In our marriage, Carina and I divide the chores by type, allowing us to develop more skill in our "trades", to trade for chores we dislike less, and to make ownership of messes more obvious.

One of the chores I have is doing the dishes. It's definitely not my favorite pastime, but my years of doing them and thinking about doing them has lead me to a process that results in fewer dish crises and an less time spent washing (in spite of my laziness).

Here it is broken down:

  • For context, I believe chores are not done for the sake of activity, but to achieve very specific value for the household.

  • The value of dishes is us using them, and part of us using them is them getting dirty. In the simple case, lots of dishes getting dirty indicates we are getting more use out of our dishes, thus eating more dinner at home, entertaining more friends, etc., and is something to celebrate.

  • Dishes are inventory that we utilize and temporarily take out of commission until they are cleaned.

  • The cycle of use (post-purchase) is: Stored ⇒ In-Use ⇒ Dirty (waiting to be rinsed) ⇒ Rinsed ⇒ Clean / Drying ⇒ Stored. In rare cases some dishes skip steps in the cycle (being rinsed and washed at the same time, or being used immediately), but this is much more the exception than the norm.

  • Our dish system is performing best when we are most able to achieve things with our dishes - having guests over, being able to cook dinner, etc. Dirty dishes are a tax on top of the things we do with those dishes, making the total pain we feel from cooking dinner or hosting guests higher.

  • Dish capacity (how many dishes we have) allows us to take larger loans: we can use more dishes before needing to wash them, and we can host more people.

  • Unfortunately, the loan can have interest in the form of oils from other dishes, etc: leaving dishes in the sink exposes them to the grime and grease rinsed off other dishes, making every dish in the sink get a little harder to wash for every time you rinse a dirty dish above it.

  • The sink also has limited capacity for dishes in it, but at the point it has run out of space you likely have a bigger problem:

  • Washing dishes is not fun, and washing more dishes is less fun. Since we look at the dishes as a chore that you finish in one go, the more dirty dishes are waiting, the less likely you are to wash them, until the point where you run out of dish capacity in a time of need, causing maximum pain from dish washing deferral. This pain comes in the form of arguments with your partner and anxiety in the upcoming event you need the dishes for.

  • Rinsed and Dirty are explicitly separate states, which may have been strange to some, since the dish still must be washed. The difference between a dirty dish and a rinsed dish is that the rinsed dish will not make other dishes dirtier if they are stacked, or if the rinsed dish is washed over them.

  • Using the loan analogy above, dirty dishes accrue interest while rinsed ones do not.

  • Storing dishes in the sink (whether dirty or rinsed) increases the cost of doing the dishes and should be avoided when possible.

  • Some dishes need to soak, but the point of soaking a dish is explicitly to get it out of the sink where it is ready to be cleaned.

  • Aside from the interest reducing nature of rinsing, it also helps you achieve washed dishes in smaller chunks - you can imagine rinsing a lot of dishes much easier than you can imagine rinsing and washing them, making rinsing a smaller job you can do closer to the dish dirtying, and inevitably making the washing down the line easier. Also, it has the virtuous effect of sometimes getting you to finish all the washing anyway, since you're "already doing it".

  • Rinsing beforehand also allows you to batch-clean dishes, cleaning each dish in the batch with a sponge and placing it in the sink, then washing the suds off the dishes in the sink at the end, letting you spend less time task switching and spending less water. This can be done because none of the rinsed dishes will dirty the already sponged dishes by being washed above them.

  • It should be fairly obvious, but it follows that doing the dishes continuously is much easier mentally than in large batches: a few dishes are trivial to wash, and maintaining a low amount of dirty dishes reduces the risk of busyness or stress leading to a dish shortage related problem.

  • Developing a habit of rinsing or cleaning a few dishes while you cook (and those that you're dirtying) helps keep your dirty dish count low.

  • Having one person be responsible for the dishes means they must always pay their debts, and inevitably are the ones that must reconcile their laziness in the future. This creates the correct incentives for prompt, efficient, and high quality dish washing.

  • Prompt storing of dried dishes is also important, as this can also become a bottleneck in the process and can also cause dish shortage. Dishes in the drying rack (or waiting in a dish washer) stop other dishes from being washed, because there is no space for them. They are also harder to find, and present yet another cost that builds up to a dish shortage crisis - the worst case is having tons of dirty dishes and a full drying rack, because now you must clear the drying rack completely before washing any of the dishes that you need.

  • Don't put other dishes inside rinsing dishes! You are just making them dirtier and harder to wash. If you are tempted to, just finish rinsing the soaking dish and the one you were tempted to place inside it.

  • Having fewer dishes means you can only shoot yourself in the foot so much. High dish capacity enables your laziness! If you must have more plates to serve guests, at least make them hard enough to utilize in non-hosting scenarios that you aren't tempted.

All of this has been focused on the dish washer of the household. Non-dish washers out there, you may ask, what can you do to help most? Think of it like the laundry: make sure your clothes get to the hamper, and that you've at least scraped the mud off. Dirty dishes promptly making it to their pre-rinse location helps the dish washer know how many dishes are dirty, and even a trivial amount of rinsing (running water over it, or if you're a saint, a light scraping with the brush) can reduce the inevitable work of the dish washer immensely.

So, in short: dirty dishes are loans, pay them off continuously, so you don't find yourself strapped for cash with nothing to borrow!