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Could an App Help You Stop Fighting About Chores?

This dad has an idea to get men more invested in household chores — an app called Labor of Love that gamifies doing the dishes

Men typically excel at both playing and inventing pointless competitive games, but one man has potentially done civilization a solid and applied his gamification skills toward something that actually kind of matters: household chores.

Manhattan civil engineer Bob Ford, a mid-30s father and husband, has developed an app called Labor of Love, set to launch at the end of this month. It aims to help couples not only split up chores more equitably, but with the added incentive of a points-based system that generates rewards for completion. You can even add kids’ chores to the mix and reward them for completing tasks, too.

Ford designed the app out of necessity: His wife had stayed at home for a few years with their son, but as he aged toward elementary school, she decided to go back to school herself to become a lawyer. At home, things mostly went on as they always had while she attended law school, with her juggling childcare and classes, but once she began putting in the long hours as a lawyer, Ford was suddenly faced with a dirty house and childcare responsibilities he’d scarcely noticed were being handled by his wife when he was the only earner. Like many couples, they were blindsided by how the new normal would change their household responsibilities. They bickered.

Labor of Love’s design came from collaboration between them as a result of those spats: Couples both add tasks around the house — laundry, grocery runs, dusting, paying bills, mowing the lawn, etc. They set reminders so the tasks are finished on a schedule. But the key feature of the app is a points system that assigns values to every task and keeps track of who has done what. As the tasks get done and add up to a final tally, each partner is rewarded with a treat of their choosing.

It’s up to couples to choose what unloading the dishwasher is worth to them. And up to them to choose what makes it worthwhile: getting a massage, going out to a fancy dinner, listening to you speak about your feelings for one hour and agreeing enthusiastically. Adding kids in the app provides options for kid-based rewards, too, such as more screen time for cleaning up your room — a kind of digital allowance system.

There are other apps on the market that aim to help couples and families split that chores and errands with built-in reminders and calendars galore. One of them comes with a “nag alarm” that sonically pummels you when you’ve failed to get your shit done. But Labor of Love appears to be novel for tying a reward system to the process, a kind of I.O.U. for doing your part in a partnership.

We could debate whether doing things every person in a household should do out of duty and love should have to be incentivized (it shouldn’t!), or whether this ends up encouraging scorekeeping in couples (it might!), but the fact remains that chore splitting among couples is still among the most divisive aspects of equalizing heterosexual relationships in the modern era. We know from research that men now do more around the house and with the kids than previous generations did, but still not as much as women, especially when kids are involved. It’s not that no carrots have ever been dangled to lure him to mop that floor. Sometimes that reward is sex, sometimes it’s not sex.

But Ford’s idea puts the onus on both partners to not just pitch in, but to show their appreciation for the other in terms they actually respond to. In other words, this is not just about getting him to do it. It’s about getting her to do it, too. And it’s about getting them both to feel acknowledged for that. (Same-sex couples, studies show, have far fewer issues splitting things equitably, as they rely not on gendered expectations but rather personal preference and skills.)

Ford says he and his wife have been using the app the last six months for testing, and he spoke with MEL by phone about the way it’s improved their own relationship.

In our editorial meeting, one of the men on staff mentioned that in his own relationship, sometimes stuff he does that feels to him like a big contribution (like, say, getting groceries) isn’t always viewed by his partner as all that helpful. How can an app solve arguments over how valuable, say, getting groceries is in a household?
Well, it’s not supposed to solve all the issues in communication, but it is supposed to start a useful discussion about what things may be more efficient for one person to do than the other. The point of the app is to bring up that this stuff is happening to light. So you notice what they’re doing, and identify places to help out to get some appreciation yourself, too.

Who do you see as your target market for the app? I would guess some couples can hash this stuff out with an app and it could lead to some good insights and changes, but some of them probably just need some serious therapy.
It’s for the couple who has the same general priorities in mind, but they don’t necessarily realize what each other is doing around the house, or they think they’re doing more and feel resentful about that.

When your wife went back into the workforce, were you prepared for how it would shift responsibilities at home?
No. She’s now got a job that’s a huge time sink, so it was a rude awakening to see how much was going on that I hadn’t noticed.

What sort of stuff did you suddenly see?
Packing lunches in the morning. Everyday activities. I work full time, too. I was like, The cupboard’s empty, somebody needs to do something about this. Eventually it became painfully obvious that the person who should do it needed to be me.

What were your household responsibilities before she became a lawyer?
Taking trash out was my job. Everything else was on her.

I don’t mean to give you too a hard time, but did you really not notice all the work that went into keeping the house and kid running smoothly?
We were just throwing into it, and I didn’t even think about it. It didn’t dawn on me. It’s hard to look back and see it the same way now, though. But once she started working, the dishes just weren’t done. Cupboards were empty.

So, you really just thought she’d be a lawyer and keep doing all the same stuff at home, too?
I know, I just really didn’t even think about it. I was unaware of what all had been going on. She would be home early on some days so the stuff would get done, but I had to realize I had to be the person for time reasons and the ability to consistently get things done. We couldn’t just rely on her to keep doing it. If it’s going to get done, I can’t wait for her to be available to do the same things.

How did it come up that things needed to change?
It started with a messy conversation. I had to realize that my expectations hadn’t changed, even though our situation had changed a lot. I still expected things to happen the way they did.

Were your parents in traditional roles growing up? Did you see your mom handle all this stuff?
Yeah, my mom was stay-at-home, my dad worked. He mowed the lawn. He took out the garbage. She did the rest. It was a traditional separation of duties. It’s changing a lot between their generation and ours. I would help with changing diapers, and there was a certain amount I was able to do when my son was young, but the dishes and laundry she would do.

So did she tell you what to do before going off to work? Did you just jump in and figure it out?
It started with a single thing: She’d say, “I need you to do this on this particular day. I need you to do the laundry. Next week, I need you to do this.” It took some time until eventually I realized I just gotta handle this stuff myself. Eventually I just stopped waiting for her to ask and had to start doing it. There were a lot of arguments. Lord knows I messed up the laundry a whole bunch of times. It’s an ongoing learning experience.

You sound like the guy in those commercials, the guy who doesn’t know how to put the detergent in.
I was like, Reading labels? These materials? I just thought you chucked everything in!

Was she able to have a sense of humor about any of this? I’m guessing not, as it’s nearly impossible to find it funny when you’re sleep-deprived and whisper-screaming at someone about doing dishes with a small child around.
She didn’t have a sense of humor about it, no. It was a difficult situation.

So the app came out of these conflicts.
It was one of these conversations, the back and forth of, “Well, I’m doing this and this and this. Can’t you do that?” “I’m doing this, what’s the big deal?” We realized how much both of us were doing and both unhappy about the other person not noticing.

Did you collaborate, or is this driven mainly by your own experience?
We collaborated about the direction we should go, what needed to be included. She pushed for an iOS platform, and the ability to quickly add things. The idea is you should be able to use it as a grocery list, too. I’m not sure we’ve perfected that aspect of it yet. But for her, there was the importance of making it super fast and super easy with as few button presses as possible.

The points assigning and rewards makes it feel developed more toward men, though.
I do think for men, they’re going to see some unique benefits to pitching in with housework they haven’t seen in the past. For stepping up, they get to be part of a rewards structure and get appreciation. They’ll be delightfully surprised what being part of this will get them.

How did you hash out what points value to assign to which tasks? I assume this would be the most conflict-ridden part of using the app, because odds are you need the app in the first place because you can’t agree on whether you’re both doing as much as the other.
Well for some tasks, she would get it done easier because she was used to it and didn’t think it was a big deal. Whereas I might think, Well, I did a load of laundry! But we use the same points for the task no matter who does them, and for us it’s mostly based on what you hate to do the most. So whatever we don’t like to do, that gets the most points.

What do you both hate doing?
Getting up to take the dogs out in the morning — neither of us likes to do that. Scrubbing pots and pans.

Do you feel the points system promotes collaboration or competition?
It’s tricky. It’s competitive because it makes me want to do some of these things more than I would otherwise. So I’ll grab this one, because it’s the easy points. It’s also collaborative because things just end up getting done and done on time.

But you’re able to do it easier because of the points?
It’s totally about the points. That’s the gamification aspect. There are lots of things out there where you earn points for doing things, and as a dad and a guy who does a lot of the housework, I thought it made sense to apply it to that situation. It puts a silver lining on the most of mundane of things. It makes it better. It all goes back to the communication. We’ll see what each other is doing and talk about it. I was never a big fan of doing laundry, but this certainly makes that more rewarding.

Do you both believe your contributions are now equal?
It’s not equal. With her long hours, I’m the one here doing the stuff. It’s falling a bit more on me right now. But we are aware of what each other is doing and we’re actively showing appreciation.

As for those rewards, though. You say it’s the points, but aren’t the points really about the rewards? What sort of rewards do you get when you get all that stuff done?
I’ll keep that private.