The Permaculture of Domesticity Part II: Practice

Sharon August 20th, 2009

Now, on from the theory (which is, after all, the easy part), to the practice. Here are some strategies of mine, complete with the stupid things I’ve done to learn them (always the best part).

-1. Attitude adjustment is probably the first alteration any of us can make. We can choose how we think about domestic labor, and in some measure, how we respond to the activity, at least in a purely mental and emotional sense, and often in a physical one as well. I can think of 2 kinds of attitude adjustment that apply to domestic work. First, there’s lowering or altering your standards. Most of us can do this (in my case, further lowering might not be such a good idea), and it can be a considerable time-saver. For example, if you ordinarily wash sheets and towels every week, try stretching it to two weeks or three, and see if there is a significant reduction in quality of life. Clothes can be worn more often before washing, floors can go longer between washings as well. While some jobs (laundry for example) get bigger and less manageable by ignoring them, many things can be put aside for a while.  You will probably be happier if the things you blow off are mostly the ones that don’t get dramatically worse by lack of attention.

Only you can say where your quality of life is unacceptably diminished. This should not be used, however, for any household work that involves basic hygiene, health issues and safety. So while you could choose to let your floors get grubby in many cases, if you have an infant eating crud off of them, that may not be wise.

The second attitude adjustment can be choosing to enjoy or find satisfaction in work you have previously not enjoyed. People can change their preferences, and can choose to find pleasure in most activities. You might consider taking a chore you particularly dislike and attempting to find a way to enjoy it, either by trying to take pleasure in the process, altering the process to make it more pleasurable, or by deriving satisfaction from the accomplishment. Obviously, there may be some chores that simply can’t be readjusted to, either because the activity is in some way stressful or painful, or because no matter how hard you try, you can’t come to like it. Some people with physical limitations will have fewer options in this department. But it is worth trying.

A third way of adjusting your own attitude is to think seriously about the requirements of your life, and distinguish carefullybetween wants and needs. The classic example of this is the parent in a two parent-household who works full time, but when commute, wardrobe, meals, daycare,etc… are calculated in has a household net loss, or only a tiny gain. (Please note, this is not to say that parents should stay home - this is merely an example, so don’t get your kidneys in an uproar, as DH’s grandmother liked to say). For example, if you dislike dusting, perhaps you could choose to have fewer dustable objects, or to keep them in closed boxes, even if there was some slight inconvenience.

2. After attitude adjustment, the next lowest input thing to do about household work is to find ways to either do chores with others, or to get others to help with difficult or distasteful projects. The most obvious such method, if you have kids, is to train them to help out. The difficulty with this is that teaching children to do things is, in the short term, inevitably much more time consuming (although it can be fun) than just doing it yourself. After a while this ceases to be so, but many parents find it difficult to build time into their daily lives to teach their kids the necessary skills. Planning for this, accepting the short-term reduction in efficiency, and adapting to it is usually worth the hassle. Even very small kids can help out if you give them time to learn how.

The same is true of getting a spouse or other family member to take on an job they have traditionally not done. It is worth noting, however, that it helps not to be over-committed to a single technique. Many people who would willingly take over X job are turned off by someone insisting that it be done exactly X way and to X’s standards. Women are, I think, particularly guilty of the sin of over-management.

For large scale chores, involving other members of your community, or friends and extended family might improve the experience. For example, my extended family on one side has at times had an annual “work-weekend” where once per year, the entire family descended upon one of the members who owns a home and devotes a long weekend to making repairs or completing major projects. The whole thing is considered enjoyable by everyone - the homeowner provides accommodations, food and materials, and everyone enjoys being together. Everyone eventually gets a turn. We’re working on build a neighborhood coop, which functions in the same way, volunteering once per month to help each family get a big work project done.

Also, the simple act of working together can provide a tremendous degree of satisfaction. Cooking can be an unpleasant job if it takes you away from your family and isolates the cook in the kitchen. The same job is quite enjoyable when done with a partner, a friend, or even a child helping. Simple proximity to one another makes big jobs much more manageable in many cases. Finding ways to bring people into the kitchen when you have guests, or to make whatever job you are doing part of the life of your household can make an enormous difference. One neighbor I know has her children read aloud to her while she does dishes - they get practice reading, the family hears a story together, and everyone has a good time.

3. The next most significant way to reduce labor sustainably is to experiment with time and energy costs. Most of us have a built in set of assumptions about what constitutes labor, and what constitutes labor savings, what is efficient, what is easy and what is difficult, andwhat the best uses of one’s time and energy are. But these assumptions may not be correct, and can only be verified by experimentation. It is not at all uncommon to assume that that one thing is faster than another, only to realize that it is quite the opposite - our own perceptions are shaped by what we expect to find.

Want to know how much time it takes you to do a load of laundry by hand, compared to the washing machine? Try it. But not just once - try it three or four different times, in as many ways as you can think of. Think about ways in which you can make the process more efficient. The next time you chop an onion, do it a different way than you usually do. Don’t take for granted that labor-saving devices actually are. Some are. Some aren’t.

For example, my husband and I were given an electric citrus juicer as a wedding gift, and we rather unthinkingly used it for a while, until one day my husband got frustrated and said, “I could do this faster with a lemon reamer.” Well, what do you know - he could. The same is true for me of the dryer - I can just as easily hang laundry as transfer it over, clean the lint filter and earn the money to pay for the electricity.

When you calculate labor-savings, make sure that all labor required to buy, maintain, use, clean, repair, store and tend to the item is included. For example, my husband and I don’t drink coffee, but keep a coffee maker around for guests. Because the coffee maker is stored in an inconvenient place (which makes sense since the convenient ones are for things we actually use regularly), the time spent climbing upon the step-ladder and pulling the box down, cleaning the parts which get dusty between uses, etc…. make it a surprisingly time-consuming project. I suspect a press-style glass coffee maker which could also be used for tea (which we drink a lot of) would be more efficient (although I’ve not done anything about it), even if making coffee that way were slightly more work.

When you calculate the cost of an item, do a full life-cycle analysis - how often do you have to upgrade or replace?  Are there plastic parts that might break and be irreplaceable?  Are materials to fix it available?  What are the costs of disposal? 

4. Design your infrastructure to accommodate *your* needs. If you are going to spend money and energy on your domestic life, try and reduce labor by adapting your home and work space to the way you actually live, rather than based on the assumptions builders and the consumer culture make about how people ought to live. A one-time investment of non-renewable energy that makes things easier, or quicker, or enables you to consume less is always probably worth while. Looking carefully at how you actually use things can make things more efficient - for example, if you use one set of bowls for mixing bread, it might make sense to also keep other bread-related materials right next to them. If you can’t stand for very long, setting up your kitchen so that you can sit while working there simply makes sense.

Most kitchens are designed for women, whose average height is about5′5. At 6′ and with a 6′2 husband, and children who promise to be quite tall (9 year old oldest is already nearly 5′), one of my dreams was a kitchen with counters properly designed for tall people.  Finally, we did shift the counter height, but for years we added several heavy butcher blocks to make high counter tops, which worked great. For a shorter than average person, lower counters, or a lower work area (a simple butcher block, for example) might makesense.

My children get dressed downstairs, under the supervision of their father every morning, but for quite a while I was washing their clothes downstairs, hanging them outside, then carrying the clothing upstairs to be put away, because upstairs was where we had room for the dressers. But that meant that laundry had to be carried upstairs to be stored, and then down again to be worn. We put up a long set ofopen shelves in our largest downstairs closet, and now all the children’s clothing is out on those open shelves, and I no longer carry their clothes up and down stairs (I haven’t yet adapted this system to my husband and I, but I’m thinking about it, since we can perfectly well get dressed downstairs too. This is, frankly, one of the best things I’ve done - it is an enormous time saver, and it cuts the mess, since I often had laundry baskets sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting to go up.

5. Use tools well. Learn how to use and maintain your tools correctly. Before using non-renewables, try developing skill at using renewable techniques and human-powered tools. Do what you need to develop the physical skills needed to do things well and easily. Everyone finds unfamiliar work time consuming and stressful - it takes time to become quick and comfortable with any kind of work. Anyone who has ever seen a professional chef chop a clove of garlic and someone without the same skills laboriously peel and slice the same clove knows that there are a lot of bad ways to do domestic chores. But there are few domestic skills that truly require talent - they mostly need practice. So practice, practice, practice. Learn to handle a knife, to do laundry by hand efficiently (ie, to get most of the cleaning done by soaking, rather than scrubbing), how to use a hammer well, or wash dishes quickly. Watch other people do these chores. Think about ways to increase your own comfort and efficiency. And do them the hard way enough times that you find yourself looking for ways to make things easier.

If you are going to invest in a tool for whatever job you want to do, get a good one. Cheap shovels are not worth the cost. In many cases, a non-electric tool of high quality will be much cheaper than a powered one of low quality, and the difference may not be as great as you think. In fact, the non-electric tool is often better. If the powered tool is superior, get as much use out of it as possible, while using it as efficiently as possible - for example, wash your clothes whenever possible in cold water. You can’t really do this as easily with a wringer washer, and it is one of the virtues of the electric washing machine - clothes will get clean without water heating. On the other hand, the wringer might make sense for able bodied people who do only a few laundry loads a week, or during the winter if you can heat water as part of radiant floor or wood heat.

6. Integrate the waste products. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to re-route your pipes so that your grey water (ie, water used in showers and sinks, but not toilets) goes for irrigation or toilet flushing, and yet it makes a dramatic difference in water usage. If you have food scraps, feed something with them (garden,worms, chickens, rabbits, goats, whatever). Even apartment dwellers can have worms or a pet rabbit. Compost your humanure if possible - it doesn’t take a fancy composting toilet in most places, just a commode, two buckets and a place to do it. It really isn’t gross at all, and the product doesn’t smell. Read John Jenkins’s _The Humanure Handbook_ before you run away. Or, if you grow things, at least pee in a bucket during the growing season and dilute it 10-1 to feed your plants. Seriously - people pay a lot of money for dehydrated pee for their gardens in the form of urea - you make it for free! Why waste it?

As much as possible, do things that create heat when you want to be warmer, whether chopping wood or canning tomatoes.  As much as possible retain the good stuff - the extra warmth from that tub of water, the coolth from hanging the damp sheets by your bed, the good feeling from doing your work with your kids or your spouse.

Most parts of food plants commonly wasted have potential uses - as dyes, animal feeds, fiber, extra food for your plate, etc… Use them up. Make your own non-toxic cleaners if you don’t already, as well as beauty products. I know that sounds overwhelming, but it is as simple as putting vinegar in a jar in many cases. Only put into your system (your body, your household system, your town, your nation, your world) the things you want to take out of them.

7. If you don’t love it or need it, there is no reason to own it. We’re all storing things for the future, and it can be hard to distinguish between necessity and junk. But every possession takes energy to manage - it has to be cleaned, dusted, stored, serviced,attended to. You pay rent or a mortgage or taxes on a house big enough for the stuff. Things demand energy we don’t have. So unless you are sure you’ll need it, or you care about it, get rid of it. That goes double for things like wall to wall carpeting that not only need maintenance, but need *powered* maintenance.

I have a problem here - I often dither about whether something is truly needed or not. But it is worth making these distinctions to have less to do. I’m trying to reduce our possessions by ¼ over the next year, and I’m finding it an interesting exercise.

8. Hire people rather than buy stuff. If you can, hire help rather than buying a tool. The money for local help goes into the local economy. Or barter for labor you can’t or won’t do yourself. Whenever possible, give your resources to someone local, or someone who needs it. So if you need more time to get work or family things done, perhaps you could hire help with the chores, or a mother’s helper to play with the kids, or trade labor with a neighbor - you do her most hated job and she’ll do yours. Only buy a device or tool if you really need it.

The corollary of this is that most neighborhoods do not need one of everything. You may need a washing machine, and so may your neighbor, but you might not need two between you. Try sharing whenever possible. It took us a while after we moved here to get into the sharing mode with neighbors - sharing is scary, because it involves asking people for things, and trusting them to say “no” or “yes” and building relationships. Now we barter or share quite a few things (at times we’ve had a shared car with our neighbors, among other things), and we try always to offer more than we take. It is worth the risk, but it does take time and practice and a kind of courage, I think.

9. Keep records! Keep lots of records. Organize. You save time by tracking what you use and what you need, by noting the best way to do things (if you are the forgetful type like me). By sorting and organizing and writing down what is stored where. It always seems like keeping notes adds in time, but the time spent *not* trying to figure something out for the 7th time is well worth it.

One trick that works well for me is to have multiple calendars. I buy them cheap at our dollar store, or after we’re a few days into the new year. We have one for religious events and family stuff (birthdays, etc…), another is for the garden - what to start, what to harvest, what the temperature was, the first time we saw a blackbird, how many eggs we got. Another calender is for every little daily event - playdates, when the compost guy is coming, travels, etc.. the usual stuff. Then there are the lists in my notebooks - lists of books to find cheaply, things we need to look for at grocery stores, things to do, articles to write, how much of each food we’ve got in storage - I save a considerable bit of time and money by knowing what I have and what I need.

Related to this, find ways to store and sort so that you don’t have to waste time hunting for things. Figure out a system and make yourself stick to it. I’m not always good about this, but when it works, it is glorious. Think about the last time you needed to do a project and couldn’t find the right tool or materials. You know you just had it…make sure you know where things are, so you don’t waste time and energy.

10. Have a place for everything. Try and mostly put things in their places. One of our biggest problems in keeping clean is the stuff that doesn’t really live anywhere. Mail we might want to look at eventually. The books that don’t really fit on the shelves. The clothes that don’t fit in the drawer, or on our bodies anymore. Instant mess. The more you can either get rid of things or make an appropriate place, the easier this all is. Make workspace for yourself, if you need it - accepting the realities of your life (ie, “I’m never going to dump all the junk mail, I like looking in the catalogs too much.” And make a space for the catalogs). If you are going to be canning, for example, make room for it if possible, and plan that room into at least the times when you are canning - ie, take the microwave down off the counter, or whatever. Have a place to put the mending, the knitting needles, a chair to sew in, a useful and comfortable space to do necessary mobile (ie, can be done in more than one place) chores.

11. Look at your schedule for time and space that might go unused (although remember, down time is good too) . Try new stuff and see if you can multi-task. For example, I learned to knit and breastfeed, to type and breastfeed, etc… out of sheer desperation to get things done. Otherwise, I never got to knit or write. I find that I can get a surprising amount of cleaning done if I set a timer for 15 minutes and say, “ok, I’m going to do what I can in the next 15 minutes”. Knowing the time is short increases my efficiency. Remember, nothing has to be all or nothing. Can’t hang all your laundry? Hang as much as you can, and the next dryer load will be that much shorter and use that much less energy. Don’t have time to mend all your own clothes? Do as many as you can while sitting in your carpool or waiting for the bus.  Most of us have a few 10 minute increments now and then we could spend doing some simple chore.

12. Strive for peace.  Conflict takes time and energy - whether conflicts of resources or personal conflicts.  If you and a partner or a child are having the same battles over chores and duties over and over again, make finding a way to keep the peace a priority.   Maybe it doesn’t matter what their room looks like, or maybe they can diaper the baby their way after all. Or maybe you can make a deal - you’ll do X their way if they’ll do Y yours.  But whenever possible, prioritize making peace at home.

Make at least some space that is peaceful to you - that isn’t always buzzing with media noise, where you can be quiet and read a story or fold laundry and think about things, or meditate, or pray.  If you can’t keep your life perfectly together, try keeping one small spot together enough to retreat there.

Emphasize the skills that make good and peaceful community as well - adding more water to the soup so that you can seat your neighbors to at dinnner, making room for friends who need  a place to stay, making sure there are blankets enough to keep everyone warm, making a place to get together to talk about conflicts.

13. When in doubt, drink beer ;-) . Permaculture works from the principle that theoretically, yields are unlimited - you can optimize so much you get more out of a system than you ever put into it. That violates the laws of physics, of course, but it is fun to try. Beer works kind of like magic - you ferment it, people get to drink the beer ,and the grain is nearly as good for animal feed (and more digestible) as it was nutritionally before. So drink locally made, sustainable beer before doing household chores, and you’ll find them much easier to bear.

As you strive to get more out of it than you put into it, strive also to relax and enjoy yourself. Really, no one is going to remember whether the tile was grouted and the towels were clean when bad times come. But they will remember whether there was food, basic hygeine, a place to sleep, hospitality, good things to drink, and peace in the home. These are things worth having, and worth making time for. The rest is gravy.

8 Responses to “The Permaculture of Domesticity Part II: Practice”

  1. Susan says:

    Absolutely. This is exactly the way I’ve been thinking in recent years. It works. I do believe esp. in hiring help to do jobs I can’t do for exactly the same reasons and I LIKE paying local people. I disagree with you on keeping records. Can’t be bothered. I do the accounting in my head based on toting up how much time or effort a change frees up or how much worry it removes. If I’m more efficient and less worried it’s a winner. I also disagree with you on drinking beer (I don’t like the taste of alcohol) but I guess maybe that’s more rhetorical. Still love your column even if I hardly ever comment.

  2. NM says:

    I like it. Although I have to refrain from drinking before doing chores, or I get too sleepy to do them.
    We have a french press, which we use about a dozen times a day, since DH loves his coffee, and we grind the beans in a hand grinder. Takes something like 20 seconds, though I’ve never actually timed it. When my father visits and I offer coffee, he eagerly accepts, until he realizes I’m going to grind the beans By Hand, and then protests it’s too much trouble. What trouble? I keep asking. The electric grinder still requires me to stand there pressing the button in, it takes at least the same amount of time, and produces an inferior grind, according to DH, who is quite particular about his coffee. The hand grinding takes no effort, and if anything, is actually easier on my wrists. It’s also just one of those tiny rituals of daily life that we just enjoy.
    But it’s not electric … People are weird. I also lost the argument about whether it would be better for him to buy a #$%# $4,000 generator, or a hand pump for his well. He was quite annoyed with me for not admiring his brilliance in planning to get a generator.
    When I was a teen-ager longing for adventure and Great Things, and fretting about the unspeakable dullness of having to stay home and wash the dishes, one of my aunts told me that if I couldn’t learn to enjoy being at home washing the dishes, I was never going to enjoy anything. It’s arguable technically, ;P but on the principle of the thing, she was right, and I’ve been admiring her wisdom for years, as I stand in my kitchen peacefully washing my dishes.

  3. Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife says:

    My family has work weekends too! That’s even what we call them. Same premise as yours. But ours included poker in the evenings, as well as gin & tonics. The only downer is that it’s mostly limited to my parents’ generation. I participate in them, but that generation has made it clear that my generation is on our own. They already have too many dates per year when they have to travel for work weekends. So far, it’s been hard rallying my cousins to get our own work weekends going. They’re all in early parenthood mode, and so, rather preoccupied. I give it a few years…

  4. janine says:

    I also hire local help. She is a friend who can use the cash, and we laugh and talk as we work. She likes to pick up and organize so I have had to adjust to that “specialized” talent, but on the whole it has been a positive experience.

    As to drinking beer before attempting unpleasant tasks, I would probably never get to the task at all, and I don’t care much for beer - local or not!

    On another topic, better organization of our household is a must. A local charity notifies us a couple of weeks in advance of each month’s pick up dates, and my goal is to get at least two boxes a month ready for them.

    If we aim to live lightly and frugally on the earth, good organization (including knowing where the bug spray and suntan lotion migrated) is a skill whose mastery should at least be attempted!

  5. Lisa says:

    I love your blog, Sharon, and I love the idea of permaculture of domesticity. Over the years I have done a lot of the things you suggest, including lowering my standards (only iron things that NEED ironing…), finding joy in the chores I really hate (admiring my dust free surfaces for at least a day…), finding a proper place for things (quite obsessive about cupboards and drawers actually although open areas get a bit disorganised at times), decluttering the things we don’e actually need or love (still working on this one ;-) ). Other areas I’m trying - keeping records, roping in help, making a quiet space for myself etc but it’s not easy when I work full time out of the home and DH is handy and skilled everywhere except inside the home!

    Never mind, life is a constant (and mostly enjoyable) struggle and if I were perfect I’d have no challenges to keep me going and growing!

  6. kathy says:

    LOVE!!!! this post. I am going to print it out and hang it on the refrigerator. I have a notion that we should revive the old adult learning program that used to exist at our high school. They taught things like tax prep and small engine repair, cake decorating and wine making for a tiny fee. I would love to see a domestic arts program that was less Martha Stewart and more ummm… Sharon Astyk.

  7. gaiasdaughter says:

    I love it, especially the ideas for making chores fun — reminds me of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books from my childhood.

    One question though — I’m not a beer drinker. Is wine okay??

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