28 December 2006

Send your best "getting organized" hacks

If you're like me, "getting organized" is one of your annual New Year's resolutions. I'd like to highlight everyone's best clutter-busting hacks in January, so send 'em in now!

A few ideas to get you started:

  • Tips for keeping your house relatively tidy
  • Simplifying kid's room cleaning
  • Reducing mental clutter (I'd LOVE to hear your ideas on this...I could go on and on about the radio static constantly playing inside my head.)
  • Streamlining the paper flow
  • Keeping a craft box stocked for impromptu art projects
  • Your favorite "getting organized" books, gadgets, and calendars
  • How you manage your (interrupted) time

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This above all: DO something. That is my #1 advice, the thing that I have to keep reminding myself. The best plans in the world mean nothing if they remain plans. You've gotten nowhere if you don't DO something toward your goal. If you can't think of what to do next, then break the task up into smaller pieces. This is part of the Getting Things Done "next action" methodology. Ask yourself "What's the next thing that I can do, right now?" and then do it.

Pick up the house before you go to bed at night, you'll sleep better and you won't start the day with a groan and a slumping of shoulders when you realize what a mess awaits you.

As far as paperwork goes I usually have four stacks -- bills to pay, "stuff to attend to" (non-bills, but still time sensitive), stuff to keep/file, and stuff to throw out. I then process the piles. I'd like to say that I file more, but that's my worst thing.

Give a single project priority in your mind, and focus on achieving the goal you've set for yourself. I have a bad habit each night of sitting down at the computer and thinking, "I can work on the blog, I can install that new router, I can switch my email server over to the other box so i can shut the old one down, I can catch up on my "real job" work, I can work on one of several e-book projects, I can read email, I can check my newsfeeds..." and none of them seem to float to the top so rather than focus on one at the expense of the others, I pretty much remain in the chaos and don't get anything done. So I plan on taking my own advice next year. :) One project at a time until meaningful progress is made.

I work full time and have twin toddlers so I am all about organization and squeezing in "me time" while still keeping a clean and orderly house.
I want to echo what Duane said about picking up the house before bed. Husband and I spend 10-15 minutes each evening putting away anything that is out in the main living area of the house (kitchen, living, computer room, entry area). It makes a huge difference in the morning and helps clear the mental clutter.
I have plenty of bins and baskets for the kids toys, mail, magazines, gloves/hats, etc. so things are easy to stow. I would rather look at a neat line of rattan bins on the shelf than a bunch of stuff all over the place.
Every time I have to take myself or the kids to the dr, I go with a full bag of magazines to leave in the waiting room.
I keep a "Goodwill" bag in my laundry room and in my closet. As I fold or as I dress, I put anything in that applies. When it is full it goes in the trunk of my car THAT DAY and to Goodwill the next time I leave the house.
When I fill up with gas, I clean out the car. Whatever I dont toss goes in my purse and I deal with it when I get home or to work.

I pay everything online and have set up electronic billing for every company that offers it. No paper bills means nothing to file, but I can still access everything online when I need it.

I keep cleaning supplies in every bathroom and a vaccum on both floors. It is much easier to find 10 minutes to do a quick vaccum or bathroom when the tools are right where you need them rather than a floor away.

There didn't seem to be much I could add to this thread, but when I started writing I found myself overwhelming the comments field.

I posted some ideas from the local front lines of the battle against chaos on my blog:
http://babytoolkit.blogspot.com/2006/12/chaotic-tips-for-disorganized-managing.html

Martha Stewart-types should definitely avoid this link as it is for the organizationally troubled and will probably give them nightmares.

The basic, underlying theme of my organization is twofold: 1) What you use most often should be within arm's reach; 2) It should be easier to put things away than to get them out.

The first one tells you where to put things and the second one tells you how to store them. So, for example, each of the kids had a basket by the front door, with a hook on the wall over it. Their coats went on the hook, all school stuff plus mittens, boots, etc. into the basket.

For toys, low shelving with open boxes or deep trays: one for legos, one for small toys, one for books, etc. Easy to throw something in the right tray, and when they're looking for a specific thing they do the work of pawing through to find it.

Mental clutter: get a stack of index cards. (Keep more, with a pen, everywhere: purse, diaper bag, glove box.) Start writing, one thing on a card. Don't filter: write ideas, to-dos, birthday gift suggestions, etc. Then I've got an index card box with month tabs plus a bulletin board. The board has the current month's cards, in a single layer. I can stand in front of it and pick something to do, or hand a card off to the spouse or a helper if need be. Since everything is written down, I don't have to worry about it-just check the board. (I do maintenance on the system every Sunday morning, but write a new card whenever I get an idea or a to-do and throw them in the front of the box.)

Sort the mail at the door, into a recycling bin if it's junk, with a 2-level "in box" for Pay and File. (If you get other kinds of mail, you might want another box.) Magazines and catalogs go straight to the coffee table. The Pay and File boxes get done on Sunday morning with the index cards.

The idea above about keeping cleaning supplies everywhere can be more widely applied. Whenever I find myself in need of something that's in another room, I make a note to buy an extra for that place--there are scissors in every room of our house, for example! The reason is that it is far easier to put it away right where you are than to put it back in the other room when you're done with it.

My biggest challenge is storing clothes and toys for the proverbial second baby, just in case that actually happens. We replaced our cardboard boxes with stacking storage bins.

Imagine a closet stuffed from the floor up to the coat hanger rod with an oddball assortment of cardboard boxes. Imagine needing to find something in one of those boxes.

With bins, I see through each box and quickly identify my target. Then I pull off one or two covering boxes, or slide the entire column of boxes out of the closet. Afterward, I slide them back in. I couldn't do that with cardboard.

We bought industrial bins with lids that are hinged to the box (sort of like horizontal saloon doors) from Costco. They are about $5 a piece, but are much tougher than the bins you find at most chain stores.

My tips for clearing the clutter and getting organized involves this nifty thing they call Craigslist.org. This is how it works: a) take everything out of your home and put it in your driveway. b) post your home address in the "free" category on Craigslist. c) Pat yourself on the back for simplifying.

I'm almost serious. For two entire days and evenings now I have been gathering up stuff I didn't think I could let go of, and I've let go of it. It's liberating. I've been filling boxes upon boxes, hefty bags, trashcans, and my stuff is going to several places - the dump, Disabled American Vets, the local library, Goodwill, and friends. I also want to gather up probably half of my kids' toys and send them to a women's shelter.

I decided that we don't need giant wardrobes, so I got rid of a ton of hangers, and we're only allowed to keep as many clothes as we have hangers and dresser space for (the hubs and I share a dresser).

A mental trick I like to use is to look around and carefully decide what I would want to pack to take with me if I moved out of this house. Everything else goes buh-bye.

One thing I have *not* figured out yet is how to streamline and organize my craft stuff. The kids' craft stuff fits in a large box, but mine is everywhere and it drives me bananas.

Hi Kat-

Craigslist isn't really active in my area, so we use freecycle.org or the local classified ads to give strange things away (old water heater, etc.). Locally, all classified ads for items under $100 are free, so free offer ads are always free.

My last freecycle contribution was 20 identical baby food jars for a scrapbooker looking to organize her little pieces. The lids can be attached to the underside of a 2x4,2x6, or 2x8 board and the jars are then screwed onto the lids for instant, organized storage. The board was then mounted to the workshop wall as a shelf (there are lots of different brackets to choose for this).

For our art & craft stuff, I use big identical canvas boxes with lids and front labels (Walmart, Target, Ikea- nothing fancy- although they look more Martha Stewart than I expected) and sewing pattern boxes (Hancock fabrics or Joanne).

The shoeboxes we used before were a pain to stack & organize because they were all slightly different dimensions. And there are few things more harrowing than a box of India inks falling from a high shelf toward your head and/or carpet.

Both adults each have a HUGE Plano tackle box to hold the basic implements of their interests (his: oil pastels, rulers, and X-acto knives; mine: threads, needles, glass writing implements, little bits of everything). The tackle box prices are often better than those on craft boxes, but the designs are quite similar.

My husband picked up the tackle box hack in art school, and it's extremely handy. Want to work on a project? Most everything is gathered together. You can take the box anywhere and get to work without hunting things down. When you're done- you put away all your toys (because your kids are always watching) and you will know where to find everything the next time the opportunity arises.

One tackle box example (though there are much cheaper options available- look for sales around "Take a Kid Fishing Day" or end of season clearance (late, late Fall here).

I just keep a small notebook where I write lists, notes, etc. Nothing fancy -- but I can keep track of everything -- I also like calendars with vertical entries -- this way you can easily write in list format.

And as for the kid's stuff. PURGE OFTEN. I go through my daughter's stuff at least 1x a month and anything we're not using I giveaway or put away in a plastic bin.

All excellent...keep it up! I plan pull many of these comments into a series of posts to appear in early January, so you can also post your ideas to your own blogs (as Adrienne has) or send them to me via email.

With regard to organizing mental clutter: On my Macintosh, I use Microsoft Entourage. It's essentially an email app, but it also has a calendar function, and that is the tool that keeps the wheels from coming off the wagon. I create calendar events for everything, from sports practice and other regularly scheduled events to reminders to go grocery shopping or to pick up the dry cleaning. Once I got into the habit of "putting it into the computer", I've dropped nary a ball.

With regard to physical clutter, I have a mental problem, in that I am someone who has enormous trouble saying goodbye, whether to a person or to one of my kids' tests from years ago. So for me, when it comes to purging, I force myself to numb out. I put on distracting music, pull out empty garbage bags, and just start throwin' stuff away. It's tough, and I sucked at it for a while, until I learned to numb myself, to set my emotions aside.

When my daughter was a restless infant I got into the habit of breaking tasks into 20-minute segments, for example breaking recipes into 3- and 4-step sections such as combining the dry ingredients, looking out and preparing the baking pans, or chopping the onions, coming back later to saute them... (with a slow rise in the 'fridge I could even take three days to make a batch of bread).

Now that she's older, I still look at those recipes and sometimes will combine the steps to take advantage of whatever time I do have, but I've gotten over the idea that anything needs to be done from start to finish in one go.

With a new baby and a four story, tall and skinny townhouse, hauling everything up and down stairs all day just doesn't happen.

So, we have a basket or pretty box in nearly every room that has a blanket, a book and a half dozen little toys so that no matter where we are, we have something for her to do, and a place to put it all away quickly.

It's also a great spot to store an extra diaper and travel pack of wipes.

Solving mental clutter:

1. I keep lists for everything on the side of the fridge. Target shopping list, grocery shopping list, kid-related to-do list, house to-do list, etc. Whenever something pops into my mind I write it on a list immediately. I keep a notebook and pen in my minivan so if I'm out, I write it down there and take the slip in the house with me to transfer to the main lists.

2. I bought a cheap write on/wipe off calendar and keep it propped on a kitchen counter. Every month I fill it with the dates and activities we have coming up. At a glance I can see what's happening, and I can easily erase, add or change things while keeping it neat.

3. I use an online calendar and address book based on my Yahoo email account. It's easy to update and I can access it anywhere, including from my cell phone, at other people's houses or while out of town.

4. Whenever possible, I complete tasks as soon as they occur to me. For example, if I remember someone's birthday is coming up I immediately fill out a card (yep, I keep a stack of them on hand), put on a stamp and mail it. Only takes a minute and it's DONE. If my daughter rips a page in a book, I immediately grab a roll of tape, fix it and put the book back on the shelf. Don't let all those little tasks pile up around you or your mind will never clear!

I use a small timer, and break tasks down into either 5,15 or 30 minute increments. There is always work to be done in say, the kitchen, so unless I devote smaller chunks of time to other projects, such as decluttering my office, or the playroom, they never get done. This way I can make headway in those areas, and still ensure that the family will be fed at a somewhat reasonable hour.


I recently read a suggestion to do whatever little tasks come up that take less than a minute.

It sounds too simple to be true, but it works. If you see a cup that needs to go to the dishwasher, if our son says "Hey mom look at this bug!", if you should really put that phone number on the scrap of paper into your family address book, stop and do it.

I used to have a mental debate that would take most of a minute, weighing the pros of doing the task versus all the other tasks I was ignoring at the moment, and would end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Now, I just stop, do it, and feel accomplished. For a minute, anyway.

My personal OQ (Organizational Quotient) is pretty low. But I took this idea for toy clutter from my daughter's Montessori school. Each toy has a labeled spot on a shelf. Each toy with parts has a bin/basket and goes in a particular spot on a shelf. We needed a lot of shelving, and labels with cartoonish pictures (for the non-reading tot), but once we had it in place, everyone knew what went where. It forces us to be aware of how much stuff we have (!) and helps K understand that old toys have to go before we get any new ones. No place- no toy! I'll admit we fall off the wagon every so often, but "clean-up your toys" isn't such a chore any more. Bonus: even Dad, Grandma, and the babysitter can see where everything is supposed to go. MKZ

When a neighbor lets me know that they are having a garage sale and I can bring stuff to sell-I have nothing. I continually get rid of things we don't use anymore.

Items for friends are dropped off. Items for donations are noted on a list and ready for a monthly pickup that we have in our area.

If you don't need it, let it go.

I use a lot of the above organization tools.

My favorite is to keep a hanging shoe holder in our hall closet and each row belongs to one person (we have 6 family members!).
In the winter they are stuffed with mittens, hats, etc.

In the summer it is chalk, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug catchers, etc.

It is easy to find everything we need and keeps me from having too much of any one thing.

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