The Wrong Person Is Probably Doing the Dishes in Your House

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 21 2012 8:00 AM

You’re Dividing the Chores Wrong

No, you shouldn’t always unload the dishwasher because you’re better at it.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
One person is better at every chore, including laundry, but does that mean he or she should have to do everything?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

No one likes doing chores. In happiness surveys, housework is ranked down there with commuting as  activities that people enjoy the least. Maybe that’s why figuring out who does which chores usually prompts, at best, tense discussion in a household and, at worst, outright fighting.   

Emily Oster Emily Oster

Emily Oster is an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School. Her book is Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.

If everyone is good at something different, assigning chores is easy. If your partner is great at grocery shopping and you are great at the laundry, you’re set. But this isn’t always—or even usually—the case. Often one person is better at everything. (And let’s be honest, often that person is the woman.) Better at the laundry, the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the cooking. But does that mean she should have to do everything?

Before my daughter was born, I both cooked and did the dishes. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t take too much time, and honestly I was a lot better at both than my husband. His cooking repertoire extended only to eggs and chili, and when I left him in charge of the dishwasher, I’d often find he had run it “full” with one pot and eight forks.

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After we had a kid, we had more to do and less time to do it in. It seemed like it was time for some reassignments. But, of course, I was still better at doing both things. Did that mean I should do them both?

I could have appealed the principle of fairness: We should each do half. I could have appealed to feminism—surveys show that women more often than not get the short end of the chore stick. In time-use data, women do about 44 minutes more housework than men (2 hours and 11 minutes versus 1 hour and 27 minutes). Men outwork women only in the areas of “lawn” and  “exterior maintenance.” I could have suggested he do more chores to rectify this imbalance, to show our daughter, in the Free To Be You and Me style, that Mom and Dad are equal and that housework is fun if we do it together! I could have simply smashed around the pans in the dishwasher while sighing loudly in the hopes he would notice and offer to do it himself.

But luckily for me and my husband, I’m an economist, so I have more effective tools than passive aggression. And some basic economic principles provided the answer. We needed to divide the chores because it is simply not efficient for the best cook and dishwasher to do all the cooking and dishwashing. The economic principle at play here is increasing marginal cost. Basically, people get worse when they are tired. When I teach my students at the University of Chicago this principle, I explain it in the context of managing their employees. Imagine you have a good employee and a not-so-good one. Should you make the good employee do literally everything? 

Usually, the answer is no. Why not? It’s likely that the not-so-good employee is better at 9 a.m. after a full night of sleep than the good employee is at 2 a.m. after a 17-hour workday. So you want to give at least a few tasks to your worse guy. The same principle applies in your household. Yes, you (or your spouse) might be better at everything. But anyone doing the laundry at 4 a.m. is likely to put the red towels in with the white T-shirts. Some task splitting is a good idea. How much depends on how fast people’s skills decay. 

To “optimize” your family efficiency (every economist’s ultimate goal—and yours, too), you want to equalize effectiveness on the final task each person is doing. Your partner does the dishes, mows the lawn, and makes the grocery list. You do the cooking, laundry, shopping, cleaning, and paying the bills.  This may seem imbalanced, but when you look at it, you see that by the time your partner gets to the grocery-list task, he is wearing thin and starting to nod off. It’s all he can do to figure out how much milk you need. In fact, he is just about as good at that as you are when you get around to paying the bills, even though that’s your fifth task. 

If you then made your partner also do the cleaning—so it was an even four and four—the house would be a disaster, since he is already exhausted by his third chore while you are still doing fine. This system may well end up meaning one person does more, but it is unlikely to result in one person doing everything. 

Once you’ve decided you need to divide up the chores in this way, how should you decide who does what? One option would be randomly assigning tasks; another would be having each person do some of everything. One spousal-advice website I read suggested you should divide tasks based on which ones you like the best. None of these are quite right. (In the last case, how would anyone ever end up with the job of cleaning the bathroom?)

To decide who does what, we need more economics. Specifically, the principle of comparative advantage. Economists usually talk about this in the context of trade. Imagine Finland is better than Sweden at making both reindeer hats and snowshoes. But they are much, much better at the hats and only a little better at the snowshoes. The overall world production is maximized when Finland makes hats and Sweden makes snowshoes.

We say that Finland has an absolute advantage in both things but a comparative advantage only in hats. This principle is part of the reason economists value free trade, but that’s for another column (and probably another author). But it’s also a guideline for how to trade tasks in your house. You want to assign each person the tasks on which he or she has a comparative advantage. It doesn’t matter that you have an absolute advantage in everything. If you are much, much better at the laundry and only a little better at cleaning the toilet, you should do the laundry and have your spouse get out the scrub brush. Just explain that it’s efficient!

In our case, it was easy. Other than using the grill—which I freely admit is the husband domain—I’m much, much better at cooking. And I was only moderately better at the dishes. So he got the job of cleaning up after meals, even though his dishwasher loading habits had already come under scrutiny. The good news is another economic principle I hadn’t even counted on was soon in play: learning by doing. As people do a task, they improve at it. Eighteen months into this new arrangement the dishwasher is almost a work of art: neat rows of dishes and everything carefully screened for “top-rack only” status. I, meanwhile, am forbidden from getting near the dishwasher. Apparently, there is a risk that I’ll “ruin it.” 

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