I received my undergraduate degree in economics. It suits my way of being perfectly. I generally try to avoid my own emotions, but I love to figure out how to allocate my time and money in the most efficient way possible. I was thus thrilled to come across a book explaining how to apply the economists way of thinking to a relationship; or, more accurately, to the labor part of running a household and co-mingled life. I stumbled upon it after my husband and I had been dating for years, but before we were married. It provided us with a system to divide the work we want to do in our household efficiently. Perhaps more importantly, it required us to talk about what we actually want done and how often we want it done which I think is a very important conversation to have, but one that may otherwise be missed. For example, if one person wants vacuuming done twice a week, and the other thinks every other week is ideal, if they haven’t discussed their differences and assume that the other person holds the same ideal, then you can see that problems could arise without either party even recognizing that they are coming from a fundamentally different idea of the ideal outcome.
I want to share how we have applied this exercise, which has helped us face the labor in our household for well over a decade, in the hope that you find something useful to apply in your own relationship. You also may want to read the book to glean other details about the process as they describe it. I haven’t read it in over a decade, so it’s possible that how we now implement and what I recall from the book is different than what the book tells you to do. The book also has a different name now. It was called Spousenomics. Now it goes by It’s not you, it’s the dishes.
The premise is to find the best allocation of resources based on who is most efficient at what tasks, which tasks each partner prefers, and other practical factors for your particular situation.
For example, if we catch dungenous crab (yes…living in Alaska has its perks) and we want to get the meat out of the crab to save for later, my husband can complete this task at least 4 times faster than I can do it. Splitting this task 50/50 – whether in time (if I sit down with him to do it until done) or in volume (we each take half) doesn’t make sense unless I really enjoy it and find sitting down together over a pot of crab quality time (I don’t). This task is more efficiently completed if he does 100% of it. Conversely, I don’t mind vacuuming at all, and he hates it. Thus, I do 99% of the vacuuming in our household.
Step 1: Each person writes their own list of the tasks necessary for your joined lives, and how often each item would be done in an ideal but practical world.
We first sat down and independently wrote out a list of all the things we want to get done for the benefit of our relationship. This covers all areas from car maintenance, car and home insurance, health insurance and bills, cleaning the toilets, washing the dogs, cleaning the fridge. All of it. Anything either of you thinks is important to keep up the home, finances, and other areas of your joined lives. Then, each person indicates how often each of those things would get done in an ideal world. Some will be as needed (keeping up with health insurance), whereas others can be scheduled, such as cleaning the fridge each quarter.
Step 2: The partners discuss their lists to create a single list of tasks and time frames.
Once we each have our lists, we share and have a discussion to reach agreement on all of the items we want done and how often to do them. If this is difficult or you do not both have time to fully devote to a good discussion, this could be scheduled for a different time.
Step 3: Ranking and division.
Our list in hand, whether that meeting or at a different time, we each go through and mark, on our own, how much we like or hate a task. (Any scale will do, such as 1-5 with 1 being your least favorite tasks and 5 being your most favorite). Then we share and go through each item deciding who will take it on, or if it is something we will share – and how we will share it. For us it works out fairly well that we each end up taking the tasks we prefer more, even if just slightly, and we feel fair about the overall division. It also tends to work out that the tasks we prefer are the ones we are most efficient at anyway. When we have gone through each item, we review to decide if we each think the overall division of labor is fair. Not necessarily in a 50/50 time split, of 50/50 task split, but just plain fair for whatever personal factors go into our decisions.
Fortunately for us, this exercise has not created arguments. If you try it, Each partner should be aware of the process before you begin and should set aside at least a couple of hours with nothing else to focus on except this exercise. It may be best to divide into stages. You can create the overall list, and then rank them in two different sessions, or break them up even more. If disagreements do arise and you become heated, then that may also be a time to take breathing room. Taking the time to spend on this together, if you come with an open mind, can be a great bonding experience and can prevent future disputes over the division of labor.
Step 4: When the work is done, make sure to enjoy each other’s company and the efficiency with which you have divided the work part of your lives together.
There is a concept that if you are starting a business, it is important to set financial goals not just to reach them, but so that once you hit your target you know that you can stop building and enjoy what’s important to you in life. The same can apply to your relationship. This should avoid resentment about who is doing what, at least most of the time, but there is no point in that if you don’t take time to enjoy what you have accomplished. It may even be worth scheduling ‘date nights’ with your partner into your task schedule as well.
We have only done this exercise a couple of times in about 13 years. We found it helpful to revisit after our lives had changed dramatically and our list of tasks were different. We have calendared the tasks that only occur 2-4 times a year, but neither of us is really great about sticking to the schedule. Nonetheless it is a helpful guide, it reminds us when it is time to complete the task, and we get to it eventually. As for the daily tasks, we are really very good at sticking to our division of labor, and by having a list we find it alleviates a lot of resentment. It is easy to feel a division of labor isn’t fair if one person does all of tasks A, G, and H unless it has been decided ahead of time and you realize that it really is fair because the other person is doing B, C, D, and E, etc. And certainly there are things we split for convenience (feeding the dogs) and because we both like to do them (cooking).
Let me know if you try this exercise and how it works for you! Leave a comment or visit me on social media.