My parents passed on many a piece of advice to my brother and me over the years. Like most children, we generally did the opposite.
Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you = Whittle a hole in table leg, hide broccoli there.
Empty the dishwasher, you’ll feel accomplished = Pay off a sibling to do it for you.
Being home by curfew will make you feel responsible = change the clocks an hour ahead.
You can see where this is going.
But there was one piece of advice that I initially embraced. Then, as life went on, I forgot it. Now, after recently becoming a parent, I’ve finally realized the true genius of this “life tip.” It was my mom’s edict to make my bed.
Forgetting everything my mom ever told me
A call to make one’s bed was, shall we say, a distinct challenge. You can’t throw a twin bed out of the window as a way to avoid the chore. Paying my brother to make the bed defied economic sense when calculated against income from allowance, my mix cd business and hoarded lunch money.
As such, I acquiesced on the topic, until I went to college and Forgot Everything My Mom Ever Told Me. As she visited my freshman dorm room, she took stock of the scene: a cereal spoon molded to the floor in a halo of dried milk, a stack of CDs wobbling on a stack of papers, and an inked reminder on the back of my hand to do something, possibly study for an exam.
She looked longingly at my roommate’s pristine side of the room – a made bed, a calendar, file folders and – gasp! – an iron. She sighed, as mothers often do, then fell back on a piece of wisdom she often uttered to her notoriously disorganized youngest child:
“If you can keep your room clean, you can keep your life clean.”
My mom had a point
Anytime something felt overwhelming, she would ask “Is your room clean?” After a dozen years and hundreds of “no’s,” she modified the question.
My flavored toothpick business is getting too large and I can’t keep track of my clients on the school bus.
Did you make your bed?
I’m not ready to pick a major and don’t know where to start.
When was the last time you made your bed?
This Italian class is really hard.
Go make your bed, then sit on it, with your books.
Make your bed. It could lead to other good things
This wasn’t just a mom-tested mantra; she used it in her days as a social worker. Sometimes tasks in life seem so insurmountable, she would say, that it’s hard to know where to start. Even the phrase “start small” feels big. But a palatable suggestion, like “make your bed,” well that can have some power.
In the widely-circulated commencement speech and subsequent book from Naval Adm. William McRaven, the emphasis on making a bed isn’t just aesthetic. It’s about paying attention to detail, starting small and harnessing a special kind of momentum in your day:
If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.
Others in the home/life organization field say it’s one of those habits that snowballs into other good things. Kind of like when you say “hi” to someone and they say it back, it’s a simple task that makes you feel good (if it doesn’t, YOU ARE SOUL-LESS.)
So the next time you feel overwhelmed or aren’t sure where to start with something, try going back to basics. Try making your bed.
And if you can’t remember, just write it on your hand.