We’re all so busy—working, taking care of kids, trying to have a life outside of work and kids—it’s no wonder that keeping our homes organized sometimes falls to the bottom of the priority list. Yet we know that having a chaotic home just makes everything harder.
I’ve been helping clients—many of them working mothers—get organized in Manhattan for nearly 20 years. I hear it all the time: “I know how to get organized. The challenge is keeping things that way.” Heck, some say, “I don’t even know where to start!”
It’s not as bad as you think. My first piece of advice: Don’t try to do it all in a day. The best strategy is to make a habit of spending small chunks of time tackling a specific area. Even 15 minutes will do.
Here are my best high-impact, low-investment strategies for getting organized, even when you are super-busy.
When you have 15 minutes:
Tackle the stack of paper on your kitchen counter (or where ever paper piles grow in your house). As you are sorting and purging, ask yourself why it always ends up there—and how you might avoid the same pile happening again.
Run things back to the rooms they belong in. Don’t worry about putting them away, just aim them get everything close to where they belong. If something doesn’t belong anywhere, ask yourself if you even need it.
Tackle a bowl, drawer or other catchall full of miscellaneous stuff. Put stuff where it belongs, or purge it. If there’s stuff that doesn’t have a place, make a place: What category (tool, toiletry, office supply) is it? Where you keep that category?
Eliminate junk mail. Go through your pile of catalogs and ask to be removed from the mailing list.
When you have 30 minutes:
File papers you need to keep, and create folders if you don’t have them already.
Arrange to pay bills online.
Look through your children’s books to see if you can get rid of ones they’ve outgrown.
When you have an hour:
Go through your child’s dresser. Do the contents of the drawers make sense? Does everything fit the child? Does everything fit in the dresser? Does your child need all those clothes?
Go through your pantry. Purge old stuff and items you are never going to use. Create zones: Baking, Pasta & Grains, Oils & Vinegars.
Go through the coat closet or mudroom. Purge single gloves, too-small boots, equipment for sports your kids no longer play.
Do a little bit a few times a week and things will quickly begin to feel less chaotic. But better than that, by beginning to think about how it gets that way, you are paving the way for the most important part: how to keep it that way. Cultivate these easy to embrace habits to maintain order and keep clutter at bay:
Do a last sweep every night.
Spend five minutes every night restoring order to your common areas: Toss your children’s socks back in their room, stack up the paperwork you were dealing with on the couch and put it on your desk. The idea is to just get your living area and kitchen reasonably tidy (not picture perfect), so when you wake up you are starting from a good place.
Don’t let the mail pile up.
Open all your mail every night. The good news, 90 percent is probably garbage. Toss all the junk, plus the envelopes and useless inserts, right away and what’s left will be much less intimidating.
Nip clutter at the bud.
Most clutter and chaos spring from having too much. We live in a culture of abundance (of stuff, not jobs or health insurance!). Work on bringing less into your home. Say “No” to your kids. Say “No” to yourself. Really justify each purchase, and practice the “something in, something out” method to maintain all that good work.
Once you get in the groove, and tackled the surfaces and the “sticky spots,” you may want to delve deeper into making your systems more coherent. It may occur to you that storing school supplies in three places, or having board games in every room, doesn’t make sense. But don’t just start moving stuff around. If you want to get all the board games into the family room, think about where you will put them. How many board games do you want to bring in, and how will you make space for them in the family room. Maybe you need to get rid of a shelf of books, and that might not take you that long at all.
Organization isn’t brain surgery (thank goodness!). It’s just a way of seeing things and developing habits. You can do this, and by inviting your children into this process you’ll help them grow up with better organizational habits, and that’s a great gift to give.
Amanda Sullivan is a professional organizer in New York City and the author of Organized Enough: The Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting—and Staying—Organized. Amanda lives in Manhattan with her husband and their three children. To find out more about Amanda or read her blog check out her website, theperfectdaughter.com.