Confession: since writing last year about the Planner Moms of YouTube, I became one. (Minus the whole mom thing, but still.) I’ve always been a bit obsessed with time and how I and others use it, but in 2021 I rebranded this obsession: planning is one of my ~hobbies~. The idea of watching a clean-with-me video makes me want to gouge my eyes out, but I have consumed more plan-with-me videos in the past twelve months than I care to admit. I’ve also purchased more planners than is wise for someone on a grad student stipend.
One of my chief enablers has been Sarah Hart-Unger, a blogger and podcaster who hosts the planner-focused show Best Laid Plans. In a recent episode, Hart-Unger featured a voicemail from a frustrated listener:
My question revolves around how to plan with your spouse...I’m more of the type-A personality that loves to plan. In fact, I’m a project manager. My husband is a designer and a manager. He’s a little bit more practical and a more fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type personality. Of course, he always makes sure that things are taken care of, but I’m the one that’s doing more of the nitty-gritty planning for our kids—we have an 8-month-old and a 3-year-old. I’m the one in charge of their childcare, extracurriculars...and anything that revolves around the home. He’s a hard worker, but he’s not that great at sitting down and planning things with me and goal-setting. We’re just different personalities. He works just as hard, but how do I get him to sit down with me and plan out a family vacation, for example?
As longtime readers can probably imagine, my ears perked up at this: a question about the intersection of planners and gender inequality?! Yes, please.
Hart-Unger began her answer by (very tactfully and gently) calling out the unfairness in this arrangement. The listener’s husband, she argued, is taking advantage of “planning privilege” by assuming that if he doesn’t plan, his wife will step in to “do the heavy lifting and make it happen.” It’s a version of the more familiar “free rider problem” in economics, which Wikipedia kindly defines this way:
A type of market failure that occurs when those who benefit from resources, public goods (such as public roads or hospitals), or services of a communal nature do not pay for them or under-pay. Free riders are a problem because while not paying for the good (either directly through fees or tolls or indirectly through taxes), they may continue to access or use it.
Among many of the different-sex couples I’ve studied, the planning free rider problem1 features a few key elements:
One partner plans things far in advance; the other resists planning altogether or says they prefer to plan on a more just-in-time basis.
One or both partners assert that their personalities are fundamentally distinct, such that one partner is not only better at planning, they enjoy it.
As a result, this partner does most of the planning. While this may be a source of frustration, it’s not necessarily framed as “unfair” (because of the rationale in point 2).
The planning partner feels unable to stop planning, lest bad things occur; the free-riding partner remains unconvinced that anything bad would actually happen—mostly because their partner always plans ahead and prevents it.
Is there any way out of a fix like this? I have a few suggestions (all assume that your partner is at least nominally on-board with the idea that running your home and raising your children are shared responsibilities):
Clarify the stakes – and decide how much they matter. One of the most common scenarios couples recount to me is that partner A (we’ll call her Tonya) cares about X, but partner B (we’ll call him2 Trevor) thinks X is silly. Let’s say X is their child’s birthday party. Tonya wants to decide on a theme and then plan food, games, and décor to go along with the theme. Trevor thinks Tonya is just stressing herself out; their 6yo is unlikely to care whether all the elements of his party “cohere.”
On one level, this is a conflict over a birthday party. On another, deeper level, however, it’s a conflict about what it means to be a good parent. Tonya’s definition of good parenting includes “creating special memories for our kid” and “making sure he doesn’t feel different from all the other kids.” A themed birthday party is certainly a memory-generator. And if most of the other kids in his class had themed birthday parties this year, it’s also a way to make little Timmy feel in sync with his peers. (Let’s leave aside the parenting-arms-race implications of this example for now.)
If Tonya and Trevor are able to clarify what’s at stake for each of them, rather than fight over the specifics of the immediate situation, they stand a better chance of coming to agreement and finding a way to work together. In one scenario, Tonya realizes the parents making homemade dinosaur cakes are crazy and decides there’s no need to do anything so elaborate. In another, Trevor reflects fondly on his own childhood birthday parties and how special they made him feel. He realizes that while some memories come from spontaneous events (e.g., an impromptu pillow fight), others require a little advance planning, and he is motivated to be a part of that planning.
Check your assumptions. If I had a dollar for every time a couple told me that one partner “likes to plan” or “wants to be in control,” I would be treating myself to dinner at the bougie wine bar around the corner a lot more often. This narrative sneakily reframes Trevor’s inaction as a gracious stepping-back that allows Tonya’s vision to take precedence. Let’s unpack that:
“Likes planning” is distinct from “likes having things planned:” Just as one may appreciate having a clean house but hate cleaning it, many people find planning to be a neutral or even an unpleasant activity. But they do it, because they value the consequences: fun activities for the kids, a relaxing vacation, not having to scramble for childcare 30 minutes before your dinner reservation.
“Wants to be in control” is distinct from “has no faith that my partner will pick up the slack if I let go:” In some cases, she might genuinely want the final say. But often, her desire for control is rooted in fear that he will screw it up if left to his own devices. In other words, it’s not necessarily that she wants to be in charge of picking out a summer camp, but rather, she’s worried that if she doesn’t, their child either won’t go to camp at all or will be stuck at the crappiest or least convenient option in the region.
In sum, it can be helpful to interrogate apparent “preferences”—on both sides. Do you love planning or simply worry that things will go wrong if you stop doing it? Share what you learn with your partner. The answer will likely be different for each task or class of tasks. But your partner might assume you’re having fun unless you tell them that it feels more like work (or a complex mix of work and fun).
Focus on skill and effort rather than personality and innate ability. We aren’t going to “solve” women’s mental load problem until we stop leaning on the narrative that a couple’s division of labor is a reflection of who they each are.
Start by drawing explicit parallels between the skills you each use in your paid work (current or past) and those required to run your home. In the example above, the listener’s husband is a “designer and manager.” Presumably, this means he has responsibility for planning both his own and others’ workstreams. Because it probably wouldn’t fly for him to encourage his supervisees to “be spontaneous” and “trust that everything will work out,” he has likely had ample opportunity to practice the skill of anticipating what’s coming up.
Now, I wouldn’t frame the matter this bluntly in an actual conversation with my partner, but if you suspect they have the skills and just aren’t using them at home, you could approach the issue from a slightly different angle. Ask about the techniques your partner uses to plan for work. Calendar reminders? Daily or weekly to-do lists? Phone alarms? Standing weekly meetings? Chances are, some of these same practices could be adapted for use at home. (And will be more likely to stick if your partner is already comfortable with them in another context.)
And if your partner says they’d “rather not make home feel like work”? Well, now we’re back to the free rider issue, and you may need to have a hard conversation about what their preference means for your workload.
I know of at least two economists who read this newsletter and are probably cringing at this misappropriation of the term. Sorry not sorry!
I’m using these pronouns because this is the most common situation I hear about, but there are certainly cases where the roles are reversed. (Often, the issues at stake in such cases are related to finances or some sort of home/car upgrade.) And, of course, same-sex couples can also experience the free rider problem!