For many parents, organizing the house is a daunting task. But even if you’re up to your eyeballs in toys, paperwork and kids’ stuff, turning the tide isn’t impossible. Metro Parent picked the brains of three Michigan-based professional organizers (and moms!) for their top insights on gaining control over your family’s stuff – in the most manageable ways possible.
Assess and be realistic
The parents who turn to Simply Organized Life in the Ann Arbor area are usually grappling with chaotic kitchens, messy play areas and unruly basements. But founder and professional organizer Carolyn Anderson-Fermann finds they’re also swamped in something stranger: unwieldy storage containers.
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“This is the biggest mistake most people do,” she says. “They go to the nearest big box store and they buy a bunch of bins and boxes. If you don’t really know what you have, buying products at the beginning of the project really isn’t appropriate.”
In fact, she says that once her clients take stock, 90 percent don’t need to buy anything extra at all. It’s really the first step of getting organized: Assessing what you’ve got – and being realistic about it.
In Amy Knapp’s Family Organizing Handbook, the Kalamazoo author and mom applauds the “art of imperfection.”
“We’ve created organizing into this monster, when really it’s not,” Knapp says. “I believe the first thing you have to do is stop comparing yourself to everyone else. There is no right or wrong way to organize.”
If it sounds too difficult, impractical, anxiety producing or downright overwhelming, Knapp notes, it’s likely going to flop.
Where to start
So where should you start? That depends. Families tend to follow the 80-20 Rule: They use 20 percent of their possessions 80 percent of the time.
If this daily stuff – schoolbooks, keys, favorite toys – is constantly MIA, it’s time to create accountability. Anderson-Fermann suggests a “landing pad” in high traffic areas, typically near a back door. It could be an alcove, a drawer or even a box. The old “place for everything” adage can work well in these cases as long as you’re consistent and explain it clearly to your kids.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” Anderson-Fermann says. “Even a 3-year-old can understand the concept of, ‘This is where I put my stuff.'”
Whether surplus food, forgotten duds or seasonal decorations, the other 80 percent of stuff often ends up the looming task that’s shoved out of sight. Never approach your storage areas with an all-at-once mentality, warns Theresa Fiorani, a former professional organizer in Lake Orion.
“Start small,” she says. “Know it would make a good weekend project, but it’s ongoing. You really want to know what’s in there and how to determine what you’re going to store what you’re going to keep.”
When you finally need a few containers, Fiorani says, general styles are always better. Units with lots of compartments and drawers can quickly outlive their usefulness. Ditto for expensive, wall-to-wall, kid-themed systems. Go for clear varieties so you can see what’s inside, since bins often get stacked. And, for that reason, avoid them all together in areas where lots of stuff is accessed, like bedrooms and kitchens.
Be family friendly
Embracing your family’s quirks is just as important as shrugging off impossible standards. Knapp recalls a whirlwind cleaning campaign to whip the garage closet into shape. It was spotless. A week later, it was a wreck.
“The problem was, I set unrealistic expectations for my family,” she says. Her improved solution: Four laundry baskets for each person’s mittens and shoes. “It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.” The lesson: Keep it simple.
Establishing a few simple habits also helps transform hunts for buried bills and lost toys into quality family time. Anderson-Fermann’s rules of thumb: If a task takes less than three minutes to complete – say, emptying the dishwasher – do it now. And if you bring something new into the house, try to get rid of one old thing.
A home is only as organized as regular maintenance. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a drudge. Entitle yourself to a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s almost like a celebratory time,” Knapp says. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ The reward is getting the job done.”
This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated for 2016.