Soak the nut

Growing up in my family, my sister and I took turns with the chore of washing dishes every evening. This was not a job I liked, and there were many ways I tried to get out of it:

  • Before dinner, I would do some other extra chore, so that when the calendar was checked to see whose turn it was, I could exclaim with indignation, “It’s my turn? But I set the table!”
  • Right after dinner, I would conveniently have to go to the bathroom. For me, the toilet has always been a place where I feel I can dawdle guilt-free, because after all, who can seriously tell you to hurry it along if you need more time? But this was more procrastination than a ploy to get out of dish duty.
  • When I finally did drag myself to face the mountain of dishes in the kitchen sink, anything that needed to be handwashed or that didn’t fit in the dishwasher I would squirt with a generous helping of dish soap and fill with water. If anyone asked, I would say they were “soaking overnight,” and—ta-da!—the next day they wouldn’t be my problem anymore.

This all changed when I started living on my own, without the never-counted blessing of a dishwasher, and with no one else to wash my dishes if I didn’t. I realized that it was much easier to clean up if I did so right after each meal, rather than waiting for food bits to harden and then be soaked and scrubbed later. I resolved never to procrastinate by soaking dishes again.

But when Clara and I moved to the Netherlands, the rhythm of our life changed from me preparing and cleaning up after each meal at home, to me scooting out the door right after breakfast, bringing home dried-out leftovers containers, and doing all the day’s washing-up after dinner in the evening. I was back to scraping dried food off of dishes, perpetually wishing I had gotten to them sooner.

One day, I guiltily tried soaking a stubborn pot in soapy hot water. But so as not to break my resolution, I only left it a few minutes before giving it another scrub. When I did so, I was amazed how much was already coming off—not everything, but more than I expected after such a short time. So I dumped the now very dirty water out of the pot, refilled it with more sudsy water, and left it again for another few minutes, after which it practically wiped clean.

This reminded me of what a famous French mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, had to say about problem-solving. He compared the idea of cracking a mathematical nut by hitting it as hard as you can with your sharpest chisel to the approach that he usually took himself:

I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

—Grothendieck’s Récoltes et Semailles, p. 552
translation by Colin McLarty

Now this soaking technique is a regular part of my dish-doing routine. I look around to see what dishes look most difficult to scrub, give them a quick swipe with a soapy sponge as I get started, and periodically rinse them out and swipe them again as I wash everything else. Usually by the time the other dishes are done, so are they, and with almost no effort.

But what really struck me when I thought of the Grothendieck quote was not a low-effort way of washing the dishes, but a low-effort way of making life changes. When I dread the effort required by a change I want to make, I remind myself to “soak the nut” and consider the small things I can do now that will make bigger changes easier later. For example, I’ve wanted for a long time to be a writer, but I’ve always felt like I’m not talented enough and don’t have anything to say. So last year, I ditched the big heavy journal I never used and started keeping a smaller one nearby, just in case I had any thoughts I considered interesting; I only wrote in it about once every month or two. Eventually that increased to about once a week, and later I committed to writing every day. Then I started picking out the ideas I wanted to share, and wrote a blog post occasionally. Now I’ve committed to a post a week, and my list of post ideas just keeps getting longer. And it all started by making a tiny change that made it a correspondingly tiny bit easier to write down my thoughts.

Photo by Rusty Clark, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Announcement

I’ve decided to officially change my posting schedule from Mondays to Wednesdays. I originally chose Mondays so that I’d have the free time in my weekends to mull over what I wanted to say, but now the weekends are the only days I get to spend with Clara and I have more free time during the week. I’ll kick off the new schedule this week by posting a followup to this post, containing more examples from my life and an exploration of when tiny life changes encourage growth (“keystone habits”) and when they just defuse the energy that could have gone into something greater (“token actions”).


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