Resentful? Overworked? Face These Painful Facts about Shared Work.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: 7 hard facts about shared work (#5, #6, and #7 are most important)

I’ve posted about this subject before, but I find myself thinking about it so often that I decided to raise it again.

When I hear people complain about the fact that other people aren’t doing their share–about a spouse who isn’t pulling weight at home, or a colleague at work, or a sibling in a family–I want to launch into a disquisition about shared work.

From what I’ve observed, people have a very incorrect understanding about how shared work actually gets divvied up. Take note of these somewhat-painful facts:

Fact 1: Work done by other people sounds easy. How hard can it be to take care of a newborn who sleeps twenty hours a day? How hard can it be to keep track of your billable hours? To travel for one night for business?  To get a four-year-old ready for school? To return a few phone calls? To fill out some forms?

Of course, something like “perform open-heart surgery” sounds difficult, but to a very great degree, daily work by other people sounds easy—certainly easier that what we have to do.

This fact leads us to under-estimate how onerous a particular task is, when someone else does it, and that makes it easy to assume that we don’t need to help or provide support. Or even be grateful. For that reason, we don’t feel very obligated to share the burden. After all, how hard is it to change a light-bulb?

Fact 2: When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn.

You think, “I’ve been making the first pot of coffee for this office for three months! When is someone going to do it?” In fact, the longer you make that coffee, the less likely it is that someone will do it.

If one person on a tandem bike is pedaling hard, the other person can take it easy. If you’re reliably doing a task, others will relax. They aren’t silently feeling more and more guilty for letting you shoulder the burden; they probably don’t even think about it. And after all, how hard is it to make a pot of coffee? (see Fact #1). Also, they begin to view this as your job (after all, you’ve been doing it reliably for all this time, in fact, you probably enjoy this job!), it’s not their job, so they don’t feel any burden to help.

Being taken for granted is an unpleasant but sincere form of praise. Ironically, the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted.

Fact 3: It’s hard to avoid “unconscious overclaiming.” In unconscious overclaiming, we unconsciously overestimate our contributions relative to others. This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. Also, we tend to do the work that we value. I think holiday cards are important; my husband thinks that keeping the air-conditioning working is important.

Studies showed that when spouses estimated what percentage of housework each performed, the percentages added up to more than 120 percent. When business-school students estimated how much they’d contributed to a team effort, the total was 139 percent.

It’s easy to think “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” but ignore all the tasks you don’t do. And maybe others don’t think that task  is as important as you do (See Fact #5).

Fact 4: Taking turns is easier than sharing. I read somewhere that young children have a lot of trouble “sharing” but find it easier to “take turns.” Sharing is pretty ambiguous; taking turns is clearer and serves the value of justice, which is very important to children.

I think this is just as true for adults. I have to admit, shared tasks often give me the urge to try to shirk. Maybe if I pretend not to notice that the dishwasher is ready to be emptied, my husband will do it! And often he does. Which bring us t0…


Fact 5: The person who cares the most will often end up doing a task. If you care more about a task being done, you’re more likely to end up doing it–and don’t expect other people to care as much as you do, just because something is important to you. It’s easy to make this mistake in marriage. You think it’s important to get the basement organized, and you expect your spouse to share the work, but your spouse thinks, “We never use the basement anyway, so why bother?” Just because something’s important to you doesn’t make it important to someone else, and people are less likely to share work they deem unimportant. At least not without a lot of nagging.

Fact 6. If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF. This sounds so obvious, but think about it. Really. Let it go. If you think you shouldn’t have to do it, don’t do it. Wait. Someone else is a lot more likely to do it if you don’t do it first. Note: this means that a task is most likely to be done by the person who cares most (see Fact #5).  To repeat this point in other words, if you persist in doing particular work, it becomes more and more unlikely that someone else will do it.

Of course, you can’t always choose not to do something. Someone must get the kids ready for school. But many tasks are optional.

Fact #7: If, when people do step up, you criticize their performance, you discourage them from doing that work in the future. If you want others to help, don’t carp from the sidelines. If you do, they feel justified in thinking, “Well, I can’t do it right anyway” or “Pat wants this to be done a particular way, and I don’t know how to do that, so Pat should do it.” The more important it is to you that tasks be performed your way, the more likely you are to be doing those tasks yourself. (Of course, some people use deliberate incompetence to shirk, which is so deeply annoying.)

What do you think? What did I get wrong–or overlook? Do you find shared work to be tough to manage?

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  • Bambi

    I find it to be so very true that taking turns is easier than sharing.

    I’m a busy university girl and our department is a lot about teamwork. As I’m not naturally a teamworker I am always in favour of just taking turns.

    Love from Germany,


  • Candace

    Brilliant post! Love how it sums the idea of shared work in one post and gives the 360 degree perspective of both parties involved while pointing out the shortcomings in overclaiming the amount of work done. It’s so true that if you want the work done by the other person you have to be patient and let them do it at their own pace otherwise they will never want to do it again.

  • C

    This is great! I finally figured out why I have hard time figuring out when to contribute at my husband’s family events. The whole thing is a big SHARE. In fact, they enjoy going out of their way to do things for each other that I would just do for myself and let others do for themselves. It’s an epic-level sharing situation.

  • Natalie

    Love this post. After seeing crazy wives on Dr Phil a few times, I realised that I have to be careful not to criticize when my husband or children do something a bit differently to the way I do it. So he folds the towels into eighths not twelveths and they don’t fit neatly on the shelves. Who cares, really? I don’t, or not enough to bring it up. I’m just happy he helps around the house even though he goes out to work all day and I am at home. And if the kids do something imperfectly, if it is good enough I just leave it, if it is an issue for some reason I help and instruct to make it acceptable. And thank them for helping. It can be hard sometimes, but I am working on it. Who would want to help if the reward is being told you didn’t do it well enough?

  • Vero

    I may add that if you want your spouse to do something, you may just ask (in a light tone ;)), it’s a lot easier than sulking and waiting till s/he notices that you seem to want him to take the trash out. For me, it works wonderful 🙂

  • Jill Brown

    This post really spoke to me. I have recently left my job (Editorial Director at an online health company) because I knew I was being taken for granted. I experienced just what you describe, Gretchen – because I was so reliable and efficient (and my fantastic team), my work wasn’t noticed! They all thought I was satisfied when I was Bored to Death!! But I also knew that this was a sign of my success. Thanks for sharing the insight!

  • peninith1

    Oh golly I just saw someone else post about folding laundry and I have to admit I see myself doing exactly the wrong thing–redoing laundry folding because I have “My way or the highway’ disease about that. And it is one of the few things my Mom is able to even try to do to help. Thanks!

  • M

    This post is dead-on. I want to print it out and tape it to my forehead! Would be a good reminder for myself and others 🙂

    At work I tend to feel taken for granted because I’m efficient and don’t complain. At home I have to consciously remind myself to avoid #3. When I really think about it, I don’t contribute any more than my roommate. She takes care of things that really bother her, like changing the water filter (which I never, ever think about) and I CAN’T STAND a dirty kitchen, so I clear the kitchen of clutter. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking I always clean (which may be true because she doesn’t care) but she actually does contribute to the things that bother her.

  • Fiona

    A great post, Gretchen. Many of the points you make really hit home to me. I have a big control-freak element to my personality and want things done my way, yet i often find myself complaining when my husband doesn’t pitch in and then griping when he doesn’t do it “right”. We are due to spend 6 months apart next year due to our work commitments, with me taking responsibility for our baby as well as going back to work. I am very conscious of how easy it might be for me to start resenting the extra jobs I will have as a result, but with the help of your book (The Happiness Project) and posts like these, I’m working on my behaviours and attitude in the hope of avoiding as many arguments and resentful feelings as possible. Thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m happy to hear that my work is proving useful. Good luck.

  • Ken

    I utterly adored (and simultaneously hated) this sentence: “Being taken for granted is an unpleasant but sincere form of praise.”. It’s a very uncomfortable truth but it does bear mentioning.

    • Zupamum

      I say a great deal that I work so hard at a thankless job! Perhaps by looking at my situation this way, I’ll be more positive about what I do and not resent my co-workers as much!

  • Lisa

    Loved this article. All of the obvious truths, and spelled out under our noses! Fact #7 is the hardest for me to stomach. The question I have to ask myself is why I continue to allow passive-aggressive people into my life who use deliberate incompetence to shirk taking on any responsibility whatsoever. Totally agree that it’s wrong to criticize a job that is done sufficiently, if not the same as you would do, but it’s different if the job simply isn’t done well enough.

  • Jeanne

    Love this post. Love the picture of the horses. I agree with Vero below that ASKING for help works very well, especially with my husband, who responds very well to instruction, but does not think of things on his own or read my mind. But sometimes I think that something that matters to me has to matter to my husband just because it matters to me. Like locking the side door. My hub comes to bed later than me, and had a habit of leaving the side door unlocked or even open – for the cat I guess. This was unacceptable to me. First of all, my feelings have to be more important in my home than the cat. Also, actions are symbolic. By leaving the door open, I was feeling that he did not care about my safety or respect my feelings about safety. Not being raised a woman, he cannot fathom how much keeping safe is important to us. I explained this to him in these terms, and now he honors me by always locking the door, even though he could argue that the odds that a dangerous lunatic would find his way to our back door are slim. I argued back, what if a skunk wandered in? This he could understand.

  • Sprockette

    OK – I simply have to object to your comment about cycling on a tandem – I’ve ridden a tandem with my husband for nearly 25 years and it’s a MYTH that you can slack off any time you want and make him do all the work! The pedals go around together at the same time and the same cadence. You have no choice but to do your fair share of the work! Sorry. Poor example. Just sayin’.

  • shannon

    I agree that 5-7 are really important. When I was living with a partner in a relationship, I fully acknowledged that I’m particular about the kitchen and therefore cleaning it was my domain. However, there are many people out there who simply do not care about a clean home at all. My ex didn’t care much about cleanliness, so inevitably I would do much more than her. When I discussed this with her and told her I perceived this as unfair, she decided that the fair thing would be for her to choose some chores that were her responsibility. And then she mostly didn’t do them.
    Now that I’m single, I notice this dynamic in a number of relationships. Someone who cares a great deal about cleanliness and order learns that she has paired up with a person who doesn’t, and the result is arguments and agony. My perception is that this is much more agonizing for the person who cares more about cleanliness – it feels like our partners don’t care bout the things we value, and it can feel deeply disrespectful. It also often appears to me like the non-cleaners are able to conveniently “forget” to do their chores, or intentionally do them badly (as noted in #7), endure a little nagging, and totally get off the hook for all that work. But it may also be that as someone who prefers cleanliness, I empathize more with my own.
    At any rate, it strikes me as a very delicate balance, between knowing that you are being a nagging partner, and having a legitimate right to your anger about household work.

    • HEHink

      Sandra Felton has written extensively about “Messies,” who are basically inherently what the term implies. I am one, and am married to someone who values neatness and order, so we have had our share of disharmony. What is important to note, though, is that many Messies would love to live in a clean, orderly, pleasant state. Unfortunately, we have various strongly held mindsets that are getting in our own way. We perceive tasks differently, and we perceive the passage of time differently. We really don’t mean disrespect, nor are most of us trying to be lazy shirkers. If we really want to change our environments, we need to change our way of thinking, and it IS possible. I’m nowhere near where I’d like to be on my own scale of improvement, but as a Messie I have been able to develop some habits that have made our home a little less chaotic – and that I think have shown my husband that I really do care about how he wants our home. It’s just harder overall for me to make it that way, and it takes longer.

      • Ann

        My husband is a “messie” but I have been able to get to the bottom after being married for several years. He likes cleanliness but is an accumulator. I have taken it on myself to deal with the accumulation by bringing things to charities that accept them, and meanwhile he is happy to help with dishes and laundry even though I am at home and he works all day. I also put away 2/3 of the knickknacks all over the shelves because it is way too much dusting and he doesn’t help with that. He likes it better this way because it is visually more peaceful and he appreciates an attractive environment (don’t we all!).
        Most of the problem with things laying around is that there is too much stuff in closets and cupboards. Once they are emptied out to make room the messiness almost disappears.

    • skarmio

      This post resonated with me . My husband is a “Messie” (I will have to check out this book) – I value neatness and cleanliness much more than my husband and as Gretchen has a written for many a calm uncluttered environment can contribute greatly to a happy (or at least unstressed) state. I hate however the drudgery of cleaning and resent that if I’m the only one who cares about it that I have to do it all (on top of caring for 3 young kids). I quit my intellectually stimulating job as an aerospace engineer thinking I would be able to spend more quality time with my kids but instead I find myself cleaning and straightening up with most of my time instead of spending it with the kids. Anyway, I didn’t see a solution for me in Gretchen’s post. I tried the “If you want someone else to do a task, DON’T DO IT YOURSELF. ” in the past and in a few weeks I was living in a veritable garbage can and very unhappy.

      • elisa

        Being a Messie myself (married to a spouse who values cleanliness and order), I think that the best solution is to PAY someone to do it for you. We have a wonderful lady helping us, who can clean, iron, etc. much better than both of us. I work more in order to pay her (but I enjoy working). And this meant for us 90% less arguments.

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes. This is a problem!!!! One person cares deeply, the other person doesn’t care at all.

      • CarlaMae8

        How was the cleaning and straightening getting done when you were working as an engineer? My guess is that you were still the one who was doing the work; it just didn’t feel like that was all you did with your day (since you were at your job for many hours). Perhaps change your mindset a bit – during the daytime your job is to spend quality time with your kids, and in the evening when you are “off work” you can focus on cleaning and straightening up after the day.

    • peninith1

      I was ‘born’ a rather messy person, and have battled this problem in my own haphazard way for all my 66 years. I would never ever be tidy enough to satisfy a true ‘neatnik’. Order is pleasing to me, but I am just not allergic to disorder, and I truly, truly do not NOTICE disorder because my mind is often on other things. I don’t say this is a virtue, it is just the truth. A lot of untidy people really are not trying to live in a pigsty, they just don’t notice. I cannot tell you the number of times I have resolved to put away or hang up my clothes immediately. They still wind up in piles on the floor that later need picking up and putting away. I have progressed a very long way since the days when I had to jump over a pile of books, papers, and tangled clothes to get into my dorm room bed in college 40+ years ago. I have had some success with teaching myself daily routines like making the bed in the morning and tidying up the kitchen before going to bed at night. I LOVE it when I have really vacuumed and dusted and picked up in the house. But I will probably always scatter things in my wake as I go. I would say to the neatniks, the desire for order is a sort of delicate plant that probably has to be nurtured with your praise whenever your messie does something right. At first, he or she may not even notice why it is the surroundings seem calmer.

      • gretchenrubin

        It’s interesting: if you’re one of these two types, it’s hard to imagine the world of the other type. One person simply doesn’t see the mess; the other person can’t rest until order is restored. No malice on either side! It’s tough.

  • Greg

    All very true. I have to be careful not to resent some things I routinely do around the house. So, this is a welcome reminder to think more carefully about work.

  • Jlynn

    In most work environments I have been in, if you sit and wait and don’t do something it will just not get done until such a time as it becomes a real problem and then I still end up taking care of it. (cleaning out the kitchenette sink of food, wiping up the water around the sink, putting reams of paper in the cabinet by the printer, etc.). People will even come to me and say “can you change the toner bottle? I have on good clothes”.

  • Debi

    Is there any way to hear your talk at q Cities, or are you going to do a post on this subject? I hope so, as I’m doing a lot of thinking and writing about habits myself.

  • Needed this. Thank you!

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  • Karen

    So then how do you avoid being taken for granted? This happened to me in my last job and some coworkers essentially told me that–it was a form of praise, and my boss relied on me. The only way to stop being taken for granted was to leave–didn’t feel good!

    • Zupamum

      I’ve been thinking of leaving my “thankless” job because the others that I work with seem not to care as much as I do and will often do bare minimum! The manager of my department doesn’t observe what individuals in the department do and thus finds everything is going well! Why, because I feel I pick up the slack for others! It’s so frustrating!

  • E. Hartman

    Never do a bad job good 😉

  • Coleen Gosnell Wheeler

    Number 6 can be a problem. I was working full time and my (now ex) husband wasn’t working at all. I was still doing all of the housework which with 4 kids and multiple pets was a lot. I finally told him I expected him to help and, unless he did, I was not doing it any more. Within 3 months our house was unhabitable. Thus why he is my ex.

  • Anni Ludhra

    Fantastic post. I think I can safely say that it is a universal theme to which people can relate. You have articulated the cause and process flow of what crosses the minds of so many of us- whether that’s in the context of a relationship, work or social life. Thank you! I am going to share this.

  • Joe

    What the…have you been sitting in my living room!? As a family of 7 and small business owner, all your points are spot on.