Laundry backpressure

It’s been a recurring problem in our house – clean laundry starts piling up on the bed in the spare bedroom, and we always intend to finish sorting & putting it away… but it mostly doesn’t happen until there’s an intimidating heap and we have to dedicate serious time to a rescue effort.

We’re all busy – two parents with work to do, two kids with homework & music practice waiting, two cats busy with their mysterious cat priorities. Food things, friend things… Every now & then, we manage to get ahead of it, but soon, when we’re choosing between “sort & put away laundry” vs. all the important stuff… the laundry starts to collect again.

I came up with a strategy yesterday, though, inspired by a concept I’m familiar with from work: backpressure.

In the tech world, we’re mostly talking about backpressure in flowing data, but imagine water rushing down a pipe that’s wide then narrow, pouring into containers of different sizes here and there… these variations control how fast the water can get from one end of the system to the other. While the water floods into a large container, there’s no resistance as the container fills… but when it’s full and there’s only a tiny pipe leading out, suddenly there’s “back pressure” on the incoming flow, and the water in the incoming pipe is forced to slow.

My laundry problem, reconceived: the spare room bed (until my mother visits, anyway) is too large a container. It can hold too much laundry; there’s no resistance (but plenty of resistance in the “sort & put it away” pipe); and so it… tends to do exactly that. Collect, until it’s a huge backed-up problem.

It’s like a queue of data to process that’s so large that no one worries about it (there’s no rush; it won’t run out of space for ages!) …and so nothing happens – no one even automates any process to handle any of it – until finally the alarms are all ringing and it’s too late for any smart solution.

My fix is adding one new constraint: the guest bed is only allowed to hold one load of laundry.

When I have clean, dry clothes in the basement, they stay there until the bed is clear; and likewise, I don’t take more clothes down to wash unless there’s a place for them to go; so dirty clothes stay in the hamper in the bathroom until the basement is free again.

There are three things I find appealing about this:

1. I’m only changing my own behavior; this doesn’t pit me against my family.

In the default “just be strict” option, I can look forward to more time standing around, impatient & frustrated, trying to convince my daughter to put down Harry Potter (just as the dementors are about to attack!?) and help sort a mountain of laundry. I can maybe get super creative, put on dance music and make popcorn and host a clothes-sorting party, but… not often. I’m busy, too.

This way, she can sort her clothes whenever she likes (I can give advice if she wants it, or not). There is a chance she’ll have to do it at high speed, at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning, or possibly descend to the spidery basement, to hunt through the clean laundry queued up there, with the dementors about to attack.

These are not ideal options, but I can stay out of it, and let her figure out what works for her. Mistakes here aren’t deadly, probably.

2. This is real life – we need to make space for chores, and keeping them small makes it easier to find space.

We seem to fill up our schedules (adults & kids both) with work, school, planned activities & projects, social life… and leave little space for air, or for all of those other things we actually need to do, but our planning omits. We’ll never figure out a pleasant way to fit in two hours of intensive laundry sorting, once a month. But 5 minutes….

If that’s too hard to wrangle, it’s time to reconsider what we’re trying to fit in.

3. It gives me a chance to talk about a useful concept from work with my kids.


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