How to Get Your To Do List Done

by James Florence



John Maynard Keynes got it wrong, at least according to Elizabeth Kolbert. Back in the 1930s, the sometimes clairvoyant economist predicted that his descendants (us) would have an abundance of free time thanks to the wonders of automation. Well, I’m here to affirm: Kolbert is right; Keynes dead wrong. Despite my iPhone, laptop and garage door opener, I’m busier then ever…and I know I’m not alone.

Author Brigid Schulte has the residents of the 21st century in mind when she says, “…this is how it feels to live my life: scattered, fragmented and exhausting.” I read this and can only nod vigorously while reaching for another cup of coffee. Only I realize that my labor-saving Keurig machine has to be cleaned and I actually don’t have any milk left so I’ll have to run to the store…you see the problem.

So what’s to be done? In a recent New York Times Magazine piece, Rampell suggests the answer might harken back to what Keynes was talking about in the first place: the economy; or, as she puts it, “Econ 101.” But Rampell’s suggestion involves more than labor-saving devices—it involves labor-saving services, or to put it another way, outsourcing.

To outsource a task is simply to have it done by someone outside a company, or in this case, a family. Most of us are comfortable with some forms of outsourcing: we ask the cable guy to install our cable; we hire sitters to watch our kids and pets; and we get take-out pizza or, if you’re like me, allow our children to survive on mac and cheese from the Whole Foods hot bar.


This 1955 housewife is not my role model. Photo courtesy of Apron Revolution, 2014

As Rampell points out, however, other forms of outsourcing might make us feel…wrong. The 20th century demolition of the servant class involved transforming housework into a demonstration of ethical superiority. As she puts it, “…scrubbing your own toilet supposedly builds character.” To those of us who feel the moral imperative to scrub our own toilets, I suggest this: Save the apron and stilettos for Halloween.

Realistically, there’s no ethical reason not to outsource mundane life tasks. There may, however, be economic barriers. Can you afford it? Let’s think that through. How much do you get paid an hour? If it’s more than you would pay a house cleaner, there’s no economic justification to clean your own home. Use your extra time to work at your job and come out ahead. If it’s less than you would pay a house cleaner, ask yourself how much you could be paid an hour. Hiring a housekeeper so you can catch up on “Breaking Bad” may not be the best economic decision, but hiring a housekeeper to improve your future earning potential could be a very smart investment.

Convinced? It’s time to get started. Here are some daily household tasks that can be easily and economically outsourced:

House cleaning
It’s the 21st century, people. Scrubbing your own toilets may have its advantages, but moral superiority isn’t one of them. Weigh your options. People who clean houses for a living are professionals. They do a hard job really well—often much better than you or I could do in the short time we have available. Outsource and choose how to use those newly available hours.

While I enjoy the advantage of the automation predicted by Keynes (in the form of a washer and dryer), what Keynes didn’t recognize is that in his day, the majority of households sent their laundry out, which is even easier than determining which temperature cycle will get your clothes the cleanest.

The great thing is that I can also send my laundry out. Many dry cleaners and even laundromats offer Wash-n-Fold services with quick turnaround and extremely reasonable prices. As with all outsourced tasks, when I do Wash-n-Fold, I need to give up a modicum of control over the precise way my clothes are laundered. But believe me, picking up a basket of clean, precisely folded clothes after a day spent biking is well worth it.

Grocery shopping
I actually enjoy grocery shopping. I love checking out the bulk food bins and considering what I might make with amaranth. What I don’t love is the fact that I usually shop in a sliver of time between work and picking up my son after school. Moreover, the afterschool program charges $10 for every minute I’m late. Consequently, I invariably forget the bread, the broccoli or the only cereal my kid will eat for breakfast.

Needless to say, despite my desire to get my own groceries, it’s much easier to outsource, and with so many choices, I have no excuse not to. Amazon Fresh and Google Shopping Express both offer same- or next-day delivery to my doorstep. Moreover, when I have specific needs that Amazon and Google can’t fill (amaranth in bulk?), I can call a concierge. Oh, you thought concierge services were just for hotels and rich people? Think again. Concierge services can operate on an as-needed basis, which means you can build a relationship with a company and ask them to help you with pretty much any task. Depending on your needs, they can pick up the amaranth, the cereal or, even better, the kids.

(Almost) everything else
Assemble Ikea furniture? Check. Weed your garden? Check. Organize that hall closet—the one you have to slam closed with your hip because it’s so full? Check. Tax returns? Check. So what should you not outsource? Anything you love to do. Do you cook? Do you create toy animals out of recycled plastic forks? Do you love to wash dishes? If you happen to be that person—and if you are, do you want to come over to my house?—then by all means, keep doing it. But for everything else, consider finding a professional and handing it over.

(Note to self: Follow own advice. Call a professional. Today)


Let a concierge babyproof your home before Junior starts to walk. (Photo: Concierge of the Valley, 2014)

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