What game-changing business book are you reading? Put it down and head to the kitchen. Grab a sponge and rub it across a plate. Watch the clean spot grow. Now congratulate yourself: You are learning fundamental business lessons from washing dishes.
When washing dishes, you may be the kind of person who rushes through the chore between dinner and TV, or who lets your mind travel space and time while scrubbing plates clean. Dishwashing is considered a form of unskilled labor, one likely not often mentioned in the upper echelons of business, save perhaps to recount the origin story of rags-to-riches billionaires: “She used to make minimum wage, can you believe that?”
But those who know how to wash dishes are on the inside of a secret that successful companies apply: Simple tasks can be the best teachers. Master the basics, and larger pursuits become easier.
Business lessons learned from washing dishes
Here are five fundamental business lessons taught by the mindful act of washing dishes.
1. Develop a single-minded focus.
Single-minded. Adjective. To have a singular aim. The opposite of indecisiveness and distraction.
Like me, your mind may wander when you splash the soap around. During this quiet time, our thoughts may see a chance to run wild. But let your mind wander and your attention to detail lapse, and you’ll end up with crusty pasta at the bottoms of your bowls.
In business, we may get the same sloppy results when our focus is scattered. We offer 32 flavors of jam just to find our customers only wanted three. A company whose strategy calls for low-cost, handmade, luxury goods with extra-mile customer service does none of those well. When I founded an online men’s store, we tried to master a half-dozen social media channels, but none of our 10 followers talked back. Then we redirected our focus to Instagram and gained 10,000 followers in six months.
Online mattress retailer Casper’s approach to their product turned the industry on its head. Their singular focus? Offer only one high-quality product (they now offer seven different mattresses) that they stand behind with a 100-night guarantee. Rather than dilute their energy into six “pretty good” mattresses, they perfected one that Time named a best invention of 2015.
2. Do not let the work pile up.
I had three roommates in college. One never did his dishes because he knew the rest of us would rather wash them than nag him. Eventually we went on strike, curious to see his next move. After a week, he got the message, but by then the plates were growing mold and his chore was nauseating.
Sometimes I let work pile up, too, neglecting bookkeeping in favor of sexier work like marketing. The lesson I learned from once being six months behind in my accounting? If you can’t show hard numbers for last year’s revenue, good luck getting a bank to increase your line of credit.
Jake Zahradnik, co-founder of high-end bicycle brand FABIKE, follows a simple rule to combat work pile-up: “I schedule a few hours of ‘clean-up’ once a week to tackle boring admin stuff like getting Dropbox up to date and organizing orders. If I don’t stay on top of it, it can get overwhelming.”
3. Put only what you can handle on your plate.
In high school I had a friend who washed dishes in a restaurant known for impossible portion sizes. Mostly full meals would return to the “dish pit,” and wading through that half-eaten food was his daily battle. By overloading the plates, the restaurant was burdening its staff and wasting resources.
In our business culture, overloading our own plates is seen as a badge of honor. But while building a business does require massive amounts of time and effort, research shows that productivity and well-being may increase when we reduce the hours we work, while overworking may harm our health. Also, employees who take breaks may see a boost in their performance.
In the early 2010s, Volkswagen, BMW and Puma placed restrictions on after-hours emails, and in 2017, a French law gave employees the right to disconnect after-hours. Why? Because a 24/7 work culture leaves no time to rejuvenate our greatest asset: ourselves. Put only what you can manage on your plate. The rest is waste.
4. Process first, outcome second. (Enjoy the work.)
In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “if while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.”
This sounds severe, but it contains a crucial lesson about happiness. If we continue to rush the dishes only to get to the next task, who’s to say we won’t repeat the pattern throughout our lifetime?
Why start a business? For the money? The adventure? To be our own boss? These motivators share a common denominator: We believe our lives will improve if we become self-employed. But a mechanic who sets up shop only to race through oil changes so he can sweep up in time to get to the bank hasn’t improved his life. He’s enslaved himself to the pursuit of “what’s next?”
Prioritizing process improvements may be better for the balance sheet. Soon after launch, our company abandoned the paid ad, “hey, buy our stuff!” approach in favor of creating content our customers valued. The average cost per click in Google Ads was $1 to $2. Organic blog traffic? Zero.
5. Dishes dry with time.
Some people towel-dry the dishes. That’s fine, but left alone the task handles itself. Evaporation has never let me down.
Patience is invaluable in business. I’m tempted to tinker with our business practices on the daily. “Can we change that landing page that had a low click-through rate on its first day?” or “We collected 100 leads overnight; let’s email them now!” No. Growth sometimes requires a hands-off approach.
Often I add a task to my urgent list only to find that it resolved itself or lost importance. When we plant a garden, we don’t poke and prod the seeds every morning. We check in once in a while to pick weeds and fertilize the soil, then let time work its miracles.
These five fundamentals can be summed up in one word: simplify. When we narrow our focus, it deepens. We do less and get more. Let your dish time remind you of the power in simplicity, then carry this truth into your business and watch it grow.
This article was updated July 2023. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock