I derive immense satisfaction from outsourcing my chores. All of my friends have heard me encourage them to place a higher value on their free time and delegate their errands. Few of them heed my advice, and it's probably because they know about the time I paid someone $96 to clean a $39 keyboard.
It all started with a writing class
Back in 2016, I lived in a small studio apartment in Manhattan. It was a Monday night, and I was staring at my computer trying to write a short story. I hadn't written fiction since high school, but I had recently signed up for a writing class. My first assignment was due at 9am the next day.
Desperate for any distraction, I became fixated on my keyboard. It was so dusty and grimy. How had I not noticed this before? I used the same keyboard for six years, typed on it 20-30 hours per week, and ate all my meals in front of it.
Growing up, my parents routinely popped all the keys from our keyboards to deep clean them in rubbing alcohol. Did people still do that?
I should do that!
No, couldn't do that or I'd never finish my story. I recognized my newfound cleanliness obsession as the procrastination mechanism that it was, but my only way of moving past it was to promise myself that I'd handle the dirty keyboard later that week.
Outsource all the things
At the time, I was making good money working for Google, but I constantly felt short on time. A friend in Seattle told me that she used an app called TaskRabbit to book workers for short, one-off tasks like mounting a TV or picking something up from the store.
I signed up and browsed the app. To my surprise, TaskRabbit had no job template for “deep cleaning an old keyboard,” so I booked the job as “Small cleaning” and explained the nature of my task in the description. Unsure if the keyboard would fill up TaskRabbit's one-hour minimum, I requested that the cleaner also take care of some dishes that had piled up in my sink.
Must have at least 15 years of keyboard cleaning experience
People who responded to my TaskRabbit job were confused.
One applicant told me that she wanted to be upfront in that she had “zero keyboard cleaning experience.” I assured her that it was okay. She only had to take out the keys, wipe them with rubbing alcohol, and put them back.
Another candidate was pregnant and needed to know whether the job required heavy lifting. I promised her that mine was one of those fancy, modern keyboards that weighs less than 35 pounds.
Finally, Jaclyn S sent me an offer. She approached the job with supreme confidence and had no questions except for what supplies to bring. Within 20 minutes, we booked the job for 3pm the following day.
The first hiccup
Jaclyn S. messaged me a few hours before the appointment saying that her morning job exploded into a 10-hour task. She wouldn't be able to make it to my place by 3pm. We could either reschedule for 9pm that evening or 3pm the following day.
This offended me. Was Jaclyn S. implying that I, a young man in one of Manhattan's trendiest neighborhoods, had nothing better to do on a Saturday night than sit and watch somebody clean my keyboard?
It was offensive because it was true. I told Jaclyn S. that 9pm was fine and awaited her arrival.
Jaclyn S. arrived just after 8:30pm. Here's the play-by-play of how the evening went:
8:35pm, 5 minutes elapsed
I show Jaclyn S. to the kitchen, where there are a few days’ worth of dirty dishes in the sink. Next to the sink, my keyboard is on a table, alongside Q-Tips, paper towels, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I roll in an extra office chair, show her how to pop keys off the keyboard, and tell her that I'll be on the other side of the kitchen wall if she has any questions.
8:36pm, 6 minutes elapsed
Returning to the desk in my bedroom/living room, I hear my sink turn on and the sound of dishes being scrubbed. We're off to a good start.
9pm: 0.5 hours elapsed
The sink turns off, and I hear the distinct noise of keys popping off a keyboard. Everything's on schedule.
9:30pm: 1 hour elapsed
Okay, she's been on the keyboard for half an hour. She'll probably be done any minute now.
10:00pm, 1.5 hours elapsed
Any minute now.
10:15pm: 1.75 hours elapsed
The sounds coming from the kitchen sound panicked, like someone who screwed up and didn't want to ask for help. Is she having trouble putting the keys back in? Has something broken, and she's scrambling to fix it? Maybe I'm just projecting.
10:30pm, 2 hours elapsed
Should I go in and ask her what's taking so long? It's tempting, but the situation makes me feel tremendously guilty. Because of me, she's now entering hour 13 of her workday, and she's stuck scrubbing a keyboard late into the night because some idiot was too lazy to do it himself.
11pm: 2.5 hours elapsed
On my way to the bathroom, I sneak a peek into the kitchen to see what's going on. Most of the keys are still outside the keyboard, but Jaclyn S. is sitting between me and the table, blocking most of my view.
This has to end eventually, so I'll see what happens.
11:30pm: 3 hours elapsed
What if this never ends?
What if I have to go to sleep with Jaclyn S. still cleaning my keyboard? What if years go by? I'll get married and have children, then have to explain why there's a woman who lives in my kitchen, eternally cleaning my precious Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.
12am: 3.5 hours elapsed
Jaclyn S. emerges from my kitchen, triumphantly carrying my now sparkling clean keyboard. I thank her for her work and show her out. After plugging in my keyboard, everything works fine.
The final cost for Jaclyn's three and a half hours of keyboard cleaning: $95.55.
Out of curiosity, I checked what I paid for that keyboard brand new: $38.89.
I spent $96 to clean a $39 keyboard.
It's not that dumb
When I told friends about it, many of them smugly remarked, “Oh, I'd never waste $100 to clean a keyboard. I'd just clean it myself.” In fact, they would waste $100 cleaning it themselves. They just don't realize it.
There's an implicit cost to everything that you do. You probably can't calculate the value of your time down to the penny, but you can estimate it by asking yourself how much you'd demand to do the same task for someone else. If you're unwilling to clean keyboards to earn $30/hr, then it's irrational to clean a keyboard to save $30/hr.
At the time of my fateful keyboard cleaning, my employer paid me well. For me to sacrifice my limited free time to clean someone's keyboard, they'd have to offer me well above $100/hr.
That said, there's obviously something hinky going on when the cost of an item's routine maintenance far exceeds its value, so what went wrong here?
Outsourcing doesn't scale down
Between my time investment in arranging the job and the efficiency I lost, distracted by the poor woman stuck in my kitchen for almost four hours, it cost me more time to outsource this task than to do it myself.
For any outsourced task, there are frictional costs of defining the job, finding a candidate, and managing their work. For small, one-time tasks, the frictional costs can balloon to a large enough proportion of the job that they negate the benefit of outsourcing.
Invest more in training
The keyboard needed a good cleaning, but not three hours of cleaning. Three hours would be like if I asked her to clean it after dipping it in a vat of molasses.
My cleaner may have washed each key more thoroughly than was necessary. Perhaps she got stuck trying to put the keyboard back together and was afraid to ask for help. I could have prevented either pitfall by giving her more instructions upfront and letting her know it's okay to watch YouTube videos or ask me for guidance.
There's always craigslist
I knew from the start that cleaning the keyboard might be more expensive than replacing it, but the only alternative that occurred to me involved throwing away a perfectly functional keyboard and buying the same model brand new.
Cover art by Loraine Yow.
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