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.


Sam Lufi (@slufi)

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.

Steve S.

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.

Brian

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.

Steve S.

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:)

Lynn

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.

Sam Lufi (@slufi)

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.

JimFive

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.

Charlie

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

Taylor

So that if you ever need a plate, just look in the bottom of the sink.

Jennifer

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!

George

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.

ka

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

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.

Heidi

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.

Joe W

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.

chris

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.

The Clean One

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.

Peter

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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James

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.

Mike

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.

tdr

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.

Cliff

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.

Robert David Graham

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.

Shypo Lindley

When there is no cleaning schedule, there is inertia to stay on top of the mess. When there is a schedule that means cleaning will be put off until it is "time to clean." But, for twentysomethings (men or women) time-management is not always their strongest suit. The schedule allows for a mess to build up -- it's not time to clean it yet. Then when it is time to clean -- look at this mess, this will take hours. I have event X to go to. I'll get it when I get back. -- and then when they get back from event X, -- I'll clean it tomorrow. -- until too many tomorrows have come and gone and it's almost the scheduled time to clean again, so -- I'll get it Saturday, when it's cleaning time.

repeat ad nauseum.

Nampuna Dolok Gultom

I think this is a common case in all guys' house. Initiative maybe is the keyword. When there are no specific arrangement whatsoever in the house, everyone will somehow try their best to maintain the cleanliness of the house because one may feel a bit shameful if they don't (assuming that everyone will feel the same thing that the others will try their best to maintain the cleanliness of the house). This kind of understanding will be very effective if none of the guys make a case about it, because once one member complains about it, then hence the creation of cleaning arrangement. Also, it will be even more effective if some of the members were visited regularly by their girlfriends. The single guys will still feel a bit embarrassed if those 'taken' girls find out that they have terrible cleanliness. However, once the cleaning arrangement put into place, one guy will think that the house is not clean enough because the previous guy didn't clean the house properly and so why should the guy be 'cleaner' this time and this routine will go up to the boiling point that all members can't take it anymore.

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Albert B.

There's also the problem of moral hazard and timing even if everyone does his job and the schedule works "properly."

If you're not the next person to clean the kitchen, you have every incentive to leave everything a mess since you won't be the one dealing with it. Thus, the kitchen will always be in as filthy a condition as possible right before a scheduled cleaning. Then, given the moral hazard problem, it will only be clean for a few hours right after the scheduled cleaning since everyone else will get back to making it dirty (including, potentially, the person who just cleaned!) provided they are not the next person scheduled to clean.

The crucial point is that the appearance or state of cleanliness depends more on people making as small a mess as they can and cleaning up in a timely fashion after they make a mess. Both of these actions are dis-incentivized by the cleaning schedule structured.

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STL Tom

Twenty years ago, my two best friends and I moved into a house with three other guys. It turned into the Delta Animal House to the point that women were disgusted to go to the bathroom. I threw down the gauntlet with a written plan. It got worse.

Bottom line, we all had different upbringings and expectations. After 20 years of thinking about this, I figured out that three of us had mutual values and respect for each other. We loved each other (yes, in a brotherly way) to be there for each other. The other three did not give a rip. We did not lay out a true incentive to these other three to follow suit (yes -- Freakonomics taught me this). We laid out disincentives instead. It became a game of who could screw over the next guy worse.

When we moved out and moved in with a like-minded guy, we lived in the most clean and orderly place of my college career. Why? We were a little more mature but more importantly, we had the same cleanliness values and mutual respect.

So, sit down and see if you guys can come to a general consensus on what it is an acceptable place to live. Isn't the courting of women enough incentive? Sorry men, Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper can live in a hell hole and it would be considered charming. For us average guys, it makes us sociopaths and narcissistic D-Bags.

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