7 Reasons moms fail to delegate chores (& what to do)

If I had a dollar for every excuse I’ve been told about why someone couldn’t delegate (or delegating wouldn’t work in x, y, z situation), I’d be a gazillionaire.

Ok, maybe not a gazillionaire. But at least a billionaire.

It’s true, delegating can be difficult. But it is a skill worth honing. Not only will it lighten your load and make you happier, but it empowers those you share a life with to contribute in meaningful ways.

Here are the most frequent “I can’t delegate” excuses I hear, and some tips for overcoming them.

Reason 1: Fear of (or Fatigue with) Blowback

When it comes to parental urgings to clean their room, some kids “just say no.” Husbands rarely jump up and down with joy at the opportunity to do the dishes or put laundry in the hamper. Anytime you get up the courage to ask someone to do something, you risk rejection. And let’s be honest, husbands and kids aren’t always great at giving a diplomatic reply, which can be exhausting and extra disheartening.

Solution: Invoke Recpirocity

Social scientists like Robert Cialdini have conducted studies that demonstrate we humans are hard-wired to return favors, pay back debts, and generally treat others as they treat us. Master sales people use reciprocity to get others to buy what they are selling all the time by making room in their ask for concessions, which in turn make another person feel obligated to return the “favor.” Try taking a page from a direct marketer’s book and lead with a HUGE ask. Then when the (inevitable) blowback arrives, reduce the scope of the ask as a concession. Maybe even think of two or three ways to make the scope smaller in the event of multiple “no’s.”

Reason 2: Fear That It Won’t Be Done Right

Sometimes there’s a compulsion to do it yourself and to do it perfectly. This is often the case when you are feeling most “out of control” in general, because it offers the illusion of being in control.

Solution: Interrupt Your Pattern

It’s hard to let go of something you do really well, but it can be a necessity if you are overburdened and stressed by your responsibilities. Learn to identify the signs that you need to let go of something (the biggest one being that voice in your head that seethes, “I have to do EVERYTHING around here…”). When you catch yourself thinking/muttering that, stop what you are doing and literally write down one thing you can delegate along with the amount of time you will save added up each week, month, and year. Think of those chunks of time when you’re tempted to “just do it myself.”

Reason 3: Fear That Others Will Judge Me Unfavorably

Doing it all is a way to try to assuage the guilt that comes from living a life that does not necessarily fit into a traditional mold. Whether you’re a CEO or a stay-at-home mom, not doing something that’s traditionally “Mom Territory” can open you up to criticism from others – or yourself.

Solution: Write Your Mission Statement

On a quiet evening, take out your journal and write a mission statement for yourself as a mom. When you take the time to get really clear on who you want to be, especially in light of your unique talents, it’s amazing how comparisons to others and the fear of being judged by others (against their standards) just melts away.

Reason 4: Fear It Will Not Get Done

Explicitly assigning a task is only the first step of the delegation process. Many, many moms end up doing tasks they have assigned to others because days, even weeks pass and nothing is done.

Solution: Stoke Competitive Fires

There’s something about competition that unlocks action in most people. If your family members are not following through, try turning their chores into a competition. The first one to finish their task (up to the stated standards) wins something. Ditto for the person who has done the most. Praise, recognition, and positive reinforcement are stronger behavioral modifiers than nagging or punishment.

Reason 5: Money Is An Issue

It’s hard to enlist the willing assistance of family members or outsiders when you don’t have money to pay for services, or if you’re feeling that your lack of a salaried job gives you no leverage when asking for help. On the flip side, it can be equally difficult paying an outsider to do the job that family members have more than enough skills to complete.

Solution: Make a Conscious Decision

Rather than weighing pros & cons silently in your head, shine a light on the issue in an honest conversation – with your partner, if applicable. Explicitly weigh the trade-offs. For example, would you rather take one family trip to Disney World—for say $5,000—or take that amount and spend $100 every week to get help with your chores so you have two or three more free hours each week to spend with your family? It comes down to prioritizing over the long term to decide how best to spend your time and money. You don’t have to break the bank to get extra help with chores or babysitting. Some employees who give excellent value for money include high school students, college students, and live-in au pairs who receive room and board in exchange for childcare.

Reason 6: I Could Just Do It Myself In the Time It Takes to Explain

This is usually true the first time you delegate a task. But if you view this over the long term, there is no comparison — delegating wins by a mile.

Solution: Break Teaching Down

Repetitive tasks are often more appropriate and more easily delegated, and on those tasks the time spent teaching can be shared over a number of repetitions. As a starting point, try dividing up the task at hand. For example, you wash, I’ll dry.

Reason 7: I Like Doing This

You may have a particular chore that you actually like doing, like I like laundry. But when you have too much on your plate, even those chores you relish should be delegated.

Solution: Try to keep the End Goal in Mind

The end goal of delegating is to offload some items from your plate that can be accomplished by someone else so that you have time to do more important things (e.g. snuggle with your daughter). When I’m crazed and yet insisting on folding laundry that my husband could easily do (just not as neatly), I repeat this mantra: “Feel the weight on your shoulders lighten as you let it go.” And I have retrained myself to smile in gratitude when I see shirts folded the “wrong way” in my drawers.

Do you struggle to delegate? What has worked for you?

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3 thoughts on “7 Reasons moms fail to delegate chores (& what to do)”

  1. The only discussion we ever had about who does what boiled down to three things: I hate vaccuuming, and my husband likes doing it. My husband cannot, for the life of him, hang laundry so that it doesn’t take 3 days to dry, while I can. I can put together a meal, he *cooks*.

    So given this and his random schedule, we basically try to arrange things so that most of the time (when my husband is working) all he has to do is vaccuum. Otherwise, when he’s not working, it’s “all hands on deck” and whatever needs doing is done by whoever’s there and awake to do it. It means that I do most of the housekeeping, but he contributes what he can, when he can.

    I think it works out well in part because we have such a small place, and I keep it neat most of the time, so that when it comes time to clean stuff it’s easy and relatively painless.

  2. Lia – you bring up an excellent corollary to the whole delegating issue, which is explicitly spelling out the ground rules & expectations for chores with your partner/spouse. You and your husband are so smart to have actually had a sane conversation about how to divide things in a way that works for both of you — and it sounds like you’re setting expectations in a positive way for your son. The problem is most people DON’T think about laying this foundation (it’s hard!) and then things slide into gender-norm behavior, which is exhausting and disheartening if you are on the wrong side of it. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective – it’s a really wise one!

  3. In our couple we don’t delegate. We have splitted tasks, taking into consideration how much effort each of us also puts during the rest of the day. It works well, it is fair (no, I’m not going to ask my husband to empty the dishwasher when he comes back from a 12 hours shift at the ER). One thing that is very important in this arrangement though is that, if I don’t have the time to empty and reload the dishwasher some evening, he says nothing about it.
    My son is 4 and he helps out a lot because he likes it. My effort now is a) to teach him to start by making less mess and b) to teach him to take care of his own stuff. In his agenda, it’s always fun to help me start the laundry, but never to put his toys in a bin. I’m working on teaching him that there are a few things that have to be done even if you don’t enjoy them, and there’s clearly road ahead! Sometimes it works if I tell him “ah, I see you can’t help me with x, it’s normal, you’re still a little guy” – he’d do everything to prove me wrong! But it’s a little bit manipulative so I don’t abuse this…

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