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.