Chapter 4 - Staying Organized
Staying organized is even more challenging than getting organized, because you have to train yourself to do things differently. It takes twenty-one consecutive days to establish a new habit, by making a conscious effort every day not to do the same old thing. Once you've uncluttered your home, staying organized involves picking up, putting away, and discarding excess stuff on a regular basis.
Simple Everyday Strategies
The best way to stay organized is to take care of today's things today. It's easier to keep up than it is to catch up. Procrastinating usually makes more work later, not to mention more time, more stress, and sometimes even more expense. Following are some simple everyday strategies for staying organized by taking care of the little things.
- Don't put it down, put it away. Before you put something down, ask yourself, "Is this where it belongs?" In the beginning, it will feel like work, but if you keep after yourself, it will soon become second nature to put things away. Take dressing and undressing, for example. Even when you're in a hurry, remind yourself that it takes just a minute or two to put away clothes after undressing - far less time than it takes to pick up and put away several weeks' worth of clothing. And it's not just that time and work you save when you put away clothes immediately. How often have you had to launder or iron an article of clothing because it was left on the floor overnight or for a week?
- Lay down the law with household members. Whoever makes a mess is responsible for cleaning it up - now, not later. That means everyone cleans up their own bathroom mess, their own kitchen mess, and their own bedroom mess. Set minimum standards at first, especially for younger family members, then raise the bar.
- Unclutter as you go. Every morning or evening, walk through your home for five minutes with a basket or tote bag in hand, collecting stray items and returning them to their rightful homes. When you go to the basement, attic, garage, or upstairs or downstairs, take something with you to put away. When you file something in a folder, flip through the folder to see if you can toss anything. A few minutes here and there every day can add up to uncluttering in no time.
- Leave your "campground" cleaner than you found it. Make it your policy never leave a room without improving its appearance. Toss the newspaper in the recycling bin. Straighten pictures and lampshades. Close cabinet doors and drawers. Put dishes in the dishwasher. Make your bed after your morning shower or breakfast - it not only makes the room look nicer, it feels nicer to get into a made bed. If you share a bed, make it a rule that the last one up makes the bed. If you get up earlier every day, you may never have to make the bed again!
- Make it easy to stay organized. Designate a "drop off" box for library books and videos that need to be returned. Keep a "put away" basket in a central location, or one in every room, to collect things that belong elsewhere. Make putting away a daily family chore. (And if you get unexpected visitors, you can use these receptacles to pick up and stash clutter in a hurry.) If you find yourself picking up the same areas over and over again, see if you can come up with a simple, practical solution for preventing or reducing future messes. For example, if your kitchen counter is littered with empty beverage bottles and cans, move the recycling bin closer to that area.
- Make standard "to do" or "to remember" lists. Make lists for anything you do on a regular basis, such as closing up your summer home or packing to go to the beach. File all of these lists in the same folder in your filing cabinet. Or, if you prefer, keep individual lists with related items so that you'll be sure to find them when you start looking for your stuff. This technique works for the smaller things in life too. For instance, in your gym bag, keep a list of what you need to take with you. That way, you won't waste energy thinking about what you need every time, and you'll never end up at the gym without your sneakers or a towel.
- Set limits on recyclable items. How many plastic shopping bags do you need to save? How many empty margarine tubs and yogurt containers are enough? Being frugal is fine, but if you have more than you need, you're wasting valuable space rather than money. Keep just a few and recycle the others. Do the same with cardboard boxes, rubber bands, twist ties, and similar items you've been collecting.
- Buy less. Do you really need more stuff? Think twice about buying things that require extra upkeep, such as knickknacks that have to be dusted regularly and clothing with special washing instructions. Think three times before buying souvenirs; take photographs or keep a journal instead.
- Simplify your life with the 80/20 rule. Most people use only about 20 percent of what they own. The other 80 percent is just taking up valuable space, getting in the way, and causing more work than is necessary. In other words, it's clutter. Keep your home clutter-free by making a conscious decision to surround yourself with only the things you love and use.
Minimizing Paper Pile-up
If there's one thing that clutters up a home fast, it's paper in its many forms. The best strategy for avoiding paper pile-up has three parts.
1. Limit the amount of incoming paper.
2. Develop a system for storing paper items.
3. Recycle regularly. Keep trash cans handy wherever unwanted paper tends to accumulate.
Junk mail and catalogs are like door-to-door salespeople. Occasionally, you're interested in what they're selling, but more often, you're annoyed at the intrusion. The difference is that you can be as rude as you like to junk mail and catalogs. If you have piles of unopened mail offers, solicitations and catalogs, dump them. Don't even give it a second thought, because you know you'll get more.
Sort and open mail daily into five categories: not for me, action items, to read, to file, and trash. Immediately discard junk mail. (This is easiest to do if you open your mail near a trash can or recycling bin.) Don't even open it; you know it's junk. Place items to be filed in a folder labeled "To File." Place items to read in a folder labeled just that, then take it to your reading place. If a piece of mail requires action, you don't have to respond immediately, but try to minimize the number of times you handle it. For example, put mail you need to take care of today in a folder labeled "To Do." Place mail for other household members into labeled stacking trays or a vertical file. This is also a good place to keep your filing, reading, and "To Do Today" folders.
When you receive bills, save only the bill and payment envelope. Throw away the outer envelope and advertising inserts. If you can't bring yourself to just toss them, scan quickly for information that may be interesting or relevant, then toss them. Be sure to read any important notices. Take bills to the place in your home where you write out the checks for them. Create a simple system for storing bills, such as a folder labeled "Bills to Be Paid" or a large, labeled envelope that you keep in a drawer.
File regularly to avoid build-up of paper clutter. Do it daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly, depending on the volume of paper. If you don't file regularly, at least put all items to be filed in a "To File" folder or basket. As you file something, flip through the folder to see if something else can be thrown out. Once a year, purge old folders and papers from your filing cabinet. Put only what you really need to keep in long-term storage.
Beware of the paper clutter you create. Think twice before duplicating documents on the copier or printing out e-mails. Use the copier only when absolutely necessary. Store e-mail messages in folders on your computer, or simply make a note of the information you need and delete them. Also, think twice before bringing home free brochures and pamphlets. Read them on the spot if you can and then put them back. Bring home just the information you need by jotting down a note in your daily planner or in a spiral-bound notebook that you carry with you. Finally, throw away cardboard boxes unless you have a definite or immediate use for them.
Just Say No. To reduce the amount of unsolicited mail you receive, send a postcard or letter to the Direct Marketing Association (see Resources) asking to have your name removed from all mailing lists. Be sure to include your name and address exactly as it appears on the mail you receive. Allow several months for the deluge to subside. Meanwhile, make a commitment to throw out every catalog and direct-mail offer without even looking at it. Likewise, if you want telemarketers to stop calling, write to the Direct Marketing Association Telephone Preference Service (see Resources, and ask to be removed from national solicitation lists.
The easiest way to maintain a clutter-free home is this: For every one item you bring in the front door, send one packing out the back door. Apply the one-in/one-out rule to everything from household items to clothing to paper. Decide before you go shopping what you intend to let go of to make room for your purchase. When you receive a gift, do the same. Keep in mind that what goes out does not have to be equal in value or size to what comes in.
When your child receives a new toy, donate an old one to charity. A good time to ask kids for a donation is just before or just after Christmas, birthday, or another occasion on which they typically receive gifts. Keep a cardboard box in each child's room for collecting outgrown toys and clothes. When the box is full, take it to your favorite charity, a consignment shop, or to your designated garage/yard sale collection area.
Set aside a specific time each day for picking up. For example, do it while your morning coffee or tea is brewing or just before you go to bed. If it takes longer than fifteen minutes, consider it an early warning that you may be falling back into old habits. When you catch yourself thinking "I'll do it later," stop and do it now. Take the extra thirty seconds or five steps it takes to put things away. It's more work if you leave it for later.
Take an inventory of clothing and accessories at the end of each season. Seriously consider donating items that were not worn or used during the past season or that no longer fit. Or set them aside for a garage sale (but only if you are definitely going to have a garage sale!). Wash or dry clean all seasonal clothing before storing it; that way, they'll be ready if you wish to sell items on consignment. Place a reminder in your tickler file to take items to the consignment shop at the appropriate time of year
At least once a year, host a party. Getting ready for the party is fun and gives you extra incentive to do a thorough uncluttering. This is also a good time to rearrange your knickknacks and framed photographs and get rid of any that are no longer meaningful.
In January each year, clean out your filing cabinet to make room for the new year's files. Save only what you need and discard the rest. Chapter 11, The Office, offers tips on filing and retaining records.
Kid Clutter Patrol
You have opportunities to teach your children organizational skills that will last a lifetime. Don't waste those moments by picking up after them. Help them find a place for everything, and train them to put everything in its place.
Establish a morning pick-up routine that might include making beds, hanging up towels in the bathroom, and putting away pajamas. The evening pick-up routine might include putting toys away and clothes in the hamper. Kids want some privacy. Let them know that if they keep their rooms picked up, you will not have to enter except for periodic, preannounced inspections.
Picking up is even more boring for children than it is for adults. Make it fun for children to help. Following are a few ways to make picking up after themselves more like a game than work.
- Play clutter tag. To make other family members more aware of their clutter trails, get a roll of peel-off stickers (the easily removable kind) and tag each item that's left out for a week. Just making them aware may make them think twice about leaving things out. Children may enjoy helping you tag items, and the act of tagging will make them more likely to put away their own belongings.
- Establish a "penalty box." If Mom or Dad has to pick up something one of the kids left out, it will be forfeited until Saturday morning. To reclaim the item, its owner must pay a penalty of one extra chore. If anyone chooses not to do the chore, you know that the item isn't important to him or her. Give it away or throw it away without guilt.
- Beat the clock! This is a good way to make cleaning up a messy bedroom or playroom more fun. Assign a "put away" basket or pillowcase to each child. Set a timer for thirty seconds and see who can pick up the most stuff. Repeat as necessary and keep score. Reward the winner with a couple of quarters, or allow him or her to stay up a few minutes later that night.
- "You be the boss." Let your children take turns being boss for ten minutes. Their job is to supervise the other children as they pick up their belongings and straighten up their rooms. In learning to be a good supervisor, children also learn to pay more attention to details.
- Blow the whistle on clutter. Plan a fifteen-minute family pick-up time with a special reward at the end, such as a bowl of popcorn and a movie. Have everyone start in the same room. Blow a whistle as the signal for family members to start putting things away. When that room looks good, blow the whistle again and yell out a room name. "Players" run to the next room and start picking up in that room. Wrap up the game with praise for a job well done.
Sometimes you have to get tough. If family members leave their belongings where they don't belong, gather them up in a large garbage bag and take it out to the garage. When they ask if you've seen a particular item you picked up, tell them it's out in the garage. When they ask why, tell them you found it lying around and thought it was garbage. They should get the idea pretty fast.
Another "hard love" idea is to let your kids know that whatever you find lying on the floor at such-and-such a time will go into the garbage. Then carry through. Throw out or donate the first thing that gets left out. A variation that works well with younger children who can't yet tell time is to tell them that whatever the vacuum cleaner touches gets vacuumed up or goes in the garbage. Once they see that you mean business, they'll scramble to pick up their things when you get out the vacuum cleaner.
Establish playtime rules. Teach very young children to take out only a few toys at a time. If they've already got two or three toys out, they must put one away. Consider restricting toys to one room of the house.
Have you ever wondered how some people always manage to remember your birthday? It probably doesn't have anything to do with memory at all. Much of being organized has to do with developing routines and reminder systems. You might, for example, get in the habit of doing laundry every Monday, cleaning out your refrigerator on trash night, or sweeping away cobwebs on the first of every month. After awhile, it just becomes habit. But many of us also need reminder systems for routine as well as nonroutine activities.
The tickler file is a simple reminder system that works great, as long as you use it. To remind yourself to check smoke detector batteries once a month, write a note to yourself and file it in next month's folder. When the first of the month rolls around, you'll find the note so you can act on the reminder and then refile the note in the following month's folder. To remember birthdays and anniversaries, type a list of special dates in calendar order and then file the list in your tickler file according to the first date on the list. It's best to file the reminder one week before the actual date to give yourself time to buy and mail the card. Refile the list according to the next date on your list.
If you like visual cues and you refer daily to a wall calendar, the best reminder system for you might be to note all important events and reminders on the appropriate dates throughout the year when you get your new calendar. If you learn of a new birthday or anniversary as the year progresses, write it on your calendar. At the end of the year, transcribe all of the birthdays and anniversaries onto your new calendar.
Another way to remember birthdays and anniversaries is by using a "Days to Remember" book. This is a perennial calendar of months and days that allows you to record birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days. You can also include the year of the birth or wedding for future reference. As new birthdays and weddings take place, write them in your book. You'll never have to transcribe these dates, but you will need to remember to check the book occasionally. This method works best if you get in the habit of buying cards in advance and filing them in your tickler file.
If you prefer a more high-tech approach to organizing, have your computer remind you of special days and things to do. Free Internet reminder services allow you to set up e-mail reminders for important dates and events. Several such services are listed in the.
If you have scheduling software installed on your computer, you can enter tasks, such as "Buy birthday card for Mom," and then specify the date and time you want to be reminded about that task. And, if you have a personal digital assistant (PDA), simply download your calendar from your computer, and you can be reminded of what you need to do even when you're away from home.