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. Joe W says:

    As 4 male students in a house together, we knew cleaning was a futile group activity.

    Instead, we removed all the spare cutlery from the house to leave: 4 plates, 4 bowls, 4 cups, 4 forks, 4 knives and so on.

    This had two effects:

    1) Eliminated the need for washing up, and prevent it piling up

    2) Much easier to identify the culprit – if one guy didn’t wash up his bowl, he wouldn’t be able to eat from it.

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  2. chris says:

    In my apartment our rule was that messes left had 24hours to be cleaned, after that we were free to put that mess in any manner on the offender’s bed. If for any reason they needed an extension it had to be paid for in advance in beer(12 pack for every 12 hour delay).

    Coming home to a macaroni and cheese bed will change your habits quick, or at least teach you to confine it to your own room.

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  3. The Clean One says:

    I am in agreement with the other commenters stating that there was likely one person who took responsibility for cleaning and eventually grew tired of bearing the whole load, so initiated the (ignored) cleaning schedule.

    I, though female, have been in a similar situation where I was the one who cleaned, so when I initiated the concept of sharing the responsibilities, the roommates were outraged at the concept (the house is always clean, why initiate a schedule?!). Despite the economic hardship of moving out, I took that path for a life of cleanliness.

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  4. Peter says:

    Cleaning schedules just make it so you know when you don’t have to clean. So if it’s not your week, you’re more likely to be extra messy to compensate for when your roommates were messy during your week. You’re also less likely to feel bad for making a mess and more likely to push the boundaries of what you can get someone else to clean. Think about how in fourth grade you used to take food off your tray in the school cafeteria and make something gross. You did it because you didn’t have to clean it up afterwards!

    Having a policy of everyone cleans their own and cleaner people clean extra makes the most sense. If your chick is coming over, you’re going to yell at whoever’s job it is to clean with your current arrangement vs just cleaning the area you want to yourself keeping in mind that your girlfriend is coming soon.

    Messy people will be messy and get mad for cleaning more often and clean people are more likely to do a better job and clean more often and more completely without causing drama so the clean roommate unfortunately has to do more, but only because on some level he/she likes to do more.

    Telling other people what to do is not a good road to go down as friends, so I suggest you get away from this path before someone goes out of town the weekend they are supposed to clean and it’s the same weekend your mom visits, expecting to see a formidable apartment.

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  5. James says:

    This is a prime example of the cobra effect right? this new regulation turned cleaning to a burden rather than an activity for ones own benefit. The incentive went from purely selfish to community based incentive. Reminds me of the podcast where Levitt talks about 15 dollar tomatoes.

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    • Mike says:

      The cobra effect would be if the roommates chipped in and paid whichever roommate did the cleaning, and then the designated cleaner purposefully made it dirtier in order to get paid for more cleaning.

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  6. tdr says:

    People who were conscientious about cleaning up after themselves now feel like they may as well leave a mess because it’s someone else’s turn to clean it up.

    At least that is the thinking among my adolescent children if I would hire a cleaning lady. Any inclination to clean up after themselves goes out the window because the cleaning lady is just going to clean it anyway.

    Hopefully these guys are somewhat more mature than my adolescents, but you never know.

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  7. Cliff says:

    Ive lived in a bunch of share houses and this is a problem I’ve never been able to solve – it rears its ugly head in so many different ways.

    We once tried using public shame as an incentive, the threat being that if someone doesn’t clean their dishes for over a week then all the dirty dishes would placed on their bed.

    This worked for a little while, but when one roommate become slack and was the first to have the dishes placed in their room, they snapped. Lots of house drama, an externality much worse than a few dirty dishes.

    I’ve since bitten the bullet and now just wash any leftover dirty dishes when necessary. Cleaning doesn’t take long and is likely a more efficient use of my time than worrying about how to implement an entirely fair system.

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  8. Robert David Graham says:

    Everyone is focused on the incentives for cleaning. They should be focused on the schedule.

    When somebody sees a mess, they are more likely to want to fix it right then. They also experience increased comparative advantage at that point: they see it, and they want to fix the problem. Imposing a schedule means conforming to the schedule rather than conforming to the mess. They have to hunt for messes to clean on the schedule. They incentives are to follow the schedule, not clean the mess. This means doing the minimum work necessary to meet the criteria, which may not fully clean up the mess.

    The schedule itself also adds considerable overhead. Cleaning is a mindless task I can do while day dreaming or watching TV. Thinking about the schedule takes real effort.

    Thus, I think the problem is the schedule itself, not people’s desire to clean.

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