What Ben Franklin (and Mark Twain) Taught me About Productivity

I have to go to the dump. It’s my Ben Franklin.” This was my response to the Starbucks clerk’s polite “So what are you up to today?” (I know, I should just say “nothing much,” but the clerk at the drive thru is one of my five weekly social interactions in COVID times.) Needless to say, she was a bit confused. The pandemic has really eroded my conversation skills.

What is a “Ben Franklin,” you ask? Well, the short answer is that it’s my family’s shorthand for something we don’t want to do. The long answer, however, which is what blogs are for, is that it’s sort of a creed we’ve taken up. A way of life. My mom always told me Ben Franklin said that you should to do one thing you don’t want to do every day. Trusting, as all Americans do, the word of that wacky inventor, I took the maxim to heart. Just one thing, each day. Simple, but kind of revolutionary (pun 1000% intended). Call the doctor. Figure out that insurance question. Go to the dump.

This guy got stuff done. But, you know, so did my guy Twain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD-US-expired.

But here’s the kicker: Ben Franklin never said this, Mark Twain did. I know, I know, plot twist. We still call our one thing a day a “Ben Franklin,” mainly because a “Mark Twain” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But regardless of who said it, the advice still works.

Ben Franklin actually is a bit of a productivity guru in his own right–people still write about and use his block scheduling and 13 virtues. But while he’s got a lot to say on how to be productive, he doesn’t have much to say about how to motivate yourself to be productive. (This is as good as it gets: “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” Cool, Ben, will do.)

Mark Twain said, “Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.” I love this, mainly because it explains how to actually build good habits. Just one thing. We can all wrap our heads around just one thing. It’s like a 10-minute exercise video–even if it’s been a day, I’ve always got 10 minutes.

This guyyyyy. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD-US.

When I started college, I was very shy and had trouble speaking up in class. I went to a university where it was kind of a prerequisite to speak up in class and was even part of our grade, so this quickly became a problem. I went to one of my professors and told him I was worried about my participation grade going down because I didn’t feel comfortable giving my two cents. “I listen,” I said, “but it’s just hard to get involved in the conversation.” And he gave me Mark Twain’s advice: “Just say one thing per class. Write it down if you have to. Don’t worry about whether it’s clever or good or right. Just say one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” That’s how I know this advice works. I said one thing during each class period, and slowly, I became more comfortable with speaking up in class. And it was pretty painless. If I wasn’t feeling like speaking up, I could just say one thing, and if I wanted to, I could say more.

Now there are a lot of people who have said something similar. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Eleanor Roosevelt said “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” And that is also good advice that I’ve taken to heart. But I still go back to Twain, because it’s about building a habit and handling the everyday kind of tough stuff. It’s not necessarily about fear, it’s more about making steady progress and getting the things you’ve been putting off done. I’m not really afraid of changing my car’s oil, I just don’t want to do it. But if I make it a point to do one thing each day, the oil will get changed. And it will be pretty painless, because I just have to do the one thing.

So whether you call it a “Ben Franklin” or a “Mark Twain” or just “my one thing,” give this a shot. Start today, or tomorrow. Just pick the thing that’s been bugging you to get done and just do the one thing. And then you’re all done!

Good luck, and thanks for reading!

Decluttering in the Time of COVID

I read somewhere last summer that Goodwill was having trouble dealing with the volume of donations brought on by lockdown. Apparently, people got stuck in their houses, realized those houses were waaay too crowded to be stuck in, and decided to use their newfound free time to box it up and throw it in the garage until it was safe to donate. But recently, I heard that in some places Goodwill now doesn’t have enough donations! They’re actually losing money, and not because people aren’t shopping there because of COVID-related fear — go figure. (Goodwill has actually done a lot of good during the pandemic and most have safety protocols to keep customers and employees safe.)

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

What I really find strange about all of this is that it was actually the other way around for me. Lockdown and all the fear and uncertainty surrounding it set me back in more ways than one. In 2019, I was merrily KonMari-ing and Swedish death cleaning my way to peace and happiness. In 2020, I was stress-hoarding butter (yeah, I can make it through life rationing toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but I NEED EXTRA BUTTER) and keeping old yogurt tubs by the truckload.

Last summer, I wasn’t ready to give anything up that I “might need later.” I bought extra food when I went to the store in case they ran out of something (I had one packet of yeast left when everyone decided to take up stress baking) and so I’d have to go out less. I thought twice about getting rid of old clothes because 1) I live in Zoom purgatory now so why bother and 2) shopping for clothes in person kind of stresses me out now. Living in a pandemic upended all the things I used to tell myself while decluttering: “You can always buy it again if you end up needing it.” “There will always be enough.” “If you get rid of these clothes that no longer spark joy, you can enjoy shopping for some that do!” Instead I thought, especially when shopping for food: “What if they run out and I really need it?” “What if the factory shuts down because of an outbreak?” “What if I lose my job and can’t afford to buy more?”

I bought so much bottled water during the first lockdown. A somewhat panicked decision, in hindsight. Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Obviously, this wasn’t the healthiest thought cycle. Like most people, the last year has been pretty fear-driven for me. Fear of the unknown, it turns out, is kryptonite for people like me who coaxed themselves towards minimalism. But here’s the thing: it turns out, that wasn’t really a sustainable way of decluttering anyway. All the ways I told myself it was ok to get rid of something relied on me being able to get a new one or buy more stuff. Of course a pandemic that disrupted the supply chain and upended the economy would make me think twice about only buying the groceries I needed for the week!

This is an ongoing process for me, and I’ve been turning over this realization in my mind, trying to figure out what it means for me. I like my life with less clutter in it, but I also don’t want to force myself to let go when I still am dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety. My lizard brain is starting to chill out, and I’m starting to be able recognize items I no longer use or need again and be okay with letting them go, but I still worry about the what-ifs. It’s an uncertain time, and it probably will be for awhile. I do know I want to find a more sustainable way of letting go, in all senses of the word. I want to get rid of what I no longer need, but I want to make sure it’s recycled, if possible. I want to buy new if I need to, but not just to get a serotonin boost from “treating myself.” Mostly, I just want to find some peace of mind — go figure.

Thanks for reading!

My Favorite Kitchen Unitasker (For the Person Who Hates Them)

Thanks to years of watching Alton Brown, I have a pretty healthy dislike of unitaskers. I don’t like clutter, and I tend to just MacGyver anything I don’t already have on hand.

via Giphy

But obviously there’s a “but” here. One unitasker I bought and have kept, used regularly, and loved for over 5 years: my hamburger press.

via Amazon

This is my particular model, courtesy of Amazon. Granted, it’s pretty cheap and doesn’t take up a ton of room, but for those who are wondering why anyone would need a gadget like this (kitchen minimalists, you know who you are), I’m just saying that this is worth it. I have had some truly microscopic kitchens, but I’ve kept this little press through them all.

Did I buy the press because I love burgers or do I love burgers because I bought the press? / via Giphy

Weirdly, though it’s clearly a meat-oriented tool, it’s actually super useful for vegetarians and vegans. If you want to try making your own veggie burger mix, this tool goes a long way in helping you achieve a more consistent, easier-to-handle patty. Same goes for the meat-eaters; patties are easier to handle and cook, and you can make stuffed burgers (again, you might wonder why you would need this, but stuff a burger with blue cheese and get back to me).

Long story short, despite this thing saying it’s 3-in-1 like it does sooooo much more than make patties, that’s all it does. You put the meat in and use the handled top to press down. It’s really not rocket science. But I will say most people who see I have one say, “huh, that’s cool” and have ultimately splurged the $10 on one of their own.

So that’s it. That’s the post (forgive me, I got my vaccine yesterday and I am dragging). This thing is cool, and I’m just saying it’s worth having. Even if you don’t eat burgers all that often, you’ll find you’re more likely to make them (or any puck-shaped foods).

Also, if you’re going all out on burgers, I highly recommend the Bob’s Burgers cookbook (you can buy a copy here). It may seem like overkill, but we’ve made a fair few of the recipes and it’s actually a really solid cookbook.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

my Spring Cleaning Superstar? Dish Soap.

I really like spring cleaning. I like the detail of it, the feeling of accomplishment after really cleaning a room top to bottom, and it always feels like I’m getting to know my house a bit better—like learning something brand new about an old friend. I feel more connected to my home when I learn how a lighting fixture is put together or how a cabinet shelf can be moved because I had to take something apart to clean it. Deep cleaning is also kind of like therapy: you can focus on something you can control and accomplish, and it’s a really good feeling to lose yourself—even for an hour or two—in cleaning your space, preparing for the new season, and blasting pop punk jamz (though if you really want deep cleaning to be like therapy you can do what I did cleaning out my last apartment and marathon Brené Brown audiobooks—you will be sooo mentally healthy).

My vibe after a weekend of deep cleaning my kitchen cabinets.

My overly philosophical approach to washing window screens and cleaning under your couch aside, spring cleaning can also lead to cleaning product overload. You either end up buying a bunch of new products you don’t need in an effort to boost motivation, or you end up carting around like 10 different bottles of all-purpose cleaner, wood cleaner, glass cleaner, etc. So when I’m spring cleaning, I bring an old friend into rotation that I know will cover most of my work and is also already in my house: dish soap. Dish soap is to me what Windex is to the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. There’s literally nothing it can’t fix. NOTHING.

Now, fair disclaimer: if you are concerned about a surface or fabric, test an inconspicuous area first. But also, like, use common sense and don’t try to clean an antique oil painting and wonder why it got destroyed. That said, here are things I have cleaned with a bit of dish soap, warm water, and a rag/toothbrush/scrub brush: my stovetop, my microwave/hood, my window tracks and sills, my baseboards, my ceiling fans, the tops of my kitchen cabinets, cabinet fronts, my heater grates, a grease spot on the ceiling above my stove I didn’t notice until I collapsed on the floor in despair after a failed batch of cookies, my front door kickplate, my refrigerator (inside and outside), my bathroom counters, every thrifted piece of furniture I’ve ever bought, and most of my appliances (unplugged, of course).

Anywhere there is oil, dirt, or unidentified gunk, dish soap is a good catch-all. It’s fairly gentle, extremely cheap, and you don’t have to bother with specialty cleansers taking up space. When you’re deep cleaning, adaptability is key because you don’t want to have to keep finding different bottles of cleaner or worry about mixing products. Dish soap is also usually much more effective than a standard all-purpose cleaner (even my ride-or-die Simple Green).

It’s not a super complicated thing to use: you can either use a drop or two directly on a wet rag or a brush, or you can mix a tablespoon or so into a bucket of warm water. Either way, once you’ve given whatever you’re cleaning a good once-over with the suds, use a clean rag (wet or dry) to remove the excess soap. I usually finish off with a dry towel, and voila! Clean, easy, unfussy.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

This is definitely not a revolutionary tip. Yes, soap makes things clean. This is more a reminder that sometimes the simplest way is the best way. There’s no illegal diet pill way around deep cleaning. There are a few products that let you simply apply and rinse off, but the truth is we all will have to clean our house at some point, and we’ll have to use some elbow grease. Using dish soap doesn’t mean not scrubbing or magic results, but I’ve found it to be more of a reliable standby. So as you get stuck into spring cleaning (or any kind of deep cleaning), just keep it simple and enjoy the aforementioned jamz.

What’s your ride or die cleaning product? Do you have a few standbys or do you like to switch it up?

Thanks for reading!

If It Fits in the Dishwasher, It Goes in the Dishwasher

Awhile ago, I read an article on The Kitchn about how Ina Garten puts everything in the dishwasher. Knives, wooden utensils, pots and pans—it’s all fair game. It was meant to be a casual, lighthearted cleaning tip, but like the lazy cleaning-obsessed nut I am, I went wide with it. If Ina does it, then why can’t I?

Ina gets it (p.s. she also has a husband named Jeffrey and so obviously I could be friends with her.

For a long time, I’ve slowly run out of wooden utensils as they await handwashing and avoided using the ice cream scoop because it too must be handwashed. Like the moment I started washing clothes that said “Dry Clean Only,” I decided to go for it, and damn the consequences! (I know I’m too invested in this, but I honestly just don’t have a lot going on in my life right now.) So I followed Ina’s word and started putting everything but cast iron (I mean, I’m not a monster) in the dishwasher. If it was in my kitchen, fit in the dishwasher, and did not have a plug, it went in. I was freeeeeee!

BUT THEN. Then I decided to start spring cleaning yesterday, and I thought again about how Ina said everything could go in the dishwasher. And then I washed my trash can lids (the buckets wouldn’t fit), my stove knobs, my dish rack, my silverware containers (I keep mine in cups on my counter), my toothbrush holder, my fan filter, and SO MUCH MORE! Basically, if it’s made of plastic, metal, or glass, it’s fair game.

All this said, I will say there is a reason all my stuff isn’t melted, discolored, or warped. So, here are some suggestions if you too want to stop scrubbing and start pressing buttons:

This is my dream…
  • Do NOT use anything resembling the “Heated Dry” feature. Heated Dry is actually pretty bad for your dishwasher and most dishes. I keep it off all the time, but if you use it for dishes, you should turn it off if you’re putting other stuff in, especially plastic on the bottom rack.
  • Make sure the fins can spin. A lot of dishwashers have little rotating fins above each rack. Always make sure these can move freely, especially if you’re putting tall lids or other odd items.
  • Use your dishwasher like a washing machine. Putting delicate items in the dishwasher? Adjust the settings to run cooler for less time. Washing gross stuff? Don’t put it in with dishes you’re going to eat off of. Just like you don’t put your cleaning rags in with your fancy going-out shirt on extra hot, think about what you’re putting in the dishwasher and where it came from in your house.
  • Think about detergent. Speaking of washing machines, many of you probably have a detergent for more delicate items (if you don’t, consider it—it’s great!). Do the same for your dishwasher! I usually use Cascade pods for a regular load of dishes, but if I’m putting a bunch of delicate stuff in that might get discolored, like metal that might react with a citrus-based soap or something painted, I use a mild soap like Seventh Generation in a bottle so I can control how much goes in (just a bit!) and keep it as gentle as possible.

These rules may seem like a bit of a hassle, but remember that once you load the machine and press the button, you get to walk away! It’s really satisfying, and every little bit helps. Even if it only saves five minutes, that’s five minutes, and when I have zero energy, sticking something in the dishwasher is a much more attainable goal.

Thanks for reading!

PSA: You Don’t Have to get anything done today

This post might be more for me than anyone else, but maybe someone out there is feeling the same way I am today. I feel burnt out, lazy, calm, happy, panicked, and anxious. My brain is this girl:

Because my brain is full of feelings, I decided not too worry about getting anything other than the basics done today. Food can happen, necessary spot cleaning can happen, but otherwise, I gave myself the day off.

I had grand plans this weekend, especially today: I was going to clean the tops of my kitchen cabinets and put wax paper down (a tip I saw on the Kitchn like 4 years ago and have yet to try), clean my balcony, get all my weekend chores finished, cook a couple of meals for the week, and repot a bunch of plants. As of this evening, I have started dinner and cleaned up the kitchen a bit. That’s it, that was the day.

My lack of energy and enthusiasm can be pretty comfortably blamed on Daylight Saving Time, but I think there’s something deeper at play here. I have a tendency to give myself a lot of “shoulds” and “have tos.” “I should get started on spring cleaning.” “I have to get started on work, I’m way behind.” “I should finish what I started.” I get in a cycle. I even start telling myself “I should take a break … so I can get more work done!” But today, I thought about why I “have to” do anything today. And after I listened to my head for a bit, I thought two things: first, good lord, I must be an exhausting person to be around, and second, I deserve a day off from “should” and “have to.”

It’s true that I’ll probably have more energy for the week after I gave myself a break today, but that’s not necessarily why I did it. I just really needed it, I was in a position where I could take it, and so instead of cleaning the tops of my cabinets today (I WILL clean them eventually), I sat on my couch, rewatched some episodes of AP Bio, worked on my cross stitch project, and just relaxed a bit.

Like I said, this post is probably more me justifying myself to myself than anything else, and taking a break isn’t anything revolutionary, but hey, if you need a break, take a break. We’ve been in a pandemic for a long time, it’s been really stressful, and you’re allowed to have feelings about it and anything else that’s making your life tough today. So if you need to today or any other day this week, take a day, take an hour, take 5 minutes if that’s what you need. You deserve it, and if it helps, you have my permission (I ask my therapist to give me permission to take a break or feel angry all the time, and it weirdly helps?).

Have a good week!

How I use Google Tasks to keep my house habitable

I will preface this post by telling you that, honestly, I am not the most organized person I know. If you’re looking for a binder print-out or a bullet journal concept, this is not that post. I envy those people, but I know myself well enough to know that mine will always be a slightly dirty floor, a too-full trash, a cluttered entryway. I know it, my husband knows it, even my five-year-old nephew knows it (to quote him: “Auntie Heli’s house is so messy!” Nothing like a child razzing you to have you shame-cleaning your house at 10 PM on a Monday). This is for the folks who are having trouble keeping up. I see you, friend!

At least he looks happy…

That said, just because I’m not the most organized/clean person in the world does not give me an excuse to Pigpen out.

You have to be a person, and that means that daily/weekly/monthly, you have stuff that simply needs to be done, and regularly. If you only do these when you’ve reached the “Auntie Heli’s house is so messy!” point, you are setting yourself up for so much more work than you need to (and again, late night shame-cleaning). 

So I propose an alternative: use a tasks app. The key here is not just making a to-do list, but scheduling recurring tasks. Here’s what to do: 

  • My phone screen yesterday (it’s time to spruce my background up for spring!)
    Start slow. Choose one or two tasks you know you need to do each week (or day or month). Maybe clean all your sinks on Saturday, or vacuum your bedroom on Tuesday. Don’t worry about making a list of everything that you want to get done each week or each day, just start with a couple and get used to doing them week-in, week-out. 
  • Keep it manageable. Limit yourself to tasks/chores that can be done within 30 minutes or so. Don’t get ambitious and just put “clean the house” on your list each Saturday. I doubt you’ll be able to get everything done, and if you do, knock it off because you’re making the rest of us look bad. 
  • Schedule the tasks on your task app. If you don’t have one, get one. Make sure it can schedule recurring tasks and remind you to do them. I use Google Tasks, but you could also use Microsoft To Do or Remember the Milk
  • Space it out. This is why you keep it to 30 minutes! If you remind yourself to clean out your fridge each Wednesday and that’s all you have to do, you might actually do it! Then on Saturday, you’ll only have a few things to worry about instead of the whole house. 

Why I have a hamper in my kitchen

Also hello and welcome to my blog.

Though this is my first blog post, I decided that rather than a more straightforward post introducing myself (hi, I’m Heloise and my blog is called Happy Heloise) and telling you what I want to blog about (cleaning, cooking, and organizing as easily and painlessly as possible), I’d just jump right in and get started. Essentially, I’ve decided to run my blog the same way I go through Target: spending 45 minutes in the organizing section “assessing” the storage bin selection and butting into people’s conversations to tell them why they absolutely should buy a Squatty Potty.

My mother has always been outspoken about having our washer and dryer in the kitchen, citing practicality and the fact that “it’s the European way” (normal reason to do anything). We always had a basket on top of the washer for “house laundry,” and I never really thought much about it. Then I moved out, lived in several apartments, and for some reason, never adopted a similar practice. Each night, I walked my dish towels into my bedroom or bathroom LIKE AN ANIMAL. But for some reason, at the ripe age of 31, something clicked and I realized that kitchens make laundry, so there should be a kitchen hamper! I brazenly stole one of my mom’s extra baskets, bought some over-the-door hooks on Amazon, and now, I have a kitchen hamper. And folks, there’s a reason I’m starting my blog off writing about a basket on a hook on a cabinet: it is a game-changer.

The tiny basket from Ikea that changed it all…

Gone are the days of moldy dish towels in with my fancy lady silk top! More importantly, I no longer have to walk 25 feet to throw something in a basket and I’ve never been happier. But before you run out and plonk a basket in your kitchen because some random lady on the internet said so, here’s some friendly advice:

  • Use something easy to clean that can be either thrown in the washing machine or washed in hot water. You will thank me when you get behind on laundry and the damp cloths get straight gross.
  • Avoid a container that will sit on the floor. As a rule, kitchens shouldn’t have a ton of stuff lying around on the floor. Dirt gets under it and you have to move too much to clean the floor often.
  • Opt for something with a rim and holes. I strongly recommend you embrace kitchen laundry being visible and don’t try to hide it under a lid or behind a sign that says “bless this mess.” Dish towels and other cleaning rags get damp, sometimes plain wet. You want air to be able to get in there so you don’t have a mold farm on your hands! Also, if there’s a rim, you can get dirty towels out of the way by putting them on the rim to dry.
A close-up of my revolutionary
hook-basket system

So, that’s it. I know some people may have read this and thought, “Duh lady this is common practice.” But if I didn’t find a ton of entries on Pinterest and there are people out there living without kitchen hampers, don’t you want them to know? If you do have a kitchen hamper, what type of container do you use? What do you think about a washer and dryer in the kitchen?

You can find the Ikea Variera I use here (technically it’s a trash can, but it works!), and you can find the hooks I use here.

Thanks for reading!