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:
- The living space is usually clean enough, for however the housemates define "clean".
- Chores are completed with minimal nagging, angst, and time commitment.
- 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.
- flexibility in how much people contribute, e.g. more some weeks and less during busy weeks
- flexibility in which chores people do, depending on their preferences
- the work people do is visible and appreciated
- chores might not get done -- if everyone is having a bad week, the living space might devolve as people hope that others will clean instead
- important chores might not get done -- perhaps several people sweep and wipe down counters, but no one ever wants to take out the trash or clean the bathroom
- the main incentive towards chore equity is guilt or attention-seeking, which are both motivators I'm trying to move away from
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).
- important chores are clearly named and it's clear who's responsible for them
- important chores are more likely to get done regularly before things get disgusting
- chore distribution is more equal
- everyone's cleanliness standards are balanced out as they each get to clean something to their standards once a wheel spin
- there's minimal incentive to do anything that isn't on the chore wheel, limiting chores likely to get done to the finite set of things on the wheel
- everyone has to do every chore at some point, even if some people have chore preferences that are compatible to splitting things up
- a single person being sick or busy can result in a chore not getting done, since the chore is seen as only their responsibility
- chore wheels generally don't result in celebrations of chore completion -- at best completed chores are neutral and not noticed, and at worst people feel resentment or guilt for assigned chores not getting done
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.
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.
- everyone completing the same number of points helps chore distribution feel more equal
- people can mostly do the chores they prefer
- listing many chores shows people how they can contribute
- there's little incentive to do unpopular chores like taking out the compost, since a point quota can be met by doing other things
- the system incentivizes doing unneeded chores for the sole purpose of keeping point counts equal or up to quota, which results in unnecessary work
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
- clothespins labeled with people's names, used to temporarily mark unwashed dishes with who will return to them
- regularly scheduled cleaning parties where housemates clean together
- compost bins kept in the freezer to reduce smell and fruit flies
- a chore wheel only for taking out the trash (which was the one chore this house regularly argued over) that rotated each time someone did it
- a wish list of non-critical or time-sensitive chores that people would like to see get done