The Efficiency Expert
Am I the only one who puts away the perishables first, after a trip to the grocery store? Get the ice cream and frozen peas in the freezer, put the milk and yogurt in the fridge. Veggies in the crisper, cold cuts in the deli drawer. Stack two egg cartons. Find a spot for the hummus, two kinds of salsa (medium and fire-roasted), the yogurt drinks that A.J. requested, and the pre-roasted chicken I feel guilty for buying because I’m perfectly capable of roasting my own chicken but dang it’s so easy and it’s right there so I bought it and that’s what we’re having for dinner tonight because I’m too tapped out to cook after a trip to the store and everything else I had to do today. Y’know?
I can’t be the only one who leaves the nonperishables in the bags because something else comes up before I can get them put away. Like the other day I got home from the store with about ten minutes before I had to turn around and get E. to her martial arts class. So I toss the milk, yogurt, and veggies in the fridge and bring the meat to our chest freezer in the basement. I have to go back up to get another armful of stuff for the freezer, but while I’m down here, I notice that the wash I put in the machine before I left is done so I toss that stuff in the drier. I go back upstairs and grab another armload of stuff for the freezer, plus the oversized ten-pack of paper towel rolls. I pinch a corner of the plastic wrap between forefinger and thumb and hustle down the steps partly because my ten minutes is almost up but mostly because I want to get all the way down before I lose my grip.
E. has loaded her martial arts gear bag into the car and off we go. It’s a fifteen-minute drive and a one-hour class, so it’s an hour and a half later when I get home and we’re all hungry. Once we’re fed and the dishes washed, it’s early evening by the time I finally get around to putting the rest of the groceries away. I lug a bag into the pantry and there, underneath two bags of tortilla chips and a box of toaster pastries, I find a half pound of low-sodium turkey (sliced thin), a pint of half-and-half, and a lone cup of Chobani strawberry. If my life were a cartoon, this would be the panel where my head is replaced by a giant mushroom cloud.
Why? Why, grocery store baggers, why, do you put refrigerated items in with things that will stay fresh until my kids graduate from college?
After I eighty-six the turkey and put the half-and-half in the fridge—doesn’t “half-and-half” mean half cream, half preservatives?—I stare at the cup of yogurt, debating whether to keep or toss. It’s yogurt. That’s basically milk gone bad, right? It’s probably fine. But what if it isn’t? Maybe it’s fine now, but if it hangs around—even in the fridge—it will go bad later. I buy these for my daughter and if she gets sick I’ll feel terrible. The back-and-forth in my head is making me dizzy.
I have this habit of figuring out the shortest route to getting a task done, and doing it the same way every time. It’s a habit of thinking that permeates everything I do, even the smallest things. Like the way I step from the counter to the freezer, one foot crossing behind the other, then step wide and bend over to pull the freezer drawer open and withdraw the bag of frozen blueberries for a smoothie. That little grapevine move saves me a half a shuffle step, and I started doing it without any conscious thought. It just happened naturally because I’ve stepped from counter to freezer and back about a million times. Give or take.
Or like when I’m tidying up, I pick up the things that go together: first, stray dishes to take back to the kitchen, second, collect any bits of trash, then gather the abandoned hoodies and socks to go to the hamper. We’re all creatures of habit, and having established routines helps us save time and energy. It only makes sense to combine a trip down the basement stairs carrying an armload for the freezer with a trip to bring laundry up the stairs.
But there is an element of laziness in my so-called efficiency. I would rather bring too many bags in at once from the car than make extra trips, and I’ve been known to stand still with dishes in one hand and an overdue library book in the other, trying to decide which to put down first. Is it faster to travel to the sink to put the dishes down first, or put the book in my bag hanging by the door? It should be noted that these destinations are about ten steps from one another.
I know I’m not the only one with this habit of efficiency/laziness. Jerry Seinfeld talks about it with Aziz Ansari on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Ansari mentions the laziness that led him to a career in stand-up (he couldn’t be bothered to get a day job), and asks Seinfeld if he felt the same way. “This morning, I’m thinking, ‘Well, I have the underwear, maybe I should bring the t-shirt with me to the shoes.’ Which will save me a trip back to the drawer to get the t-shirt. I’ll think about that,” Seinfeld says. “‘Am I gonna wear a sweater? If I am, I better get it now. Otherwise you gotta walk back here. It’s four steps.’”
Me and Jerry are all about saving the steps.
It’s not strictly about making the best use of my time. There is a certain pleasing quality to doing things efficiently. I like to make tasks line up neatly, nesting one after another as if made to fit together like Matryoshka dolls. It’s the key in the lock, the piece that completes the jigsaw, the caboose in a train of linked tasks that travel to a satisfying conclusion: After supper, the leftovers go in the fridge, dishes are cleared to the sink, the dishwasher is loaded, the counter is wiped, and all is complete.
So why hasn’t this pleasing efficiency lead to greater productivity and life satisfaction?
It’s evening and the groceries are put away except this sad little cup of yogurt I can’t bring myself to discard or put in the fridge, and here I am, performing the end-of-day chore of folding laundry. I fold and stack into piles—jeans here, towels there, blouses draped over the chair back waiting for hangers. I’m mulling over the day, mentally checking boxes of tasks accomplished, moving uncompleted tasks forward in my mind to tomorrow’s to-do list, asking myself why I didn’t get more done, all the while perseverating about how nonsensical I think it is to bury cold items underneath foods that need no such special care. Of course it’s my fault for not checking the bag more carefully. But still, I want what I want, which is for like to be with like, for the groceries to be packed with a sense of congruence that recognizes a box of toaster tarts is not the same kind of thing as sliced turkey, just as jeans and towels don’t go in the same stack of laundry.
Isn’t that enough? To take pleasure in small tasks done well, and accept that any given day contains more to-do’s than can be done in a single day? Maybe that’s what we all want. To know that it’s enough, that we ourselves, are enough.
I gather up the kitchen towels and stow them in their drawer. The yogurt is still on the counter. It’s just a yogurt. I pitch it in the trash.