Nag: Pester. Harass. Irritate. Vex. Also, an old horse.
Whether you’re the perpetrator or the victim, nagging is a brutal cycle of frustration, guilt, and hurt feelings. It might all be worthwhile if the end result were productive, but that’s rarely the case. So how do we solve the problem?
To the nagger: Just STOP it!
To the naggee: Just DO it!
While this may be excellent advice, following it isn’t so simple.
Let’s start by coming up with a better word than nagging. How about reminding? Everyone can appreciate a helpful reminder, right?
I am not saying that I have it all figured out nor that all my relationships are always smooth and my days are filled only with rainbows and unicorns. But here are a few strategies that have worked well and proven their value over the years.**
When Two People Are Exactly Alike, One of Them is Unnecessary
This quotation has been attributed to numerous people from Winston Churchill to Henry Ford, but its nebulous origin doesn’t make it any less true.
I’m a planner, and I can’t wait to execute those plans. Have you ever added items to your to-do list just so you can feel the satisfaction of crossing them off?
Yeah! Um, me neither…
It’s difficult for me to understand the mindset of procrastinators, so sometimes I give helpful reminders until I feel like a broken record, like I’m mute and invisible because these hints disappear into a black hole.
I don’t want to nag, but I do want things done!
Sometimes it seems that certain people have selective hearing, that they’re like the cat who won’t acknowledge your existence until he hears the can opener and knows that dinner is ready. My requests fall on deaf ears, but my offers are heard from miles away.
It’s Hard to Listen While You’re Still Talking
Sometimes there’s a good reason my requests are ignored. My family and former roommates aren’t children, and my wishes don’t automatically trump theirs.
Ideally, I’d always be open to alternative views and constructive criticism, but sometimes I’m not. When my ideas are bad and I’m being stubborn, it’s easier for the other person to smile and nod than try to explain why I’m wrong. If that’s the case, all the reminders in the world still won’t lead to action.
When we actually take the time to communicate and explain our reasoning, we usually realize that neither of us is stupid nor malicious, we just have different opinions.
The day before we hosted a big event, my husband agreed to clean the kitchen floor if I took care of the bathrooms. No problem. I finished and… he hadn’t even started. My gentle reminders were ineffective, and stress turned into anxiety which morphed into anger. You could see the steam rising from my ears.
Then I finally listened. He knew that we would be cooking the next morning and the floor would get filthy again. Rather than clean it twice, he planned to get up early to cook and then clean the floor. He wasn’t stressed or angry because he had a plan. It just wasn’t my plan. It was better.
Everyone’s Threshold for Filth is Different
Some people clean on a set schedule to keep everything from getting dirty. I don’t see the point in cleaning if I can’t tell any difference, so I operate strictly on an as-needed basis.
But once I notice that something is dirty, I want it clean now. This often, and justifiably, means I will clean it myself. If I’m the first and only one to notice and the only one bothered by something, then it’s up to me to fix the problem. If I wait for other household members to notice dirty baseboards, I’ll be waiting a very, very long time.
If you live with someone who’s detail-oriented and good with a dustrag, count your blessings.
Trouble rears its ugly head when I just cleaned and things are already dirty again. I feel like I should at least be able to enjoy the fruits of my labor for a little while, but all it takes is one stray spit of toothpaste for the bathroom sink and mirror to be defiled and one sandwich made without a plate for the kitchen counter to be gross. It turns out that in such situations, incessant reminders have no positive effect. So we compromise.
If at all possible, have separate bathroom sinks. Seriously. This can save your friendship or your marriage.
Even if it means that one person uses the sink in the guest bathroom, it’s worth it. It’s really, really hard to share a sink peacefully if you have different filth thresholds, and the one with the lower threshold is going to have to suck it up and do the lion’s share of the cleaning. Unfortunately, nagging will not help.
As for the kitchen counter, the pattern on ours makes small items nearly invisible. Crumbs, dirty dishes, and RSVP requests can hide in plain sight for days or weeks. It drives me nuts. It isn’t just about wanting things clean, it’s also about getting tired of soggy mail and having to wipe unidentified goo from my purse. Is it too much to ask for a clean place to put my purse, mail, and groceries?
After much trial and error and helpful reminders, we designated half of our kitchen island as a safe, clean space. We can put anything down without checking the counter first and have confidence that our items will remain crumb and peanut-butter free. The other half of the island and the rest of the counters carry no such guarantee.
Divide and Conquer
With roommates, it’s generally simple to agree that all parties should chip in on household chores, but reminders to “help out” go unheeded. It also isn’t so simple to decide who does what, but assigning tasks without everyone’s input rarely ends well.
Start by making a list of what needs to be done. Taking out the trash, vacuuming, unloading the dishwasher, cleaning the bathroom, and mowing the lawn are fairly typical responsibilities.
Make sure that everyone’s on the same page with regard to expectations. I once had a roommate who considered “unloading the dishwasher” to consist of throwing all silverware and utensils willy-nilly in a drawer and completely ignoring the silverware divider. Not okay.
Also make sure that everyone knows how to complete the required tasks. Doing laundry isn’t rocket science, but someone who’s never done it before might not understand the nuances and why washing reds with whites is a bad idea.
Next, treat picking chores like picking teams for kickball in second grade. Give the person with the least motivation first pick and then alternate.
Finally, facilitate and get out of the way. Support your team in their tasks by providing music and beverages if you want. Let them wear headphones if they want. Don’t nitpick. And don’t do other people’s work for them! Hide out in another room with a book or Candy Crush or leave the premises entirely if you must, but make yourself scarce and give them plenty of time.
When you return and everyone has completed their chosen tasks, celebrate together!
Sometimes when I make or receive a request, the response is “Does it have to be done right now?” The answer is usually no, but a better question would be “When does it have to be done?” so that’s the one that should be answered. Leaving an ambiguous target date of later leaves everyone with different expectations and sets you up for disappointment and lots and lots of reminding.
In college, I had to bag up my dirty clothes and trudge across the apartment complex to the laundry room. There were four washers and four dryers and never anyone else there, so it didn’t matter if I monopolized the entire room for two hours. Four weeks’ worth of clothes and linens could fit into the four massive machines, so I quickly purchased enough socks and underwear to last me a month. Doing laundry was never an urgent matter.
Now, though, with only one washer and dryer we don’t maintain the same quantity of undergarments and we have a limited supply of work uniforms. Sometimes it’s essential that laundry get done tonight so the proper attire will be clean and ready to wear the next day. Miscommunicating this timeline makes for a rough and creative morning.
In my family, we add another step after deciding on a deadline: we put it on the calendar. If it’s a same-day deadline, we set an alarm on our phones instead. That way there are reminders, but we don’t have to nag each other.
If both parties are still getting used to this process, build in a buffer. If you need something done by 5pm, aim for 3pm. If you need it Tuesday, aim for Monday. It will decrease your stress and allow enough time for another attempt if needed. When both parties are more comfortable and confident with the process and each other, phase out the buffers.
Praise. Thank. Repeat. But Be Genuine.
Everyone appreciates a pat on the back, so give kudos when they’re deserved. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.
Just make sure that it’s honest. Even if the job isn’t up to your standards, praise the effort and express appreciation that you didn’t have to do it. If the job was done well, say that too.
Keep in mind that you really can’t make anyone do anything, so even when you think someone is just fulfilling obligations, it’s still moving your team forward. Every project they do is one less that you have to do, so try to see and appreciate it as a favor.
If, despite your loved one’s best efforts, the job isn’t up to your standards, then choose different tasks the next time around. There’s no benefit and plenty of harm in criticizing now.
Try, Try Again
Even with the best of intentions, we all drop the ball sometimes. Everyone’s organizational skills and energy levels are different, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.
However, that doesn’t mean we should expect the worst. Instead of asking your husband, “Did you pick up the milk?” try saying, “Thanks for picking up the milk” instead. This demonstrates your confidence, not your doubt. If he did forget to do it, he’ll have another chance to do it now– no nagging required.
If you do have to ask again anyway, keep the conversation in the now. Outlaw phrases like “you always” or “you never.” Only discuss the current issue and leave the past behind you.
Find Alternate Options
Sometimes things just don’t work out. Often, this is because the parties involved aren’t truly a team. Sometimes they’re just individuals with their own competing interests and few or no unifying goals besides coexisting in a shared space. Without an overarching bond, further efforts may be futile.
Some of my friends in college were roommates in a rented house. There were four guys and one or two cleaned up after themselves but quickly grew tired of cleaning up after the others. Eventually, the situation devolved and the sink was constantly full of all the dirty dishes.
Instead of washing dishes after using them, they just washed what they needed before using it. With this strategy, even the roommates who had never washed dishes previously were forced to do so. Yes, they could have purchased paper plates, but the same lack of effort that kept them from washing dishes initially also kept them from pitching in for disposables. Their rent even included biweekly cleaning by a housekeeper, yet they still couldn’t cooperate to keep the kitchen from becoming a Superfund site.
If you do truly care about the other people with whom you share responsibilities, ask yourself if the battles are really worth the consequences. If the strategies mentioned above are ineffective, are you willing to risk losing your friend or significant other over something as silly as reminding him to take out the trash?
If everything else about your relationship is good, then suck it up, buttercup.
Confront your worst case scenario. If he hangs the toilet paper so it comes off the roll
totally the wrong way under instead of correctly over, what will happen? The world probably won’t stop turning, so choose your battles wisely.
Maybe you’ll insist on help with cooking or cleaning because those affect you too, but if your significant other can’t seem to match his shoes and his belt or doesn’t call his grandma every week, then those things are up to him. He’s a grown man and those are his choices. Keep your mouth shut.
If your roommate lets her plants die (again!) or is late for work because she hits snooze repeatedly, that’s all on her. It does NOT say anything about you, so let it be.
If the rest of the relationship stinks and this is just one more straw, then maybe it should break the camel’s back. But no matter what, if nagging isn’t working, then stop it. It’s probably just making things worse.
One More Time
Instead of nagging:
- Start from the assumption that you’re on the same team and want what’s best for each other.
- Make your expectations clear and ask specifically for what you want or need.
- Listen to counterarguments. You’re not always right. Sometimes there’s a better way.
- Set a concrete timeline and automate reminders.
- Be willing to compromise.
- Once you have an agreement, facilitate but don’t take over the other person’s responsibilities.
- Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If it isn’t working, decide whether to accept the situation for what it is or walk away.
*Chores are an example we can all relate to, but feel free to substitute whatever gets under your skin.
**Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
What strategies have worked for you? What didn’t work? If you have comments or suggestions for other post topics, please let me know.
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