Get The Towel First: How Our Brains Trick Us into Indifference

I’m about to share one of my top process efficiency discoveries of all time. Well, OK, I don’t want to oversell this… but it’s something that both amazes and amuses me, many times a week.

Before we continue, however, a bit of context is required.  Female readers will resonate with this immediately. And for the men—well, you’re about to get a peek into that mysterious enclave known as—The Ladies Room (and yes, we persist in calling it that, despite the more P.C. signage of “WOMEN” on the door.)

Emotional Intelligence and Public restrooms

What Causes The Mess?

So Ladies: I think that you’ll agree that large public restrooms can be pretty messy. There’s almost always soapy water pooled on the counters and floors. Paper towels fallen from overstuffed trash bins lay half-soaked, and sometimes there’s even a muddy path leading to the stalls.  Leaning over to reach the wall-mounted soap dispenser results in a wet jacket hemline. Ugh.

What’s up with this? It doesn’t happen at home (exception noted for any family with 2+ young children.)  Is it the sheer volume of usage that causes  this mess? Or is it… something more subtle?

Let’s think this through. The major problem here is the water everywhere. But what causes that? It’s actually a process flaw resulting from force of habit– The human brain’s perceptual tics, tripping us up again.

Yes, that’s right. Hand-washing is a process. Think about the typical routine.

START –> 1.Turn on faucet–> 2. Wet hands to prime for soap–>                   3. Squeeze soap from dispenser–>4. Massage foamy hands under running water–> 5. Turn off faucet–> 6. Get towel–> 7. Dry hands–>  END

Now visualize the LOCATION of the paper towel dispenser in the public restroom. It’s usually at the end of the row of sinks, or even across the bathroom by the door. This is a major variation from the design of our home bathrooms, and requires us to shuffle from sink to towels with arms raised as if scrubbing-in for surgery. Water trickles down the forearms and drips off the elbows. Then there’s that awkward wrist push of the lever to avoid touching it with clean hands… because it’s dripping wet.  Our path from sink to dispenser can be traced by the stream of water on the floor, along with the trails of those who shuffled before us.

It’s easy to remedy, and yet almost no one does. By moving Step #6 (Get towel) to the front of the process, the whole wet shuffling part is eliminated. In a perfect world, everyone would do this, so the counters would be dry enough to place the towel. But it can still be accomplished by tucking the towel in the underarm while washing the hands. I know this to be true, because I’ve been doing it for 7 years.

Now, lest you think I’m some kind of mutated Six Sigma rebel without a cause, allow me to explain. The reason I know it’s been 7 years is because this stroke of enlightenment was sparked by my then-4 yr. old asking “Mommy, can you reach me a towel?” as she stood in scrub-in pose at the sink. From then on, I always anticipated her needing a towel and grabbed them in advance of washing my own hands. That’s what started it—out of the mouths of babes! The armpit hold however,  was a stroke of pure genius to which I will lay claim :). But in all seriousness, it wasn’t until then that I realized how much more sense it made to do it in this order.

So simple, and yet so elusive. Through sheer force of habit, though, we continue to ignore the obvious environmental variation and plod ahead through muddy puddles of indifference.

And so the point of this revelation—(and there is one)– is two-fold. First, there is my sense of obligation as one who stumbled upon this cosmic discovery, to share it with all woman-kind. And removing my tongue from my cheek, more importantly, there’s a deep sense of self-amusement at having fallen into this human trap of mindless repetition in the first place. Granted, dirty public restrooms are not at the top of the list of unsolved world problems, but it does make me pause for reflection.  I wonder how often this happens in other situations where the stakes are higher? Are we watchful for signs of environmental change or variation, and purposeful about adapting? It’s easy to say, but hard to do, when behaviors become ingrained.

Attesting to the power of ingrained behaviors is the reaction of the countless women who have witnessed me performing this deviation lo’ these past 7 years. Their reaction has been 99.99% NOTHING.  Not once has anyone modeled this innovation.  It would be 100%, save for the one woman who commented “my, that’s clever” as I reached behind her for a towel. She was already mid-wash and thus unable to avail herself of this opportunity. I trust, though, that she has carried the flame to other public restrooms.

So who’s with me? Are we going to take care of this problem, ladies? We can start a whole movement—the “Get The Towel First!” club. And guys, I have to guess that your restroom process could benefit, as well?

And maybe, just maybe, “G.T.T.F.!” is something we can apply to more important situations, to provoke adaptive creativity and innovation. It’s all about pushing through that crust of the brain’s tendency to default to routine, and looking for opportunities. And heck, if all it ever amounts to is dry floors in the Ladies Room, then I’m OK with that, too.

Have you had any “G.T.T.F!” moments recently? Please do share!


10 responses to “Get The Towel First: How Our Brains Trick Us into Indifference

  1. Genius! Love the article!

  2. Thanks Carolyn. Welcome to the G.T.T.F. club!

  3. Pam,

    If I may, to me I would sum up your blog post with something I learned from the mouth’s of babes.

    Always ask why.

    I can’t remember the number of times I’ve heard “That’s the way we do it here,” to which I invariably ask “Why?” Your blog is a classic example of this concept. As PMs we should always be challenging the norm. Always asking if it can be done better, or if we are even doing it right.

    Thank you,
    Joel BC

  4. Joel, you are so right! I usually think of that as “challenging the assumptions”. I remember my 3 year old constantly asking “why” and it’s a great way to break through habitual thought patterns. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

  5. Pam, consider me the newest member of the GTTF club! Genius. I also think that it’s to do with the taps though. The water seems to come out gushing or barely at all meaning it either splashes everywhere or we have to rub and jiggle to get enough water and we make it splash. Or it is far too hot and we pull back (I have only just found out that the water is so hot to prevent Legionnaire’s disease) and splash. I use the towel to wipe down the surface after me, and I have rarely seen anyone else do that.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. Glad to have you as a member of the G.T.T.F.! So this now makes the club international! Yay! I agree with your observations about the influence of the water pressure. Will have to tackle that problem next 🙂 Perhaps a “M.T.W.P.T.C.” club? (Make The Water Pressure and Temperature Consistent”)

      Best regards,

  6. Well done Pam…I think you may have started something here…next week ‘world peace’ perhaps?


  7. Pam, funny how something so obvious and small could make such a difference. I love the G.T.T.F concept and will apply it ASAP. This also begs for the order of events to be considered for many more important things that we do at work and in our every day. Thanks for the great idea!