly put things away, I don't clean. They clean, they wash my sheets and change my bed, they throw my moldy food out of the fridge. Like my mother, if I leave stuff out, they put it away in random places...but that was my fault for leaving stuff out. When I come home on cleaning day, my place smells awesome, everything is shiny and it takes around 10 days before it reverts to chaos, so they come twice a month (I know, no kids, very un-messy cat, always traveling...and I cannot afford them to come weekly).

2) I don't own a car so I don't do big grocery trips. I pick up my produce at the farmers' market next to work or at Whole Foods on the way home, but if I can't carry it in a couple of bags, I don't carry it. The cat litter, the gallons of water for the fish, the biweekly supply of Coke Zero, all the rest comes with Google Express or Instacart. You pick the store, pick what you want and...boom, you have it. Burnt our lightbulb, aquarium filters, Costco run. All those errands that would have taken half a day are done over 5 minutes at lunch, and the stuff is waiting for you when you get home (FOR $5!!!!). You don't have these services nearby...Amazon Pantry.

3) I don't go to the dry cleaner's. I like doing laundry, so I do my own, but I had friends who dropped everything off and had it done. There is a dry cleaning service that picks up a bag from my building and returns the clothes 2 days later. You can put torn clothes or broken shoes in the bag with a note and they will repair...they even have an option you can check where they will automatically repair any tear they find without asking you. Most cities have services like these and they don't cost much more than the regular dry cleaner.

4) I don't really wait for more than 10 minutes for the bus. Ok, this is princessy, but if the bus/subway is more than 10 minutes away, if I'm cold or tired, Uber comes to pick me up. Yes, yes, they're awful and exploitative and maybe Lyft is better. I constantly try to have serious conversation with them on whether they feel the company is using them, and they all seem pretty happy to me. In any case, a car is never more than 2 minutes away. When I'm in lab past 9pm in the winter, I just call it from my office and it's waiting for me at the door. I don't own a car and the monthly cost is way less than car payments and insurance.

And then, TaskRabbit can take care of anything else. TaskRabbit is a service in multiple cities or online where you give people tasks and they do it. I used it the last time I moved. I gave my tasker my move inventory and a list of companies and she returned a spreadsheet with quotes and contacts after making all the calls in my place. They will organize your closet, pick up your stuff, drive you to the airport, wake you up on time, do market research for you, etc, etc.

The convenience of having all these people do stuff for you is amazing and done judiciously, not terribly expensive. At the end it's determining what your time is worth to you. I like doing laundry, I like washing dishes. Some people stress clean and like going on errands. Some people like driving to work with NPR on. It may just be nice to know of all the options out there and figure out a plan for making things easier on yourself.

PS: I read this interesting article on the pros and cons of outsourcing (here) where they list "loss of community" as one of the cons. Interestingly for me it's the opposite. I'm doing a stressful job, alone in a big city where I know very few people and where I have to take care of everything. The cleaning lady, the petsitter, the concierge, the Uber drivers end up being a big part of my community and are there for me...I am very grateful to them for all their help and do my best to show it whenever I can.


  1. FYI: read the original version, did not get the impression you thought of other people as "less worthy."

    I don't hire a cleaning person only because I am single and, having just started my postdoc, my budget is already stretched pretty thin. So I just suck it up and do it ... for now.

    But if I could afford it, I think I would still feel guilty, like; "how can I not find the time for this, considering I don't have kids or someone else to care for right now?"

  2. I think this just blew my mind. I have noticed in the last two years as my career has taken off that I no longer have time for anything. When I'm not working, I am getting caught up on chores at home, and family. I need to start paying someone to clean my house so I have time for other things.