Background: I live at Event Horizon, a rationalist house that for much of its history housed so many short-to-medium-term guests that many people thought of it as a rationalist hostel. We've developed a number of useful systems over the years, and while I don't have reason to believe our methods are entirely novel, I've still always thought it would be nice to share them. I'll be doing so in bite-sized posts like this over the coming months.

In this first post, I introduce a simple and versatile tool: the Towel Census. 

Because we had so many guests using our house towels, and because there were too many of us to keep track of, about once a month we would end up in a state where all the towels were hanging up in the bathroom, dirty, and no one was sure which ones were in use. To solve this, we invented the Towel Census. The steps are simple:

  1. Someone goes around and puts a piece of blue tape on every towel in the house.
  2. The towel census is announced in Slack (which is our central channel for house communications), and a deadline for removing the tape is given (usually 48 or 72 hours out).
  3. Residents remove tape from towels that they are currently using. If out of town, residents can ask via Slack for their tape to be removed.
  4. When the deadline is up, the censor gathers all the towels that still have tape on them, washes them, and puts them away with the guest towels.

On average, we'd do a towel census every two months, and find 10-15 unclaimed towels each time. 

The same process can be used to identify other unclaimed items, such as shoes, jackets, toiletries, and food in the fridge that no one wants anymore.

Variant: Instead of putting tape on every item, just move all of the items, and have people put back the ones that belong to them. This can be better than tape in some cases, e.g. for toiletries since they’re small and likely to get wet. 

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have any questions or confusions :)

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:37 AM

If you're only doing this every few months, wouldn't it be easier to just wash all of them?

This doesn't solve the problem of knowing which ones are guest towels and which are in use by housemates. Also, assuming that it takes at least a couple hours to wash and dry all the towels (realistically more like seven hours, given the large number of towels), and that each housemate only has one towel, this strategy would mean someone can basically just unilaterally decide that no one gets to shower for the better part of a day.

We had a similar system at Gentle Mesa for identifying orphaned objects, but it was done room by room instead of object by object.

It went like this:

  1. Announce on slack you're doing a clean out of a public space.
  2. Put all the potentially orphaned objects from that room on a table. Put a picture of the table on slack for people who aren't home.
  3. If an object is still on the table within 48 hours, its' up for grabs.
  4. If an object is still on the table within 72 hours, it gets thrown away.

One of the benefits of this over your method is that it's a lot less work for the initiator, because they don't have to find all the objects in the house first (just check the room) nor do they have to check all the objects in the house at the end (just toss everything on the table).

I just want to point out that you should probably change your towel at least every week (preferably every three uses), especially if you leave it in a high humidity environment like a shared bathroom.

I can't even imagine the smell... Actually, yes I can, because I've had the same scenario happen to me at another rationalist sharehouse.

So, um, maybe every two months is a little bit too long.

A few obvious alternatives:

1. Everyone leave their towels in their room.
2. Guests leave their towels in their rooms. The common towels are put into a hamper every week, and the hamper goes to the laundry when it's full.
3. Have fewer towels. Not the best solution since that doesn't solve the problem of not having any towels while they're being washed, but it could create more incentive to change them more often.

This is definitely the sort of coordination problem that happens when you have a lot of people living together, but I also have a feeling that this should not happen at all, somehow. Like, in general, if this is like a hostel, then guests should behave as guests in a hostel, and the hostel itself should have people responsible for regular cleaning (this could be the permanent housemates). There is definitely a privacy and autonomy tradeoff at hostels.

You know, that's an excellent point. I just bought my boyfriend a new towel and washed all the towels in the house (serendipitously, everyone's out of town for the holidays). I also want to note that we no longer really have this problem, and that the smell - at least the ambient smell - has never been very bad. Although, yeah, when I stick my face in some of the towels and smell them I... wish I hadn't. I'm also a female with good hygiene, moderate OCD, and an unusually good sense of smell, so. Yeah, I hear you. 

Also, re: the two months thing - the guest towels would generally just remain hanging up after one or two uses, while housemates generally would each wash their own towels regularly like normal adults. So it's not quite as bad as it sounds, though it's still not exactly ideal. 

Time to clean everything! Thank you for your input.

That all makes more sense now :)

In our case the towel rack was right in front of the toilet, so it didn't have to be an ambient thing haha

IMO, this is pretty necessary in any shared space. My company does this twice a year for for the office umbrella rack, fridge, and cupboard.