In this increasingly hectic world, the phrase “organized families” can seem like a contradiction in terms. But you know they exist: They’re the ones who show up at school on time each day, remember the Little League coach’s birthday, and file their taxes in January. And though they make everyone else look bad, you secretly wish you were more like them: together and in control.
Why get organized? Because you can’t afford not to, especially when you’re juggling work, school, and competing schedules. To get you on the road to efficiency, we asked families and professional organizers to share their secrets, room by room. I learned many of these things from my other mom friends and wanted to share some ideas of their, my own and of Renee Kutner of Peace by Piece Organizing.
First, a few ground rules:
Commit to change. “The first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t” says Renee Kutner of the Atlanta-based organizing service Peace by Piece Organizing. Both require discipline, and neither happens overnight. Rather than searching for a quick fix – commit you family to a lifestyle change. I see organization as a means to an end: a more fulfilling, less stressful family life.
Take it slow. Be realistic in your organizing efforts. After all, you can’t tame years of household chaos in a single day. If tackling an entire room is too daunting or time consuming, for instance, attack just one messy drawer instead. Breaking tasks down into small chunks (clean out the dresser one weekend and, say, your bookshelves the next) makes them more manageable and provides an immediate sense of accomplishment.
Keep it simple. You may be tempted to rush out and buy a fancy container system to jumpstart your organizing efforts, but buying things to store your belongings before you begin organizing them is premature (not to mention expensive). Wait until you’ve gone through your stuff before investing in storage systems. Until then, a few cardboard boxes are all you need.
Sort and purge. One of the most important steps in getting your house in order is going through your belongings. Be brutal about throwing out what you rarely use. A good rule of thumb: If you haven’t used something in a year, chuck it. If you just can’t bring yourself to do that, box it up and stash it in the basement – if another year goes by and you still haven’t used it, get rid of it. And rather than holding on to every item with sentimental value, pick a few representative pieces to save – your child’s first booties and baby blankie, for instance, rather than his entire first-year wardrobe. Purging is hard for most, but think about how relieved you’ll feel once everything is in its place – even if that place is the trash bin.
Store things sensibly. Once you’ve finished purging unnecessary items, put the remaining things in a logical place based on what they’re used for and how often you need them. Store those used often in an intuitive spot within easy reach – stash the checkbook in your “bills to pay” file, for instance, and your child’s lunchbox in the pantry next to the juice boxes. Pack items that you need only on special occasions – holiday ornaments, for example – somewhere out of the way but accessible come December.
Build organization into your daily routine. No matter how efficient an organizing system you establish, your home will need periodical upkeep. But the one thing that’s constant in households with children is change. Schedules shift, habits change, and the house will sometimes look messy.” Rather than throw up your hands in the face of the encroaching chaos, find ways to build regular household maintenance into your routine: Make a date with your kitchen calendar while the coffee brews each morning, or sort through your junk drawer while you chat on the phone.
Help kids get with the program. It’s never too early to start training your children to follow in your organized footsteps. Make a nightly checklist to help your child(ren) remember to put their dirty clothes in the hamper and his completed homework in the backpack before going to bed each night. After a week or so of stickering the chart with stars for each completed task, it becomes automatically now.
Organizing the entryway
Set up an “in box.” Place it near the front door (or wherever it’s convenient) to serve as a holding tank for mail. A basket big enough to hold magazines and manila envelopes works well. Sort through its contents during downtimes, moving important letters, bills, and mail that requires action to your desk or home office and recycling the rest as soon as you get it. Better yet: Cut down on paper clutter by <http://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs4-junk.htm#getofflist>taking yourself off junk-mail lists<> and switching from paper bills to electronic versions when you can.
Set up an “out box.” A basket or shelf near the door comes in handy for things that need to go out: paid bills, school permission slips, dry cleaning, or your dog’s leash.
Find a key spot for your keys. Hang them on a hook or put them in a bowl near the door, and make it a rule to always stash your keys in this spot.
Make the coat closet work for everyone in the family. Attach hooks at waist level on the inside of the door so your children can hang up and retrieve their own jackets and umbrellas.
Consider cubbies. If backpacks, hats, rain boots, homework folders, and other family detritus routinely pile up near the door, think about buying a cubby-style shelf for your entryway or mudroom and assigning each member of the family their own space.
Organizing the kitchen
Create a master calendar. Keep it next to the phone and check it before turning in at night to see what the day ahead holds. “This system only works if you write everything down,” says Stephanie Denton, president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “If you only catch 80 percent of what’s happening, you can’t trust what’s on there.” You can even color-code entries for each member of the family. Of course, many people keep their family calendars online or on their smartphones, but one centralized spot where everyone can see what’s going on – including the kids – can work better to keep everyone on track.
Invest in cabinet and drawer dividers. You can find ones that hold and separate everything from lids to spice bottles at most discount stores or at specialty retailers. These simple organizers prevent your cabinets and drawers from turning into messy jumbles or bottomless pits, and help you make the most of limited space.
Store staples efficiently. If your habit is to throw groceries in the cabinet haphazardly, you’ll waste time as you root around trying to figure out what to make for dinner night after night. Instead, stock food items in the same place each time you buy them and group like items together (pasta next to the tomato sauce, for instance), recommends Renee. Also, use plastic or metal shelves that go inside drawers and cabinets to stack canned goods so you can see labels clearly.
Keep everyday items within arm’s reach. Stash seldom-used items such as champagne glasses and fancy serving dishes on high shelves and frequently used ones closer at hand.
Organizing kids’ bedrooms
Divide and conquer. To learn the best way to set up children’s rooms, look no further than a preschool or kindergarten classroom. Just as they do at school, divide your children’s space into zones – arts and crafts in one corner, say, and reading in another – so they always know where to go for certain activities and where to find things and put them back. “Open storage systems work best because everything is visible,” Kutner says. I had a mom once tell me, with kids,” out of sight is out of mind.”
Take toys out of their original boxes. Organize them by type in clear bins that are clearly labeled. If your children can’t yet read, draw a picture or cut a photo of what belongs in a particular box out of a magazine or catalog and affix it on the side, which helps when they’re looking for something or are ready to put things away.
Choose child-friendly furniture. Hang hooks and shelves at children’s eye level so they’ll actually be able to use them. Choose children’s furniture or regular furniture with child-friendly proportions over pieces designed just for grownups. If kids have to climb on chairs to reach for things in a tall bookcase, for instance, they’ll probably neglect to put them back when they’re done – not to mention put themselves at risk for a fall.
Collect and select. Children’s artwork piles up faster than you can say “clutter.” To manage the constant wave of arts and crafts, stash precious scribbles in a file or shoebox (keep three-dimensional items such as clay sculptures in lidded boxes, available in office supply stores). Once a month, go through everything with your kids and pick a few representative pieces of artwork to keep. Be sure to label the “for keeps” file or box with your child’s name and current age for future reminiscing.
Make old toys new again. Regularly take a portion of your children’s toys out of circulation (every three or four months works well), box them up, and put them away in the closet or basement. “Then you don’t have a million toys out at one time, which is difficult to manage,” says Atlanta mom Erica Udell. “And when you reintroduce a toy, it becomes interesting to your kids again.”
Think out of the bookcase. If your child can’t yet read book spines, store his favorite stories in plastic bins or wicker baskets. At cleanup time, it’s easy to gather the books up and throw them back into their containers.”
Make the most of wall space. Use floating shelves higher up on the wall to display prized belongings your kids won’t need to take down too often but still want to keep. This could be things like stuffed animals, clay creations, or soccer trophies. This gets them out of the toy basket and bookcase, while still allowing your kids to enjoy them. Another option is to use a “toy chain” with clips (available at many housewares stores and children’s retailers), which is hung from the ceiling to efficiently store and display stuffed animals.
Teach kids to sort their laundry. Install two hampers in children’s rooms, one white (for the whites) and the other a bright hue (for colors). Even toddlers can learn to put dirty laundry in the appropriate bins as soon as they undress. “My son is always proud when he does it right,” says Elizabeth Doyle, a mother of two in San Diego, California “I tell him it’s a matching game.”
Organizing your bedroom
Cut clutter on bedside tables. Instead of amassing a jumbled pile of magazines, books, remote controls, and sleep aids like eye masks or sound machines on your nightstand, place a basket or small crate on the floor on each side of the bed to hold these items.
Maximize closet space. Hang extra rods at waist height to create another storage tier, install closet racks and shelf dividers to keep stacks straight, and use shoe cubbies to make the most of limited floor space. Also consider grouping clothes by kind – sweaters, pants, T-shirts – or by season.
Organizing the bathroom
Classify with color. Assign a specific color towel to each child and make sure she has her own hook to hang it within easy reach. This helps prevent bickering about who used whose towel, Expand this color-coded system to other items as well – toothbrushes, combs, toiletries – and assign a drawer or a bin (marked with the appropriate color, of course) to each member of the family.
Get bath toys out of the way. Toy baskets made of plastic or netting that suction to tile walls are a great way to clean up clutter after baths. You can also opt for step-stools with handy storage compartments underneath. Miami mother Jackie Sosa uses one to stash bath toys when they’re not in use.
Organizing the home office / family paperwork center
Make and keep mail-sorting appointments. Frequently sort through the mail you’ve moved from your entryway “in box”, keeping a wastebasket handy so you can recycle envelopes and other unnecessary items immediately. Then make piles of mail that needs to be dealt with immediately, mail that can wait, and mail that needs to be filed.
Cluster like items together. Keep your checkbook, bank statements, and bills in the same spot, a logical and efficient grouping.
Set up a bill-paying system. To save yourself from having to sit down and write checks month after month, consider signing up at your bank for online bill pay. This way you can view your bills from various companies and pay them online, and you’ll have an electronic record of everything, too. With bill pay, you can also choose automatic payment of utilities and other regular expenses. If you’re doing automatic payments, make sure to keep enough money in your checking account to cover these charges (or sign up for overdraft protection so you’re covered when you’re running short).
Manage paperwork. Get a filing cabinet (choose one on casters for easy access and mobility) and assign a separate folder to each type of paperwork: one for medical records, one for school notices, one for insurance forms, and so on. If I can’t get to them immediately, though, I keep a basket on the desk to use as a staging area until I have a chance to sit down and file things away.”
Organizing the family room
Cut electronic clutter. If you find yourself tearing off the couch cushions in search of your remote control on a daily basis, store it and other electronic gadgets in a drawer or in a lidded box on the coffee table instead.
Become a discriminating reader. Keep magazines and newspapers from forming mountains by subscribing only to publications that you regularly read cover to cover (be brutally honest with yourself about that stack of year-old New Yorkers, for instance). You might consider canceling your subscription and reading online instead. Of course, if you love your magazines, don’t sacrifice this simple pleasure! One option to keep the stacks from piling up is to donate used copies to a local hospital or doctor’s office for waiting areas – just rip the label with your name and address off the cover first.
Hide DVDs, CDs, and videos. Rather than stacking them in precarious piles, store videos and DVDs in shallow drawers or boxes with their labels face-up for quick identification. Likewise, store CDs in holders made especially for this purpose, or “consider ditching the discs altogether and uploading your music to your computer or mp3 player” suggest Atlanta mother, Jessica Spencer. (Just be sure to back it up!)
Sort through pictures. If you keep every blurry snapshot you take on your hard drive, you’ll quickly compile a huge but not very exciting family photo record. Instead, sort through your pictures when you upload them and delete any you don’t want to keep. Or scan through your digital photos regularly and drop your favorites in folders organized by month or year. (This is helpful, too, if you like to print physical copies of your photos and make albums.) Online photo sites are also a good way to organize your pictures and easily share them with friends and family.
Designate a “kid zone.” Set up a small corner in the family room just for your kids. This allows you to hang out together while they play and provides a set place for their stuff – which relieves you of having to cart it all back to their rooms each night.
Make space for playthings. Toy baskets are a must in the living room and any other place your family spends time together. That way your children can have their stuff handy, and you can toss it all in the basket when you’re expecting company or when you simply want to reclaim some adult space at the end of the day.
If you need any help Atlanta moms, contact Renee Kutner, your personal Chaos Advisor! She is great and helped me organize my clutter!
Peace by Piece Organizing
Renee Kutner- Chaos Advisor