On the 1st day of Christmas Running Gave to Me: a Ton of Dirty Laundry

It’s time for one of our favorite features of the year: Our Twelve Days of Christmas!  Leading up to our holiday break from regular posting (December 24 – January 2), some of us Saltines will be sharing our personal stories about what running has given us. You can check out last year’s series here


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Housework is usually far down the list of “things I want to be doing right now”. My attitude toward it can range from totally indifferent to really bad. No matter how often I clean the kitchen, scrub the bathroom, or put my running clothes in the washer, I’ll be doing exactly the same thing again this time next week … and the week after that … and so on and so forth.

It took me about 25 years to realize that running’s constant laundry offering is not, in fact, annoying, or a burden. It’s a gift!

Laundry is a gift? This I’ve got to hear.

On first glance, a pile of crusty, stinky running tights and t-shirts is just this thing that really needs washing before it scuttles off on its own. But when I thought more about it, I realized that laundry is an opportunity. Laundry can have meaning. And actually, running and laundry have a lot in common!

Sounds like a stretch? Yeah, I know. Running is a hobby we do voluntarily because we love it. Laundry is, well, laundry. But wait! Hear me out!

1. Although running and laundry are both benign and sometimes even rewarding activities, they are often procrastinated upon.

1a. Funnily enough, if you really don’t want to go for a run, doing laundry often seems like a very appealing activity, and vice versa.

2. How much you enjoy both activities, or not, depends a lot on how you approach them. Both can seem like they end quickly, leaving you wondering where the time went, or they can drag on dully for what seems like forever. Running and laundry are much better if you can get into a state of flow while you’re doing them — they pass more quickly, can even seem fun and relaxing — and I’ve learned more about flow from running than from anywhere else.

Flow?? I thought you were talking about laundry.

I am totally talking about laundry, because laundry is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving, one load of sweaty spandex at a time! Running is generous like that. But first, a detour to explain flow!

Most runners know what flow feels like. It’s that PR race that feels effortless, or that great run when you lost track of time and you weren’t think about anything, weren’t worried about pace or performance, you were just in your body, running. That’s flow.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say that 10x fast) developed the theory of flow to describe what happens to artists when they get immersed in their work, but it applies to all kinds of activities. According to Csikszentmihalyi, you’re in a state of flow if:

Action and activity are merged.

You’re not thinking about whether you’re running fast enough. You’re not immersed in a pit of self-loathing for owning this many running clothes you have to wash and fold. Your mind is completely attuned to what you’re doing, concentrating on the present moment.

You’re not worried about failure.

You don’t have to be, because your skill level is exactly adequate to the requirements of what you’re doing.

“The self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.”

You’re not thinking about yourself or your ego at all, yet somehow, when you’re done, you’ve grown a little as a person.

Enjoy a distorted sense of time.

You’re so immersed in what you’re doing that you’re shocked to look at the clock and find that an hour or three have gone by. This happens to me a lot when I’m writing, practicing music, and running. Sometimes it even happens when I’m doing laundry. I’ll start with a huge pile of stuff to fold and think “this is going to take forever,” and when I’m done I look at the clock and am surprised that, although it may have taken an hour, it didn’t feel that long.

This shit is is “autotelic”.

WTF is autotelic? It refers to something intrinsically valuable to you, with no external motivation such as approval from others or a financial reward. As a totally average mid-pack runner, it’s safe to say I’m running for intrinsic reasons. But laundry? Hm. Well, there’s definitely no reward apart from personal satisfaction at having gotten it done (and being able to see the floor in the bedroom). So…maybe?

Flow, huh. How can I get some of that?

Why do some activities lend themselves more to flow than others? Csikszentmihalyi says there are three main requirements:

The activity must be structured with goals and progress markers.

If you’re running a race after a fantastic training period, you know exactly what you have to do: hit mile x in y time. Repeat. Same with laundry: you follow the prescribed steps until you’re done. Washing, drying, folding, putting away.

There must be immediate and clear feedback. Sit down on the bed with a tangled pile of running clothes fresh from the dryer; gradually notice how you’ve sorted socks, tights, bras, and tops into neat piles. Order from chaos. So satisfying.

There is a balance between challenge level and skill level, so that you’re confident you can complete the task.

Again, if you hit your training out of the ballpark, you just know you’re ready to take on your goal race. (Sure, you might still be a little nervous, but deep down, you know it.) And how many loads of laundry have you done in your life? Even if you’re facing the biggest, most procrastinated-upon pile of dirty running clothes you’ve ever amassed, you know you got it.

Here’s a potential roadblock: if the task is too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get anxious. And how hard is laundry, really? Not very. But just as you can spice up a doldrum-style run over the same route you’ve run a thousand times with a little fartlek, you can make laundry as hard or as easy as you want. Set yourself a time goal for folding! Do it with your eyes closed! Match socks while reciting the alphabet backwards in French! Who cares? Nobody can see you. And you might even have fun.

Flow is good for you.

Obviously it’s not realistic to think we’re going to be in a state of flow all the time. It may seem like a waste of time to even think about it much, because you can’t force it. The more you think about it, the less likely you are to experience it. Czikszentmihalyi found that some people have personality types that allow them to experience flow more readily in a variety of situations. Maybe not all of us have that personality.

On the other hand, maybe thinking about the ways flow happens can encourage us to create the conditions for it in situations that otherwise seem like we just have to put up with them. Situations like laundry, a mindlessly repetitive work task, or that run you’ve put off all day because for some reason you just don’t feel like it (though at least with a run, you know you’re going to feel better for having done it!) You can either endure them, or you can immerse yourself in them and even try to make them fun. You might not get into a state of flow, and that’s ok, but what’s the worst that can happen? Chances are are you’ll enjoy yourself more and feel a lot better afterwards.

imageCzikszentmihalyi’s research shows that the ability to experience flow is linked to a higher quality of life. To me, the concept of flow is linked with mindfulness, being in the present moment, showing up no matter the situation. I’m definitely not saying that every load of laundry turns into a deeply meaningful personal-development experience for me; sometimes I just want to zone out with old episodes of Gossip Girl while I fold clothes, just like I sometimes want to make a run pass more quickly by listening to music or a podcast. And some days I just can’t get out of the grumpy, ugh I can’t believe I have to do this again mindset. But sometimes I can! Running has given me more than one way to practice that, and I’m grateful.

What running has really given me, then, with its generous lifetime supply of never-ending laundry, is the ability to recognize when and how I can create meaning in my life. So, while I sometimes look at my laundry basket, put my hand over my heart and say “awww, running, you shouldn’t have!” ultimately I have to say thank you, running. Life would be so one-dimensional without you.

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Want to read more about flow? I learned about flow from Czikszentmihalyi’s books Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.

How do you feel about running laundry?

I'm a 41-year-old living in Berlin, Germany. I run because I can't not run. I write about training, mental training, momming, and the odd rant.

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11 comments

  1. Mr. Chicory and I are both athletes, and he’s the triathlon type which means swim clothes, bike clothes, run clothes (none of which can be worn for two activities in a row, apparently) plus clean clothes to wear on the drive home. A mountain of workout laundry is something I very much understand! I love the idea of getting into a state of flow with laundry!

  2. I love this! I only have to wash for 2 at this point in my life, but I am a total nerd and will fully admit that I love doing laundry. I agree with this post! Having a huge pile of laundry to do reminds me that we have been busy bees, exercising, getting out and about wearing different outfits, etc! When I don’t have a pile to get done, it usually means we are being lazy or haven’t been doing a whole lot. Cute post ! 🙂

  3. This post almost makes me want to do housework … almost.

    But it’s very interesting. A couple of weeks ago a good friend asked me what I was training for. And I couldn’t really answer it, beyond wanting to be in shape for …. something. But I think I miss being in good shape because I miss the chance for flow and running. It’s been a while. I want that again!

    1. I totally get it and feel the same right now with respect to running. It’s hard to get into a flow state on a three mile jog!

  4. Hate laundry, love flow. I don’t mind ironing for that reason, but I don’t iron a lot. I make my husband iron his own shirts. I do also love folding shirts – with a board or by hand. I don’t like putting AWAY laundry!

    1. I don’t iron. I draw the line there. Maybe if we had a job interview or something. Otherwise, no way! A little mist and a hanger and that’s about all I got 🙂

    2. Ironing ?

      You do have to draw the line somewhere. I don’t actually own anything that needs ironing. My husband takes his shirts to be laundered.