The Toilet Cleaner

In my early 20s, while completing my psychology degree, I lived in a small flat attached to the Yoga Education Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Each week over 1000 students attended classes at this Centre. In lieu of rent I assisted the Centre’s caretaker, David, with the evening routine of folding hundreds of blankets and the morning routine of cleaning the Centre’s seven toilets.

David was an observant person and kept the Centre’s building and gardens in beautiful shape. He was also very pedantic and taught me the art and science of perfectly folding a blanket and cleaning a toilet. He had a system for every step which he had written out. How many blanket folds and the order of each fold. How many squirts of disinfectant to go in each toilet bowl and where to squirt. How much paper towel I should use for the hand basins and how to achieve a perfect wipe. The clarity of his instructions and checklists would put many franchise operating manuals to shame.

Photo of man cleaning a toilet.

In my first week he explained the psychology of a well ordered environment, and the settling effect on the mind that a pile of perfectly folded blankets had on students when they walked into a class. He also emphasised the importance of hygiene with so many people using the toilets each today, and how vital it was we provided a clean and safe environment. He made me feel like I had one of the most important jobs in the Centre. In today’s lingo he showed me the “why”.

Blanket Psychology

I initially tried to impress David with the psychological theories I was learning at university. He would listen patiently and then draw my attention to a smudge I’d left in a basin, or the fact I was wasting paper towel by tearing off more than the recommended 35 centimetres. One day he made a light-hearted comment that I seemed to live in my head a lot of the time. He suggested I might benefit from using these routine tasks to train my mind to be more in touch with what I was doing. While he said it a nonchalant way, this simple tip resonated with me more than all the lectures on the mind I’d heard from my learned professors. In today’s lingo he was talking about the benefits of “mindfulness”.

To be honest, I initially hated folding those blankets and cleaning those toilets, and I rushed to get it all done so I could get on with my studies or watch my favourite TV show. But over time I began to enjoy my evening blanket folding and morning toilet cleaning routines. They kept me grounded and gave me a feeling I was doing something of practical value. It was a nice balance to the convoluted, egotistical debates I had to sit through in my university classes.

It may sound strange but I reckon this blanket folding and toilet cleaning training has made me a better psychologist. It has also helped me to appreciate people more, especially those that carry out the so-called menial tasks that keep our environment clean and orderly. And when I see someone really doing something well, with that special sense of care and pride, I think fondly of David.


Greg Nathan is a psychologist, author and an international expert on the franchise relationship. Connect with him on Google+ or Linkedin.

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