Clutter. It’s one of my most significant flaws. I’ve often arrived home from a long day of work, placed some items on the dining room table while greeting my dog, and changed out of my work clothes — usually throwing them on top of an unmade bed. While I like to “blame” my clutter as a consequence of a brilliant mind (my interpretation of Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?), this habit pointed to something dangerous that people like me fall into.
For the first thirty-plus years of my life, I have had a film montage of people who have told me to start making my bed. Here are three of those highlights (and notice that my thinking rarely shifted).
My mother likes to keep things for a long time — even way beyond their usage. “You never know when you might need it again,” she says. You may call that “hoarding,” but because that gene passed down to me, I’d instead call it “collecting.” Regardless of this habit, my mother knows how to keep the surplus of her “collection” orderly, something she often asked me to do. The minimum she would ask, though, is for me to make my bed. I’d rarely do it. There were only a handful of ways you can get me to make my bed: if my mother was furious; if I knew there would be people seeing my room (more on this in a moment); or if it was a “spring cleaning” kind of deal. I often believed that making the bed was a waste of time — a mundane task. As you may have noted, I would only do it if others, in this case, my mother, wanted it done.
One day, my mother asked me to make my bed because we were expecting company. I told her that it didn’t matter because they shouldn’t be coming to my room anyways. After telling me to make my bed anyways, she left to get ready for our guests, and I continued doing what I was doing, and not fulfilling her request. Sure enough, she was giving our guests a tour of the house, and when they entered my room and saw my unmade bed (and a cluttered room as well), my mother sheepishly said: “Gabby, I told you to clean your room.”
I was embarrassed, more for my mother than for me. As an adult, I now know that it wasn’t a huge deal that a kid didn’t make a bed — if I were a visitor and witnessed it, I wouldn’t think twice. Nonetheless, though I thought it wasn’t a huge deal, making my bed would have been a sign that I respected my mother. I certainly did (and still do) respect her, but I didn’t show it.
When I was 21, I traveled to visit my “uncle” (note that we Latinos tend to name any older close family friend, an aunt or uncle) with my girlfriend. During my visit, I, of course, did not make my bed — I was on vacation after all! However, each afternoon, when I returned to the house, I noticed that the bed made. I approached my uncle about that and assured him that he didn’t have to make my bed.
“Well, somebody has to,” he responded.
“Jeez, are you my mother?”
“Ah, so you’re mom’s been on top of you about this?”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“I hope you’re not planning on moving out before you learn to make your bed.”
We luckily did not discuss it further. My uncle, along with my mother, was making a big deal about the bed. As a guest in his house, I grudgingly made my bed the last couple of days I was there. His home, his rules, right? But that last thing he told me, about being ready to move out on my own, stayed in mind years later.
My girlfriend, who traveled to my uncle’s with me agreed to marry me, and I decided to celebrate my “liberation” by doing whatever I wanted — namely, not making my bed. About a month or so into our marriage, my wife asked me if I could make the bed whenever I woke up after she did. Since it was rare that I woke up after she did, I agreed to that. The habit did not stick, however. I still wrestled with the same reasoning I had as a child in my mother’s house — if no one is going to see the room, what’s the point? My patient wife now and then would repeat the request; I’d agree and have that habit stick for a little while before it went away again.
On one occasion in the summer of 2018 (I’m a teacher, so I’m usually home in the mornings during the summers), my wife asked me on the way out if I could make the bed. I agreed to do it, kissed her good-bye, and took my dog for a walk.
You may have noticed what was not in that last sentence. I did not make the bed as my wife requested. She arrived home in the early evening, stressed from a busy day at work, and walked into a bedroom that was just the way she left it, complete with an unmade bed. She let out an exasperated sigh, and my heart sank as she made the bed herself.
My heart did not sink about the bed, of course. I thought (and still think) it’s a mundane task. But I couldn’t complete the job that she asked me to do. When I had all the time in the world to complete that task, I let it slip my mind. I allowed her to slip my mind. I resolved to change all that the next day. I wrote down a reminder to make the bed the next day, and it’s a reminder I keep on my phone every day.
It took me a while to make it a new habit. This daily task that I started in the summer would last a while, and I’d miss a day. This time, however, I made damn sure that I did not miss two days in a row.
I have made the bed every day since October 2018, except for the few times that I’m out of town for school or work. The system works. I wrote down a new goal that I want to make a habit, and I make sure I check it off every day.
This system was created to make my wife feel loved — that I care enough for her that I’m willing to do something unnatural to me to ease her stress. While that is important, I’ve noticed something different.
This new task has given my life purpose.
I know how silly that sounds. How can one find purpose in a seemingly mundane task as making the bed each morning? How can sixty seconds of my life each day tether me to my intention?
It’s not the bed.
It’s not my wife.
It’s not my uncle nor my mother.
I had a flaw, and I conquered it.
That one task has opened the opportunity for me to conquer more functions that have turned into habits, all because I write them down and check them off. Currently, the checklist has over thirty items. The system has allowed me to make a habit out of things like thirty minutes of exercise every day, at least 15 minutes of reading a day, reading an article on Medium each day, and of course, making my bed. The next molehill to conquer is tracking what I eat every day.
At first glance, it may seem like I am a slave to the checklist. While starting a habit may make it feel like an arduous task, the goal is to move from “working-on-it” by transforming it into a pattern. Taking control of my To-Do’s allows me never to waste time on unimportant things and spend time pursuing my passion.
I made my bed for my mother.
I made my bed for my uncle.
I made my bed for my wife.
Now, I make it for myself.