My Mom’s “Chore Box” Method Has Helped to Keep My Home Clean

published May 9, 2024
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chore box with noetecards on table
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Styling: Vicky Wasik

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When I went away to college, my mom gave me a recipe box filled with index cards labeled with chores, organized by date, as a gift. She explained this was how she learned to keep up with housework. Her mother was not a great role model for maintaining a home, so she researched ways to keep a home clean and organized when she got married. 

Content warning: The content in this story discusses mental health disorder(s). If this content isn’t for you, we understand. But if you are struggling or experiencing any mental health concerns, please take a look at our resources section below and seek help from a professional healthcare provider.

She found several helpful resources, including one book she loved called The Sidetracked Home Executives by Pam Young and Peggy Jones. “It was all of their little tips for how to make house cleaning less of a drudgery,” she says. “But the one thing that I really took away from their book was their organizational scheme of taking a little recipe box and some index cards and writing down the jobs that you needed to do.”

The chores were broken down into smaller tasks that could be done daily, weekly, monthly, and so on. When the chore on the card was done, my mom had the satisfaction of refiling it to its next time spot. 

I didn’t think much of it then, although it did make splitting chores with my roommates easier. When I got married years later, my husband and I lived close to a university, in a home owned by a campus ministry. They gave us cheap rent if we were “house parents,” helping to clean the student center, mentor students, and host events in our almost 100-year-old home, which was previously inhabited by a gaggle of college boys. 

Cleaning suddenly became a big part of my life — but so did depression. I recognized the signs: crying nearly every day, not caring about my hobbies, trouble sleeping, and feeling hopeless. The living situation was a blessing for us, but depression sometimes made this new role seem overwhelming.

Many with chronic illness, disability, or mental health struggles are familiar with spoon theory, which is a metaphor that uses spoons to represent a finite amount of energy a person has to offer each day. My mother, who lives with Lupus, explained a new angle: Something like depression is like a dump truck that drops a load of dirt at your door, and all you have is a few spoons to dig your way out. Some days, you might find more or bigger spoons. Other days, life dumps another load and you’ve lost all your progress. And some days, someone comes with a shovel. I looked back over Mom’s chore cards, hoping a system might help me dig my way out.

I organized the chores in a way that fit my schedule. Daily chores included making the bed in the morning and quickly decluttering at night. Each day had weekly chores revolving around specific parts of the home, such as laundry on Monday or bathrooms on Friday. Some chores were monthly, like mopping the floors, cleaning out the fridge, and scrubbing the shower. Others were quarterly, like cleaning the dishwasher and replacing the air filters. And some were yearly, like wintering the lawnmower and dusting the ceiling fans. 

The chore box helped to keep my house clean without wearing me out. Doing a little bit every day on a rotating basis kept the work light and up-to-date, which was much easier than taking hours to do a lot of work. Now that my husband and I live in a house of our own and the cards have become my habit, the system has helped keep our home fresh, organized, and maintained, without sacrificing my mental health or time with our kids.

Credit: Apartment Therapy
A comprehensive cleaning chore list you can use to create your own chore box.

If I’m having a “low spoon day,” I can move the cards to the next period — or any time I want! And if I have some big day planned with my girls, I can plan and do my chores early on a day when I have more spoons. In times when I’m unable to clean (major sickness, pregnancy, etc.), helpers like my mom or my husband know to go to the chore cards, which clearly show what work needs to be done. I’ve expanded my chore cards to include self-care and hygiene, which is helpful when I’m low on spoons and realize I haven’t showered or brushed my teeth for too many days.

Credit: Taffeta Chime

I have since shared this chore box plan with others who struggle with various mental health problems and physical difficulties that make cleaning especially hard. A friend with anxiety and multiple gastrointestinal issues says the feeling of refiling the cards is fantastic. Another with PTSD and depression says the flexibility of rearranging the cards on low spoon days helps her feel more in control of her space. For me, it has been a life-changer.

Credit: Taffeta Chime

If you wish for an easier and more sustainable way to manage your home, I hope this system helps you. As a starting point, you can download this Cleaning Chore Chart and use it to make your very own “chore box,” but feel free to make it your own and add other tasks beyond cleaning like I did.

Mental Health Resources

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with mental health and need support, visit one of the following websites below or call any of their helplines: