This week I’ve been rereading a favourite book of mine, Laura Vanderkam’s “168 Hours”, preparing for a family visit and wondering what would happen if we had Mrs Beeton, Laura Vanderkam and an engineer in the same room… Because the truth is, people don’t apply the same standards to their home lives as they do at work, and some regard the state of your home as a matter of moral failure (making the rest of us feel guilty).

So what would your house look like if you applied the principles of asset management rather than Good Housekeeping? Engineers are tasked with making a limited pot of money go as far as possible to get the best long term performance out of 12,000 bridges or 50,000 embankments, bearing in mind the impact of one or more asset failures (eg a landslip) on the whole system’s performance.

In our home lives, the constraint is usually time rather than money. Even the richest have exactly the same limited pot of time: 168 hours in a week, of which we spend ~56hours sleeping, 35-45 hours at work and the rest for ourselves and our family. How much of that precious time (the archetypal non-renewable resource!) do you really want to spend on cleaning and household maintenance? Every hour spent carries an opportunity cost, but for many people, the house gets cleaned on the weekend and the cost is time with their family doing something more interesting or relevant to their long term goals.

So here’s the engineer’s approach to chores in four simple questions:

1) Does the job actually need doing? 

If not, do something else! (Unless it’s something you enjoy doing or get something else out of it eg practice or the chance to make scones with your kids). Laura Vanderkam’s best quote always makes me smile: “It costs you nothing to lower your standards”.

Compare that to a recipe in a 1958 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine for a “simple” cake requiring 2 days of elaborate preparation. No wonder time use surveys reveal that modern working parents spend more hours actually interacting and doing fun things with their kids than their own parents did, while devoting half the number of hours on household tasks such as elaborate cakes or cleaning rituals.

2) How often does it need doing? Could you change the frequency? 

Every asset on the railway has a maintenance task schedule which states how often various jobs need doing to keep it in good working order, and the frequency will depend upon where it is, how likely it is to deteriorate and what happens if it failed. For example, a piped drain might be inspected every 6 months or after heavy rainfall exceeding X mm, cleaned out at least every 12 months and replaced or repaired only when there is evidence of damage or deterioration.

Similarly, the best thing about a dishwasher is that you only need to run it when it’s full, saving you from running a bowl of hot water after every meal if there are only two plates and a few mugs to wash up. Even better, the dirty plates are hidden out of sight… This is one of the major reasons why (efficient) dishwashers can save a lot of hot water usage: even scrupulously tidy people don’t feel the need to wash up. There is the odd tendency of some people to rinse all the plates first, of course, which wipes out most of the water saving in some households.

3) Could you change the scope? 

It may be better to inspect or lightly clean something regularly to keep it in good condition,  rather than a deep clean every week. Maybe you should schedule a visit from the mother-in-law once every few months to encourage you to do the deep clean at a more manageable frequency…

4) Could you batch the task with others which are in the same place or similar in scope/tools/prerequisites? 
For example, a monthly supermarket delivery or a day a month committed to finance and admin tasks instead of doing them inefficiently in small chunks. Minimise, delegate (if the task is something that another person can do more effectively than you) or ignore…

Hopefully these suggestions will help you make more time for the things in your life which are really important, whether that’s getting outdoors in the sunshine with your family or discovering a new engineering insight (OK, maybe the last one’s just me…)

See also:

Try going beyond the mask and cape with Edward Cooke’s latest short story collection “SuperPeople”