in search of a perfect chore system

from evy's notebook

Keeping living spaces clean has often been one of the more contentious topics of discussion when I've lived with groups of people. Chore systems are interesting to me because they navigate competing incentives: not wanting do chores and wanting to live somewhere that is clean enough (for varying definitions of "clean").

For me, an effective chore system accomplishes these goals:

  1. The living space is usually clean enough, for however the housemates define "clean".
  2. Chores are completed with minimal nagging, angst, and time commitment.
  3. Chore work is distributed reasonably equitably across housemates. While I don't think that everyone putting the same amount of work into chores is a necessary goal, I do think it's important to strive for an equitable distribution. When cleaning is done on an honor system, it's common for more work to be done by those socialized to take on a cleaning role (often women).

Here are three chore systems I've used with people, each with its own pros and cons:

share what gets done

When I set up this system with friends in 2014, I printed out two sheets of paper: one listing relevant chores to be done, and another where people could mark that they'd completed them. There was no quota or expectation for how much people cleaned. Several people had complained that they felt they cleaned more than others in the house, and I hoped this system would help bring awareness (and gratitude) to the work getting done.

Several community homes have implemented a similar structure where there are no chore assignments and people simply brag in a Slack channel whenever they complete a chore.



chore wheel

I do love a good chore wheel. It's not for everyone, but when it works it works. In 2018, some friends and I distributed our important chores between us and rotated them each week. We also had a monthly chore system for less important chores (which we almost always forgot to do).



That last one isn't necessarily a con! I'd actually prefer to have chores completed without thinking much about them instead of having them celebrated but completed less reliably.

point system

For three months, I lived with someone who used a point quota system. Almost every possible chore was printed on a large table, and we initialed next to chores each time we completed them. If someone didn't complete a set number of points each month, they paid for someone to come clean the house.



concluding thoughts

It seems like some chores are often more important to happen regularly (like cleaning the bathroom) and some chores are noncritical improvements (like setting up a new spice rack). Some chores are important to happen within a short time window (like emptying the trash) and others are more time-flexible (like sweeping floors). All of these types of contributions to a living space are important, but perhaps each is most likely to happen smoothly under different systems.

My favorite chore system (at the moment) is using a chore wheel for critical chores, alongside a brag channel for people to announce and celebrate other contributions. But I don't think there's a perfect chore system. Incentive structures vary depending on what motivates people, how a space is set up, what kinds of messes people tend to make, and many other factors. My hope is that more groups of people living together can be aware of the wide array of options open to them, and find a system that works well for their needs.

post script: other chore-related systems I've seen and appreciated