The LEGO Principle: Why Housework Can Be So Darn Frustrating

The LEGO Principle: Why Housework Can Be So Darn Frustrating

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Tess Wilson
Nov 19, 2014
(Image credit: Jason Loper)

Did any of you listen to the Productivity episode of The Diane Rehm Show on Monday? One of the experts interviewed described a fascinating study he'd conducted, one that gets at the heart of why housework can feel so frustratingly futile...

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, conducted a study in which two groups of workers were instructed to build little LEGO robots. They were paid per robot, as follows: $3 for #1, $2.70 for #2, $2.40 for #3, and so on. The workers continued building robots as long as they felt it was worth it. (The following quotes are from Duke School of Business— I will sub in quotes from The Diane Rehm Show episode as soon as the transcripts are available.)

In a second experiment, participants assembled Bionicles, toy figurines made by Lego. The researchers made the Bionicle project somewhat meaningful for half of the students, whose completed toys were displayed on their desks for the duration of the experiment, while the students assembled as many Bionicles as they wished. "Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low," Ariely said.

The rest of the participants, whose work was intended to be devoid of meaning, gave their completed Bionicles to supervisors in exchange for another box of parts to assemble. The supervisors immediately disassembled the completed figurines, and returned the box of parts to the students when they were ready for the next round. "These poor individuals were assembling the same two Bionicles over and over. Every time they finished one, it was simply torn apart and given back to them later."

Isn't that exactly how doing dishes and laundry feels?!? "Oh my goodness, I finally finished the breakfast, lunch, and cooking-dinner dishes! ...And now the sink is filled with the eating-dinner dishes." "Woo, an empty laundry hamper, and all the clean clothes folded and put away! And now it's full again five minutes later... great." Commenter kcat expressed it well on an earlier post: "It can get frustrating — nothing ever gets completely done — there's the '20-minutes of clean' like when the kitchen floor is scrubbed & within 20 minutes who would have guessed." I know those 20-Minutes Of Clean well, and though they are 20 very satisfying minutes, there are so few of them!

There are a lot of frustrating, menial jobs out there, of course, but at many jobs there's still something you can point to at the end of the day: I made 10 cakes, I fried 100 burgers, I served 200 customers, I painted 4 rooms... and those rooms are still painted, damnit. Doing housework can feel utterly Sisyphean— is there anything we can do about that?

My latest solution? Arranging flowers. If I spend a day cooking, doing dishes, doing laundry, scrubbing the bathroom, sweeping and mopping all the floors, and doing general straightening, I set aside a little time to arrange a vase of flowers. Now, I say "flowers," but what I mean is twigs, branches, foliage, grasses, and other plant matter from the yard. It's nothing fancy, but it's very satisfying, and each arrangement lasts at least a week, allowing me many opportunities to gaze upon it proudly... unlike the stove, which I swear was spotless just 30 seconds ago.

How do you deal with the treading-water feeling that housework can inspire? Do you just suck it up, knowing it's an inevitable part of life? Do you give yourself little rewards, or indulge in fun but not completely necessary projects to feel a sense of accomplishment? I may have recently relabeled my spice jars...

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