Pushed to the limits of her capacity to get everything done, Tiffany Dufu decides to take charge and apply her work skills to the question of managing a family of four. She creates a spreadsheet of all of the tasks of the household — from filing the taxes to washing the bathroom rugs to pediatrician appointments — then sits down with her husband to decide who does what. In this chapter from her book, Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, she shares what happened next.
Good managers set expectations up front. They communicate the vision, then allow their teams to create and execute their own plans to get there. Effective managers know that when people are clear about their roles and responsibilities at the outset, they can more efficiently accomplish their goals. At home, however, we assume our spouses understand our vision, and then we wait until after they’ve screwed up to tell them that they didn’t do what we didn’t even tell them to do.
My husband, Kojo, and I had a history of this kind of miscommunication. Our last battle about who has to open the mail and pay the bills had put so much stress on our relationship. That’s when it hit me: Why don’t I try this whiteboard idea at home?
That night, I sat cross-legged in my bed with my laptop and opened a new Excel spreadsheet. I populated the first column with every task I could think of that was required to manage our home. It was the first time I got the entire list out of my head and onto a document. I tried hard to remember the things that my husband did that I didn’t; I wanted the list to be as exhaustive as possible. Here’s what appeared in that first column:
- Vacuum/sweep all floors
- Dust living area, including electronics and windowsill
- Mop/scrub kitchen floor
- Clean kitchen sink
- Clean inside of toilets
- Scrub bathtub and shower wall tiles
- Clean bathroom mirrors
- Clean bathroom sinks and counter
- Wash bathroom rugs
- Dust bedrooms
- Change bed linens
- Wipe kitchen counters and table
- Vacuum carpet under highchair after meals
- Clean top of stove
- Straighten our son’s bedroom
- Wash, dry, fold, and put away our son’s clothes
- Wash, dry, fold, and put away adult clothes
- Morning: unload dishwasher
- Evening: load dishwasher and wash pots
- Garbage and recycling takeout
- Grocery store runs
- Costco runs
- Sunday food prep
- Dinner cooking
- Pack lunches
- Morning breakfast
- Pay bills
- Monitor cash flow
- File taxes
- Sort mail
- Clothing and sundries inventory
- Liaison with day care
- Coordinate babysitters
- Pediatrician appointments
- Nightly bath
- Alternate car parking
- Car maintenance
- Car washes
- Manage Seattle house
- Get gifts for friends and family
- Manage family calendar
- Respond to family event invites
Next, I made three additional columns. At the top of the first one, I typed my name, Tiffany. Then I deleted my name and typed my husband’s name, Kojo. I was done being the default primary manager of our home. From now on, Kojo’s column would always be first. At the top of the next column I typed “Tiffany.” Finally, at the top of the third column, I typed “No One.” Little did I realize this last column would turn out to be the most important.
Next, I started populating the cells in my column with X’s next to the tasks I currently performed. I got halfway through typing a lot of X’s before I realized that presenting my husband with a list of household duties that made it obvious how much more I did was not going to win him over. I would have never done that to my team at work.
The cells should be completely blank when I show this to Kojo, I realized. The point of the exercise was for us to work together to figure this out, as a team.
I emerged from our bedroom carrying my laptop and curled up next to Kojo on the blue couch. I sat my laptop on one of the cushions, right next to his remote. He put his arm around me. By the time Brian Williams was wrapping up his “Making a Difference” segment of the nightly news, I had my speech ready to go:
“Hey, babe, I have an idea. I think you’ll like it. Wanna hear?
(Wait for yes.)
“You know all that time you spent dealing with our mail? I thought of a way for both of us to not be so overwhelmed by stuff like that. We know what matters most to us, and it shouldn’t involve being stressed about chores. I was thinking that we could come up with a plan to ensure we both know who’s on first when it comes to household stuff. Then we can manage our areas in whatever way works for each of us. No more stepping on each other’s toes.”
Then I put my computer on my lap, opened it and showed Kojo the list. He agreed it was a great start but said I was missing stuff. I couldn’t imagine what he could be talking about given that I was the authority on managing our home, but I decided I should just indulge him.
“Okay, what’s missing?” I asked.
“Well, to start, who replaces the Brita water filter in the fridge?”
I couldn’t help smirking. Seriously? He just had to find this one little thing he does? But this exercise was important, and I could tell he was engaged, so I decided to play along.
“Sorry, hon. I didn’t think of that.” I added a new row to the Excel sheet and typed “Replace Brita filter.”
Kojo continued: “And who buys all our plane tickets for our personal travel and keeps track of our miles and makes sure that we’re using our miles when it’s more cost efficient?” Okay, he had some points on this one (pun intended). I couldn’t tell you what my frequent flyer numbers were, and we both had them for multiple airlines. I created a new row and typed, “Book family airfare.” Kojo took my computer off of my lap and set it gently on his lap. Then, he deleted “Book family airfare” and typed “Family Travel Coordinator.” He looked at me.
“Babe, when we get to where we’re going, who has already booked the car rental and the hotel and found the best deal?”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “You do that.”
Now the man was on a roll. He added a new row and typed, “Botanist.”
“What?” I exclaimed incredulously.
He looked at me again. “The last time you watered a plant was in 1996 before we were even married. It was a cactus, and it died. I’ve been taking care of everything that’s green and grows since.”
“You’ve never taken care of the mold that grows on old food you leave in the fridge,” I retorted.
“You’ve never taken care of anything that breaks around here.”
“You never even notice when things break!”
“That’s true, but when you notice that they break, you tell me to fix them and I do, or I have to track down Lionel. So who’s doing the real work on that one?” That was a slam dunk. Especially because it took me a moment to realize that Lionel was our super. I hadn’t even known his name. I sat there quietly on the couch and watched as Kojo added several new rows:
- Chief Technology Officer (“When have you ever programmed your phone or laptop?”)
- Investments Manager (“Do you know how much money is in your retirement account?”)
- Math Teacher (“Who drills our son on his math puzzles? And by the way, those take time to find and download from the internet.”)
“But this isn’t fair,” I protested. “This isn’t the stuff that you’ve ever done day in and day out.” He looked at me again, then added another row and typed “Night Nurse.”
“Oh, c’mon,” I said, exasperated. “Our son sleeps through the night.”
“No, you sleep through the night, and it’s because of me.” My mind immediately flashed to all the cocktail parties where I casually mentioned what an awesome sleeper my son was.
“Well, how come you never told me that he is up at night?”
“And give you another thing to worry about unnecessarily? No way.”
I attempted a Hail Mary. “The list was supposed to be a set of to-dos, with action verbs, not job titles,” I said. My husband only laughed and kept going.
This was how Kojo and I populated, together, our first official Management Excel List, and it was the dawn of a new era. If you had asked me before this exercise what percentage of household and child-rearing work my husband did, I would have smiled and said, “Oh, he’s fantastic,” but in my head, I would have been rolling my eyes and thinking, “Five percent on a good day.” After I tallied all the items I had added that I knew Kojo did, then combined it with his new rows, it was more like 30 percent, a staggeringly high number given my belief that he did hardly anything around the house. Talk about an eye-opener.
We quickly started calling the Management Excel List our MEL.
Over time, MEL would prove to be our most useful tool for negotiating and tracking our household responsibilities. In the beginning, we mostly divided tasks by location: Does this task require you to be there in person, or can it be done virtually? Since Kojo spent the majority of his time overseas, he was assigned any task that could be done using technology or that only required his physical presence intermittently, such as car maintenance and our son’s regular doctors’ appointments. Later, we would use factors other than geography to renegotiate MEL, like our work schedules, talents and interests.
The most revealing part of our MEL exercise was deciding which X’s should go in the “No one” column. This column represented our acknowledgment that there was more to running our household than both of us could ever accomplish. We would stop making assumptions about what the other person was doing—or should be doing—and we would not blame each other for what didn’t get done. We mutually agreed that some things just wouldn’t happen, and we’d be okay with that. For three months, the car would be dirty, the living room would be dusty, and our clothes would never be folded. I’d grab clean socks and underwear from the laundry basket instead of drawers. If anyone asked us if there was anything they could do to help us out, we’d have a list ready, but for now, Kojo and I would ignore those items and revisit them in three months when he returned.
MEL has given us a consistent, flexible mechanism to renegotiate our expectations of one another. Who does what has fluctuated throughout our partnership depending on practicality, priorities and the ebb and flow of our careers. For most years, I did school drop-offs because I was the parent in town, but during one of Kojo’s job transitions, his international schedule was reduced dramatically, so we retooled MEL, and for a year, he did daily drop-offs. Similarly, when I was in the midst of one of the biggest transitions of my career, Kojo took MEL, put X’s under his name in every row and said, “I’ll take care of everything until you get through this.” It was incredible!
By removing the tension that stems from misaligned expectations that are never fully discussed, a MEL can help any couple with busy schedules better navigate the domestic sphere. Understanding and appreciating our spouses’ particular interests and differences are important to establishing teamwork. Valuing how someone else operates, versus just complaining about it, helps us to adjust our expectations as well as our own behavior for the good of the partnership.