On the problems of sharing house-work

I have, over the years, shared many homes (at least a dozen) with many people (leaving aside childhood and a boarding school, close to thirty of them). In some households, I have found myself seemingly doing all of the house-work; in others I have been subject to grumbling for not doing enough. I have seen various strategies for trying to eliminate the perceived unfairness of this. Most of these are themselves unfair, because they do not address the underlying cause of the problem: different people have different squalor tolerances.

The problem

The household tasks at issue are all about cleaning up the mess. (Similar analysis can be applied to other chores, but I trust you, gentle reader, to work out the generalization for yourselves, as the discussion shall become too vague if I try to keep it general enough to apply, in so far as it may, to all the cases it can cover.) Some of the mess arises immediately from identifiable actions – cooking and eating dinner leaves a bunch of equipment and dishes in need of cleaning. Some arises gradually from identifiable actions – the toilet would stay clean if we didn't use it. Some of it arises all on its own – dust settles out of the air even when there's no-one around to cause it. All of it is mess, none of it shall go away on its own (there is no toilet fairy, trust me) and each type of mess shall become worse if left to its own devices. If no-one cleans up the mess, ultimately it shall become squalid (and then worse), at least in someone's eyes – and thence springs the problem.

It is all too easy to think that taking turns, or following a schedule, or any number of other strategies, will lead to a fair division of labour among those in a household: but, as I'll explain below, this still works out unfair in one way or another. When this happens among a household of youths, sharing for transient convenience and overtly planning to move apart in a year or three, the worst that's apt to happen is that some friendships get strained. All too often, though, it happens to young couples who're committed to a lifetime together: here, the unfairness is apt to feel like a betrayal; and the knowledge that it shall continue indefinitely makes it all the more oppressively felt. This can all too easilly be the cruel disharmony that wrecks what might have been a happy relationship, had the issue been faced more wisely.


The house-mate who's anal about keeping the kitchen clean and tidy, with all the washing-up dealt with promptly, is also apt to be the one who's most careful to use no more pots and pans than necessary in the preparation of each dish – and also probably the one who gets steamed up about a house-mate managing to use (seemingly) everything in the entire kitchen just to make one meal for himself. I have been that person, so I know. I also don't put things in the sink except for the brief period when I'm actually doing to them whatever it is that needed them in the sink: that way, if I want to fill the kettle, I don't have to fight with what's in the sink to do it. However, dumping things in the sink seems to be the normal way to deal with dirty dishes. Perhaps someone, somewhere, is doing it in order to force their housemates to wash up: if so, they're sadly misguided – it doesn't work, but does encourage their housemates to think it's OK, despite the inconvenience it causes. When I want to fill the kettle, in a household where this is normal, I have to take things out of the sink to do it; which doesn't work so well if someone's run the tap all over the stuff in the sink (e.g. as part of getting a glass of cold water), unless I remember to be careful about tipping out water in the process, so it won't spill wherever I'm putting it. Dumping things in the sink creates unnecessary work, yet it's so convenient for the person doing it. There may be some further rationalization for it but, of course, I'm the one who doesn't do it so I can't see the sense in it. Besides, I generally do the washing up rather than endure the site of stale food drying ever more firmly onto the dishes – or, if in the sink and so kept wet, rotting …

Contrariwise, I can never grasp the significance some place on dusting (wiping dust off the upward-facing horizontal surfaces that aren't floors). It has always struck me as near-futile: not only is the dust doing no real harm on the window-ledge or book-case, but it'll just be back – watch what happens when you're dusting, the dust mostly just ends up in the air, so it'll be settling back out soon enough. Of course, some don't like how it looks (which I'm tempted to regard as a symptom of having been taught an exagerrated assessment of the importance of dusting); and even I'll grant that it makes ornaments look less nice, but then I don't go much for ornaments; and appearances don't hugely bother me. A nice uniform layer of dust has its own charm (especially on the book-shelves) which is all too apt to be ruined by some fuss-pot wiping a line in it with a finger to make the point that there was dust there – you knew there was dust there before you stuck your finger in it, so that was totally unnecessary and just served to make the dust actually look bad, where ignoring it used to be easy, damnit ! Dust on my book-cases, and in many other places, is harmless, albeit some might find it aesthetically unwelcome; it does't deserve the same level of attention as cleanliness in the kitchen and bathroom. When I do dust, it's usually when I'm planning on sweeping the floor a while later, after the dust's settled.

Note that most of this analysis applies as well to a hippie commune, a student flat or a family home; although, for the latter, the details I go into are more relevant to when there are teen-age or young adult children living at home; some simplifications apply to a couple, although a couple with young children has more chores to share, making the (simpler) issues more accute (they're also typically tired, which is apt to make any strife harder to endure).

Why does no-one else do the (dishes|dusting|…) ?

It's wasteful to clear up a mess before it needs it. Just after it's been cleaned up to everyone's satisfaction, it doesn't need it. How much of it has to build up before it needs action again ? Ah, but there's the problem. For any given type of mess, each member of the household has a different tolerance; and one member of the household has the lowest tolerance. That member of the household shall either: clear up the mess before anyone else even notices it or; have to endure levels of that mess that they find irksome time, until the next lowest tolerance triggers, or; as is apt to seem to happen all too often, they'll endure the squalor for a time and still end up having to do the job themselves, when it just gets unbearable. That kind of thing gets wearisome fast.

A common response to this is to take turns. OK, I've just swept the floor, next time it's your turn. Sounds fair, right ? But the person whose turn it is won't get round to it as long as the given kind of mess remains within their comfort zone. When the turn falls to the person with the highest tolerance for a given kind of mess, everyone else's quality of life is going to be lowered by having to endure higher levels of that mess than they're comfortable with. They'll remind the person whose turn it is and maybe point out that (in their opinion) the job needs doing – but the person with the higher tolerance for that kind of mess isn't going to truly believe in the importance of getting round to that right now because, hey, it's not like it's bad yet, I'll get round to it, all in due course. To them, it's not that important and it feels unjust to be pressured to do the job more often that it actually needs it (in their opinion). Besides, it's more efficient to sweep up a lot of dust in a single go than to repeatedly sweep up tiny amounts of dust that weren't causing a problem (for me).

A common fix for this problem is to agree (and I use the word in one of its looser senses here, as this tends to happen by some in the household insisting on it and the others not actually refusing) on a schedule; when it's your turn to do that chore, you must do it within some definite amount of time, such as a week. That's fair, right ? After all, everyone gets to do it just as often, right ? But who decided how often ? If we do it every week, but one of us would have only done it once a month if left to their own devices, in a household of four or less we're actually making that person do it more often than they would if the job was always theirs: how is it sharing the load for someone whose load is higher than it would have been without the sharing ? How can that be fair ?

From the point of view of someone who can live with a given category of mess for a month before it builds up to a level they feel needs cleared up – at which point it may well be a Serious Job requiring serious effort, but hey, it's nice to see the improvement when it's done – the housemate who feels the need to do that job within a week is, in fact, slacking off. How so ? I mean, I took my turn, and I was even quick about it ! Well, sure, but how does it even count as taking your turn ? I mean, it was clean already – that must have been really hard work, you know, getting it clean, when it already was clean ! Hey, I know, I'll go grab the relevant tools right now and take my turn real quick – OK, so it'll take me almost no effort to take my turn but hey, at least I'm being quick about it, right ? So hey, now it's your turn again, Speedy Gon-Slacker.

There is unfairness in the sharing of household chores: if those with lower tolerances for mess don't end up doing all the work, or enduring higher levels of mess than they're comfortable with, then those with higher tolerances are burdened with doing a chore more often than is (in terms of the demands they place on the world) necessary. Acknowledging this is the first step on the road to finding constructive compromises or collectively enjoyable ways to avoid letting it become an issue.

I'm doing more than my fair share, damnit !

So, for each kind of mess, some members of the household have a lower tolerance for that kind of mess, others higher. But hey, there are many kinds of mess, we're all different – you care more about the dusting, I care more about the washing up so hey, you do the dusting, I'll wash up – surely it'll all average out, right ? WRONG !

There are two primary ways this is wrong: first, because those with a low tolerance for one kind of mess typically have a low tolerance for mess generally, and conversely for high tolerances. Sure, each may have exceptions: someone generally un-fussed about most kinds of mess may be fanatical about keeping the fridge clean and purging expired goods from it; or someone meticulous about most things might not care about the bin over-flowing, as long as it's out of sight. All the same, there's a correlation: some folk have a generally higher tolerance for squalor, others generally lower. So no, it won't average out.

The second primary effect is subtler: the kinds of squalor you tolerate easilly are the ones to which you pay least attention, but you're acutely aware of the ones for which you have a low tolerance. So if you each draw up a list of all the kinds of mess you care about, sure you'll find all the obvious suspects on everyone's list, but you may be surprised at some of the things the others think matter. This even makes it possible for each member of the household to be doing more than their fair share … of the work on their list of what matters – because they ignore, or at least don't place so much weight on, the chores they don't think matter so much (and, thus, don't do so often). Even if someone does acknowledge they're not doing their fair share, they don't perceive the short-fall as being as big a deal as it appears to those who are doing more than their fair share – because the very reason the former isn't doing the chores so much is that they don't attach as much importance to those chores as the others do.

Incidentally, the first reason above is also why most people don't really understand the problem: to those with low squalor tolerances, the rest just seem to be lazy slobs; to those with high tolerances for squalor, the rest seem neurotic about cleaning. Furthermore, it's usually (and I must stress that this is only a loose general approximation) women who have lower tolerances for mess, and men who have the higher ones (but even my limited evidence provides counter-examples to this – and to the popular myths that gay men are more fastidious and that more fastidious men are gay): sadly, this makes it all too easy for popular stereotypes about gender to blind people to the real issue. Men have heard from one another that women are neurotic about the cleaning, women have heard from one another that men are slobs; and each side has learned to treat this as a given, or at best as a gender-conflict issue, masking the real issue. I've had house-mates of each gender on each side of me on the scale of squalor tolerances (albeit with more men on the slob side and more women on the fussy side); even so, it took me years to notice the real dynamics.

Further complications

Someone who cares more about keeping the floors clean is more likely to not get their shoes dirty while out and to take them off (perhaps changing into indoor foot-wear) when coming in, so as to avoid tracking dirt around the house. Someone less bothered about the floor being clean – it's not like I eat off it, after all – is more apt to come home oblivious to dirty boots and walk all round the house unaware of the resulting dirty boot-prints. Taking boots off and putting them on is a hassle, why bother ? Especially when I'm going right back out again, I just had to stop by home to pick something up. To the one making the mess, it doesn't seem like it's such a big deal; yet, to the one with the lower tolerance for that class of mess, not only is it important, but it's also avoidable – and you just couldn't be bothered to try.

There's also the stereotypical mother-in-law complication: family and friends of a member of the household come to visit; some of these have lower squalor tolerances (or higher standards) than the household; some of them may even be so tactless as to make snide remarks about how the household isn't kept the way they keep their home. Of course, if one member of the household is feeling stressed about the mess, and has talked about this to those who later drop by as guests, a guest's remarks may be an honest attempt to stir the household to actually discuss their conflicts about house-work; the attempt is, I'm afraid, unlikely to do much good, but it is at least well-meant. The nasty sniping that's the basis of the stereotype, in contrast, is mere meanness; it is classically directed by the husband's mother at his wife, who is typically both the one actually doing the house-work and the one with the lower tolerance for mess; so the actual residents are OK with the mess about which the guest is sniping: the guest is merely rude, with the added vice of being potentially disruptive of the couple's domestic happiness.

Dual to the issue of which kinds of mess each member of a household is most acutely aware of: one must also consider that each finds some chores more onerous, some less; while there are some common patterns (in most households, everyone prefers to do the vacuuming over cleaning the toilet, for example) the differences within the household are another factor to be borne in mind. While the person who feels the need to vacuum before anyone else even notices there's any dust may be the one who least minds vacuuming, you have fairly good odds that the person who most acutely feels the need for the toilet to be clean is also the person who most acutely detests cleaning it.


Given the levels of resentment that sometimes build up from conflicts over the household chores, and the ease with which such resentment can be the seed from which deeper strife in the household may grow, those embarking on sharing their home have a better chance of doing so happily if they can find a healthy resolution of their differences of squalor tolerance. Doing that before the petty resentments build up depends on acknowledging the issue up front and being imaginative about how to deal with it.


One approach is to make a group activity out of the chores.

This section's title is taken from Norwegian: a dugnad is a communal event where all come together to do communal work. To take a common example, I live in a flat that I own as part of a building containing many; the building as a whole, and its accompanying small outdoor area, is collectively owned, effectively as a small company, by those who own the flats that make it up, in the rôle of share-holders, who elect a board (usually from among themselves) to run things. Once or twice a year, the board calls a dugnad and we all come together to clear out mess that's built up in communal areas, tend the small plots of flower-bed, sweep the yard and so on. Many Norwegian programmers regard Free Software as a kind of software-dugnad.

Every week (or fortnight, or whatever), set aside a time when all shall come together and do their part to make home nice again. Take it in turns as to who does which chore, help each other out and, above all, take the time to admire what you've all done, once it's over; ideally, round it off with some group treat you all share afterwards.

The allocation of tasks needn't necessarily be strictly a matter of taking turns at each task; indeed, a better balance may be achieved by letting each chose which tasks to do but varying the order in which members chose, with those chosing later being limited to the remaining tasks. A simple approach to this is to simply rotate the chosing order (e.g. I chose first last week, so I chose last this week, but next-to-last next week and I'll work my way up in successive weeks); however, that can run foul of ordering within the cycle (e.g. if one of us would sooner do the icky but quick toilet cleaning than the last chore in everyone else's preference order before that, the next house-mate in the cycle is always spared the toilet but everyone else gets lumbered with it each time they're last to chose; they never get to benefit from the one house-mate's welcome eccentricity). A fancier variant could fix this by iterating over permutations of the list of members of the household; doing that nicely, however, may be fiddly. However you organize that, it may lead (e.g. when everyone's preference order is the same) to the same allocation of tasks as if you just rotated tasks: but it opens up scope for a little flexibility when preferences differ.

If someone isn't going to be able to make it, they should do their allotted part ahead of time, if at all possible, else as soon after as practical: at least in a household with young adults in it, there has to be the slack to allow such exceptions, so you need to structure those so that they don't become an excuse to get out of taking part. Alternatively, the schedule needn't be set in stone: instead of every week, you can set the date for the next clean-up by group agreement once someone starts anticipating that it'll be needed by the time all can firmly commit to one time.

Some tasks need to be done less often than others. Sometimes, it's simplest to simply do them before they need to be done, simply to fit into the cycle. When such a task can beneficially be done collectively, it can be the focus of an extra dugnad, outside the normal cycle, or added to a regular dugnad as a joint activity to be done in addition to the routine tasks.

As long as it remains a bonding activity, and thus fun, this can make up for the injustices and conflicts lurking in the choice of schedule: celebrating together the fruits of your joint labour lets those who could have left the chores a while longer see how glad the others are of the results, and lets those who felt the need for cleaning see that their house-mates really are willing to pull their weight.

Division of labour

Another approach which can work reasonably well is, simply, to acknowledge that the burden of household cleaning is going to fall on whoever has the lower tolerance for mess. Acknowledge that it's going to happen, be clear about who that's going to be, give them credit for doing what they do. There are other forms of house-work, such as repairs and gardening – or the flat-mate who accepts more of the burden of chores may be rewarded by paying a smaller share of the rent: if members of the household can each contribute something to the whole, such a division of labour can feel liberating, even if it happens to fall along the lines of traditional norms that might otherwise have felt constricting. What matters is that each is glad enough, of the results of what others contribute, to keep them feeling happy with their own share. This can be greatly helped by random acts of volunteering to help another with that other's assigned tasks – a little generosity goes a long way – and by remembering to thank one's house-mates for the things they do.

Note, however, that each must be making a realistic commitment to do something the others are glad of. If I promise to walk the dog every day – when you only tolerated a dog in the house, in the first place, under protest – you're not going to regard that as balancing the time and effort you put into house-work. If I promise to tend the garden in exchange for you doing the house-work, you're going to be pretty unimpressed if the garden steadilly turns into a jungle through my neglect. But if your hobby is cycling and keeping your bike in tip-top shape, keeping my bike (which is just a handy means of transport to me) in good working order (which I always neglect, even though the results irritate me) is indeed something for which I'll gladly trade doing some house-work that you abhor – as long as you clean up any oily or muddy messes your cycle-tinkering causes, and remember to consult me about work you're going to do to my bike, if there's any danger of me not wanting it.

Such task-trading works best when one person enjoys doing what others deem a chore, as in the last example; and reasonably well when one person is quite at ease doing a chore (albeit still regarding it as a chore) that others really don't like doing. I've heard of one household in which one member opted to take responsibility for the toilets, cleaning them routinely and frequently, in exchange for exemption from all other chores, to take an example: no-one loves cleaning loos, so others were willing to let her off everything else in exchange for just that one task. All the same, you can't rely on it to find, for every task, a willing volunteer: some tasks are going to fall to the lot of someone unwilling to do them and this must be recognized and given credit, one way or another.

This approach is vulnerable to the issues of perceived importance, that I outlined above; indeed, it risks exacerbating them. If one of my house-mates always does the sweeping and vacuuming before I even notice the floor is dusty, it's going to undermine my awareness of there being any problem with dust accumulating on the floor. If the toilet fairy always keeps the toilet clean, I lose awareness of the fact that it's a job someone must in fact be doing; and, because I never face that task myself, I am apt to lose sight of (or at least understimate) how much of a burden it is for whoever is doing it. In short, it becomes all too easy to take one another's contributions for granted – while still being acutely aware of how much work one's own contribution takes, which can really rankle if everyone else is taking it for granted ! This can be remedied by sporadicly breaking from the normal routine, which happens naturally enough if one person is away for a few weeks and the others have to take on their tasks in their absence; one can simulate the same effect by allowing someone to take a designated holiday from their normally assigned chores, on some sensible schedule. This is also an area where random acts of volunteering and gratitude (see above) can make a big difference.

Note that society at large practices such a division of labour: and, just as random acts of volunteering and gratitude help within the household, they can also do a power of good to those who serve the public all day every day – saying thank you to the garbage collector or street cleaner may get you funny looks, maybe even from them, but it's also quite likely to make their day. Only, please, don't do it unless you really mean it: when the guy controlling traffic, where the road is temporarily partly blocked, finally lets you go, please don't roll down the window to insult him with that passive-aggressive thank you that tells him loud and clear just how much the spoilt brat saying it resents being made to wait – as if that were somehow his fault. He's doing a job that's gotta be done and snarking at him for doing it isn't big, or clever: nor does it contribute one good thing the the common weal. Even when you're having a bad day, being civil costs nothing and helps everyone to better endure their share of the day's troubles.


There are, of course, other appproaches – what matters, above all, is to recognize such conflicts or unfairnesses as exist and be imaginative about seeking mutually agreeable ways to keep the household a happy home for all. I leave it to any reader aware of another approach to think about how to include that in the following.

The above are not mutually exclusive: it is, of course, possible to distribute some of a household's chores via task-trading, as in the division of labour, and use a dugnad-style approach to dealing with the remainder.


Naïvely expecting domestic harmony is foolish: but a little honesty and flexibility on all sides can make it achievable.

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