Understanding Housework – And Stop Fighting About It

The Standards Challenge (Part Two)

It’s more common than you’d think for two people to fight about whether household tasks have been ‘done’. Or if everyone is doing their fair share of the work. Why is this? Often it’s because we have different understandings of the ‘whole’ task. The first post in this three part series examines why standards might differ between household members. If you missed Part One, read The Standards Challenge: Are they Half-Assing Housework To Get Out Of It? (Part One) about why standards might differ. Part Three will look at how to approach a conversation with a household member to keep discussions more collaborative and less combative. In this post, we’ll look at understanding and defining a housework task, and why having different understandings can be a source of conflict.

What Needs Agreement?

We don’t have to do things exactly the same way, as long as everything gets done in a timely manner. It can be easy – especially when we’re tired/stressed – to get annoyed that someone takes longer than us to do something. When I was growing up, my younger brother was assigned the task of cleaning the shower every week. He would spend over an hour in the shower, meticulously cleaning it (and using all the hot water). My sister and I would often wonder how it could take him so long – what was he doing in there (all obvious jokes aside)? But it would always be spotless when he was done. So provided we managed to shower first, it really wasn’t a problem.

The first and most important principle for establishing household standards is to focus on output and impact. How somebody does something doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t impact anyone but them. Don’t let it stress you if your partner faffs about for hours on end to wash the dishes. Just block it out, and focus on whether you have clean, dry dishes when you need them. Output in this case: clean, dry dishes. Impact: other members of the household can use them for meals and snacks without having to wash up first.

Why Reminders Are A Problem

Perhaps the most important thing to agree is what complete means. A common issue couples encounter is one partner having to remind the other to do something. This can become a major source of mental load, stress and in some cases conflict. For example, taking responsibility for grocery shopping shouldn’t just mean the actual execution of the task. It also means thinking about when it needs to be done, keeping track of what’s needed to get it done correctly, and actually doing it. If you’re responsible for the weekly grocery order, that includes responsibility for remembering to do it without needing to be reminded.

If you need your partner to remind you in order to do it on time, you’re not taking complete responsibility for that task. Plus, you’re adding to your partner’s workload by forcing them to remember, track and remind you of a task – a major contributor of Mental Load. Fortunately for us, we live in an age when we can simply set up an automated reminder on our phones or write it in a diary. If you rely on someone else to remind you, you’re refusing to take full responsibility for the task, and making someone else take it for you.

Taking Complete Responsibility: A Framework

If you need more help in defining what complete means for a task in your house, here’s a framework that might help. In her book, Fair Play, Eve Rodsky talks about the work in terms of three parts – conception, planning & execution. This is an extremely useful approach to take in defining what full responsibility for a task means:

Conception

Conception is understanding the requirements. For grocery shopping it might be understanding the common household goods and food items your household uses. Which brand of peanut butter does your kid like? Which shampoo does your partner use? You may even make a template list of these items that you can check against every time you shop to save time.

Planning

Planning is how regularly you will do a task, making sure you remember it, and factoring in any logistical elements. For grocery shopping this might mean putting the order in on Wednesday so it can be delivered on Friday. It would include knowing that you have to lodge the order before 10pm in order to get delivery at the right time and setting yourself a diary reminder so you don’t forget. You may even need to take time on Tuesday to check around the house to see which items you’ve run out of in preparation for putting in the order, and ask household members if they need anything. And of course you need to think about who will be home to receive the order and put everything away. All of this is part of the task.

Execution

Execution is the actual physical work of completing the task. This is what many people will think of as the work, but is actually only one third of it. In this example, putting in the order for groceries on time, on a specific week. Perhaps being home to receive the order, and unpacking – if that’s what you’ve arranged. Rinse and repeat – without reminders.

Further Reading

Read the next post in this series: The Standards Challenge: Discussing Household Standards (Part Three) to learn how to have a conflict-free discussion about your household standards.

If you’re still struggling with how to have a conversation with a member of your household about different standards for housework, there are some excellent books that have been written on this topic. I personally found that Fair Play by Eve Rodsky gives a great explanation of the differences between household types that can impact these conversations. It proposes a system for how to distribute and manage household work in a fairer way as well. Rodsky gives lots of accounts of different household and personality types from her research. This can be helpful to understanding the different challenges households face.

If you want to understand more about your household work, you can try the ThirdShift app. It helps you measure, manage and value the work in your household. Start by completing the ThirdShift Quiz that gives you an overview of your current workload. More complete data helps you understand who is doing what, find a fairer balance, and have easier conversations about it at home. It’s completely free, and you can then choose whether to signup for a more comprehensive solution. Start now.

Ready to start reducing your mental load?

Find out how you can save time, reduce your workload & free yourself from the mental load. Take the ThirdShift Quiz to start understanding what your work is worth.