Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Summer 2005

We Have Got To Get Organized

Are you like Felix and Oscar in the film, "The Odd Couple," arguing constantly about whether their household should be compulsively organized (Felix) or left to be more casual (Oscar)? Even in a marriage of two Felixes, one will be slightly more compulsive than the other.

In addition to personality factors determining conflicts about household organization, there are also gender differences although a study published this May in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests those differences may be over exaggerated. Couples were asked to report how much work each did in the home and then were asked to wear beepers during waking hours to signal them to record what actual housework they were engaged in when the beepers went off.

Although there is always the possibility that the subjects got up in the middle of the night to do their chores when the beepers were turned off, the beeper data found everyone doing less housework than they thought they did. While both wives and husbands predicted that wives do more than husbands, wives over estimated the gap by 4.1 hours per week (wives thought they did 26 hours when the actual was 24.4 and thought husbands did 13 hours when the actual was 15.3). Husbands also over estimated their own contribution to housework by an average of five hours per week. So unless you are willing to wear beepers to find out how much household work you are really doing, it is fruitless to argue about this topic.

First Things First

It is more productive is to have a discussion of your preferences and how you can meet them. Your household structure should serve you, not the other way around. Start with your values and dreams:


How Much is Enough?

A mailer arrived from a house cleaning company that listed cleaning tasks and how often they should be done. It would be overwhelming to follow this list which is of course why you need to hire these people to do the cleaning for you.

Once you have dreamed about how you would like your environment to serve you, you can negotiate your standards. Do you find a few dust bunnies running around the front hall quaint or disgusting? Do you have some areas like the bathrooms that bother you when they are somewhat dirty while other areas like a sticky kitchen floor can wait to be cleaned until the weekend?

Your standards then determine the following:

  • When tasks are done.
  • Who does them: yourselves, other family members, or cleaning professionals.

    Diving Household Tasks

    There are no hard and fast rules in this area. In some households, each adult does his or her own laundry while in others they pool the laundry and take turns or assign the task to the one who minds the least. The important principle is to agree on the distribution of labor.


    • Recognize the contribution of both partners and decide on a contract defining roles and expectations. Don't limit the list to cleaning. Instead be sure to include administrative tasks such as calendar keeping and human care such as duties with children or aging parents. Couples where one partner does not currently work outside the home will divide tasks differently than couples who both work outside the home. The contract needs to change as your circumstances change.

    • Post the schedules and signoff on jobs as they are done. The list prompts the Oscars when to do tasks and soothes the Felixes by reminding them that "Friday is coming and the bathrooms will be cleaned."

    Taming the Paper Tiger

    Here are some suggestions we have borrowed from organizational expert, Barbara Hemphill:

    • Consider a desk/file system either in the kitchen, a home office or a corner of a bedroom.

    • File things in the logical order that you will use to retrieve them. In our house, Oscar needed some insurance papers and was searching for auto insurance under "A" and life insurance under "L." The papers had been filed by the carriers. Life insurance was under "P" for Prudential. Auto insurance was under "S" for State Farm. When Felix suggested they use a broad category/small subcategory system, retrieval became easier with all the insurance files in a section labeled Insurance/Auto, Insurance/Life, etc.

    • Sort the mail as soon as it arrives or batch it to be sorted every couple of days. Put it in a box or file; don't let it sit out.

    • RAFT the paper into piles: Read, Action, File, and Trash.

    • Have bill paying equipment such as the check book and stamps in one place. Pay bills in groups every week or twice a month to prevent late payments.

    Sorting and Purging

    We started married life in a 52 by 12 foot trailer as graduate students in a university town in Appalachia. Then our junk expanded to fill the space available for its containment. Our new motto is "AmVets are our friends." The Asian art of decorating, Feng Shui, teaches that space feels better if the energy is not blocked by clutter. In other words, lightening your load will lighten your mood.

    • Have a box or bag started for the discarded items and get them out on a regular basis.

    • Regularly sort through clothes you don't wear, the paperwork you no longer need, and household items you don't use.

    • Keep bills and records as long as your accountant says you need to.

    • Keep all warranties and manuals in one place.

    • Have a place for everything and everything in its place.


    Hemphill, Barbara. Taming the Paper Tiger.

    Copyright 2005 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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