Why I Hate Doing Laundry

"Hate" is such a strong word. It's overused these days – most people who use it don't really mean it. For example, I consider myself very lucky in that I don't hate any human being. I don't really hate any inanimate object. However, there are two activities I absolutely hate, and they are scrubbing and doing laundry.

I've spent some time thinking about why I hate those two specific activities. I think with scrubbing, as you apply continuous, intense pressure to a dish, the combination of hot running, splashing water, the fatigue of my fingers, and – most importantly, the uncertainty of whether and when my actions will actually make a difference just about does it for me.

But even scrubbing (especially if I get to use one of these steel wool things) fades in comparison to doing laundry. It's not that I don't like chores – there are plenty of chores which I don't mind. Some I even like, like ones to do with organization. But laundry consists of more frustrating mini-tasks than any other activity I can think of. It's an activity full of little problems which will bite you unless you expend a lot of precious mental resources and hand-eye coordination. Finally, it's a process that has a long duration, but consists of bursts of work, and I don't like being interrupted frequently. At the end of the day, I guess, it just seems like a waste of effort, the reward is so massively disproportionate to what I put in, and there aren't many shortcuts.

I was bothered by the fact that I hate doing laundry so much, so I painstakingly recorded all the little things that I need to do when I do laundry, including all the problems that I need to be on the lookout for. I'm not just venting, mind you, there is a point to all this which I'll get to. But in addition, I found that holding a magnifying glass to something that evokes such an emotional reaction helps me understand me better. Normally, I solve problems almost as quickly as I encounter them -- continuous improvement is something I got very good at over the years -- and so this outlier is likely a helpful data point for me. After all, the best way to understand something is to trace its boundaries, and me doing laundry is certainly a boundary case.

First comes the separation of whites from colors from blacks. As someone who likes to understand the world and cut it up into little pieces that are logical, I never got to that point of zenness with separation. Is a light gray/white sock a color or a white? Does intensity of color matter? How about color clothes that haven't been washed before? Rugs? And which setting should I use? Is permanent press more appropriate than normal? Maybe I should just wash everything in warm (normal) water and not worry about it? I suspect that the latter is true, but I just don't have the confidence. I could (and probably should, given how much it bothers me and how much I'm willing to talk about the problem) do some research and answer all these questions, or run experiments, but I just can't get myself to do this outside of what I already perceive to be a waste of time.

Then comes the separation of clothes that get tumble dried from those that don't. Up until recently, I would do the separation late in the process, after the clothes have been washed, and I was incredibly frustrated at the menialness of having to take every single piece of clothing out, inspecting it (and for those that aren't mine specifically, remembering whether they get dried or not – and often getting it wrong) and sorting it. Now I come up with a separate pile of clothes that don't get dried, but even then sometimes the pile is too small to do as its own load. And if that happens, I have to carefully remove every single piece of clothing from the washer after the wash, inspect it, try to remember if that piece happens to get dried or not, and put it in the drier.

Carrying the clothes in the bag, the detergent, and the laundry card isn't so bad. I used to hate it when the laundry room was in the basement – I traced it down to having to wait for an elevator, which seems to me like more of a waste of time than walking down the hall (even if the expected time is shorter), a kind of control bias, since I do control my walk but not the elevator.

Then was the uncertainty of whether a washer is available. In NYC, the ratio was 6.5 (working, on average, out of 8 total) washers to about 200 apartments. In California, it's now 1 to 10 apartments, so that's much better. Plus, here there seems to be less correlation in the times people do laundry. Maybe more people have time to do it during the week. This pure waste of time really bothered me, to the point where I thought about a weekend project to install an Internet-connected sensor in the laundry room (camera, or a strategically placed photocell). Not a big pain point right now, but the project might still be a fun one to do, assuming I can either hide it well or okay it with the building management.

A minor point (my ignorance, though, is at fault) when loading the washer is figuring out how much detergent to use. Another minor point is the amount of time it takes to do the laundry. I set the timer so I'm reminded when a cycle is done, but for some reason the washer timer is off, and – worse – it's off by a different amount for different settings. There is nothing more frustrating than to appear in the laundry room with 3 minutes still left of the cycle.

Then comes moving the loads from the washer to the dryer. First, the clothes always, invariably, get all tangled up so that it's next to impossible to remove the clothes without some falling on the floor. Then there is always some little sock hidden at the bottom of the washer, so I end up tumbling the washer cylinder by hand at least once. Putting the clothes into the drier (and removing them once dry) is also annoying because on their way in, the clothes always touch the little compartment that accumulates all the lint.

If any clothes don't get dried, I need to carry the wet clothes back to the room. I could put it in the bin, but I don't like having wet clothes get all wrinkly. Maybe I'm too particular. What is objectively difficult, though, is putting all the clothes onto a drying rack in my apartment. I have to put them up one by one, they always look more wrinkled than they should, and there is never any room on the rack.

Drying large items (such as towels or sheets) is something I'm not looking forward to. All the other items always get tangled inside and as a result, they don't dry. If that's the case, that means an additional few trips to the laundry room, and, yet again, the ensuing uncertainty.

Then there is carrying all the laundry back. The carrying bag is really uncomfortable and hurts my fingers. When the clothes arrive in my apartment, folding is another one of these things that takes longer than it should. At least I'm in my room and can listen to podcasts while folding.

Finally, almost every single time, there is some sock that is missing. That's the worst thing, because you never know when you lost that poor sock. So you have to retrace your steps, all the way back from the laundry bin in the apartment to the laundry and really dig in there, looking around everywhere in between.


There are a few interesting takeaways to all this. First, I found it rather interesting how emotionally charged this broad problem space makes me. In general, I love encountering problems in my life because I know that it's just a matter of time before I solve them, and solving them is often a fun challenge. And so here, in the case of laundry, I could also solve my problems. Many of these little issues I mentioned above have solutions, and, in fact, I have been slowly working on some of them. The separation into clothes that get dried and those that don't (as opposed to merely just whites and colors) is an example innovation that came from this process. Yet, I can't help but wonder why it took me so long to put these in place.

I think more interesting to me (and my learning) is the fact that the entire process consists of a large number of very specific manual actions whose orchestration still require my mental capacity, and which have a long duration (say, a four-load routine takes a total of three and a half hours) but take a form of tasks highly scattered in time. It's probably this interruptive nature of the task that makes me most frustrated. As someone who doesn't multitask well, and as someone who needs time to get into a "flow" state while working on something, having to get up every 20-25 minutes is very disruptive. And so there is a takeaway for me from the experience of reflecting on doing laundry (and pushing myself to write it up): going forward, I should avoid tasks of that nature, even if as a whole they don't look too frustrating, because of the opportunity cost they pose: half a day is shot.

Stepping back to the laundry issue, there is obviously a way to not have this problem, at a very high level, and that is to delegate to someone. And maybe at some point I will. Right now I know that a service that meets my requirements doesn't exist in my area. I could relax some of the requirements, but at this point I can withstand some pain and I don't have to sacrifice quality.

Finally, I can't help but think that the entire laundry experience just shouldn't be that way. It's very manual, repetitive, and tedious, and it's something that every household needs to do. Even if one has a washer and dryer in house, many of the problems I outlined remain. I don't think the current alternatives – taking the laundry to a cleaner, or having the laundry taken away using some sort of valet service (only available in a very few localities) – just cut it.

Nota bene: Every so often a person that I share my pain with hastens to point out that what I have a first world problem and that I should put it in perspective. Nonsense!  I live in the first world, I have first world problems, and I should focus on solving them. I didn't live in the "first world" country my whole life, and so I already have all the perspective I need. With comments such as this, sometimes I get the impression that the "first world problem" comment is just a way to avoid dealing with the reality of the world we live in, and to avoid taking the responsibility to own one's problems.