7 Clutter-Reducing Tips

Curb clutter for a cleaner, more organized home and a brighter outlook on life. These 7 ideas can lead to order, calm, and more family time.

Clutter isn't just about the state of your house. It's also about your state of mind. Clutter can mean lost bills, permission slips, college applications, and other important papers, and can lead to tension and stress in the household.

Tracy Gibson, an at-home mom in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, knows the feeling. "When I can't find things I need right away, I feel really anxious. Being disorganized is one thing that my husband Andrew and I consistently have spats about."

This is no surprise to Barbara Hemphill, author of Taming the Paper Tiger at Home. "Clutter and disorganization is one of the chief causes of family fights. Getting organized as a family is one of the best things you can do to maintain peace." It will also bond you in a positive way, while leaving time for what really matters. Use the following seven ideas to start getting your home and life in order.

1. Go on clutter patrol. Set aside 10 minutes for this every night and make sure everyone, even the kids, goes on it with you. "During clutter patrol, each member of the family walks throughout the rooms of the house picking up and putting away their belongings," says Diane Albright, president of AllBrightIdeas.com.

At some point, you'll be more likely to put things away so that they're not so conspicuous in the newly neatened areas. Either way, you wake up to a house that's clutter-free and start the day right. If you have trouble getting your kids to cooperate, take away a privilege like watching TV until clutter patrol is done. For younger children, make a game of it. "Set a timer for 10 minutes," says Maria Gracia author of Finally Organized, Finally Free. "Have the kids run around to pick up their things and put them away. If they get everything done by the time the timer sounds, they win small prizes, such as being able to choose tomorrow afternoon's video to watch or baking cookies with Mom."

2. Give teens S.P.A.C.E. "Most teens want to be organized," says Julie Morgenstern, coauthor with daughter Jessie Morgenstern-Colon, of Organizing from the Inside Out for Teens. "They want to accomplish a lot. They just don't know how to do it all." The S.P.A.C.E. Formula makes it easier:

Sort items into categories. Group similar items. Purge to reduce the quantity. Keep only what you really use and love, and get rid of the rest. Assign a home for items. Decide on a shelf, drawer, bin, or section of the closet for each category. Containerize. Separate items with containers or dividers. Equalize and maintain the system. Don't think of it so much as putting things away as much as setting up for the next use, so it's there when you need it. Visit www.organizedteens.com for more information.

3. Do a little previous-night prep work. Rather than waiting until an hour before school or daycare, prepare lunches, backpacks, and diaper bags the night before, says Debbie Williams, author of Home Management 101.

With everyone else vying for her attention in the morning, it often takes Debbie twice as long to pack lunches during breakfast, so she packs them the night before and gets the job done in half the time. Also, when you arrive home from work, ready your briefcase or purse for the next day, grabbing documents, tollbooth change, or your planner.

Put keys and your briefcase in the same spot each time you are finished with them. Have your kids hang up their backpacks on a hook or put them in a designated spot by the door, so they're ready to grab in the next morning. If you have to iron uniforms or other clothes, make it a no-brainer and do it all on Sunday, when you're less likely to be distracted, says Williams, whose Web site is www.organizedtimes.com. Line outfits up in the closet for Monday through Friday to save time, too.

Finally, make it a point to schedule a 10-minute family meeting every Monday night. By then, you'll have a better idea from your kids' teachers of what's going on for the week, whether it's projects or a field trip. "Whatever information you can get puts you ahead of the curve and avoids confusion," says Williams. Over a week you'll get back two hours or more that you could devote to something fun by yourself or with the kids.

4. Make technology work for you. Try a new way to track your families' activities, such as the Simpliciti Home Organizer, an easy-to-use family digital assistant (www.simpliciti.com or call 800-732-8091). "It allows you to keep track of schedules for up to five family members," says Donna Smallin, author of The One-Minute Organizer Plain and Simple. "If kids are old enough they can enter their own information, like soccer practice or a birthday party. You can add helpful detailed notes too, like directions. It also has a little printer so you can print out your grocery list once you're ready to go to the store."

The organizer also doubles as a timer, stores phone numbers, and includes 500 built-in recipes. Handheld electronic organizers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) are another great way to keep track of family activities and schedules. You can beam schedule information to another member of the family just by pointing your PDA at theirs. Some new smart phones also offer the functionality of a PDA. "You can do everything with your cell phone, connect to the Internet, keep track of addresses and your calendar," says Smallin, whose Web site is www.unclutter.com. "It's very easy to set up."

Other options include Yahoo!, which offers a free calendar tool that lets you share your schedules, find free times, and send appointment reminders. A password enables family members to access it from anywhere. "Being able to see everyone else's schedule at a glance helps avoid scheduling conflicts," says Smallin. Software such as Outlook, Act, or Goldmine comes with a calendar that can also be programmed with reminders for appointments, birthdays, and regular household maintenance, such as an oil change for your car or to check smoke detector batteries.

5. Create a task box. Get a pack of index cards and on each one write down one thing that needs to be done around the house, such as "wash dishes," "fold clothes," or "load the dishwasher," suggests Gracia, whose Web site is www.getorganizednow.com.

"Each day, have each family member draw an equal number of cards. Those are the chores they are responsible for that day," she says. If someone wants to swap chores, that's okay as long as both parties are agreeable. "It varies your routine a little bit and makes it fun for the kids." Adding point values boosts the enjoyment factor. "You designate, say, taking out the trash at 10 points and once they reach 60 points, they get a treat like a trip to the movies with a friend."

It's important to gear chores to abilities. For example, older kids can help with vacuuming, while a 3-year-old can pick up her toys. To reward the family for jobs well done, once a week, start a no-chore day and have a family outing, a barbecue, or picnic instead. It helps everyone stay motivated.

6. Establish Command Central. The best place is the kitchen or family room. "Make a dedicated home for papers, books, permission slips, and homework," says Williams. This could be as simple as assigning some manila file folders and a few other key office supplies to the effort or adopting a more formatted organization system. Tracy Gibson uses Hemphill's Go System (www.productiveenvironment.com) to organize paper clutter and now feels more in control. "It's been such a positive change. I didn't realize how much harder it was to live the other way. The system works great and has saved me lots of time."

To use it, designate a file folder for each day of the month. Make it a habit to check it everyday. If something is in the folder, pay it, sign it, or delegate it. In addition to whatever systems you put in place, you can also use in-boxes or stacking trays for every member of the family. Kids can put in such things as report cards that need to be signed or permission slips.

To coordinate incoming and outgoing papers, you can also use a three-ring binder with a double-sided pocket folder for each family member, says Albright. "Use the left side of the folder for to-do items, such as field trip forms, and the right side for reference papers, such as class lists or schedules.

7. Put it where you use it. Instead of putting incoming mail in your home office where you're likely to forget about it, file it in the kitchen where most of the family action is. Keep arts-and-crafts supplies in a cart with drawers in the kitchen, too, if kids want to be with you while they draw. Have family members put shoes in the mudroom in colored open storage tubs when they come in.

"Most parents insist kids put shoes, clothes, and backpacks into their rooms but, in reality, most families don't use the bedroom except to sleep. If you put things where you use them, you know where to find them," says Williams.

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, April 2005.

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