The Death of the “Honey-Do” List

Why Delegation Doesn't Work and What You Should Do Instead

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My partner looked at the sticky note I had pinned to the refrigerator early that morning.  “Chop veggies for chili (carrots, red peppers and onions – small dice); change lightbulb in bathroom; order diapers, wipes, and sunscreen (50 SPF),” he read icily.  I could tell he was annoyed. Which, in turn, made me mad. I needed some help and, feeling like I was doing it all, I had taken the advice of friends and the internet to delegate.  Hence, the detailed list of chores I had left for my partner. But delegation didn’t work for us and chances it won’t work for you either. Here’s why and what to do instead.

In my personal experience, as well as the experiences of friends I’ve polled on this matter, there are some key reasons delegation doesn’t work.  Here are challenges I faced with delegation:

  • Reinforced my ownership of the task (and my partner didn’t feel ownership) – When I asked my partner for help with an ever-changing to-do list of child care and household tasks, I not only maintained, but reinforced for both of us, the idea that I own these tasks.  This means that each time I wanted his help placing an online order for supplies or preparing for dinner, I would have to ask, give specific instructions, and then probably remind him (because he doesn’t feel ownership).  It wasn’t a sustainable or a long-term solution.

  • My partner felt nagged, controlled, and that he couldn’t do anything right – At the time, I wondered why my husband read my “honey-do” list icily.  Now I know (because he eventually told me) that he felt controlled and inadequate.  As much as I wanted an equal partner, he wanted to be an equal partner – we just weren’t communicating in the right way.

  • I managed my partner – I felt like I had a third child – someone I had to take care of and explain things to.  He felt like an employee, needing to be at my beck and call, ready to follow orders. This was bad for many aspects of our relationship, most significantly our sex life.

Here’s what we eventually did instead of delegating:

  • Made an inventory of all child and home related tasks – We wrote down everything from bed time to packing lunches to doing laundry and estimated how long each took.

  • Divided the task fairly – We divvied things up in a way that felt fair to both of us.  We didn’t worry about whether it was exactly equal because I was working fewer hours at the time and it made sense for me to do a bit more at home, but it felt fair.  We volunteered for tasks, rather than assigning them to each other.

  • Maintained ownership – Once each of us owned a task, we took full responsibility for it.  This took a bit of planning…I had always done the grocery shopping, but this is something my partner took on as a result of this process.  I had to sit down with him and help him understand what to buy, but we took a sustainable approach; instead of listing individual fruits needed for kids’ lunches, I simply said “three different fruits” so he could have a template to work from and make the list himself moving forward.

  • Reflect – Since doing the initial inventory and sharing of tasks, we’ve had a few hiccups so it’s important to sit down regularly and think through how things are going and any adaptations we need to make.

And now…we’re sharing the load as a team.  Our trust in each other has increased and our confidence in being able to solve hard problems has grown.  We have more time to spend with each other and our kids, too, because we’re more efficient.

Oh, and that honey-do list…neither of us wants to see one ever again.

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