Question of the Day: How to Get Roommates to Share in Cleaning?

A reader named Jason Stauffer writes:

I live with four guys in a house. We had no cleaning schedule until about a month ago, but the house was never cluttered, and was more than clean enough for actual women to feel comfortable visiting. Even the bathroom was clean enough for the girls to freely use it without vomiting. However since we have implemented our cleaning schedule the house has gotten into worse and worse shape. The toilet downstairs is even looking so bad I don’t want to use it. What gives?

Okay, everybody, let’s hear what you have to say about private vs. public incentives, moral hazard, and the general cleanliness of men.

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  1. Sam Lufi (@slufi) says:

    I suspect that one housemate had a low tolerance for filth and was frequently cleaning. That housemate probably pushed for a shared load, but now is refusing to clean since the stated responsibility is shared. Couple this with a fact that those with a higher threshold are probably less effective cleaners, and you have a recipe for the failure of the whole plan.

    I expect that the person with a low tolerance for filth will eventually remove themselves from the situation, unless other economic factors outweigh their being taken advantage of.

    In my housing situations, I’m frequently the person with a high tolerance and try to carefully manage the mood of the housemate most prone to cleaning.

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    • Steve S. says:

      There are also two different kinds of filth: 1. messes that you sporadically make (ie. spills) 2. the stuff that accumulates through use (ie. dust, crud, grime). Not all roommate are equally committed to fighting against both and sometimes the latter is often rationalized to it’s minimum.

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  2. Brian says:

    I suspect that the cause of your problem is not the cleaning schedule, but the situation that made the cleaning schedule necessary.

    One roommate (“the clean one”) probably believed that he was doing more than his share of cleaning; as a remedy, he porposed the cleaning schedule. But when the sloppier roommates continued to not clean, the clean one grew even more frustrated and started shirking himself.

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  3. Steve S. says:

    With one or two roommates I’ve always lived by the principle of doing by best (when it comes to cleaning) and hope for others to follow my lead. I also believe that the best way to fight slackerdom is guilt:)

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    • Lynn says:

      But someone who has a different standard of cleanliness is not necessarily “slacking”. If Roommate A thinks the kitchen should be mopped daily, and Roommate B thinks it should be mopped weekly, B is not “slacking” if s/he mops weekly.

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      • Sam Lufi (@slufi) says:

        However, if you give in and mop before time reaches the standard that Roommate B thinks is reasonable, the horizon for Roommate B to take action will never arrive. Which means Roommate A does all the cleaning – and accuses B of shirking.

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  4. JimFive says:

    I wonder why the roommates felt a need to implement a cleaning schedule if everything was working out ok anyway. I’m guessing that 1 or 2 of the guys were doing nearly all of the cleaning and that the schedule was a way to spread the burden a bit more fairly. So now the problem is that people are only doing the job they are scheduled to do and only doing it when the schedule says to instead of based on need.

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  5. Charlie says:

    Hide the cutlery and plates until there is only one set per person!

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  6. Jennifer says:

    I’ve lived in mix-sex/orientation houses, and never completely figured it out myself. I will say, though, that there is a definite difference in motivational incentives between being asked/forced to do something in a structured way versus doing it of your own free will/volition. Perhaps the roommates subconsciously feel they have no agency in their cleanliness now – it’s something they’re being told to do, as opposed to doing it without expectation and getting positive affirmation. Maybe have a house meeting to talk openly about it, and go back to what was working before. Wondering why a schedule was implemented if it didn’t seem to be a need? Don’t fix what’s not broken I guess :). Good luck!

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  7. George says:

    On the general cleanliness of men – we’re generally hopeless slobs, especially when there’s anyone else around to do it for us.
    On the situation – I agree w/previous posters, that the clean freak had been doing most/all of the work and is no longer willing to for free.
    On better solutions: either the clean guy moves out, or the group agrees to chip in & hire a cleaner, who could, of course, be the clean guy.

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    • ka says:

      I am a lady and I have lived with lots of guys and I recommend this last method, if the “clean” person will agree to it. I lived in an apartment with two guys a few years back; one of them was the messiest kitchen-user I have ever lived with and he wasn’t so great in the bathroom either. This person was also the best-paid of the three of us and was out of the house a lot for his job, so his giant messes were less of a concern for him than for us. We eventually resolved by having him pay for all the cleaning supplies etc (hey, those things cost money! Especially decent cleaning stuff, which is what I insisted on) and my other roommate and I did all the actual cleaning, which made everyone a lot happier with the state of the kitchen floor, the shower stall, the living room carpet, etc. (Well, we did it all except this guy’s outrageous dirty dishes… we all had our own dishes and we’d happily leave his stuff to gather mold. People have limits, ya know.)

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      • Marion says:

        I have also had shared quarters with guys and after mere weeks of exasperation with their cleaning methods, gave them basic weekly responsibilities and made them responsible for cleaning supplies. Guys just don’t notice little messes like us ladies do, but they are generally happy to do what they can and claim accolades for what they do complete. This worked out very well as the guys would do things like take out the garbage and recycling, sweep up, put movies and dishes away and keep their room clean or the door closed while I would do the fine tuning stuff.
        I think it’s about finding the balance between everyone, and knowing your roommates’ willingness to do which chores.

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  8. Heidi says:

    I grew up with four brothers and currently share a house, my housemate is a man. My experience is that men are generally clean but never take the initiative.

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