Tidy Up: The Busy Family’s Guide to Home Organization

I was never a bastion of homemaking. It was an art that my hard-working mom didn’t have time to perfect in practice, and my brothers and I were too selfish to lend her a hand, despite her pleas. When I found myself moved into my very first apartment in college, it became abundantly clear that keeping a neat home was not a gift I possessed. Adding a husband and three active kids to the family has only exacerbated the issue.
I’ve had to compensate for my untidy tendencies by finding easy and low-effort ways to maintain a home. Now instead of floundering, we are content and functioning well in our digs. Here are a few home organization tips that have helped us keep our house cleared out and keep our sanity, too.
 tidy up

1. Make it a family affair

Whether you have two or twelve people in your family, chances are all of them are able to contribute to housekeeping in some way. If your baby is old enough to walk and carry a toy, he or she is old enough to help clean them up. Preschoolers typically enjoy helping out their parents like a “big kid”–use this to your advantage by giving them a housekeeping task to do. You’ll have to do it with them the first several times, but they may catch on quicker than you think. Despite their protests, older kids benefit from being part of the family cleaning crew, too. It teaches them how to maintain a house, gives them a responsibility to help them mature, and if done together, helps foster a close bond as a family. If you exclude your children from help because they’re too slow or sloppy, you take away a chance for them to feel capable and gain a skill.

We moms all have different systems for delegating housekeeping tasks. Some use a chore chart, which can be found in abundance on Google or Pinterest. Others do it all together on a weekend morning. As for me, I have kid tasks that I’ve built into our daily routines, and tasks that are written on little slips of paper and put into the “job jar.” Our daily tasks include having our kids help set the table, bring their dishes to the sink when they’re done, hang up their jackets and backpacks, put their dirty clothes in the laundry hamper and shoes in the closet, and put away all their toys every single night. The tasks we have in the job jar include things like dusting, wiping down the cabinet doors in the kitchen, disinfecting the doorknob and light switches, emptying out wastebaskets, and sorting laundry. I try to have my three kids (ages 8, 5, and 2) go through the whole jar one morning every week. It helps me get the multitude of boring little cleaning jobs done on a regular basis, and helps them learn teamwork and how to do a good job.

2. Crush the Clutter

If you’ve got too much stuff and it’s giving you stress, take a tip from Elsa and “let it gooooo, *let it gooooooo*…” Get a garbage bag and your recycling bin and take as much time as you can muster each day until you’ve gotten things under control. Don’t let the enormity of the job intimidate you. Do a single drawer or half a shelf a day, but just keep going every day. If you find it hard to part with anything, there are some good resources to help. Or check out my previous post on getting rid of all your stuff

Once you’ve got it pared down to the keep pile, you’ve got to get it all into your living space in a tidy and functional way. Out of all the storage spaces in your house, put the least-used items (like holiday decorations or that old box of mementos) in the least-accessible spot. This applies to kitchen equipment, too, should you find your kitchen storage too cramped. As for the things you use more frequently, it’s easier to keep things organized and tidy-looking if you contain or hide it. Baskets, bins, jars, etc. will all do well. Be creative if you’re running out of storage space, like tucking the spare sheets between the mattress and the box spring. I can’t beat Pinterest in giving you clever ideas, but my word of warning is KISS: Keep It Simple, Silly. Don’t complicate things.

Top: Our board games are front and center, ready to play. Lower Left: Art supplies stay organized in the kitchen. Lower Right: Blankets stay clean and organized on the wall rack. On the shelf above sits the Job Jar.

Ask yourself where the chaos starts first when your house starts to get messy, and brainstorm solutions. My young kids would always leave their jackets on the floor, but then I realized that it was too difficult to hang them on the high hooks we had in the back of the closet. We fixed this by mounting a lot of hooks much closer to their level. My kids also like to play with blankets, but when we fostered a dog for awhile, the dog would cuddle up in the blankets and they’d end up full of dog hair. I didn’t have the floor space for a free-standing blanket rack, so I built one that hangs on the wall. (Curtain rods mounted to the wall would work the same way.) My kids LOVE to draw and do artwork, but their various art supplies always ended up strewn all over our office room, and they could never find what they wanted. I bought a rolling drawer unit from Target and labeled all the drawers for all the kinds of supplies. It lives right next to our dining/craft table, and we haven’t had a problem with clean-up or finding a particular item since.

As for the day-to-day clutter management, I like to spend 15-20 minutes a day clearing out clutter and papers, and doing a more thorough clean-out when needed. Also: eat the frog first. Do the one cleaning task you hate doing first, and everything else won’t seem so bad.

3. Tackle the Paper Monster

Nobody ever told me how much of motherhood was actually document control. Between my kids’ schools, church, the library, kids’ artwork, doctors’ offices, junk mail, the insurance company, banks, bills, and everything else, I feel like an entire ream of paper exploded in my kitchen. I’ve tried paper racks, a clipboard system, a three-ring binder, and trying to keep only digital copies. Everything I’ve tried just made the problem more complicated and task-heavy. The only thing that truly helps is to just tackle everything as soon as it comes in the door. Fill out the forms, recycle the junk, file the “keep” papers (or take a picture of them with your phone and file them digitally), pay the bills, put the event in your calendar. Is this paper something that will make me feel guilty for tossing, so it sits on the table for two weeks before I finally give in and chuck it? Be realistic. Toss it now, and forget the guilt. As for kids’ artwork, try snapping a pic of the notable pieces, then use a service like Shutterfly or Walgreens Photo to compile them into a photo book.

4. Apps for Organization

It’s the digital age! We’ve got tablet computers and smartphones now, and they’re powerful tools for organization.
One of my go-to apps is Evernote. It’s free and you can use it on computers, tablets, and smartphones, which is great to access any note on any device. This is great for quick access to recipes in the kitchen; now I don’t have cookbooks or recipe cards cluttering up my counters. I also use it for taking and reviewing notes between my garden and the garden store.

If you want digital to-do or grocery (or anything) lists, try Wunderlist. Feel the satisfaction of making a task

Wanderlist is a great list-making app
Wunderlist is a great list-making app.

completed. Isn’t it nice? Wunderlist also syncs between your devices.

I’ve been using Dropbox for a few years for cloud storage of files. You can get a certain amount of storage space for free, or pony up the money for more. My phone automatically uploads all of my cell phone pictures into Dropbox, so if my phone is irreparably damaged or lost, I won’t lose my pics. It’s also great for file management in a professional team setting, as you can have folders that are shared with others.

I have yet to find an amazing calender app, but the one that came standard on my smartphone works well enough. I can sync it to my husband’s calender through Google, which saves us from so many arguments. Plus, I can take a picture of, say, a flier and attach the pic to the calender event, which eliminates the need for me to spend time inputting information or having to hang on to the flier.
If you love to read magazines, but find they clutter up your home, you can get digital subscriptions to many periodicals. Digital books have been around for awhile; they’re great if you’re short on bookshelf space or if you like to take lots of reading material wherever you go. 
As for all the cords for these devices? Well, I don’t have a fix for that yet. If you do, let me know in the comments below. I love to hear about new organizational ideas!