To Win the Chore War, Think Like an Economist

Stop playing against your partner

Young woman cleaning windows on a clear sunny day.
Young woman cleaning windows on a clear sunny day.

If you’ve ever felt that you do more than your fair share of the vacuuming or that you could be taking out the garbage more efficiently but don’t know where to start, let me offer an unlikely source of help: economics. Yes, the lessons from that textbook you studied in the 12th grade can offer you and your partner a ready-made toolkit for better capitalizing on your time, putting you on a route to household bliss.

Let’s start with the concept of division of labor, the idea that more gets done when each person takes on one part of a project rather than everyone doing a bit of everything. (You might be familiar with this idea if you have a boss who has explained why it is economically imperative that you do all the tasks that he doesn’t want to do.)

Two hundred and fifty years ago, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, economist Adam Smith foresaw that the division of labor in manufacturing would lead to massive increases in productivity. While you probably want to stop short of giving your home that authentic Victorian factory vibe, it’s nice to know that the soot-filled sky’s the limit in terms of potential efficiency gains. To paraphrase the top-hatted economists of the day, there’s always more efficiency to be squeezed out.

Your takeaway from this might be that when it comes to household chores, whoever does a particular task best should be the one to do it more often — that this will save time and make the whole process more efficient.

A fair assumption. But there’s a problem: Let’s say that in your relationship, one partner knows how to do most tasks better because of their experience or upbringing. Under this system, they’d be doing just about everything.

While I’m sure those top-hatted guys would insist that this sounds perfectly fair to them, especially if it means their wives will end up doing all the tidying, we have a few more economic tools at our disposal that allow us to do better. Because here, efficiency isn’t an end in itself, but a stepping-stone on the way to maximizing profit. And in your household, profit isn’t money, but a kind of total happiness. So, unless your partner finds all chores to be a complete delight, we’re not done yet.

We need to divide the tasks fairly, and economists say that fair division should be envy-free. One method for achieving this is called “I divide, you choose.” If you have children, you may have used this trick as a way of splitting a treat between them without arguments: You simply have one child cut the treat in “half,” and then the other child gets first choice of which piece they want, therefore encouraging the cutter to be as fair as possible with their slicing. Do this and notice how the dexterity level of your child, who is usually incapable of getting a spoon into their mouth without smearing food up their face, rises to that of a scalpel-wielding surgeon.

You’ll find the same is true of your ability to evaluate chores. Knowing you will end up with one of the two halves you have put together will lead to a very honest appraisal of exactly how much each task is worth to you in terms of inconvenience and discomfort.

That last idea about how economics can help you and your partner with dividing housework is from game theory, which makes a mockery of the serious business of extracting value from humans by insinuating that there’s something fun about it. Until now, we’ve been making an assumption: that you and your partner are on two opposing sides. Some economists might argue that this is good, and that you will achieve maximum efficiency by independently exploiting each other for as much as you can get away with.

But maybe there’s not quite enough room in your house for the bloated totality of free-market capitalism, so I would suggest we look at it differently. You are not individual players of this game; you are on the same team. And it’s not just one treat that needs to be sliced in half—it’s all of the household tasks.

To maximize your joint happiness, you need to work out how much each task would cost you. Cost might be measured in terms like how long it takes to get Mr. Mittens to take his tummy medicine, how much you hate scraping his hairballs off the floor, or how much it puts you off your dinner to deal with Mr Mittens’ litter tray on a day you couldn’t get him to take his tummy medicine. And you have to find some way of deciding between you how much all of that bothers each of you by talking about it together. If you and your partner are not good at talking to each other and were hoping economics would give you a way of sidestepping complex discussions using the cold, hard rationality of mathematics, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

In economics, no preference is more rational than another — economists are happy to settle for the idea that something is rational because it is a preference. The philosopher David Hume put it well when he said that “reason is the slave of the passions.” To make his point, he argued that there would be nothing irrational about preferring the destruction of the universe to scratching his finger (although if your partner thinks that, maybe you have bigger issues than who takes the bins out).

For this to work, you need to be honest, and trust your partner to be honest, and make meaningful comparisons about how much doing each chore drains from you. And revisit this discussion often. For good economic forecasting, your data needs to be as accurate, complete, and up to date as possible, and it’s too complicated to get right the first time.

In fact, it’s probably too complicated to get it perfect any time. You might find you’ll be challenged on your choices and have to justify them, and maybe you will be able to work on changing your mind.

You might even discover that you each like some chores. For example, maybe doing the dishes while listening to a podcast after the kids have gone to bed turns out to be meditative. Your partner might find that taking out the trash is fine so long as it isn’t overflowing, because she hates having to squash it down to get the lid on. You might just really love folding sheets — okay, maybe some examples are too far-fetched, but you get the idea.

So, using your new economics toolkit, you might decide to harness the power of division of labor and do all the dishes while your partner does all the laundry. Or you might “I cut, you choose” on a bundle of tasks you both hate. Or you might gallantly volunteer to do the majority of cleaning out Mr. Mittens’ litter tray because it’s now clear to you that it bothers you a lot less, and that’s better for the team overall.

If you get it right, you’ll feel gratitude for what your partner does, and vice versa, and chores will feel easier than ever. You may even end up feeling like you’re doing less than your fair share, and your partner will feel the same way, and you’ll still be doing everything between you. And you can get on with your everyday lives being productive economic units, just like economics wanted from you all along.

Writer, journalist and producer.

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