Try this at home, pt. II
The card-sort exercise
In the last Dispatch, I recommended logging your household decision-making for a day or two as a way to assess your division of cognitive labor. If you tried it out, you may have discovered some, ahem, suboptimal patterns. What can you do about them?
One option: attempt a re-set. Inventory the work required to keep your home/family running, and then mindfully assign responsibility for the various components of that work.
This exercise is ideal if both you and your partner are bought into the idea that household responsibilities should be shared in some fashion—even if you may be struggling to live out that goal. Unfortunately, this is probably not the move for those of you with a partner who’s unwilling to play ball.
Re-sets are easiest when paired with an external milestone. Think January 1st, a move to a new home, the birth of a child, an anniversary. If nothing like that is on the horizon, get creative. Going back to the office regularly? Child starting school? Heck, it’s a Monday? Leverage anything that feels like a fresh start to you and your partner.
If that all sounds good, here’s what you’ll do:1
Step 1: List out all the household tasks and/or areas of responsibility that are relevant to your family. You can make your list as granular (“wash car”) or general (“car maintenance”) as you’d like at this point.
Here’s the list Eric and I came up with when we first moved in together (it’s evolved over time as our circumstances have changed). Notice that it includes a few tasks that are mostly cognitive, a few that are mostly physical, and a bunch that have a bit of both:
Manage household supplies and purchase as needed (paper products, toiletries, etc.)
Communal laundry (sheets, towels)
Tidying in between deep cleans
Washing dinner dishes
Research one-off purchases
Interface with landlord and house cleaners
Relationship work (e.g., buying gifts, cards, things to bring to parties)
At the time, we were renters who had neither pets nor kids and were not sharing our finances. Your list will likely be a lot longer if you have a pup, child, shared bank account, or mortgage to contend with.
Step 2: When you’re happy with your list, write each task/area on an index card or post-it. Elsewhere on the card, list out exactly what’s included under that umbrella. E.g., car maintenance might include oil changes, cleaning, inspection, and renewing parking permits. You may decide at this point to break larger tasks down into several component parts, each with their own card.
Even if you don’t write out every detail, make sure both of you are clear on the parameters. For instance, we decided that the owner of the “trash” card should collect the trash from household bins, put out the garbage cans the night before pickup, and then bring them in after the garbage trucks passed through.
Step 3: Decide on your overall allocation goal. Do you want a 50/50 division of labor, or does something different make sense given your circumstances? How will you assess your relevant workloads?
Step 4: Independently, each of you should rank each task/area in terms of how much you like and/or care about it. Maybe you don’t exactly relish washing the dishes, but you have strong feelings about how the job should be done. If that’s the case, you may want to bump dishes up a few slots on your list.
Step 5: Compare your ranked lists! This is where the cards are likely to come in handy. (They aren’t strictly necessary, but I personally find it easier to move things around physically than digitally.)
In an ideal world, your lists will be opposites: your #1, 2, and 3 tasks will be your partner’s #9, 10, and 11. If you see anything along those lines, go ahead and preliminarily assign the relevant cards to one partner or the other.
For instance, taking out the trash was at the very bottom of my list and somewhere in the middle of Eric’s, so we gave him the trash card. Similarly, he was NOT interested in tracking household inventory, and that’s a task I don’t find particularly onerous, so I got the inventory card.
Step 6: Once you’ve taken care of all the low-hanging fruit, you’ll likely need to negotiate over the remaining cards that you both enjoy or despise. A few strategies to consider:
Subdivide some of the bigger cards. E.g., I enjoy cooking and ranked it highly, but I didn’t want to be responsible for dinner every night. So, we decided to split it up, with me cooking roughly 2/3 of the time and Eric handling the remaining 1/3.
If there are some tasks that both of you despise, make sure you split those up equally. In other words, what you don’t want is to dump all the bad stuff on one person. (You might also consider outsourcing tasks that neither of you can stand or care much about, if that’s feasible financially.)
Set yourselves up for success. If one partner prides themselves on saving money at the grocery store, it’s probably best to assign grocery shopping to that partner. Otherwise, they’ll scour through the receipts and critique the shopper’s decisions every week – and nobody wants that.
Step 7: Once all the cards have been sorted, take a step back and assess your preliminary allocation. Is it in line with the goal you set up front, or do you need to keep tweaking? Keep in mind that not every task is equally burdensome. If Partner A has 10 small tasks, and Partner B has 5 big ones, you might call that even. Keep adjusting until you’re both satisfied.
Step 8: Record each person’s responsibilities somewhere you can both access – a post-it on the fridge, a shared Google spreadsheet, etc.
Plan to revisit the list regularly, maybe every week for the first few weeks, and then as needed from there. Undoubtedly, you’ll discover tasks you forgot to include up front; your life will change (e.g., we got a puppy and added a whole slew of new tasks to our list); or you’ll simply find that something isn’t working out as you imagined.
Keep in mind: I often hear from people (mostly women) that their partner contributes to the household, but only when reminded to do so. This exercise is designed to help you avoid falling into this pattern by giving both partners an equal say in what they are responsible for and encouraging you to jointly agree on what it means to “own” a particular task.
But chances are you’ll still struggle. If you find yourself constantly reminding your partner to do their tasks, even after a few weeks, work together to diagnose the problem. Do you have different ideas about when or how often a task needs to be done? Could you implement systems that would help the forgetful partner remember to do their part (e.g., phone/calendar reminders, pairing the task with a daily or weekly routine)? Make sure that your partner is involved in coming up with the solution - they’re more likely to stick with it if it was their idea!
Good luck! If you try this out, I’d love to hear about it. What worked, what questions you still have, etc.
Reader Rec: In response to last week’s Dispatch, Rahima writes: “[My partner and I] find it helps to acknowledge when the other person does cognitive labor. That can go a long way toward easing resentment and tensions. We even have a little nickname for it: ‘Thanks for doing the “cog lay” for dinner/our vacation/that party.’” Love that!
A few notes about inspiration for this exercise: This is my own mash-up of ideas drawn from several sources. First, there’s a tradition of studying the division of household labor by asking participants to sort household tasks printed on a deck of cards. (E.g., Berk in her 1985 book The Gender Factory.) I used this technique in my most recent study! Second, I drew heavily on a document my advisor, Sasha Killewald, developed for her own life and that has been passed down among her students. Finally, if you’re really gung-ho about this idea, you will definitely want to check out Eve Rodsky and her book Fair Play. She advocates a more intensive version of the exercise above and goes into a lot of detail about how to troubleshoot common challenges. I really respect her work as one of the best non-academic resources on cognitive labor!