Organizing chaos (My annual household chore system)

annual household chore system tickler file

You know you’re a certified Type A when a successful organization system is the most exciting part of your day (or, ahem, month). It takes all kinds, my friends.

On the heels of THIS article proclaiming messiness as the new barometer of happiness and family togetherness, and other studies pointing out that people, like these women in the U.K., are spending significantly less time doing chores and housework, I bring you: an annual household chore system (that actually works). For everyone — not just those who have the ability to vacuum the living room at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday.

[Step onto soapbox.] You can, in fact, have both a well-kept home and strong relationships — and, in the case of working mothers like myself, a career. They’re not mutually exclusive. My routine of vacuuming once a week because I prefer not to walk through tumbleweeds of dog hair doesn’t mean that I didn’t sing six rounds of “Five Little Monkeys” with my son this morning or watch three episodes of “House of Cards” with my husband last night. I work outside the home, full-time, have community commitments and friends, and I still spend about 70 percent of my time in my house. It’s my favorite place to be. It reflects the people, places and ideals we care most about. I want it to be warm and welcoming for us and for others, and it just isn’t if there’s clutter everywhere and the counters are still sticky from last month’s PB&J and the couch smells like dog. It’s not that hard to incorporate household chores into your daily life. You just have to be intentional. I love this quote from Zig Ziglar: ““Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have 24 hours in a day.” [Off soapbox. That feels better!]

So, my version of being intentional has looked like this: I have tried to implement some sort of chore/cleaning/home maintenance/occasion organizer for the better part of the last five years, to no real success. That’s right: I’m a reformed Saturday binge-cleaner. I never thought I had enough time or energy to clean little by little after a long work day, and once you spend six hours on a weekend cleaning top to bottom, you don’t have the motivation to clean anything else for another month…at which point, you have to do a binge-clean again. Vicious cycle.

This method also didn’t leave any room for other chores that come with being a functioning adult, like replacing the furnace filter or flushing the drains, or even bigger (but less frequent) cleaning tasks like vacuuming refrigerator coils or dusting ceiling fans. Then, when I had my son, I realized pretty quickly that my Saturday speed-cleaning days were over. It’s not possible to spend a whole day cleaning while trying to entertain a toddler, and as a working mother, my weekend time with Owen is sacred. I want to paint and sing and read, not sweep.

But, no system I came up with seemed to stick. Until now. The end result is a mashup of blogs, magazines, books and my own inspiration, but I’ve been using it since Jan. 1, and it’s still holding up.

annual household chore system tickler file

I based my system on a tickler file, a to-do system commonly used in office settings. It’s regimented enough to keep you on track while having enough flexibility to reschedule or postpone tasks as needed.

annual household chore system tickler file

I bought an index card file box (sized for 3.5×5” cards) and monthly divider cards, then bought 366 blank index card dividers and labeled them (using my label maker) for each day of the year. File in order. I keep the current month at the front of the box, with the months that have already passed at the back. So, for right now, March is at the front, while the January and February card stacks are in the back. It just helps keep the most relevant content front and center.

For the chores – we’ll talk about how I decided what those were in a minute – each chore gets its own card. You can use index cards, or any paper/cardstock cut to index card size. I used my computer to print onto colored inkjet paper, then cut them to index card size and laminated them. The laminate serves two purposes: one, it makes the cards more durable, and two, it allows you to add erasable notes. Use a wet-erase marker, which dries to a smudge-resistant finish but is easily erased with water. The cards are color-coded based on frequency: orange for daily, green for weekly, etc.

annual household chore system tickler file

The idea is simple: assign each card a day. Each morning, pull out that day’s stack of cards (to-do’s), and as you accomplish them, re-file the card in its appropriate place based on frequency. Have items you didn’t get to today? Roll them over to tomorrow’s stack.

I also identify three chores each morning that are that day’s most important tasks — i.e., if nothing else gets done today, these are the things that really NEED to happen. I store those in a divided sheet protector I hot-glued to the inside front cover of my home management binder (more on that in an upcoming post – I use the Kitchen Folio by momAgenda. You can read about my Travel section in it HERE). I added a piece of ribbon over the glue to pretty it up, and printed a label (natch) onto sticker paper. Just because it’s efficient doesn’t mean it can’t look good.

annual household chore system tickler file

One reason I think this system finally worked is that I spent a lot of time making sure my chore list was comprehensive and applied to our life right now. Also, for the first month or so of this system, I used temporary index cards, making notes on them, adding new cards and removing ones that weren’t necessary, before I printed and laminated the final ones.

And, here is what my list looks like, organized by how often the task needs to happen, with some additional notes:

Annual Chore Calendar – The Sensible Home

annual household chore system tickler file

This sounds like a no-brainer, but the biggest reason this project has worked for me – when it didn’t before – was because I realized I was in control of the system, not the other way around. When I’m given a goal or a directive, even if it’s self-inflicted, it’s hard for me not to follow it to the letter. To change it or fudge it means I’ve failed, right? So, previously, if I had a busy week or got sick and several days’ worth of to-do’s piled up, I just sacked the whole system, thinking I was already too far behind to keep going, instead of regrouping and forging ahead.

Also, I’m a very visual person, and in one incarnation of this system, I put all the tasks in a Google calendar. Sounds perfect, right? You can color-code it, set them up as recurring events, and have access to it on your phone/tablet. Didn’t work for me. It was out of sight, and out of mind. Having physical cards may sound old-school, but it kept me much more aware of what needed to happen. Because the majority of these tasks can’t happen anywhere else but at home, it did me no good to be thinking about it outside of there. (If I could figure out a way to clean my toilets remotely, trust me, I would.)

Last, having an actual card – some with detailed instructions on how to perform the task – makes it much easier to delegate and share the workload. My family wants to help – they just sometimes can’t see what needs to be done, or know how to do it, like I do. (Looking at you, Keurig that needs a good descaling.)

Here’s to a spring full of clean homes (and happy home dwellers).


10 thoughts on “Organizing chaos (My annual household chore system)

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  3. Why didn’t you detail your chores by daily weekly monthly etc? You have already completed. Of course I know my chores but might skip a few things if it’s not right there. I used to do this on 6 index cards for each day of the week but it was not nearly as detailed as you suggest. Great idea – would live more details!


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