One couple shares their surprising strategies for whipping even the most chaotic household into shape.
What if we told you that investing just one hour per week could lead to a better marriage and a happier home? Or that treating your household more like a workplace could be the first step toward conquering life's chaos? Finally, what if we told you that many of the arguments couples have are probably nothing more than by-products of poor time management and stress?
Well, these are all things that we've discovered over ten years of marriage. During that time, we've had our ups and downs, but surprisingly, it was at our lowest point as partners that we discovered the road back to happiness by drawing on our working lives—of all things—for guidance. We're sharing how we did it, and how any family can benefit from the lessons we learned along the way.
Like many couples these days, we found ourselves at sea. We'd become so focused on basic survival—simply striving to get through the week—that we fell out of touch with everything, from small tasks such as cleaning the house and planning meals, to the larger, more important concerns that give our lives meaning, like enjoying our kids and each other.
After the umpteenth argument about something as ridiculous as who was going to pick up the gift for a child's birthday party we were going to that very afternoon, we realized that something had to change. For the sake of our sanity and the health of our marriage, we had to take back control of our schedule, time, and responsibilities. We skipped couples therapy and self-help books because even at our darkest point—when our increasingly fraying tempers led us to bicker several times a day—we recognized that our problems weren't emotional, but practical.
We finally saw the light one snowy winter weekend on a long drive home from an out-of-town trip. With the kids napping in the backseat, we began talking about all the things we had to deal with, get done, and even just think about. There were so many items that needed to be addressed that by the time we'd listed the last one, we couldn't remember the first.
When we used to work together in an office (a public-relations firm), we had a lot to juggle: employees, clients, budgets, and more. But it never felt overwhelming. A big reason was the office's weekly meeting. No matter how busy we were, every Monday we gathered around a table with our colleagues and reviewed the week's to-dos, deciding who would handle what and by when. At the end of that meeting, all the sundry tasks required to keep things on track had been divvied into manageable lists for
each member of the team.
On that car ride, we began deciding who would do what, and when. By the time we got home, Caitlin ripped two sheets of paper from her notebook—his and hers to-do lists. We checked in with each other about our respective progress one week later. The results were so life-altering that a broader thought occurred to us: Why not take it a step further? Why not apply other workplace systems and skills to running our household rather than allowing it to run us? So we did.
Meet Every Week
Of everything you can do to make changes, having a meeting with your partner is the easiest to stick to and offers the most rewards. Just consider for a moment how much you can get done in an hour or even 30 minutes: jobs for the week assigned, an action plan for the holidays finished, bills paid, budget for upcoming vacation figured out. Reviewing everything that needs to get done that week (or even month), and actually talking about it will save you from hours of arguments and multiple misunderstandings. If this is your first meeting, be prepared to start with a massive to-do list, one that contains all of the jobs that need to get done for the house and family daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.
A shared calendar is a good idea, but if you don't have one make sure you each bring your own to your weekly sit-down. You want to be on the same page and discuss any social or business commitments that require the family to do some juggling. It could be a work conference that takes one of you out of town and impacts how the car gets serviced, an upcoming field trip for the kids that means buying a new sleeping bag, a birthday party that calls for finding the perfect gift, or even tickets to the theater that require a Saturday-night sitter. Your children also have their own commitments that are your obligations as well. In-school events are something to consider and add to the discussion list; practices and games often require you to do the driving, while playdates and parties may mean presents as well as transportation.
Create a Command Central
When you have your weekly meeting, make sure you plan for the bill paying. In our house Andrew brings his laptop so we can review finances together and pay bills on the spot.
Now that you've gathered everything for the meeting, it's time to set the agenda. Topics could include home repairs, kids' schedules, finances, shopping, meal-planning, cleaning, paperwork, and organization.
At home there is no boss, so you're going to have to set your own rules. We recommend that these meeting guidelines include active listening by both parties; acceptance of the other person?s point of view; no arguing—instead focusing on finding solutions; equal listening, sharing, and directing; and taking responsibility for your own to-do list. Once there are guidelines, you will soon find a natural rhythm to your discussions.
Write It Down
One of you will need to take notes during the weekly meeting, keeping track of those new items that were added to the list for the week as well as any next steps on projects. You don't need to be a court reporter—just create a general bullet list of what was covered. Andrew types away during our weeklies and sends Caitlin a copy after the meeting so she can keep track of her responsibilities.
Be Realistic About Goals
Don't overcommit. You want to be able to get to everything on the list and not to forget to do things. Before taking anything on, look at your upcoming week to gauge your free time. For instance, Caitlin will check her week to see how many work lunches she has booked because that will impact how many errands she can get to during the week. Andrew often works at night, so he looks to see how many evenings he is going to be home to tackle his list.
Once you have a better sense of your schedule, then you can take on those tasks that you can realistically get to. The list each of you ends up with should be a combination of chores you enjoy, things you're more skilled to take on, a few action items to move forward and one or two from your monthly or yearly list, your long-term goals, and improvements to your household.
Keep your list to those tasks that you can get done within the week. You can then focus on bigger goals, such as renovating the kitchen, by breaking that project into steps (setting a budget, researching a contractor, reviewing designs) and adding one or two of those steps to upcoming weekly lists. If you add big-action items that take too many steps to get done within the week, you won't be crossing much off.
Move the tasks to the top of the list, noting the due date. It's helpful when you're planning your week to know what you need to focus on first.
Group the to-dos, so that later you can see the tasks you can get done from your desk. Our groups include calls (appointments to make, reservations to cancel, bills to question), errands (packages to bring to the post office, dry-cleaning to pick up, library books to return), shopping (we split this further into food, gifts, hardware, pet store), and kids (set up playdates, sign them up for camp).
Once you have created the list, start adding the tasks to your calendar.
Trust us that these meetings only get faster with practice. For us, all the little "I thought you took care of that" arguments melted away, along with resentments about who was carrying more of the household load. The result: a shared life that's more manageable, relaxed, and conducive to good times.
Who Does What
You're more likely to embrace jobs you enjoy (and ditto for him). Matchmaking tips for divvying up duties:
If you like to...
Paying bills, cleaning out closets, filing receipts, being the liaison with the accountant
Scheduling appointments, coordinating social activities
Errands such as a trip to the garden store
Keeping the house, the garage, and/or the car tidy
Meal planning, long term finances
Selecting and purchasing gifts, household decorations, and groceries
How the Kids Can Help
3- to 5-Year-Old
- Put away the toys.
- Put clothes in the hamper.
- Set the table (skip the knives).
6- to 8-Year-Old
- Hang coat and backpack.
- Put away shoes.
- Feed the pets.
- Clear the table.
- Pick up the bathroom after a shower/bath.
- Make her bed
9- to 12-Year-Old
- Fold and put away the laundry.
- Pack lunch.
- Help with dinner.
- Put out the garbage.
- Empty the dishwasher.
From the forthcoming book Family Inc, by Caitlin and Andrew Friedman. Copyright 2012 by Caitlin Friedman and Andrew Friedman. To be published on December 27, 2012, by Tarcher, a division of Penguin Group USA. Reprinted by permission.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Parents magazine.