What’s cleaning the toilet got to do with personal change?

Many years ago, when I was at University, I shared a house with a woman I’ll call Linda. We divided up the house duties between us, but Linda was a little more focused on hygiene than I was. It was my job to clean the bathroom and toilet, and I remember my indignation one day when she suggested it might be time to do so. “What do you mean?” I thought to myself, “I cleaned the toilet only last week!”

I’ve since come to recognise this response as the ‘bloke’s approach to housework’, the assumption that because a job has been done once, it doesn’t need doing again.  The same assumption often plays out in relation to personal growth.  It’s one thing to have a moment of awareness or insight that leads to a productive change. But over time the awareness fades and the new behaviour slips away. I recognise this in myself and in my clients. We keep circling back to the same key insight, working away to re-apply agreed skills and tactics. Each cycle produces positive change, but it’s all too easy to become complacent and assume that it’s ‘fixed.’  So our patterns re-emerge – like the toilet that gets dirty again, even though I cleaned it last week.

What’s the answer? Two things can help; Accountability and Awareness.

Can I use or create mechanisms that help me patiently, steadily, and consistently build a new habit and keep me accountable? Like having a regular diary check in, or a friend (or house-mate!) who reminds me of my commitment to new behaviour.

Secondly, lasting change requires awareness, the capacity to be as ruthlessly honest with myself as possible. Can I stay awake and attuned to what I’m doing, thinking and feeling from moment to moment? Can I create enough internal perspective to re-adjust, re-commit and re-focus as needed?

To be blunt, when I stand in front of the dirty toilet do I turn a blind eye, or do I see the stains and pick up the brush?

Jonathan Males