How to Become an Organized Family
By Nancy Mann Jackson


 Get It Together!

You’ve seen them – the family that seems to have it all together. They’re always on time; they never forget friends’ birthdays or anniversaries; they’re able to successfully balance gymnastics, soccer, piano lessons and church activities.

If your family is habitually late, eats more meals in the car than at the table, and can never seem to catch up on homework or make it to every practice, you’ve probably looked at that “together” family with awe – and frustration.

You’re not alone. Many families live frantic, harried lives today. There’s much to do and still only 24 hours each day in which to do it. But if you constantly feel as if you’re a day late and a dollar short, life can easily lose its joy. Streamlining your activities and your approach can help you stay involved and simplify your life.

“We equate busy as meaningful,” says Ruthann Betz-Essinger, a Birmingham-based professional organizer and owner of Just Organized. “Busy means you are running around doing something, but that does not make a meaningful life. Being a family and being together is more important than running around all over town. You have to slow down, enjoy what you have, set priorities and figure out what is important to you. Then make decisions based on that.”

While it sounds simple, getting organized isn’t easy. “I often see a pattern of thinking that doesn’t match our current lifestyle,” says Kathy Mann, a professional organizer with the Birmingham office of Mobile-based Organizing Associates. “Many baby boomers were raised with a Depression-era attitude about possessions. Now as adults, they are more affluent than their parents and grandparents were, and live in a consumerism society.”

Today, mass production makes it much easier to accumulate possessions, and the Depression-era mentality still makes people unwilling to part with their “stuff,” Mann says. “Add to that our current phenomenon of ‘information overload,’ and you see why we have too much to think about, too much to read, too much paper to manage, and too many possessions to put away. It’s a recipe for a frantic, harried, cluttered, disorganized life.”


Getting Started

While becoming organized isn’t necessarily easy, it is possible. “Organizing is a skill, and anyone can learn it,” says Allison Yeager, another Birmingham-based professional organizer. “The problem is finding your specific organizational style. We all have different organizing methods; what works for me may take someone else two hours to understand.”

But once you find your own style, organizing can be rewarding, even fun. “A lot of people think they have to go out and get the latest organizing gadget,” Yeager says. “That’s fine, but just because you get it doesn’t mean it will solve your problems. You can also get organized with a simple notebook or a date book. It doesn’t have to be complicated or high-tech.”

When getting started, take it slow and remember that changing your behavior takes time. “Do not overwhelm yourself,” Yeager adds. “Don’t try to tackle an entire house in one weekend. Sometimes organizing your shoes may take a few weekends. Take time to plan and think about what the problem is. Visualize what you want it to look like. Planning goes a long way in whether your organizing system will work. But the most important thing is your desire and commitment to make a change.”


Create a System

While there’s no cookie-cutter system that works well for every family, there are general guidelines to becoming organized that any committed family can easily follow – and there are excellent benefits to making the changes toward organization.

“Organized people save time and money, make more money and have lower stress and frustration levels,” the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) proclaims on its Web site ( “There is no one right or wrong way to get organized, and you only need to change what you’re doing if you’re not happy with how you manage your time, paper, information and space. The amount of information available to us continues to grow at a rapid pace, as do the demands on our time. Organizing systems help you deal with everything from your paper to your professional responsibilities and give you parameters on what to keep, what to toss, and what to take action on.”

It’s important to understand that the process of creating systems for simplifying your busy life is not an overnight, or even a weekend, project. It takes time. Try starting with a challenge that bothers you most – preparing dinner, finding the matches to your shoes, clearing the clutter from the kitchen. Once you’ve created a workable system for that area of your life, move on to something else.


Take Purposeful Steps

As soon as you’ve decided to create more order for your life, begin making meaningful changes to your current way of doing things. Try to make the process a family affair, making expectations clear and holding each other accountable. When everyone’s involved, you can truly create an ordered household, eliminating feelings of stress and anxiety for the whole family. Here are some steps to begin with.

• Eliminate unneeded items.
“Often the first step is to purge,” Mann says. “Don’t empty out a drawer and then just rearrange a bunch of stuff you don’t really need to keep there. If you can learn to let go of things and activities you don’t really need, and keep and do only what’s truly important, you’re on the way to organizing, simplifying and de-stressing your life.”

• Do away with clutter.
Open the mail over the garbage can or recycling bin and throw out junk mail right then. Designate a specific spot for bills and pay them once a week. Evaluate whether to keep receiving magazines you never have time to read, or consider rotating subscriptions. Gather frequently used papers, such as phone lists and take-out menus, in one three-ring binder, NAPO suggests.

• Plan ahead for meals.
Plan dinner menus each weekend for the following week, and use a Crock Pot or other time-saving cooking techniques as often as possible. Keep a shopping list on the refrigerator or another visible spot for family members to write down needed grocery items; then shop once a week.

• Teach children habits of organizing.
“Start young, and be fair,” Mann says. “When you tell a child to pick up his or her toys, be sure it’s easy for the child to put them away. If you, as a parent, are overwhelmed at the task of putting away your children’s belongings, it’s certainly too overwhelming for the child.”

Lower the bars in children’s closets so that they can hang up their own clothes. If they’re too young to read labels, put pictures on storage containers so that children can help put items in their proper places.

Also, make a habit of rewarding children in non-material ways, Betz-Essinger says. “Take them to a place they like; spend time with them,” she says. “That way, you can still reward them, but you’re not just handing them more stuff. Also, teach children to give things away when they’re through with them – do this by example, and cheerfully give away items that you’re no longer using.”

Organize your kitchen. Use clear containers for pasta, cereal and other often-used items so that you can quickly see the quantity you have. Group items together according to how you use them, Firkins says. For instance, keep all baking ingredients together.

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• Use technology.
Consider scanning onto your computer the papers you want to keep – everything from household records to children’s art work – and keep them on a disk, freeing yourself to toss out all the papers. “Maybe keep a few special projects in a keepsake box, but you can keep most everything in digital form only,” Betz-Essinger says.

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• Manage your time.
Use a planner (a notebook, computer software or electronic organizer) to track appointments and tasks. Use a family calendar to record upcoming events and activities, as well as important birthdays and anniversaries. Wear a watch and be conscious of finding creative ways to save time.

BodyTextIndent style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt; TEXT-INDENT: 0in; LINE-HEIGHT: normal">Once you get started on the road to an ordered life, you’ll be hooked. A house without clutter can be cleaned in half the time. A shopping and menu system can add hours to your week. And remembering every friend’s birthday is bound to offer sweet rewards.

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The Birmingham area is full of resources and professionals who can help you get on the right track toward organizing your home, your office or your life. Here are some people and places to help you get started:

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Professional Organizers

• Ruthann Betz-Essinger, Just Organized, 205-222-0099;;

• Kathy Mann, Organizing Associates, Inc. 205-980-2900;;

• Allison Yeager, Professional Organizer, 205-437-1076;


Retail Products

• Organized Living, located at the Summit, offers a wide variety of organizers for offices and every room in your home. Helpful associates can answer questions and offer suggestions. 205-298-0008.

• Let’s Get Organized, Inc., located on 18th Street in downtown Homewood, specializes in resources for home organizing and has a friendly staff that can help you determine your needs. 205-871-0616.

Discount stores such as Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart also offer their share of basic organizers, such as plastic bins, closet shoe organizers, kitchen containers and under-the-bed boxes.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Birmingham-based freelance writer.
Birmingham Family Times, February 2004.