The Full Dishwasher Effect: How Most People Cost Themselves Time

October 23, 2018

You get home after a long day and throw some dinner together. By the time you finish your meal, it’s pretty late. All you feel like doing is sinking into the couch with a good book or show or heading to bed. But you know you should clean up the kitchen rather than leaving it for the next morning.

You harness the willpower to get up and throw everything in the dishwasher: pots, pans, food remnants, everything. But as you open the dishwasher, you realize your plan for a quick exit isn’t going to be possible: the dishwasher is full. Now you’re faced with a decision: empty the dishwasher and pick up your plan where you were forced to stop it… or just wash the dishes by hand.

This decision is the same decision we face at work hundreds of times a day. It’s the choice between investing a little bit more now for long-term time-savings or taking the shortcut that is actually a long-cut.

How is washing the dishes by hand a long-cut even though it feels like a shortcut?

Handwashing dishes in this scenario feels like a shortcut because we get to skip the time it would take to empty the dishwasher. However, it’s a long-cut because washing a dish takes longer than putting it in the dishwasher – and we’re going to spend the time to empty the dishwasher eventually, so we don’t save any time by not doing it now. In short, we seize small short-term savings in exchange for an overall loss of time.

How does the Full Dishwasher Effect happen at work?

You find yourself using your mouse to frequently switch between open windows on your computer and you think to yourself: “I’m sure there is a keyboard shortcut that could do what is frustrating to do with my mouse.” But the problem is: figuring out what that shortcut is would take time. You would need to “empty the dishwasher.”

Here’s the thing: learning that shortcut (ALT+TAB for PCs and CMD+TAB for Macs) saves you 5 minutes every day (2 days per year) for the rest of your career. It might take you 10 minutes to find the shortcut on Google, which doesn’t even compare to savings of 2 working days per year. Empty the dishwasher.

The full dishwasher effect doesn’t just show its deceptive head in the simple area of keyboard shortcuts either:

  • You’re handwashing dishes when you write a new task on a post-it rather than adding it to your to-do list
  • You’re handwashing dishes when you skip explaining to your direct report why you made changes to her work
  • You’re handwashing dishes when you fight to refocus after being distracted by an email notification rather than taking a few minutes to figure out how to turn them off
  • You’re handwashing dishes when you leave an email in your inbox after reading it rather than filing it

Every workday, you get to choose hundreds of times whether you’ll empty the dishwasher or handwash the dishes.

The Full Dishwasher Effect is Nothing New

The trouble is that even the smallest short-term cost can lead us to skip an action that will clearly benefit us. For example, investment company Vanguard found that at companies with voluntary enrollment, only 59% of employees participated in 401(k) plans, but at companies with automatic enrollment (i.e., employees must opt-out), 86% did. Opt-out programs also have led organ donation rates in many European countries to be 25-30% higher than rates in countries with opt-in programs.

We don’t like to empty the dishwasher, even if the emptying the dishwasher only involves checking a box on a form.

Overcoming the Full Dishwasher Effect

If we want to overcome the Full Dishwasher Effect, we must recognize that we are what researchers call “dynamically inconsistent.” Dynamic inconsistency means that we show a tendency to select a vice (short-term gain, long-term cost) over a virtue (short-term cost, long-term gain) as the moment of experience approaches. For example, when given the choice between fruit and junk food, half of people choose fruit when the decision is made a week before they get to eat one. However, when asked again immediately before consumption, 30% of people change their minds, such that 80% select junk food.

Researchers have found the same effect in movie selection. When people choose a movie to watch on a future date, they are more likely to select ‘high-brow’ movies (e.g., documentaries, movies with depressing plots or subtitles), but when they choose on viewing day, they are more likely to select ‘low-brow’ movies (e.g., comedies, light action films).

Here’s how you get yourself to empty the dishwasher:

  1. Productive Identity: Now that you know handwashing dishes is counterproductive, tell yourself you’re not the type of person to knowingly be inefficient when confronted with one of these opportunities. Identity drives behavior.
  2. Precommitment Devices: Create a precommitment device, a decision you make before needed in order to bind yourself to your preferred choice in the heat of the moment, like telling your team you’ll always share with them why you made changes to their work.
  3. Start Small: When you start emptying the dishwasher, pick the easiest, smallest way to start and make it your goal to complete just the first step. Psychological momentum will likely take over and soon you’ll have an empty dishwasher, but even if you don’t, you’re still better off than if you didn’t start.

When trying to save time, we often look for some flashy technology or new product. Yet, time-saving opportunities are much more plentiful in the area of overcoming psychological hurdles like the full dishwasher effect. Before downloading a new app, take a look at your own tendencies and crack the code on how to get yourself to act in line with what you already know will benefit you.