If you live with someone, see if this sounds familiar:
- One person feels they do more chores than the other person.
- When one person’s doing chores, they get annoyed when the other person’s just sitting on the couch, even if the other person has promised to do chores some other time.
- You argue about whether chores were actually done or not.
- All this friction simmers as resentment that flares up once in a while.
These tensions are common between people living together, whether that’s between roommates, romantic partners, or families. If you’ve had lingering issues about this, they’ve probably heightened by the COVID-19 quarantine.
A year ago, we solved all of our arguments about chores by making one simple spreadsheet. It tracks all of our household chores, how often they should be done, and who’s doing it. Here I describe how the spreadsheet works, then how you can make your own.
Frustration about household chores is really common. People get frustrated when they feel they’re doing more than the other person. Sometimes chores aren’t done to the other person’s standards, or they’re just forgotten.
It’s not just about doing the tasks; at the core, doing chores represents a person’s commitment to a life together. Over years, people build up expectations about who’s responsible for what and why. When those expectations are violated, people feel betrayed.
The frustration can be unequally distributed. Typically, one person cares more about chores than the other, and that person is more chronically annoyed that they’re doing more of the chores.
But interestingly, sometimes multiple people feel they’re doing more work than everyone else, which can’t objectively be true. This is a real cognitive bias—if you ask people in a group what fraction of the group’s work they did and you sum up all the responses, the total exceeds 100%. People think they are putting in more time than everyone else. (The root of this? You see your own hard work and not the hard work of others; you feel your own pain when you work, but not other people’s pain.)
My wife and I used to have all the above issues. She’s the cleaner one between us, and she tended to do more chores, more frequently. Even though I was nominally on board with a 50-50 split of household tasks (courtesy of reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In years ago), my wife still felt she was doing more than I was. (I was objectively doing fewer chores, but I also wasn’t sure by how much, given the bias I just mentioned.)
A year ago, we solved all of our arguments about chores by making one simple spreadsheet. It tracks all of our household chores, how often they should be done, and who’s doing it. Here’s why it works:
- It becomes crystal clear who’s contributing what to the household (in ours, it’s a 50-50 split of time).
- It becomes clear when someone’s neglected their tasks.
- You can choose the chores you like doing more. You don’t have to split every chore down the line (I vacuum today, she vacuums next week). Instead, you can take all the vacuuming, and she can take all the bathroom cleaning.
- You can handle daily imbalances in tasks. Even though you might do more in tasks today, you know that the other person will make it up at some other time.
- At any time, you don’t have to think about which chores to do. The spreadsheet tells you this. You just do your tasks.
I’ll describe how the spreadsheet, then how you can make your own.
A reader who went through the process said: “This past Saturday, we finalized our list of responsibilities, mapped out the rest of the year for bigger/less frequent chores, and started the system. On Sunday, we both noticed that we feel less anxious and more stable/secure. I think stressing about the unidentified, numerous tasks took a lot of mental energy. Also, we had pressure on ourselves to “be doing more” and small resentments building up over the ambiguity of the chore parameters. The challenging and rewarding conversations we had around each task was priceless. We are both pretty excited about this.”
The ultimate point is that the spreadsheet is really just a vehicle to have healthy discussions about household responsibilities. What’s the fair distribution of contribution between two people? What chores are worth doing, and why? Who should do which chores?
If you’ve never sat down and discussed this comprehensively, you’ll find it a huge load off your relationship. The spreadsheet is just a way to have this discussion, and a way to make your mutual expectations explicit.
Intro to the Spreadsheet
First, I’ll describe how our spreadsheet works. Then I’ll share how you can make your own from a template.
Here’s a link to a copy of our spreadsheet that you can follow along on. You can make your own copy of this to play around with it (File -> Make a Copy) – don’t ask for permissions to edit. I’ll also have screenshots below.
Main Chores Sheet
Let’s start with the main sheet. Here we’ve listed every task we’ve agreed to do in our house. For each task, we have a column for:
- Category: where in the house it is
- Frequency: how often it should be done
- Owner: who does the chore
- Duration: how long the chore takes, in minutes
- Last Done: when the chore was last done
- Next Planned: when the chore should next be done (automatically calculated based on the frequency and when it was last done).
We’ll explain how to fill it out and why it’s important later. For now, I’ll just show how we use this on a weekly basis. Here’s our entire main sheet, sorted by Category:
First, you might be surprised by how many tasks there are. One surprise from setting up this spreadsheet is realizing how many things a household needs to do to stay liveable (which is something the more responsible person has probably been talking about for years!). You might end up with many more than us.
But you’ll also start noticing that many of the tasks are small or infrequent. Cleaning the microwave inside takes just 5 minutes every month. I need to replace the HVAC air filter every 6 months, and it just takes 5 minutes. Week to week, you really don’t need to do all that much. Putting all your tasks on this spreadsheet is actually a relief, because you don’t have to remember it all in your head (and your HVAC filter actually gets changed).
If filling this out sounds like a headache or feels too much like work, then ask yourself: would you rather harbor a lingering resentment for years and feel like you’re repeating your complaints every week? (or have the other person feel this way) Or would you rather have a one-time discussion where you lay everything on the table and make each person’s expectations clear?
If you feel your household has zero arguments about chores and everyone’s happy with the way things currently are, then this is probably too heavyweight a solution. But if you ever have minor resentments or annoyances about people’s chores, I suggest you try this out. It might just take 1-2 hours and save 50 hours of resolving arguments and simmering resentments.
I’ve been told by friends that this feels like work and doesn’t feel really romantic. I don’t know, I don’t find bickering about chores every other day all that romantic. We’ve personally had a happier, more loving relationship when we’re both confident both people are contributing equally to the household. We haven’t argued about chores in over a year.
What Should I Do This Week?
Next, I’ll sort by “Next Planned,” which will show us what tasks need to be done each week. Saturday is our chores day, which is why you see all the dates as Saturday.
It’s clear what we each need to do to hold up our commitments:
- This week, I only have to do 4 tasks (Groceries, Wipe Dining Table, Trash and recycling, and Clean Sink). It should only take me a little more than half an hour.
- Meryl needs to do more this week (1.5 hours across 4 tasks), but this is fine. As we’ll see soon, there can be imbalances on a weekly basis, as long as they balance out across the whole year.
After we do our tasks, we fill in the “Last Done” column with today’s date. Then it automatically updates to show when it should next be done.
So that’s our weekly loop:
- Look at what chores are due by today.
- Do the chores you own.
- Update the date.
The magic of the spreadsheet is that after you set it up once, you don’t need to think that hard about what to do. Just do what the spreadsheet tells you to do, on your own schedule, and everyone should be happy.
Seeing Split of Contributions
The “Summary” tab takes all of the chores from the main sheet and summarizes how much you’re all doing, on average, on a weekly basis.
- If a chore take 30 minutes, and you do it every 6 weeks, then it’ll show up here as taking 5 minutes per week.
The point of this tab is to see how much time each person contributes to the household:
I do 59 minutes of chores per week, and Meryl does 55. We cook together, which add up to about 2 hours per week.
So it’s crystal clear to us that we’re both putting in the same amount of time and achieving a 50-50 split. (When we first made this spreadsheet, it didn’t start out this way – she spent much more time on chores than I did, until we evened it out. I’ll explain how to do this in the next section.)
This is why it’s OK for Meryl to have done 1.5 hours of chores this week, while I only did 0.5 hours. I’ll make up for it in a later week, when I have more stuff to do than she does. Before making this spreadsheet, this time difference would have been a major thorn; now, it’s abundantly clear that it’s just part of the system.
Of course, every household has the right distribution of time for them – it can be 90-10, 70-30, of anything else. The spreadsheet can even support multiple people (including kids or more roommates). The point is to agree on what the right distribution is.
How to Make Your Own Spreadsheet
Now you’ve seen how it basically works. It takes a few steps to build up to the demo sheet that you saw. We built ours in about an hour.
Each step is bite-sized and not complicated. They’ll also make you have the discussions you should be having anyway.
Here’s the template we’ll be using. Make a copy of it in the File menu, or you can download it as an .xls or .ods.
Step 1: Decide on the Right Split of Time
What’s the fair distribution of time between people? Why?
Agreeing on this sets the foundation for the rest of this process. We’ll be adjusting each person’s ownership of chores to match this distribution.
We chose 50-50 for our household. This is not right for every household.
Step 2: List All the Chores
List every chore you need to do in the household in column A, along with its category in column B.
At this point, do NOT worry about how often they should be done, who owns the task, or how long it’ll take. We’ll cover that in the next steps. For now, just list the items.
Ideally, the chores are modular and describe just a single specific task. This lets you divvy up tasks better and be clearer about what’s being done.
- For example, instead of “Clean kitchen,” it’s better to have “Clean refrigerator,” “Clean microwave,” “Clean stovetop,” and so on.
Here are some ideas on how to be comprehensive:
- Start by listing your categories. Then list what needs to be done in each category.
- Our categories included Bathrooms, Cooking, Kitchen, Laundry, Living Room, and Whole House.
- Walk through what you each did, day by day, over the past week.
- Think about things that need to be done in different seasons.
- Our sheet includes “Shoveling snow,” which I do exclusively. It doesn’t need to be done throughout the year, but I’d still like it to be recognized as a contribution.
Just listing these tasks will build appreciation for the other person and what they do. Often one person will say, “oh, wow, I never realize you did so much.” For example, I had never realized the baseboards needed to be dusted. (I know some of you are groaning – how else do baseboards stay clean?! Is there a baseboard fairy?! Mea culpa – I just never thought about baseboards all that much.)
It’s OK to come back and add chores later as you think of them. But try to be comprehensive this first time around.
Here’s what the spreadsheet will look like:
Step 3: Talk about Frequency and Duration
Next, you’ll assign a Frequency and Duration for each chore.
Go through each chore one by one.
- How often should we do this chore?
- How long does the chore take to do?
Don’t talk about who owns the task yet (that’s the next step). Both of you should first agree on how often it needs to be done and how long it takes. This is essential for getting mutual buy-in.
A lot of frustrations in household chores come from mismatched expectations. For example, one person might be frustrated that she’s the only one cleaning toilets, while the other person wonders what the big deal is since the toilets always look fine even when they’re not cleaned.
If you know a chore better than the other person, then this is a good time to discuss why it takes so long to do the chore at your standards. Then you can discuss whether your standards are reasonable.
Don’t move on if you have a large disagreement about any single task. This will cause resentment about an individual task, and that’ll spill over into other chores. These are the disagreements that have fueled your arguments to date, so resolve them now!
- If the Frequency and Duration for a chore are fair, then either one of you should be happy to do it.
For Frequency, you should use a consistent term (without typos or extra spaces). By default, the spreadsheet has these options for frequency:
- 2 weeks
- 3 weeks
- 6 weeks
- 2 months
- 3 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 12 months
You can add any other frequencies not included here on the Frequency Map tab.
Here’s what the spreadsheet will look like:
Again, this might sound like a lot of work. But this process merely takes all the mutual expectations (and disagreements) that you already have and puts them on paper. Going through this will unearth all the disagreements that have piled up over the years, and you can deal with them once and for all by sitting down and going through them at the same time.
And if you actually are strongly in sync on what needs to be done and when, then this will go really fast.
Step 4: Take Ownership of Chores
At this point, you have all the tasks that need to be done, how often they should be done, and how long they take. Now you can start assigning chores. Put the Owner of the chore down in column D.
How do you split chores?
- A simple way to assign chores is just to assign based on how you’re doing them now. This will make your current distribution of time more obvious (we’ll see that in the next step).
- Another way is by choosing the ones you like more. I like taking out the trash more than cleaning the bathrooms, and my wife feels the exact opposite. So we’re comfortable owning what we each like doing more. This means you don’t need to split every chore down the line. If you do chores you enjoy more, doing chores will be less painful.
- Finally, you can also assign chores roughly by Category, so that you may own more of that Category. I took on more of the Kitchen, while my wife took on more of the Bathrooms. Owning a general area of the house makes it slightly more efficient.
If you really want to split chores evenly, then you can use Both. We personally do this for cooking, where we usually cook at the same time or alternate regularly. But I’d caution against assigning Both to too many chores, because this can create more small imbalances that cause trouble. It’s better to just divide the task into two separate tasks, running on independent timelines.
- For instance, instead of having a single task done weekly assigned to Both, it’s better to have two tasks, assign each to different people, make each biweekly. This way you alternate every other week.
When you’re done, copy columns G-J down to cover all the tasks. You shouldn’t need to modify any of these cells; they’re automatically filled in and are used as helper columns in the summary sheet.
Here’s what the sheet looks like:
Step 5: Check the Summary Tab
Now you’ve assigned an owner to all the tasks. We can finally look at how much each person is contributing to the grand total. Look at the Summary tab:
Immediately, it’s clear that I’m doing about an hour more of chores per week than Meryl is, or about a 70:30 ratio. This is a far cry from the 50-50 split we were going for.
Step 6: Make Adjustments
The goal is now to adjust your chores so that you end up with the distribution of time you were aiming for.
You can look at the biggest contributors to your time by sorting column J, Minutes per week. This lets you focus on the biggest tasks, and where editing will cause the biggest shift in distribution. Here it is sorted by column J:
This shows that the major difference here is that I’m currently assigned to cooking, and it takes 60 minutes on a weekly basis. This is a lot. In contrast, Meryl has a task to mop the floors which is large (90 minutes), but she only does it every 3 months. The spreadsheet helps you see the exact split of contributions on average.
You can adjust chores these ways:
- Change the owner of a task.
- Change the expected duration of a task (maybe it takes longer or shorter than you originally thought)
- Change the frequency (maybe it doesn’t need to be done as often as you think)
- Delete a task altogether (but this should mean that everyone’s fine if it’s not done at all)
Keep iterating on this until you get your distribution on the Summary page roughly right. Make some changes, check the Summary sheet.
Also, do some sanity checks – does the total amount of chores make sense
Step 7: Set Starting Dates
Finally, the last step is to set the starting date for each task in column F.
- If you remember when a task was last done, then put in the date here.
- Otherwise, set it to a future date. You should be comfortable with the task not being done until then.
Column G will now automatically update to show the next time the task should be done:
Any chores that should have been done today or earlier will show up in Yellow.
Step 8: Just Follow the Spreadsheet
The hard part is done. From this point forward, all each person has to do is do the chores they own, when they’re expected to.
Sort by column G to get the upcoming tasks to be done:
Any day you want to do chores, do all the yellow ones you own, and update the Last Done date to today.
Generally, I suggest having a regular rhythm of roughly equal-sized work, rather than having a giant chore day every month. I like doing my chores weekly, taking about an hour each Saturday.
If in a given week you feel like you have too much to do, you can discuss whether it’s OK to push back certain tasks by a week. In the long term, this isn’t going to make much difference, and it helps smooth out some lumpiness when a bunch of tasks coincidentally end up on the same day.
Benefits and Shortcomings
Now that you understand the spreadsheet, you can see why it produces all the benefits I mentioned earlier.
By listing every single household task, it’s clear what it takes to keep a household running. You can both reflect on whether someone really has shouldered more of the load in the past.
By assigning a frequency and duration to each task, you can discuss clearly what the standards of each task are to be done, and why each person cares that it’s done at all.
Once you assign owners of tasks, you can see how much time each person spends on tasks over the long term.
You can do the chores you prefer to do and be confident that everyone else is pulling weight.
If anyone forgets to do the chore, it’s pretty clear from the tracker.
You don’t need to get annoyed when you’re doing your tasks, while the other person is sitting on the couch. As long as people do their tasks as scheduled, you can be confident that it works out in the long term.
Of course, the spreadsheet won’t force anyone to do chores. Once again, it’s just a representation of the shared expectations you have for each other.
This doesn’t protect against people falsely claiming they did their chore and putting in fake dates. But that’s a whole other conversation about violating your expectations.
As constructed, this sheet doesn’t have a historical record of chores done (however, you can look at Version History). We didn’t think the sheet needed this complication, but you could easily build this up to contain a record of chores done.
The best thing you can do is try it out and give me feedback. Did it work for you? How can it be improved? What problems doesn’t this approach solve?
Show me your spreadsheets! I love to see how people take tools like this and evolve it.
Leave a comment or email me at [email protected]