What Killing Roaches Can Teach Us About Motivation
Who's on (bug) duty?
Every household has its roles, and in ours, my husband is the de facto "bug guy." When an unwelcome creepy crawler appears, he's deployed immediately to take care of it. After 10 years together, he's gotten so good at this job that he can now tell from just the sound of my "yelp" alone that there's a new buggy intruder that needs to be dispatched. (Side note: This is very impressive.)
But lately, my husband has been traveling a lot for work, which means the "bug stuff" falls to me. We also received moved into a ground-floor New York City apartment right at street level... suffice it to say, there's a bit more to tend to than usual.
Spiders, centipedes, flies...fine. I won't like it, but I'll get the job done. It's the cockroaches that really creep me out -- those 2-inch long big guys that move and twitch in all of the wrong ways.
In the "before times" (that's to say, life before our baby), I dealt with roaches while my husband was away through a concentrated mix of panic, obsession, and indecision. I vividly remember one incident about four years ago where, seeing a roach in the corner of our living room, I sat on the top edge of my couch, treated the ground like hot lava while repeatedly tossing our blind, deaf cat in that direction, hoping she'd get lucky enough to take a few lucky swipes.
After nearly two hours of staring at the radiator where he was first spotted, I eventually cowered in fear, retreated to the bedroom, and blocked access to the bottom of the door before going to sleep. Part of me truly thought the problem would just go away on its own. But of course as all New Yorkers know, that's never how it works. This strategy only kicks the can down the road anywhere from 3 to 10 days later, and so you must spend every waking moment in peak vigilance, being on the lookout for the one errant move that might stir the beast from his hiding place.
But I digress.
Things are different now with a baby in the house. The stakes are higher. My literal nightmare is the moment where our toddler discovers a roach herself, picks it up carefully, and brings it to her lips for a curious taste. The visual alone makes me squirm, and I'm intent on prevent that horrifying possibility at all costs. Which means, these days, I need to be a little braver than usual.
Rogue roaches at the ready
I've encountered four cockroaches while my husband has been away, one for each week of his absence. The first was easy -- I discovered it at a party with friends and dispatched someone else to take care of it for me. As a new city dweller, it wasn't the most graceful killing, but he got the job done.
The second was dead when I found it. While getting the baby out of bed for the morning, I saw it belly-up on our walk to the kitchen for her morning breakfast. Recognizing the importance of not making a scene in front of her, I gulped down a big breath of "ick," grabbed a giant paper towel and flushed it down the toilet on my own. She was none the wiser.
The third was trickier, sill alive, and hiding out underneath the sugary goodness of some bananas and oranges I'd displayed on a small side table. (Rookie mistake, I realize in hindsight.) After getting over the total disgust of reaching for a banana and touching a roach instead, I decided to try a maneuver akin to some early Sandlot baseball recovery attempts. I grabbed a large garbage bag, covered the entire table, and in one fell swoop, jettisoned the entire plate, food and all, into the trash, then quickly extracted just the plate, roach-free. It wasn't dead but it was contained. I put the entire bag immediately in the trash outside.
It was the fourth roach that really threw me for a loop. It was in the middle of the work day, and I was on a Zoom call when I saw it, alive and squirming, scattered among all of my baby's toys in the living room. I couldn't catch it with confidence, couldn't spray it with poison due to the presence of so many toys. I knew I'd have to deal with this the hard way: Death upon sudden impact.
How to kill a cockroach
There comes a time in every city-dweller's life where you have to ask yourself, Can I kill a roach myself? It seemed, after 10 years as a New Yorker, my time had finally arrived. But could I handle it?
If you ask five New Yorkers how they kill their roaches, you'll get five different preferred methods. Magazines, books, stepping on them, I even have friends that grab them directly with towels and squeeze them with their own hands. But my preferred method -- the one I'd seen work with most success over the years -- is a classic shoe swat. The trick is to find a shoe that's flexible enough to direct the swing in just the right way while still having a hard enough sole to land your blow with a satisfying "SNAP!"
Within about 90 seconds, I'd gathered the tools for the job: A shoe, a roll of paper towels, and a large plastic bag. I stood, hovering over the roach, watching his little legs twitch about, watching him get closer and closer to turning himself over and escaping back into the bowels of my living room, but I just...couldn't...bring myself to do it.
One thing I've realized about myself over the years is that I'm braver when people around me are more afraid. I thought back to a time when everyone at the office was squirming over a roach racing across the floor, begging for help. And despite my own qualms about the critters, I got up nonchalantly, grabbed a giant book off the shelf and just...SPLAT. It took all of 30 seconds. "Thank you!!" I still remember them saying. "Office hero! You saved us!"
But it's hard to be a hero when you're all alone, isn't it? (COVID has taught us at least this much.)
Thinking back on that incident, however, it occurred to me that while I might not be anyone's hero, in this instance I certainly might benefit from a little peer pressure and coaching. So I turned to our current work slack and typed, "Anyone have 2 minutes for a quick Zoom call? I have a silly but urgent need.""Sure," replied a colleague.
I popped my laptop on the coach and opened Zoom, where I delivered the instructions: "I have a live roach in my living room. I have all of the materials I need to kill it. But it's disgusting and creepy, and I just need someone to encourage me to rip off the band-aid and smash it. Can you help?"
And while he described to me the fastidious nature of roaches actually being among the cleanest insects (as opposed to the grimiest, as they may appear), I counted myself off, winced only a little and dropped down the shoe for a bulls-eye. I screamed when its guts gave way a little crunch.
"That was so gross. Ugh...but thanks. I think I just needed a little coaching. Talk to you later!" And that was that. The whole deed took under two minutes.
"I really hope you took a screenshot of that," I typed into Slack a couple of minutes later.
"I was thinking I should have!" he wrote back.
What's a roach got to do with motivation?
As I learned that day, a lot.
There are little things in our everyday lives -- tiny bugs that cause us a little bit of low-level annoyance that we should probably just take care of. Our health, our wellness, that home project we promised we'd start, that thing we said we'd schedule, that project we said we'd finish.
All things that are easy enough to ignore, things we know at face value how to do, but just for whatever reason are having a hard time pulling the trigger, making the commitment, dropping the proverbial shoe, as it were.
It wasn't that I needed advice on how to kill a roach. I also didn't need help finding the supplies or materials I needed to do the job. I had everything in my head and in my hands to do the thing I needed to do. As it would turn out, all I needed was some good old-fashioned accountability to motivate me to take action. Someone on the other side of another laptop window showing up and supporting me to just get it done.
Chances are, you've got a few roaches in your life right now too. I wonder, is there anyone you can call today on Zoom to give you that little boost to push yourself over the edge and take care of it?