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Our Card System

As I’ve said else­where, I’m not a nat­u­rally neat or orga­nized per­son. My sis­ter is just orga­nized and has been since birth as far as I can tell. She gets up in the morn­ing remem­ber­ing every­thing that she needs to do and does it with­out get­ting side­tracked. She’s an amaz­ing per­son, but I’m not her. I’ve given up on try­ing to force myself to become her, but there are things that are impor­tant to me that won’t get done with­out being neat and organized.

First I tried lists. I can do lists. I can, in fact, make absolutely amaz­ing lists. Unfor­tu­nately, after I write them, I for­get to look at them. Another prob­lem is that they’re my lists, and they don’t remind the other fam­ily mem­bers of what they need to do.

What has worked for our fam­ily is a mod­i­fied ver­sion of the card file sys­tem intro­duced in the Side­tracked Home Exec­u­tive books by Pam Young and Peggy Jones. I under­stand Pam and Peggy have actu­ally moved on to some new ver­sion of the sys­tem, but the old one works best for me so I’m stick­ing with it.

There’s a site, S.H.E.‘s Orga­nized, that explores the sys­tem in-​​depth. If you’re inter­ested after read­ing my brief descrip­tion, I sug­gest that you go there and go through their essays to get started.

Basi­cally, though, you go through your house and make a list of absolutely every­thing that needs to be done to keep it as clean, neat and orga­nized as you like, and how often those things need to be done. Some peo­ple also choose to make cards for other things, like trips to the gro­cery store or dry cleaner. I add a note about which fam­ily mem­bers can do var­i­ous tasks, as some can only be done by an adult, some by any of the kids, some only by kids of a cer­tain age. An esti­mate of the time needed is help­ful for some peo­ple, and some folks like to have a list of any equip­ment needed for a cer­tain task. Every­thing goes on an index card and you file the cards in a box with dividers for days of the week, month, etc. Each morn­ing you take out the cards for the day, do what’s on them, and re-​​file them when­ever they should be done again (tomor­row, next week, in 6 months, etc.)

While I had index cards back in the mid-​​80s or so when I first used the sys­tem, I’m not much for them now. I’ve entered recur­ring appoint­ments in a spe­cial cal­en­dar file in Out­look to remind me that it’s time to water the plants, change the air fil­ter, or vac­uum the car­pets. That keeps me on task, but we also have our kids par­tic­i­pate in house­hold tasks on a rotat­ing basis, and the kids don’t like lists, whether printed from Out­look or hand­writ­ten. So we’re back to actual index cards, as sug­gested in the orig­i­nal S.H.E. books.

We use color-​​coded cards to denote how often a task needs to be done (white for daily, yel­low for 2 or 3 times a week, blue for weekly, etc.). At first I wrote out the cards by hand, but now I have a doc­u­ment that has all the cards in a label tem­plate (Avery 2″ x 4″ ship­ping labels fit 3″ x 5″ index cards very nicely).

Sim­ply say­ing “clean the kitchen” doesn’t really work with our kids. We all take turns doing this task, the details are there to help every­body remem­ber all the lit­tle things that go into get­ting the kitchen accept­ably clean.

We use a token sys­tem of awards for tasks done by the kids, so the token value for each task is also on the card. Here’s a typ­i­cal card:

Task: Clean kitchen
Time: 20 min­utes
Value: 4 tokens (more if espe­cially dirty)
Fre­quency: Daily (After din­ner or before guests arrive on gam­ing nights)
Put away left­over food.
Load all dishes into dish­washer and run it.
Scrub out any pots.
Wipe out microwave.
Clean all sur­faces (table, coun­ters, stove, microwave table, etc.)
Remove any smears/​splashes from any­thing else.
Sweep floor. Mop if nec­es­sary (extra tokens if mop­ping is needed)
Take any dirty towels/​sponges to laun­dry room.
Put all recy­clables in recy­cling bin.

I take care of most of the heavy chores dur­ing the week (dust­ing, vac­u­um­ing, etc.) while the kids take care of the pets, emp­tied the trash and help in the kitchen. We clean the house com­pletely each Sat­ur­day morn­ing, when every­one is home to help.

If the kids com­plete a task, they turn the card in to me or Sam and col­lect their tokens, and we re-​​file the cards (under the next day’s divider if it’s daily, next week if it’s weekly, etc.). Each day I print out a daily details list from the fam­ily cal­en­dar and sort the next day’s cards. The kids each have a spe­cial place for their cards, I have a place for mine, and there’s another place for things I’d like to get done but that aren’t nec­es­sar­ily assigned to any­one. The kids look there if they want to earn extra tokens.

There are other things that we want the kids to remem­ber, and I hate nag­ging. The kids each have daily rou­tine cards, as well. For instance, Genevieve is 9 years old. Her morn­ing card reminds her to use her deodor­ant, get dressed, brush her hair, eat break­fast, take her vit­a­mins, brush her teeth, and check the fam­ily cal­en­dar and her chore cards for the day. Her evening card reminds her to shower, comb her hair, brush her teeth, and lay out her clothes for the next day. When she has the card, it’s easy for her to remem­ber to do all those things. With­out the card, she almost always for­gets at least two of them.

The longer we use the sys­tem, the more cards we make up. I noticed the other day that the base­boards were dirty in the kitchen, so I cre­ated a card to remind me to scrub them monthly. It isn’t easy to remem­ber to clean all the ceil­ing fan blades, but now there’s a weekly card for it. There is a daily card to remind us to wash out and refill the bird bath (so no mos­qui­tos can breed in it) and check and refill the bird feed­ers. We don’t remem­ber to do that oth­er­wise, but now we’re get­ting lots more wildlife around the house and it’s a joy to watch them. We even have a card to remind us to have our weekly fam­ily meet­ings, because oth­er­wise we found our­selves get­ting side­tracked and not hav­ing them.

You can see our cards if you’re inter­ested. (That’s an Adobe Acro­bat doc­u­ment, so you’ll need their free reader to open it). There are sev­eral other sites that pub­lish lists of tasks on their cards, but I haven’t found any that go into detail as to exactly what each task entails, as we do. Any­one is more than wel­come to use that doc­u­ment, as long as it or its con­tents are not dis­trib­uted or pub­lished in any other con­text, includ­ing another web site, mail­ing lists, usenet, newslet­ters, etc. I’ve also pro­vided a blank Word doc­u­ment as a tem­plate to help you make up your own cards.

At least one of those cards instructs the reader to ref­er­ence the “big note­book.” That’s where we keep our detailed def­i­n­i­tions of what is entailed in clean­ing each room. While those def­i­n­i­tions are very spe­cific to our home, I’ve added them to the document.