The fellow that owns his own home is always just coming out of a hardware store. — Kin Hubbard
Back in March, Paul Wilborn, a theater manager from Florida, wrote a blog entitled “Honey-do lists and other highlights of life in the time of coronavirus.” He begins by saying “… as horrific international disasters go, this one at least fits my personality. I’ve always wanted an excuse to stay home and putter around. Puttering takes my mind off the reality of the situation.” This was a perfect time to work on “to do” list items. Such activities can be gauged by hardware store sales. During the lockdown, hardware stores were considered essential services and in many areas sales skyrocketed, especially for things like cleaning supplies, paint, lawn and garden gear, and do-it-yourself materials.
University of Florida psychologist Erin Westgate, who researches boredom, says that it’s not surprising that people were looking for tasks to fill their time while staying at home. She says, “I think what happens is you have all this time to fill, and you’ve lost your routines and goals and things that give you purpose each day.”
With such time on their hands many men turned to the uncompleted items on their honey-do lists. Formally, a honey-do list is “a collection of requests, usually by a spouse for a partner to perform a series of tasks, assignments, or jobs dealing with the maintenance of a household.” Derived from the phrase “Honey, could you do ...” it’s a pun on the word “honeydew.” Most honey-do lists consist of special tasks or repairs rather than everyday chores. The division of labor for household tasks is often established early in relationships and is typically heavily influenced by family history and traditional gender roles.
Blogger Pam Sherman says, “…the ‘honey do’ list is actually why we all get married — so we have that other person to do our to-do list.” When it turned out that her husband wasn’t very motivated to make home repairs she agreed to outsource this work and renamed her list the “honey hire” list.
Most people find that making lists provides a sense of security and control. By writing something down you have captured the issue on paper, so you don’t have to carry it around anymore. Things put on lists are now somehow “official” and hence more likely to get accomplished. I knew a guy in graduate school named Jack. He was always making “to-do” lists, but he cheated and wrote things that he had already done. That way he could cross out items and feel like he had accomplished a lot. He would also include things he really liked to do, like fishing and drinking beer. As you may surmise, Jack wasn’t married.
Lists have their downside. I find that they can hang over you like the Sword of Damocles, creating constant tension. They prevent me from having a sense of closure and they seem like they are never-ending. I have to admit that sometimes I react negatively to honey-do lists, since they suggest a superior/subordinate relationship, which stirs up issues of power and control. Having a list of things you have avoided doing can also elicit feelings of anxiety and guilt, and my wife Diane can point to it.
DePaul University psychologist Joseph Ferrari says that about 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. For them, procrastination influences all aspects of their lives and negatively affects their health and relationships. Occasional task-delayers are much more common. Some researchers believe that common task-delayers may suffer from decision fatigue. They feel so overwhelmed by all the decisions they must make that deciding to start a new task is simply too difficult. They have an extremely hard time “breaking the ice,” as Diane likes to say. She believes that making even one small gesture toward completing a task is important in getting it done.
When Diane tells me that something needs to be repaired, my first impulse is to wait a while and hope that the issue will magically resolve itself. Occasionally things, like leaky faucets, can spontaneously fix themselves when the weather gets warmer and the rubber washer expands, but you can’t count on things like this to happen very often.
My reluctance to starting tasks is also related to my fear that I will make some stupid mistake and make things a lot worse. I learned about making repairs and using tools mainly from two sources — shop classes in junior high school and observing my father. Shop class wasn’t very useful, unless the task involves making an ashtray or what-not shelf. My father, however, was fearless when it came to taking on any job, whether he knew what he was doing or not. Although he was an electrician by trade, he tried his hand at carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, and a host of other things. A lot of his work was far from perfect, which upset my mother, but he was willing to give almost anything a shot (especially after he had a few shots himself).
I also have some fear of getting hurt, since I seldom complete any task involving tools without at least some bloodletting. Comedian Bill Engvall once said, “Did you ever notice all the items on a honey do list are dangerous? Clean gutters, put a light in the shower, patch roof. It’s really a honey die list.” Engvall also says that his garage is typically where he hides out to dodge his honey-do list. I am also afraid of calling in a repair professional and being humiliated when I try to explain the duct tape wrapped around the garbage disposal.
According to Naylor Homes in North Carolina, the top five honey-do list items in America are (1) plumbing issues, (2) electrical issues, (3) seasonal chores, (4) lawn care and exterior home maintenance, and (5) painting projects. Perhaps more important, however, are the social dynamics involved. In 2008 sociologists from The University of Virginia surveyed thousands of couples and found that household tasks were fourth on the list of the most important determinants of wives’ marital satisfaction. Positive emotional investment by the husband, church attendance, and commitment to the marriage all ranked higher. Ironically, it was also found that women who were most concerned about chores received the least amount of positive emotional investment from their husbands. I suspect, however, that it was a lack of positive emotional investment on the husband’s part that caused such concerns in the first place. They just didn’t have enough of a weakness for their spouses, which is another Diane expression. She is always looking for indications that I care about her happiness.
But it’s important to remember the old adage, “If a man says he will fix something, he will. There is no reason to remind him about it every six months.”