I Hate the Plate

[Note: Woe is me, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s supposed to be about how people are different.]

My wife told me she has a “stress bucket”. When new tasks come in the bucket gets gradually filled up, and when she crosses them off her list it gets emptied. As long as the bucket doesn’t overflow she’s fine, but if it does, due to sick kids or things going pear-shaped at work, she loses her shit — snaps at the rest of us, can’t sleep, cries, and/or eats too much very dark chocolate.

I tell you this because once she phrased it like she did I realized it’s not how stress works for me. I don’t have a stress bucket, I have a stress plate. As long as there’s anything on it I have to get rid of it before I can feel restful, at all[1].

The difference has consequences for how we cope, and how we communicate our coping. I feel worse and get testier in rough proportion to how much stuff is on my plate, while she’s alright until it’s suddenly too much AND EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE AT ALL.

I don’t know why I have a plate because having a bucket just seems better. She has a greater processing capacity than me, as evidenced by her being, apparently, much less affected by the constant administration of tasks that comes with being an adult. Despite the neverending deluge she says she’s fundamentally happy with our situation, and I struggle to say the same.

Yes, despite outwardly having everything a person is supposed to need in life and, honestly, being in no position to complain, I can’t feel happy with things. I suspect it relates to not ever being able to rest and relax because I’m always low-key aware my plate has shit on it. This summer we had a rare chance to eat lunch alone together at a responsibly socially distanced restaurant. It was a beautiful day. She asked me if I felt stressed right then and there, even though we were on a well-deserved break. I said I did, noting the muscle tension extending from my lower jaw down to the middle of my chest that never quite goes away. The sense that there’s stuff on the plate has been burned into me after years and years of daily cooking, cleaning, shopping, working, maintaining health, house, garden and car, and keeping the kids fed, rested, cleaned and clothed despite their best efforts at resistance.

With a stress bucket it’s all about throughput. Sometimes at home we discuss how to improve things, and she suggests better storage organization, good routines, and planning ahead. I nod in agreement and we make plans together but I know that these solutions don’t satisy me, even when they work. It’s not really that I need the tasks to move by us faster. I need them to stop coming in.

Yes, faster processing keeps a bucket from overflowing, but unless it’s an order of magnitude faster than normal it still doesn’t keep a plate clean for any significant proportion of the time.

Having a plate is fine when you’re a kid. You’re in school but once homework is done and you’ve cleaned your room there’s nothing left and you get the restorative relaxation you need. Over easter, christmas and summer you are genuinely free for long stretches of time. Sure, things drop in — you have to clean your room again, go to the hairdresser, or buy a new pair of shoes — but as soon as you’re done the plate’s clean again. Having something to do might even be fun.

It’s not fine at all when you’re an adult, with animate and inanimate dependents. The plate’s always packed, and crossing things off a neverending list does little to alleviate the situation. It keeps you from drowning but you never get to stop treading water. Apparently some get satisfaction from completing tasks and I assume they’are all bucket people, because “staying on top of things” is an achievable goal and every little tick is a meaningful step towards it. But a clean plate is unrealistic and you know you’ll never get there. There is only more treading, forever.

Ironically, I think this has become worse as I have become better. By “better” I mean better at actually doing things that need to be done. As a student I dealt with having more responsbilities than as a child by tricking myself that I had nothing to do through selective blindness and amnesia. It kept me happy enough. As an adult that doesn’t fly. You can’t put off doing the dishes for days or you’ll be buried. Today I can get through what would in 2007 have been a month’s worth of chores every day, and it cost the ability to shut stuff out and relax with a clean conscience[2][3].

Yes, a plate seems worse than a bucket. Why then, don’t we all have buckets? What’s the upside to constant dread over entropy existing?

I don’t know, but I think there’s a clue in the fact that needing an empty plate and therefore hating the mere existence of chores and tasks isn’t the same as regular laziness. If I was just lazy I wouldn’t write this blog for no tangible reward. No, it’s less about the total amount of work and more about the pure number of things needing to be managed, costing mental resources even when not currently being done. It’s like they have to be lugged around all the time like a backpack full of coconuts. It makes the mind feel bloated, heavy, and always tired.

If I were to speculate I’d say that perhaps the benefit of being a “plate person” is better concentration, patience, and precision. While my wife is much better at all things “management” than me, and does more of it, I’m better at focused tasks. I’ll happily sew things by hand, for example, while she starts swearing after 30 seconds and begs me to take over. I’m also more careful and conscientious when gardening, and better at painting, building and remodeling at home when it requires patience and precision, i.e. the kind of stuff that requires putting pieces of wood together into complicated patterns and I need to go back to the workshop and sand off another hair’s breadth so it fits just right[4]. She asks me with disbelief how I can possibly have the patience for it, but somehow I don’t find it hard at all. I’ll do stuff like that for eight hours straight and come away from it refreshed as if after a good night’s sleep. But ask me to do a thing while I’m in the middle of doing another thing and I’ll struggle to not bite your face off.

Are these expressions of the same underlying trait? Can they be changed? Can I make myself a bucket or will I be anxious for the rest of my life unless I become a hermit or rich enough to afford servants?

And I’m curious whether people recognize themselves in this description. Are you a bucket person? A plate person? Or something else altogether?

• • •


Notes

[1]
Once when I worked at a restaurant in England we were polishing the cutlery after a busy evening. Two of the cooks were drinking and invited me to join them. I said I had to finish working first and they loudly proclaimed that I was no fun. My answer “I’ll be fun when I’ve finished the job” remains my psychology in a nutshell.

[2]
I still forget things, I just don’t forget enough things for it to work and I don’t forget that I’ve forgotten them.

[3]
The exception is when I’ve had a few drinks and no longer think far enough away from the present moment to be aware of the full extent of my obligations. This feels unhealthy but it’s true. Maybe I haven’t actually lost any ability because I never had it as a student either, I just drank a lot more back then.

[4]
I wonder if our differing approaches to packing is about the same thing. In a nutshell, my wife’s far better at organizing things in time and I’m better at doing so in space. She has an elaborate taxonomy of prewritten lists for different kinds of trips with everything she could possibly use and always manage to bring with her things I forget but sometimes wind up needing — but her bag’s a mess because she just throws everything in there. And when we get to where we’re going it somehow explodes and all her things are instantly spread across the room. I, on the other hand, try to remember the bare minimum the day before, and then pack like I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle. Everything is exactly in the right place depending on when and where I’m going to need it. During the stay I keep most stuff in the bag and take it out only when I need it, and then put it back again immediately.

15 thoughts on “I Hate the Plate

  1. I recognize a lot of similarities in my marriage. She’s definitely the manager and I’m the detailed task guy. And she’s a bucket person. Though I’ve always called it a bath tub with the water turned on. As long as the drain can handle more gallons per minute than the faucet is producing she’s a pretty happy person. But if the faucet gets turned up (new backstabbing district manager at work, for example) it doesn’t really matter what she does, her mental health *will* eventually (and progressively) deteriorate.

    I guess I’m a bucket person, but my bucket is reaaaaalllly deep. This is very good for my emotional well-being. I honestly can’t think of anyone I know who seems as content with their life as I am.

    It’s not great for getting things done. Our house is a museum of my unfinished projects. The windows get cleaned about once a year and it only takes about 2 months for algae to start to grow on them in our climate. Our cars are filthy inside and out and the engines are close to death due to lack of maintenance. We live paycheck to paycheck with no economic cushion in our bank accounts. I could list a hundred things that would make a “plate” person cringe, but I’ll spare you.

    But… our bills are consistently paid. We own our home. We have reasonably steady jobs. Our kids are brilliant, funny, fun, kind, getting good grades and reasonably happy. I love my wife and we have a very healthy relationship. I love my dirty, little, half-remodeled house and I love my big overgrown yard even more… big plans for it…. big plans.

    So, where is the proper place to draw the line between unhealthy procrastination and enjoying one’s life in the moment, as it is?

    I highly recommend “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright. I’ll cut and paste a little bit from the Amazon blurb…

    “Robert Wright [suggests that] evolution shaped the human brain. The mind [evolved] to often delude us, he [argues], about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.

    But if we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger, and greed, what do we do?”

    In other words, evolution may have selected for “plate” people rather than deep-deep-deep bucket people. “Platiness” might be better adapted to our harsh evolutionary environment than the tendency to blissfully ignore things that are arguably sub-optimal. If so, how does one resist one’s inherent “platiness” in order to achieve deeper life satisfaction now that it’s not required for survival?

    Robert Wright’s suggests mindfulness meditation can help and he makes an entirely non-supernatural case for it in that book. I don’t know if that’s true. Haven’t had much success with meditation myself. But I do feel like I’ve benefitted from having the tool in my mental toolbox of trying to step outside an unpleasant thought and observe it as a thought instead of just identifying with the thought as directly perceived reality…. hard to talk about these things briefly so I may have botched it. But, long story short, I recommend the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is interesting. I think the bucket resonates with me more, although my bucket may be a bit different. My bucket is very tall and narrow, with sides that act as a barrier between “should-do” tasks outside and “must-do” tasks inside. I actively try to get more stuff in the bucket (practicing guitar, home improvement projects, additional projects at work), but unless the task is a light lift, I find it impossible to get it up and over the lip of the bucket. I usually need some external help (my boss, my wife) to get bigger tasks in there, and I’ve mostly designed (or lucked into) a life without much of that pressure.

    The benefit of this is that I live a fairly stress-free and contented life, but it comes with less accomplishment than I’d like and feel I ought to be capable of, which bothers me sometimes.

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  3. I resonate a lot with your plate description, but I also do have a saturation point where things get noticeably worse in terms of stress management and get satisfaction from crossing things off lists (physical, digital, or mental). Using your metaphors I see it as a bucket sitting on top of a plate. I need to keep the bucket from overflowing (otherwise it can get too overwhelming and the overflow gets on the plate as well compounding things), but even when the bucket is well managed it still puts pressure on the plate!

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  4. Great post. As a product of a militaristic religious school and an over achieving Dad, I learned to tip the bucket – on the floor right in front of my stressor as an adolescent. Lots of stress but not in on my plate bucket embryo. But stress was piled on in forms I had zero control over.

    Until I got a job.

    I have had to contend with the “tip out stress plate bucket” in various ways during my adult life. Usually it was tipped by me as per one hand clapping – no one knew but me. I had the luxury of being abke to takeoff for a month or three as I gained a qualification allowing me a high hourly rate & independence by age 21.

    So now as a single parent, owning my home and, a barely appropriate yet low stress & time income, I too have opted for a messy house but happy family.

    The only time my plate bucket (I have both still, for different categories ) gets over filled is kids with school, learning and innate urge for a successful and abundent life. I try hard for this category to be a bucket. But after the third email from a teacher saying “these tasks not completed” my ‘kid school’ bucket quickly turns, ala a klien bottle, into a plate!

    I am still practising with stress, bucket, plate & categories.

    Thanks.

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  5. I never really thought of this dichotomy. I suppose I’m more of a plate person, though perhaps not so extremely as you. I related to the sentence about “ask me to do a thing while I’m in the middle of doing another thing and I’ll struggle to not bite your face off” quite strongly!

    The dichotomy which I do ponder frequently (it’s pretty common in psychology surveys) is needing to make one or two bigger projects the priority over many small tasks versus needing to get all the (many) smaller tasks out of the way first. I’m very, very, very much in the “must clear away all the small tasks first” camp. This feels related to the “ask me to do a thing while I’m in the middle of doing another thing and I’ll struggle to not bite your face off” thing.

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  6. “It’s not really that I need the tasks to move by us faster. I need them to stop coming in.”

    Some things aren’t worth doing well because they’re not worth doing at all.

    Some of us feel this, deep down, daily.

    I want (well…want’s too strong a word; *feel obligated to* is better) to do well some things worth doing, like:
    not getting killed, keeping others I love from getting killed, getting food, eating, sleeping, having sex.

    As for everything else, I’m experimenting with Just Not Doing them.

    I drink from one glass I haven’t washed in weeks. I don’t bathe for 4 or 5 days at a stretch (I work in an office). I haven’t had my hair so much as wet in four months. I wear clothes on 3 or 4 occasions before washing them.

    I don’t dust, mop, scrub, or otherwise “clean” the apartment. I haven’t washed my vehicle in 5 years.

    The world hasn’t ended.

    The experiment has me increasingly convinced that I’ve done a lot only to avoid “seeming like the sort of person who doesn’t” – and that most of said “seeming” would have been entirely in my own mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes it seems like some people work less than required, then adjust up, while others have a tendency to work more than required, and theoretically adjust down. But adjusting down, you’re working purely on a theory of necessity. Adjusting up, you’re actually witnessing and dealing with the consequences of neglect. I think adjusting up, while short-term costlier than adjusting down, is long-term a better way to stay free.

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  7. I too have a plate, but I think with computing analogies.

    Instead of a plate, I have a queue. As tasks are added to the queue, they are slotted into different subqueues (all facing the same direction as the overqueue) based on priority, relatedness of resources needed to complete or just work on the task, and so on.

    Some tasks are themselves queues, requiring I reload them at the end of every iteration until their last element vanishes.

    I’m also very limited in processing time and mental space. My mind stops functioning around a lot of people, especially in performance situations. It’s like I’m hypervigilant, I must devote n resources to tracking people and ensuring no one is stabbing me in the back, front, sides, etc. The only reprieves from constant anxiety of attack are isolation in nature (specifically foggy, rainy forests of the PNW) which oddly enough doesn’t feel like isolation, and preemptive predation (get them before they get you).

    These two things combined with a lifetime of poverty and being passed over for hiring, promotion, etc, mean that 99% of the time I perform at 1% of my maximum capacity.

    I’m not meant for this world, apparently, and I look forward to leaving it. Until I do, I spend all my free time doing everything I can get away with to harm the world that obviously hates me.

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    1. This feels way above my pay grade to respond usefully to, but this sounds more like something that could possibly be improved by psychiatric treatment. If you haven’t tried that, please consider it.

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  8. Not to suggest an unflattering model, but I experience the distinction as one of how much I currently trust my future self to avoid disaster.

    I had mild bipolar, so I became somewhat platelike; when I was hypomanic, I knew my future self would be depressed and I didn’t trust him to take care of things, so I couldn’t let my anxiety wane (except via the usual hypomanic focus).

    I became at least a little more bucket-like by committing to an organizational system that I trusted to make sure I’d never miss an important deadline, even if I had to reschedule mundane tasks multiple times. My bucket on that system is “single digits due today or overdue”.

    This model doesn’t explain your dishwashing story, though.

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  9. I have always felt like that. When I was in elementary school, I came home at noon and I strived to do my homework before even having lunch, so I could fully enjoy the rest of the day. Sometimes I’d go to a sleepover at a friend’s over the weekend and found out that he still had to do his homework for Monday. That didn’t make any sense for me. How could he be at peace knowing he had that loathsome task pending? He was spoiling his weekend. But he couldn’t care less.

    As I got older it got harder and harder to keep an empty plate, and by 15 I had realized I wouldn’t be truly happy until my retirement.

    I quit my job at 28, after some lucky moves in the stock market. At 35, I’m in a stable, happy romantic relationship, but neither of us can imagine having kids.

    Rob’s comment totally resonates with me:

    “The benefit of this is that I live a fairly stress-free and contented life, but it comes with less accomplishment than I’d like and feel I ought to be capable of, which bothers me sometimes.”

    As another commenter said, I also feel I must clear all the small tasks before getting to the big, important ones. This is a probably terrible habit, bit it’s hard to suppress.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “realized I wouldn’t be truly happy until my retirement.”

      Uh yeah that hits hard. My mother-in-law is retiring in a month and I find myself so envious of her. Your method of making a lot of money early and then live on that is the dream, but not something everybody can pull off, especially not if they hate doing things they don’t like, hah.

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  10. This article describes my relationship so well it’s uncanny, down to every single detail of our packing strategies. My husband is the bucket person, but his bucket seems extremely wide and deep, I only saw him lose it maybe a handful of times. I, on the other hand, can’t fully rest until I dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, which kinda means never. Productivity systems and todo lists make me freak out, cause I know I’ll never get any of them down to zero.

    I think being a plate person is yet another side effect of perfectionism – which would also explain why we’re good at things that require a lot of precision and patience. If every single thing needs to be done at 100%, there’s only so many of them we can hold in our heads at once. The more I learn to be comfortable with getting it 80% right, doing some things sloppily, or even choosing not to do some stuff at all, the less overwhelming it gets to have pending stuff on my plate. Our first baby was born just a few weeks ago, so I have a lot opportunities to practice this attitude now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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