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 was that they were my lists, and they didn’t remind the other family members of what they need to do.

What worked for our family was 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 moved on to some new version of the system, but the old one worked best for me so I stuck with it.

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. I added 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.)

I had index cards back in the mid-80s or so when I first used the system. In the late ’90s, I entered recurring appointments in a special calendar file in Outlook to remind me that it was time to water the plants, change the air filter, or vacuum the carpets. That kept me on task, but we also had our kids participate in household tasks on a rotating basis, and the kids didn’t like lists, whether printed from Outlook or handwritten. So we went back to actual index cards, as suggested in the original S.H.E. books.

We used color-coded cards to denote how often a task needed 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 later I had a document with 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" didn’t work with our kids. We all took turns doing that task, so I added the details to help everybody remember all the little things that go into went into making the kitchen acceptably clean.

We used a token system of awards for tasks done by the kids, so the token value for each task was 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 the dishwasher and run it.
Scrub out any pots.
Wipe out the 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 the laundry room.
Put all recyclables in the recycling bin.

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

If the kids completed a task, they turned the card in to me or Sam and collected their tokens. The adult re-filed the cards (under the next day’s divider if it was daily, next week if it was weekly, etc.). Each day I printed out a daily details list from the family calendar and sorted the next day’s cards. The kids each had a special place for their cards, I had a place for mine, and there was another place for things I wanted to get done but that weren’t necessarily assigned to anyone. The kids looked there if they wanted to earn extra tokens.

There were other things that we wanted the kids to remember and I hated (still do!) nagging. The kids each had daily routine cards, as well. For instance, when Genevieve was nine years old, her morning card reminded 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 reminded her to shower, comb her hair, brush her teeth, and lay out her clothes for the next day. When she had the card, it was easy for her to remember to do all those things. Without the card, she almost always forgot at least two of them.

The longer we used the system, the more cards we made up. I noticed one day that the baseboards were dirty in the kitchen, so I created a card to remind me to scrub them monthly. It wasn’t easy to remember to clean all the ceiling fan blades, but I made a weekly card for it. There was a daily card to remind us to wash out and refill the birdbath (so no mosquitos could breed in it) and check and refill the bird feeders. We didn’t remember to do those things otherwise. After we established the reminders we got lots more wildlife around the house and it was a joy to watch all the birds and animals. We even had 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. There are several other sites that publish lists of tasks on their cards, but I haven’t found any others that go into detail as to exactly what each task entails. 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 website, 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 kept our detailed definitions of what was entailed in cleaning each room. Despite requests to do so, I haven’t published those because they were so specific to our home.

11 thoughts on “Our Card System

  1. Not quite sure how to organize my system.. Would like it to be like yours. Could you send example?>

  2. I used the SHE card systems in the 90’s when my guys were .2, 2, and 4…life was good. My faulty memory and desire to do anything but clean was corralled into a functioning home. Guys are still here…going to university…we live less than a block from u…I want the house organized again…I want not to have to ask…I strongly dislike asking…I want them to just KNOW to pick up there things or unload the dishwasher.

    Your site is clever. I was googling SHE looking for the old system that worked for us before.

  3. Hi I am a completely unorganized person trying to organize a house of 6- I like your card system my kids ages range from 2-6 and my 14 yr old cousin we have just aquired legal guardianship of. Would you mind sending me a copy of your directions on bathroom cleaning so i can make sure I didnt leave anything out I love your detailed cards!!!

        1. Hello, Karma. I don’t think I have the detailed directions that I kept in a notebook when our kids were little. That’s not the way my life works these days – I’m a grandmother, with a partner who knows how to clean 🙂 I’d suggest sitting down and writing out your own, or looking at some of the many books that have been written on the topic and using their guidance. Good luck!

  4. I have tried a few times to acess the cards and it is giving me a runtime error. Is there anyway you can send them to me. Thanks.

  5. Thank you for sharing your cards and how SHE is working for you. I am another person who did the old system back in the early 90s before I had kids. The one thing my husband and I always argued about was housework. The first few times I tried to get my husband to participate in the system, he shrugged it off as if it was a phase I was going through so I quit. Now, after 23 years of marriage and with a houseful of teens, my husband has not only admitted to me that I was the most organized when I was “in the box” but also asked me today if I would start using the box again to get things under control! I held onto my box for years, but now that he wants me to use it I can’t find it. I have blinders when it comes to seeing things that need to be done. That’s why I like to start with someone else’s list and then add or subtract for my situation. Thanks again for helping me get started!

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