On a Clean Room

When I’m a guest – either at a friend’s house or a hotel – I try to make as little mess as possible. I mean, I make my bed when I’m at a hotel even though I know that a housekeeper will have to take the sheets completely off the bed to be washed anyway. Is that irrational?

This isn’t because of habit, like most of us I don’t always make my own bed at home. But I get this overwhelming sense of guilt that someone – specifically a stranger in the case of hotels – will have to put everything back in its place after my stay. The idea of putting things in order only to have them messied up day after day sounds like its own little kind of hell.

In fact, this closely resembles the story from Greek mythology of Sisyphus, whose punishment from the gods was to push a heavy rock up a hill for eternity. When the rock was almost at the very top, it would roll right back to the bottom and he’d have to start again. The demotivating impact of repetition of a laborious task that is ultimately futile is something that we can all relate to.

Especially a housekeeper. So I try to reduce the amount of mess I leave in any room I stay in, even if we often think of this housekeeping service built into the price of the room and you might never see that housekeeper again.

As for keeping my own room clean (or not), there are a couple of forces at play. Keeping my room totally clean is an accomplishable goal – and we often get a sense of satisfaction when we complete a task.[1] Accountability is another issue – if I don’t clean my room, perhaps no one else will ever see that I was untidy or lazy, so it doesn’t matter.[2] Perhaps no one in my house keeps their room clean (social norms) so I don’t feel I need to either. Perhaps it’s part of my routine to keep my room clean. I also have control over the room and the items need not be put back exactly the same way (agency). This might just be me, but I don’t go through the same effort to dutifully keep my room clean as I do someone else’s.

Either way, I’d like to offer some parting words: make sure to thank the housekeeper.

If you are interested in work and motivation, Dan Ariely and colleagues have done some fascinating experimentation in this area. Check out this Ted Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread

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[1] Lazzaro, N., & Keeker, K. (2004, April). What’s my method?: a game show on games. In CHI’04 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1093-1094). ACM; Ariely, D. (2015). Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog: Life Advice for the Imperfect Human. Oneworld Publications.
[2] Silverman, S., Kulinna, P. H., & Crull, G. (1995). Skill-related task structures, explicitness, and accountability: Relationships with student achievement. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 66(1), 32-40.

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