Let's Get Organized!

Ahhh, January. The time of year when a woman stops, looks at her family, her house, her life-and wants to scream, "We gotta get organized around here!"

And just as she's about to ask for volunteers for The Great New Year's Clean-Up, someone walks in the door, throws his jacket on the couch, announces that he needs four egg cartons and a ball of yarn for a school project the next day and asks, "Do I have any clean socks?"

Let's face it: It would be a heck of a lot easier to just wait a decade or two to organize the nest-after it's empty.

But if you can't hold out that long, productivity consultant Jan Jasper is ready to come to your rescue. Getting organized, when tackled the right way, can do even more for your mind than it does for your closets, says Jasper, author of Take Back Your Time (St. Martin's Press, 1999). "When your home is organized, it becomes an effective base of operations and a relaxing refuge," she adds. "When it's not, it's an obstacle course."

Check out these cleaning-and-organizing tips from Jasper and Georgene Lockwood, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing Your Life (Macmillan, 1999). We've also included some mom-tested tips.

Plan ahead for success

  • Make organizing fun. Forget trying to cram all the Lincoln Logs back into their original box-if you can even find it. Instead, buy colorful baskets or plastic boxes for storing kids' toys. Label the boxes for older kids and use pictures for small children, so they can see where everything goes. (At our house, on last count, we had at least 1,957 minuscule plastic action figures, Legos and puzzle pieces. Without those wonderful plastic bins, who knows what Mom and Dad might be tripping over at 3 a.m. on the way to the bathroom.)

  • Set up "Operations Central." Every family needs a place for processing mail and paying bills, says Jasper. And it shouldn't be the kitchen table. You'll need an uncluttered surface to write on. Jasper suggests stocking this area with a calendar, scissors, pencils, pens, highlighter, tape, stapler, envelopes, address stickers, stamps, calculator, notepaper, paper clips, letter opener, bank deposit slips and sticky notes. Your work space must be near the phone, since many pieces of paper can be eliminated immediately with a phone call. You'll also need a filing cabinet (perhaps on rollers) and a wastebasket. Best place to open mail: Next to the wastebasket or recycling bin.

  • Set up "School Central." Using brightly colored folders or containers, organize a simple filing system for school papers, artwork, etc. Make the area kid-friendly. If adding Toy Story stickers to the folders makes your kids actually want to file their stuff, why not? And rather than saving all that artwork forever, let your child choose his or her favorites and keep only those. Send the rest to grandparents, aunts and uncles. Or use them for wrapping paper.

  • Make closets accessible. Position closet rods low enough so kids can hang up their own clothes. And save the little hangers that come with kids' clothes. They're free, and kids are more likely to use their very own hangers.

  • Cut bathroom clutter. Give each child a different-colored plastic bin to hold personal-care items, then arrange bins on the bathroom shelf. (Another advantage: We won't get into the whole head-lice issue here, but suffice it to say, if Kid No. 1 comes home from school with an itchy scalp, you'll be glad Kid No. 2 has a separate box for brushes and hair goodies.)

Create routines that work

  • Get the kids involved. Have a weekly chore list, posted on the fridge, and assign every family member his or her share of tasks. Rotate jobs so one person isn't always stuck with cleaning out the cat box. Even young kids can help pick up clothes and toys, set and clear the table, and feed the dog.

  • Use rewards-and consequences. Post a list of weekly family rewards for a job well done: family video night, pizza night-whatever lights a fire under your cleaning crew. If your helpers don't follow through, don't do the job for them, says Lockwood. "The deal I made with the girls was 'No TV until the chores are done,' " she says. "Sometimes, there was no TV."

  • Minimize morning madness. Jasper suggests folding and storing entire outfits together (everything except shoes) in your kid's drawer. In the morning, just grab an outfit. Maybe more realistic: Re-pack backpacks each night and place them by the front door to cut down on late-for-school craziness.

  • Establish a "To Do" area by the front door. Put everything there that needs to go out: photocopying, dry-cleaning, library books, etc.

  • Recycle toys and clothes. Don't ask your kids to throw out toys or clothes they've lost interest in or outgrown, suggests Lockwood. Ask them to recycle the items by giving them to less-fortunate children. Visit the hospital or shelter where their items are going so the kids have a clear picture of the good they're doing, she adds. Also, rotate toys periodically so that those of current interest are handy and those that generate less enthusiasm go in temporary storage. When the "old" ones come back after a designated period of time, give them to charity if the kids still aren't interested in them.

  • Don't forget the garage. Paint "parking spaces" on the garage floor for bikes, wagons, etc. This makes it fun for kids to put things away.

Aim for fun-not perfection

Pile on the praise and try to keep your sense of humor about the whole thing,
say our experts. Both go a long way toward making kids want to help. And notice

the little things your family does, Lockwood suggests. "Put up a banner. Pin
an 'I'm No. 1' button on for the day. Go on a picnic or a special day trip."

It also pays to know when to cheat. For example, don't do laundry more often than you have to. Buy extra sheets, towels and underwear on sale so you can skip an occasional laundry day. Go to the zoo instead. (And when you do get around to washing those sheets, try folding the flat sheet around the fitted sheet and pillow cases so everything's bundled together at bed-making time.)

Most important: Hang up that Supermom cape right now, advises Jasper. "Being less of a perfectionist about keeping a perfect home will give you more time to enjoy life," she says. So take a vow to try these tips, enlist your family's help and let the small stuff-like all those toddler hand prints on the walls in the hallway-slide. I've pretty much decided I'll wait and paint the hallway when my son's in college. Then again . . . those chubby little fingerprints don't look so bad right where they are.