Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice
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- Hanley, A.W., Warner, A.R., Dehili, V.M. et al. Mindfulness (2015) 6: 1095. doi:10.1007/s12671-014-0360-9
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This study sought to investigate whether washing dishes could be used as an informal contemplative practice, promoting the state of mindfulness along with attendant emotional and attentional phenomena. We hypothesized that, relative to a control condition, participants receiving mindful dishwashing instruction would evidence greater state mindfulness, attentional awareness, and positive affect, as well as reduce negative affect and lead to overestimations of time spent dishwashing. A sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experiential recall. Mindful dishwashers evidenced greater state mindfulness, increases in elements of positive affect (i.e., inspiration), decreases in elements of negative affect (i.e., nervousness), and overestimations of dishwashing time. Implications for these findings are diverse and suggest that mindfulness as well as positive affect could be cultivated through intentionally engaging in a broad range of activities.
KeywordsMindfulnessWell-beingPositive affectNegative affectTime perceptionDishwashing
Recent evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness has fueled efforts to understand how traditional mindfulness practices manifest in daily life. Mindfulness, conceptualized as the capacity to purposefully sustain attention on an object, such as the breath, without attachment to, or pursuit of, transitory cognitive or emotional experiences (Brown and Cordon 2009; Dreyfus 2011), can be developed through sustained practice (Carmody and Baer 2008) and has been linked with improved well-being (Brown and Ryan 2003; Carmody and Baer 2008), executive functioning (Moore and Malinowski 2009; Zeidan et al. 2012), and emotional regulation (Jazaieri et al. 2013), as well as reduced cognitive bias (Garland and Howard 2013) and clinical symptomology (Black et al. 2012; Grossman et al. 2004; Hofmann et al. 2011). Importantly, the term mindfulness is used in at least four distinct ways within the literature: a dispositional tendency, a mental state, a kind of meditation practice, and a type of therapeutic intervention (Vago and Silbersweig 2012).
However, what constitutes a mindfulness practice and what practices or activities could be plausibly used to cultivate mindful states is muddled by a variety of mindfulness practices based on, at times, opposing schools of thought. The majority of mindfulness research has focused primarily on modern interventions like mindfulness-based stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn 1990) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (Segal et al. 2002), which combine formal mindfulness meditation practices (e.g., mindfulness of the breath) with informal mindfulness practices (e.g., mindfulness of everyday activities) to foster participant mindfulness. In contrast, most laboratory studies of mindfulness have used formal mindful breathing inductions to induce the state of mindfulness (e.g., Jha et al. 2007; Kramer et al. 2013).
Though informal mindfulness practices are integral to mindfulness-based interventions, little, if any, experimental investigation of such practices has taken place to date. This oversight is unfortunate given the apparent goal of mindfulness practice being a more full engagement with the varied activities of life (Hanh 1975), which for most Western practitioners involves a significant amount of time each day away from formal mindfulness practices (e.g., “off the [meditation] cushion”—encouraged by Hanh (1975) and Kabat-Zinn (1993)). It may be that informal mindfulness practices, as more closely aligned with daily experience, could facilitate greater state to trait consolidation of mindfulness. Indeed, Thompson and Waltz (2007) suggest “everyday mindfulness” as a tendency towards “maintaining the open, accepting, present focus of attention during day-to-day life” (Thompson and Waltz 2007, p. 1876). Hypothetically, mindfulness of everyday life activities may enhance situational awareness of sensory details, enhance affective experience during task performance, and possibly even influence the perception of how much time has passed during the activity.
Specifically, two recent studies indicate that mindfulness leads to overestimations of time intervals (Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2012; Kramer et al. 2013); such alterations in time perception are theorized to be adaptive and associated with improved psychological well-being (Adshead 2013). Common models of time perception rely on two primary components, a “pacemaker” and an “attentional gate” (Kramer et al. 2013, p. 847). The pacemaker emits rhythmic pulses, which the attentional gate collects. The more pulses collected by the attentional gate, the greater the estimation of time. However, the subjective experience of time can be altered by arousal or distraction. Arousal increases the pacemaker’s pulse rate, thus encouraging overestimation of time spent on an activity. Distraction decreases the likelihood of pulse collection. Thus, the focused attention associated with mindfulness practices would be expected to result in a greater accumulation of pulses and consequently an overestimation of time spent on an activity. As some researchers have found meditation to reduce arousal (e.g., Vujanovic et al. 2010) and improve attentional awareness (Jha et al. 2007; Slagter et al. 2007), it is hypothesized that overestimations of time in mindful states can be attributed to an enhanced attentional awareness as a higher percentage of pulses are attended to and collected by the attentional gate (Glicksohn 2001; Kramer et al. 2013). Indeed, both Kramer et al. (2013) as well as Berkovich-Ohana et al. (2012) found mindfulness to increase time overestimation in laboratory-based mindfulness studies. However, as expected given the dearth of research on informal meditation practices, there have been no studies to date investigating the effect of mindfully undertaking an everyday task on time estimations.
Informal practices, such as mindful dishwashing, or other forms of mindful manual labor (e.g., the classical “chop wood, carry water” instruction in Zen), have been offered in contemplative texts. Hanh and Cheung (2010) specifically addressed mindful eating at length in a recent book, and Hanh’s (1975) Miracle of Mindfulness offers explicit instruction on a diversity of informal mindfulness practices: walking, conversing, drinking tea, washing clothes, housekeeping, and even bathing. Dishwashing was chosen as the target of this study given the abundance of sensory experiences associated with washing dishes (e.g., water temperature, smell of the soap, dish shape and design), Hanh’s (1975) vivid description of mindful dishwashing, and its place within the monastic lifestyle, as well as the general commonality of dishwashing experience. Moreover, dishwashing can be easily standardized and the task can be used to derive objective measures of mindful sensory awareness (e.g., number of dishes counted, scent of the soap).
It may also be that informal practices are more accessible to a wider range of people as they may appear more secularized, carrying fewer religious associations. Furthermore, informal practices could conceivably be incorporated into any activity, from leisure pursuits to vocational responsibilities. Yet, how mindfulness interacts with daily living tasks or if daily living tasks could be used as mindful practices has not been directly addressed by the scientific literature. As such, this study sought to investigate whether the act of washing dishes could be used as an informal contemplative practice to promote the state of mindfulness and attendant emotional and attentional phenomena. We hypothesized that mindful dishwashing instruction would be associated with higher state mindfulness, situational awareness, and positive affect, as well as less negative affect, when compared with a descriptive dishwashing control condition. Given that trait well-being and positive affect have been previously associated with state and trait mindfulness (Carmody and Baer 2008; Eberth and Sedlmeier 2012), we controlled for these potential confounds in our analysis. Secondarily, we hypothesized that participants in the mindful washing condition would be better able to recall the details of their dishwashing experience (e.g., number of dishes washed, scent of the soap). Finally, in light of evidence suggesting that formal mindfulness practices result in perceived slowing of the passage of time (Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2012; Kramer et al. 2013), we hypothesized that mindful dishwashing would lead to overestimation of time spent during this task.
Participants were 51 undergraduate students registered for a class in the College of Education at a large southeastern university. The average participant age was 20.24 (SD = 2.18), with 18 adult males (35 %) and 33 adult females (65 %) completing this study. The majority of respondents identified as White/Caucasian (69 %), African-American (18 %), or Hispanic (14 %). Respondents were relatively evenly dispersed across academic standing: freshman (29 %), sophomore (24 %), junior (31 %), and senior (16 %). The most commonly reported majors were education (39 %), psychology (12 %), sports management (8 %), criminology (8 %), and business (3 %). Participants’ religious affiliations were most frequently identified as Roman Catholic (39 %), Protestant Christian (22 %), none (16 %), or as other (16 %).
A brief description of this study, titled “A Bit of Dishwashing,” was posted online for recruitment purposes. Mindfulness was not identified as a research theme in the posted title or the online description, with the description stating the studies intent was to better understand dishwashing habits. Students received 0.5 h, of a required 2 research hours per semester, for participating. Those students not choosing to participate in research were offered the option of completing other assignments of comparable length to fulfill their 2-h research requirement. The university’s institutional review board approved the study.
Between-group comparisons of demographics and variables of interest at baseline
Mindful (n = 26)
Control (n = 25)
Female, n (%)
White/Caucasian, n (%)
Latino, n (%)
Black/African-American, n (%)
First year, n (%)
Sophomore, n (%)
Junior, n (%)
Senior, n (%)
Roman Catholic, n (%)
Protestant Christian, n (%)
None, n (%)
Jewish, n (%)
Other, n (%)
Yes, n (%)
Prepare the water, making sure you use the correct water temperature. Add dish soap and the water will be ready to begin dish washing. Wash the lightest soiled items first, usually including glasses, cups, and flatware. Washing these items first keeps your water fresher and ready to tackle bigger jobs. Wash plates, bowls, and serving dishes, remembering to scrape these items before washing. Wash gently and keep an eye out for when you should change the dish washing water. Wash cooking dishes. Any tough food should have been soaking already, making this dish washing go more smoothly.
Wash the pans thoroughly, and you’re done washing, but don’t forget to clean the bottoms of pans, as any oily residue left will burn onto the bottom of the pan at the next cooking session. Rinse the dish washing suds and residue from the dishes. If you have a double sink, use the second sink to rinse of the dish washing suds from the dishes. If you don’t have a double sink, you can use a dish pan filled with hot water to rinse/dip your dishes clean. Dry the dishes—If you’ve used the right water temperature, the dishes will dry quickly on their own. In some instances, you may have to use a dish towel. Make sure the towel is clean, changing the towel when it becomes damp.
While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes. This means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly. Why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
If while washing dishes, we think only of what we would rather do, hurrying to finish the dishes as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.
Passages were matched for length (230 and 227 words, respectively) and reading difficulty (6.7 and 6.5 grade levels, respectively), taking approximately 3 min to read. After reading, participants wrote their interpretation of the passage and then explained their interpretation to the research assistant to increase cognitive processing of the passage and to serve as a manipulation check. Next, participants were timed as they washed a set of dishes in the College of Education’s daily living skills lab. Each participant washed the same set of 18, clean dishes. The dishes were prearranged in the same manner for each participant, and the research assistant began timing participants when they made their first move to either pick up a dish or turn on the water. After washing, participants completed the Toronto Mindfulness Scale, a state mindfulness measure, and the Positive Affect and Negative Affect Scale, an affect scale, before being asked to recall features of their dishwashing experience (i.e., number of dishes washed, soap smell, how long they spent washing dishes).
The Scales of Psychological Well-Being (SPWB; Ryff 1989) consist of 18 items that are rated on a 7-point Likert scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). While the SPWB consists of six unique dimensions (self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery, positive relations, personal growth, and autonomy), we focused only on the total score. The mean rating represents the total score with higher scores reflecting greater trait well-being (α = 0.77). The SPWB was chosen as it assesses a broader conceptualization of well-being (i.e., eudaimonic). In comparison, subjective well-being (SWB), possibly a more common well-being construct, is largely hedonic in its conceptualization and thought to result primarily from positive affect and life satisfaction.
The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al. 2006) consists of 39 items that are rated on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (never or very rarely true) to 7 (very often or always true). While the FFMQ consists of five unique dimensions (i.e., observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judging, and non-reacting), because it served as a covariate in the present study and was not a primary dependent variable, we focused only on the total score. The mean rating across all the scores represents the total score with higher scores reflecting greater trait mindfulness (α = 0.84).
The Positive Affect and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS; Watson et al. 1988) short form consist of ten adjectives that are rated on a 6-point Likert scale from 0 (very slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely). A total negative affect score is derived by taking the mean rating across all the negatively valenced adjectives (upset, hostile, ashamed, nervous, and afraid; α = 0.83) whereas a total positive affect score is derived by taking the mean rating across all the positively valenced adjectives (alert, inspired, determined, attentive, and active; α = 0.87). The specific positive and negative affective items will also be examined to more directly investigate between group affective differences (e.g., Schimmack 2003; Vinson and Arelli 2006).
The Toronto Mindfulness Scale (TMS; Lau et al. 2006) consists of 13 items that are rated on a 5-point Likert scale from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much). The TMS was designed to measure the experience of mindful states, specifically prompting reflection following engagement with a designated mindfulness practice (Carmody et al. 2008; Lau et al. 2006). The TMS is commonly employed independently as a post-test measure (e.g., Bonamo et al. 2014; Feldman et al. 2010; Ortner et al. 2007) as well as a manipulation check following mindfulness-based interventions (e.g., Alberts and Thewissen 2011). Two unique dimensions are measured by the TMS, curiosity (e.g., I was curious about my reactions to things; α = 0.83) and decentering (e.g., I was aware of my thoughts and feelings without overidentifying with them; α = 0.83). The summed rating across all the scores represents the total score with higher scores reflecting greater state mindfulness (α = 0.88). For the purposes of this study, the TMS was used primarily as a manipulation check and as a standardized means of describing and differentiating phenomenological experience during mindful and non-mindful dishwashing.
Participant’s enjoyment of dishwashing was assessed with a single, dichotomous item: “Do you enjoy washing dishes?” This variable was used as a covariate in regression analyses.
Situational and Time Awareness
Situational awareness was assessed with two items measuring participants’ ability to recall details of the dishwashing experience: (1) “Please estimate how many objects you washed” and (2) “What did the soap smell like?”
Participant’s time awareness was assessed with a single item: “Please estimate how long you washed dishes?”
For the three situational and time awareness items, participants were provided with a free response space in which they typed their responses.
Effects of the Induction on State Mindfulness
Correlation matrix for the primary control variables
1 Psychological well-being
2 Dispositional mindfulness
3 State positive affect
4 State negative affect
Predictors of state mindfulness
State positive affect
State negative affect
In support of our hypothesis, individuals in the mindful dishwashing condition reported significantly greater state mindfulness during the dishwashing task than those in the control condition. The results of the regression analysis suggest that when dishwashing enjoyment, trait mindfulness, trait well-being, and affective state are controlled for, engaging in dishwashing as an informal contemplative task is significantly associated with greater levels of state mindfulness than dishwashing in the absence of mindfulness instruction.
Effects of the Induction on Situational and Time Awareness
A one-way ANOVA was used to test if participants differed by experimental condition on their ability to recall the number of dishes washed and the scent of the soap as well as their accuracy in estimating the amount of time spent washing dishes.
The main effects for participants’ recall of the number of dishes washed, F(1,50) = 1.39, p = 0.24, and the scent of the soap, F(1,50) = 0.88, p = 0.35, were not significant. Thus, mindfully washing dishes did not appear to be associated with participants’ ability to recall task-related details.
Effects of the Induction on Positive and Negative Affect
Despite a non-significant time X condition interaction on composite scores for positive affect, F(1,49) = 1.90, p = 0.17, and negative affect, F(1,49) = 2.01, p = 0.16, the observed mean changes in affect following induction were in the expected direction. Participants receiving generic washing instruction exhibited no negative (T1 6.28, SD = 1.74; T2 6.48, SD = 3.08; Cohen’s d = 0.09) or positive (T1 14.76, SD = 4.99; T2 14.84, SD = 4.60; Cohen’s d = 0.02) affective change across time whereas the mindful washing participants demonstrated modest, but non-significant, decreases in negative affect (T1 5.92, SD = 1.13; T2 5.42, SD = 0.76; Cohen’s d = 0.52) and increases in positive affect (T1 14.50, SD = 4.02; T2 15.69, SD = 5.06; Cohen’s d = 0.26). Because informal mindfulness practice might produce emotion-specific effects, paired samples t tests were used to explore changes in individual affective state items. In that regard, participants in the mindful dishwashing condition reported significantly decreased ratings of nervousness, (T1 1.69, SD = 0.88; T2 1.23, SD = 0.59; Cohen’s d = 0.61) t(25) = 3.33, p = 0.003, and significantly increased ratings of inspiration, (T1 2.12, SD = 1.14; T2 2.65, SD = 1.36; Cohen’s d = 0.42) t(25) = 2.41, p = 0.02. The remaining specific affective state differences were non-significant, but largely in the expected directions.
Notably, an aggregated bi-variate correlation analysis revealed a significant relationship between positive affect and estimated time spent washing dishes, r = 0.29, p = 0.04, such that overestimation of time spent dishwashing was related to greater increases in positive affect irrespective of experimental condition. However, a mediation model in which the effect of state mindfulness on positive affect could be mediated by time estimation was found to be non-significant (p > 0.10).
This study explored the effectiveness of using an everyday activity, dishwashing, as a mindfulness practice. Despite the brevity of both the mindfulness instruction (a two-paragraph passage) and the dishwashing practice (approximately 6 min), results indicate that mindfully washing dishes is positively associated with state mindfulness, promoted elements of positive affect, and decreased elements of negative affect. The effects of informal practice were most pronounced on the curiosity dimension of state mindfulness. Thus, it appears that an everyday activity approached with intentionality and awareness may enhance the state of mindfulness. Results further indicate that mindful dishwashers experienced affective change in the expected direction, but to a non-significant degree. However, this non-significance may be due to an insufficient sample size and increasing power may yield significant results. Nevertheless, engaging in mindful dishwashing significantly reduced nervousness and promoted feelings of inspiration. It is interesting to note that a task potentially construed as unpleasant or a “chore” can be experienced as reducing nervousness and being inspirational by simply shifting one’s approach to the task and quality of attention. That mindfulness practices elevate mindfulness, encourage positive affect, and decrease negative affect is well established; however, that these changes were associated with the coupling of a mindful practice with an everyday task is a novel finding.
Furthermore, mindful dishwashing appeared to affect participants’ perception of time, such that participants overestimated the length of time they spent washing dishes in the mindful washing condition. While the effect of mindfulness on time perception has only begun to be empirically addressed, our results are consistent with recently published findings indicating that mindfulness can slow the perceived passage of time (Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2012; Kramer et al. 2013). Parallels with this finding can also be observed in the literature on flow states (i.e., “holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement” (Csikszentmihalyi 1975, p. 36)), consistently reporting time distortions—both over and under estimations—in individuals fully attending to a specific activity (e.g., Jackson and Marsh 1996). Importantly, Adshead (2013) contends that time is critically intertwined with Western conceptualizations of emotion and the self (e.g., depression driven by the past, PTSD by the disruptions in the present, and anxiety by the future). She suggests that mindful practices may break rigid autobiographical narratives by encouraging contact with the present, lived experience in which “we become Timeless” (Adshead 2013, p. 146). Thus, shifting one’s perception of time and, conceivably, one’s orientation to the concept of time may have significant effects on well-being. In preliminary support of this claim, we found that the subjective experience of time dilation during the dishwashing task was associated with greater positive affective experience following the task. However, our non-significant mediation model suggests further work is needed to clarify this relationship.
Implications for these findings are diverse and suggest that mindfulness could be cultivated through a broad range of activities. It may be that Hanh’s (1975) list of possible informal practices (e.g., talking, walking, eating) represents only a fraction of the activities that could be used to cultivate mindfulness. Consciously bringing mindful awareness to leisure or vocational activities may serve to encourage mindfulness and positive affect. Indeed, as mindfully engaging in work activities has already been shown to enhance performance (Dane and Brummel 2013; Shao and Skarlicki 2009), mindfulness could play a multifaceted role in the workplace. Furthermore, inclusion of informal practices into mindfulness training may make mindfulness accessible to more people and ease the integration of mindful practices in necessarily secular organizations (e.g., public schools). Relatedly, these findings suggest that mindful practices need not be “left on the cushion” but could be embedded in any activity. It is possible that embedding mindful practices in daily living tasks could more readily facilitate the consolidation of mindfulness from a transient mental state to a more durable trait-like disposition. It may be that “practicing” in real time might serve to more quickly integrate the attentional and regulatory capacities cultivated in traditional mindful practices in daily life. Or, as is more likely the case, it may be that coupling formal mindfulness meditation with informal mindfulness practices is the most effective approach to deepen mindful dispositionality while fostering positive affectivity and psychological well-being.
While our results are promising, limitations should be noted and considerably more exploration of informal mindfulness practices is needed. We cannot assert that informal practice caused an increase in state mindfulness without measuring state mindfulness before and after the inductions. However, measurement of state mindfulness prior to induction would have been inappropriate given the intent of the particular scale employed in this study. The TMS was designed to be implemented immediately following a mindfulness meditation session to describe the phenomenological experience during the session (Lau et al. 2006). Relatedly, the control condition instructions may have led participants to be less curious about their own thoughts, feelings, and sensations during the dishwashing experience. Thus, the present study design cannot determine whether the mindful dishwashing condition increased state mindfulness or whether the control condition decreased mindfulness—either outcome might have produced the relative difference in state mindfulness observed between study conditions. Future studies should employ pre-post measures of state mindfulness as well as less reactive indices of mindfulness (e.g., physiological measures or neurocognitive tasks) to more accurately assess participants’ mindfulness. Moreover, longitudinal studies should use repeated measures of state mindfulness following multiple sessions of informal mindfulness practice to determine whether state mindfulness increases as a linear function of practice experience.
That the mindful dishwashing passage may have implicitly suggested the subjective experience of expansion of time by applying negative connotations to hurrying or rushing through activities is a further limitation of this study. Future research should guard against potential confounds introduced by the wording of passages used for experimental manipulations. In that regard, it is possible that participant responses to the mindful dishwashing induction in the present study may have resulted more from the demand characteristics of the passage than from an induced mindful state, per se. The ecological validity of this study should also be considered given participants washed clean dishes in a laboratory setting. It is unclear if these results would be replicated with dirty dishes in an in-home dishwashing experience. Finally, gender should be thoroughly investigated given previous evidence that mindfulness interventions are more effective for women (e.g., Shapiro et al. 2006) and the sample size in this study did not allow for gender-specific analyses.
Finally, research should investigate the efficacy of a variety of other informal mindful practices as well as more diverse populations to address the generalizability of our results. Longitudinal, head-to-head trials could directly compare the effects of formal versus informal practices on state to trait consolidation of mindfulness over time and whether such consolidation results in enduring benefits with respect to cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. As an initial step in this proposed research program, the current study offers preliminary support for the feasibility and benefits of using everyday tasks as informal mindfulness practices.
The authors would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Sandra Lewis for the use of the lab facilities.