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. Congratulate yourself: You are learning business fundamentals.
Most of us rush through washing dishes between dinner and TV while our minds travel space and time. “Dishwasher” is a title associated with the most unskilled labor, only used occasionally in business 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 are the best teachers. Master the basics and larger pursuits become easier.
Here are five business fundamentals taught by the mindful act of washing dishes.
1. Develop a single-focus.
Verb. To direct all efforts to one chief aim, with laser-like focus. The opposite of multitasking.
Like me, your mind probably wanders when you splash the soap around. In this quiet time, our thoughts see a chance to run wild and will hijack the activity if we let them. Lacking attention to detail, though, and we end up with crusty pasta at the bottoms of our bowls.
In business, we get the same sloppy results when our focus is scattered. We offer 32 flavors of jam 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 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.
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. Like many small-business owners, I neglect 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 manufacturer 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. Stories of entrepreneurs who haven’t taken a day off in two years are met with nods of admiration. Building a business does require massive effort, but a growing body of research shows that productivity sharply drops after 50 hours of work per week. Also, employees who take breaks avoid exhaustion and tend to be the highest performers.
Companies like Volkswagen, BMW and Puma have placed restrictions on after-hours emails and France is considering a law to ban weekend email. 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.)
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that if we can’t be present while washing the dishes, we are “incapable of actually living one minute of life.” This sounds severe, but it contains a crucial lesson about happiness. If we rush the dishes only to get to the next task, who’s to say we won’t repeat the pattern for a 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 our own boss. 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 over outcome is also 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 Adwords was $1 to $2. Organic blog traffic? Zero.
5. Dishes dry with time.
“Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.” ―Napoleon Hill
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 daily with our business practices. “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.