dishes, daily steps, and behavior change

April 28, 2013

in behavior change,culture,health games,humor,life

are you familiar with the cycle of aggravation? it goes something like this. you get irritated about something your spouse, parent, child, or someone does and you swallow your irritation. then you observe the irritant again, you can’t swallow your aggravation, and you blow. what the irritant is varies from person to person. it could be clothes dropped on the floor, toilet paper rolled the wrong way, toothpaste pressed from the middle—you name it.

difficult task + yelling = status quo

my husband and i have two irritants when it comes to our girls: their inactivity (irritation #1) and our uneven chore loads (irritation #2).

our girls are teens, and like other teens, they’re experiencing the steep decline in physical activity that comes at this age and continues right through adulthood for most of us. neither girl is into sports but both are into technology, so to resolve irritation #1 and make them more mindful of their activity, my husband and i gave them our nike fuelbands and suggested they start tracking their steps to see where they fall against the recommended 10,000 daily steps. if they hovered around 10,000 steps, we would relax. (this is code for i’d shut up.) if they didn’t, we’d hatch a plan. well, they routinely hit more than 7500 steps each day. irritation #1 resolved and mom forced to admit she was wrong. we still, however, had irritation #2 to deal with.

at this time, my husband and i alternated who was responsible for shopping and cooking and who was responsible for cleaning the dishes. the girls alternated who set the table and who cleared. the imbalance was OK when the girls were young. now, not so much.

difficult task + competition = behavior change

and here’s where it all comes together: the dishes, the daily steps, and the behavior change. i instituted a new family rule: he or she with the least amount of daily steps does the dishes.

steps and dishes


day one: the youngest loses and she moans—loudly—about having to do the dishes.

day two: i’m quite motivated not to do dishes! so is everyone else, and alas, things do not go well for me. i lose and do the dishes. a collective sigh of relief is heard around the table.

steps and dishes day 2


steps and dishes day 2a


day three: the girls start running in place while getting their dinner together to get a few extra steps before clocking in. not to be beat, i join them. the eldest loses, voices a slight grumble, and does the dishes.

day four and on: each night before dinner we compare steps and pronounce someone the dish fairy. there’s no moaning anymore about doing the dishes. the focus now is on getting more steps the next day.

essentially, i gamified doing dishes and getting more physical activity. i shifted the focus from the loathsome tasks to the competition, social comparison, and status, and i removed my husband and me as the heavies. we’re not cajoling the girls to do something they don’t want to do. they’re psyched to show off their steps and fiercely competitive about getting the most. they don’t mind throwing down a little smack talk, either.

this is how health games work at your office. sure they’re fun, as many have pointed out. but don’t be fooled. there’s more than fun happening here.



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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Hebert April 28, 2013 at 2:31 pm

You could always add a total weekly steps bonus in to mitigate the laggard effect – keep them focused on a bigger goal than just that one day – make it either more beneficial to keep going even when you lose or more painful. Could do an “average weekly” bonus/penalty?


fran April 29, 2013 at 7:48 am

we focused on a day to keep things simple as we have a poor track record when it comes to consistency (sigh). but i’m intrigued, go on…especially about the penalty and how you see that working.



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