Four Strategies to Keep the Chore Momentum Going

Choresapalooza Part 4 of 4

Previously in Choresapalooza …

I am a bit obsessed with chore charts. From searching for that elusive, perfect chore chart, to coming up with tricks to get my kids on board with the program, to applying technical writing concepts to thorny chore dilemmas, I’ve allocated way too much brain space to finding clever solutions to chore conundrums.

But hopefully, that means you don’t have to!

If you’ve ever started a new exercise program, you know it’s one thing to begin an undertaking … and quite another to keep the wheels turning. I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve started chore systems with great enthusiasm, only to have everything soon sadly fizzle out.

After many false starts, we’re in a pretty sweet spot where my kids do their chores consistently, without too many reminders or much complaining.

How did we get here? Read on for four strategies we use to keep the chore momentum going.

Four Strategies to Keep up the Momentum

Awhile ago I came across a chore-tracking app called Chore Wars. It seemed perfect for my video-game-obsessed kids. It let me enter “adventures” (chores). Each player built a character, and could choose to do an adventure to gain XP (points). Players earned virtual gold pieces and had the chance to battle monsters.

For about two weeks my household was transformed. Otto and Etta were literally fighting over who got to clean the bathroom and take out the trash. The house had never been so clean!

And then … we gradually lost interest. The kids stopped logging in to claim their adventure points. More problematic, I stopped logging in to check on status. We eventually abandoned the whole system.

The problem?

Chore Wars is a great tool, but I made it too complicated. I entered way too many “adventures.” I conflated actual chores (dust the piano, vacuum the hall carpet) with routine self-care and personal responsibility tasks (brush your teeth, be ready for school on time, eat your veggies, be cooperative). There were just too many things to keep track of. 

Lessons learned:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Keep the kids involved in the discussion
  3. Evaluate what’s working — and change what’s not
  4. Motivate them to use the system

1. Keep It Simple

If the chore chart system is too complicated, or too much of a pain in the ass for the parents to keep up with, the whole thing’s going to fall apart.

I invite you to gaze admiringly at this ONE CHORE CHART TO RULE THEM ALL!

Bulletin board chore chart with many slips of paper color coded with sticky notes

It has everything! Morning routines, afternoon chores, bedtime routines–and color coding to tell you when to do what. It has pictures, and words, and a clever system of physically moving each task to the “done” area at the bottom. A brilliant engineering and design feat! 

A little too brilliant. A little too much of everything. 

I struggled valiantly to keep this system going with my kids (it was one of my earlier attempts and I was very proud of it), but eventually I had to admit defeat: there was so much on the board that the kids were confused. They would do tasks and forget to move the cards. They would move cards and forget to do the tasks. And, it was a pain for me — the cards kept falling off when the kids raced up and down the hallway. And I would forget to move the cards back up to the “to do” area in the morning.

I loved this chart. But sadly, love could not keep us together. It was time for a simpler approach.

How I simplified:

  • Used a more manageable format: I ditched the bulletin board format and went to paper lists. No more cards falling down and getting eaten by the dog!
  • Stopped trying to track EVERYTHING in one place: I made separate charts for Otto and Etta. (Right there, the lists were cut in half!) Then I further divided tasks into morning and afternoon lists. Again, less stuff to look at in one place.
  • Reduced the clutter: I only included tasks they needed help remembering. 

The result? The system was easier for me to maintain. It was easier for the kids to understand what they needed to do, when. 

Remember: Start simple. Track only what you need to. You can always adjust and add on later.

2. Keep the Kids Involved in the Discussion

Actual conversation:

Me: “Dude. You keep forgetting to unpack your backpack. It’s the first thing on your list! Tell me how we should change the list so you remember to do it.”

Otto: “Mama, I don’t actually get why that’s on my list. Because my backpack just has my binder in it. And there’s nothing in there that I need.”

Cut to scene of light bulbs going off in my head: Ohhhhh … it’s not that he’s lazy, he’s just not doing it because he doesn’t understand the purpose! Ding ding ding!

Me: “Because sometimes you have permission slips that I need to sign. And information about camps and classes I need to see, and notes from your teacher. AND — your lunchbox. With old food. That you need to put in the compost.”

Cut to scene of light bulbs going off in his head. Ohhhhhhhh! Maybe Mama’s not quite as crazy as I thought.

Based on that conversation, I changed this:

Chart with one chore to Empty Backpack

To this:

Paper with two chores listed: Show school papers to Mama and unpack lunchbox

And yes, that small change has made all the difference. Magic!

If something’s not working, ask your kids why. Not only does that shift some of the burden off your shoulders, you may get some surprising insights!

3. Evaluate what’s working — and change what’s not

Here’s another example of a chart that wasn’t working well. Otto is supposed to take the garbage cans to the curb on garbage pickup day:

Original version:

Chart with Mon/Wed chores

Predictably, every Wednesday morning Otto ran out the door to school without taking out the garbage. And I could never remember to remind him in time. (Wasn’t that the point of the damn chart, that I didn’t have to keep all that in my head?!)

After several months of low-level irritation about having to drag the cans out myself, I decided that instead of glaring resentfully at Otto when he walked in the door every Wednesday afternoon (which, oddly, was not effective), I would revise the chart.

But how? What was the problem? 

I stared at the chart. Let’s see … scoop poop — yes, he does that, after school. Wash dishes — yes, after school. Take garbage out … wait a minute … that’s a morning chore. Also, it’s a once-a-week task listed in a twice-a-week column. Confusing! 

Since he barely looks at the chart in the morning (at this point he’s mastered the “get ready for school” routine), what if I switch “take out the garbage” to be an afternoon/evening chore the night before? And also list each day’s chores separately?

Revised version:

Separate Tues and Wed chore chart lists

Success! Grouping chores together that are done in the same time frame makes a big difference. Added bonus: shorter sentences = easier to parse = more likely to get done without reminding. 

If there are one or two chores that consistently get missed, don’t give up! Pause and reflect on what might be happening. Ask your kids for input. And then try something different — whether that’s rearranging the tasks on the list, taking a big yellow marker and highlighting a troublesome task, or pasting sticky note reminders all over their forehead. 

Remember, it’s okay to reevaluate and create something new.

*Curious about that Tuesday “QA poop” task? Read all about it in Part 1 of Choresapalooza!

4. Motivate Them To Use the System

When my kids come home from school, one of the first things they do is look at the afternoon chore chart. Is it because they’re perfectly obedient little angels who are eager to help out? No! It’s because they know that doing their afternoon chores is their ticket to TV time.

If you tie a set of chores into something they want to do — watch TV, play with their friends, eat a giant bowl of ice cream, dress up the dog — they are way more motivated to actually do them:

  • “After you do your chores you can watch TV.” 
  • “Let’s clean up the dinner dishes and then we’ll have dessert and family movie time.”
  • “Homework first, then you can dress up the dog.”

And if you have those chores written down on a chart, less reminding for you to do!

Snowy the dog in clothes

Snowy the dog isn’t so sure about this look ….

In Conclusion: “Progress, not Perfection”

But … but … I want perfection, dammit! I want all the boxes checked, all the papers sorted, all the homework neatly done and put in backpacks ready for tomorrow, the laundry folded and put away, the house clean and tidy, the problems of homelessness and poverty solved. Oh, and everyone to recycle and compost. And stop using plastic. And save the oceans and the whales. And live in peace and harmony forever and ever, amen.

Whew! Apparently chore charts bring up some deep emotions for me.

Anyway. I have (slowly, reluctantly) come to understand that no matter how hard I try, I will never, ever reach that elusive, mythical place of “done” and “perfect.” Because it doesn’t exist.

And that’s okay.

Progress, not perfection. This is my daily mantra. And those days (or weeks or months) when it feels like no progress is being made? That’s when I remind myself to focus on the wins, no matter how small.

For example, the other day Etta came home from school, had a snack, and looked at her chart. “Oh, I forgot to hang up my jacket!” she announced, and skipped off to do it. Without me saying a word. WIN! 

We’re in this parenting thing for the long haul, people. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Progress, not perfection. You got this!







Veronica Beck

Veronica Beck is a technical writer, blogger, and formerly reluctant parent.

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3 years ago

I love it that you analyzed what the problems were with the charts (seeing that an afternoon chore was mixed with morning, and days were combined.). How I wish I had had your expertise when my kids were younger!
Also, I watched the chore chart work! both kids checked before doing much of anything else. Success!

3 years ago

Another thing: It’s great to ask for input from the kids! That was how you discovered Otto’s lack of emptying backpack was , in his mind, not a necessary thing! Perfect1

Jeanne Waters
3 years ago

Help, help! You’d THINK that two adults living in this house with no kids could keep the place clean! We do have the dog to feed and walk twice a day now, and I am constantly overwhelmed with everything else to do in the house and to also get some work done at the studio! I gave up on chore charts. They consisted just of lists of what needed to be done, but not when. Maybe if the chore chart was organized by morning and afternoon chores like yours…maybe if the chores were organized by days….
Thanks, for this V! I’m inspired to try again with a revised chore chart and open a conversation with Jim about it.
Sounds like fun. Like you say, the trick is to keep it rolling…we’ll see.

Jeanne Waters
9 months ago

Hi, V, THANK YOU! I revisited this and looked at the comment I left long ago. I said I was inspired to start a chore chart. Guess what, I never did it. But at least the idea was a start! And guess who stayed up all night cleaning house in preparation for company??? Never again, I vow. We will start a chore chart. When is the best time to plant a tree? Right!
Thanks for your great ideas…
Love, Jeanne

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