If the thought of spending a Saturday afternoon at the Container Store is enough to make you volunteer to babysit your neighbor's three-year-old triplets (and their two dogs), I know just what you need. Stores that specialize in organizational items can make the organizationally challenged feel like an elephant in a china shop. You feel so out of place and overwhelmed that you just don't know where to start (or for that matter, how to use half of the gadgets and gizmos on display).
"Inch by inch, anything's a cinch" is the approach I take when helping working moms get used to the idea of organization — creating a place for everything so that everything will have a place.
Managing your own life is challenging enough, but when you throw in your kids and your spouse's schedules, even a Palm Pilot could burn out. One effective way of keeping track of who is doing what, when, is to invest in an oversized combination cork and dry-erase board. I suggest hanging one in the kitchen by the fridge — a place even your husband can't miss. You can pick up simple inexpensive ones at your local dollar store, or you can order more elaborate, custom-sized and framed (to match your decor) boards at www.artconceptstore.com (I've used this store before and love it!). Dry-erase boards are valuable because you can jot down notes, reminders and other important information in one handy place. And unlike Post-It Notes, your notes will never get lost.
Corkboards are a necessity for every busy family because they are multi-functional. You can tack up monthly calendars, school information and reminders, and printouts of emergency numbers.
Many websites offer free downloadable and printable blank calendars and phonebook templates (check out www.printfree.com). You can also hang keys on oversized push pins, jab your earrings in them when you come home from work (so that: your toddler won't have to resist the urge to pull them off and eat them) and tack up coupons you normally misplace shortly after clipping them from Sunday's paper. If you don't like the cluttered look of a corkboard, try placing it in the laundry room or another room that isn't frequented by guests but where you and your family can see and access it easily.
When you are streamlining your family's calendar, a computer-generated calendar can be very handy. If you have older children or a technology-savvy family, you may enjoy using an online program to sync all your activities and events. Homeconvenience.com allows you to enter your family's scheduling information and create a customized calendar. The service will also email or text message appointment reminders and allow you to sync your family calendar with your PDA (Microsoft Outlook also has a great calendar/reminder program).
Customize your family calendar with important activities and events, holidays and school closings, childcare arrangements, after-hours work commitments and other appointments (I recommend printing out the next two months and stapling them to the schedule for the current month). Using a different-colored ink for each family member will make it easier to identify at a glance who is scheduled to do what. If you're using a computer-generated calendar, you can change the font color or even highlight important dates as needed. Once your calendar is up to date, make a few copies and tack one on your corkboard, give one to your spouse, bring one to your office and keep one in the car.
In deciding what kind of calendar to use, consider what works best with your personality and be honest with yourself about what you know you will do. If you are a computer person, you'll probably enjoy the tech-friendly calendars. If you are more of a hands-on writing person, go with the dry-erase version. Basically, do whatever floats your boat, as long as you've got a functional calendar system to help you know who's floating when and where (and who needs to be rescued from the sea called over-scheduling).
Be sure to implement a family-wide policy when booking commitments outside of the normal day-to-day schedule: Every member should take the time to check the family schedule before committing to additional activities and events. If someone is caught off guard without a schedule in hand, they should respond with a default answer when asked about their availability. "I'll have to get back to yon" or "I need to check my schedule" will save you from having to reschedule events and appointments if you discover you're already committed.
Older kids will also benefit from having their own personal office space. Whether it's a corner table in the dining room or a spare desk alongside yours in the study, a space set aside for doing their homework will eliminate the much dreaded daily hassles associated with getting them to do their studies. Give them their own desk set, complete with pens and pencils, a computer station and their own "junk drawer" filled with some Mom-approved treats. You'll be surprised at how quickly your kids make their personal spaces their second homes.
Kids also seem to do better when they have a designated homework time. Some kids need a break to reenergize between school and homework, and others do better when they jump right in and get it out of the way. Figure out what style suits your child best, and come up with a consistent routine that everyone learns to respect.
I know I've said this before, but it's really worth repeating: In and Out boxes for each child are great for ensuring that important school or daycare notes and bulletins don't get lost in the backpack void. They are a true necessity for school-age kids, and for moms who are too busy to chase down permission slips and progress reports that need to be signed and returned to school. Pick a colored folder for each child (if you want to be super-coordinated, pick the same color that you selected for the child's "calendar ink"), and keep the folders in an easy-to-reach place. Be sure to keep the location consistent, and encourage your children to empty their backpacks as one o the first things they do when they return home from school or daycare.
Designating a place to store lunch boxes and backpacks is another way to eliminate the last-minute search for morning necessities (remember the "have a place for everything" habit?). Hall closets and foyer cubbies work really well as storage for the things that your children need to take to school or daycare each day. For elementary school-age children and younger, having a basket or bin in the front hallway closet is a good place to store shoes. If the closet is big enough, it can also be the storage area for their backpacks, jackets, winter accessories and lunch boxes. You can easily store hats and mittens in a basket on the closet floor or in a bag hung from a coat hanger on the closet rod. If space allows, you can install hook screws on the interior of your closet. Be sure they are strong enough to hold the weight of a schoolbag (those books and notebooks are heavy!). And don't forget that older kids can also benefit from having a designated place to store sporting gear or musical instruments.
You can also create your own bag in which to store your child's library books. On your next trip to your local craft store, purchase a canvas bag and some fabric paint, then write your child's name on the bag. Decorate it together with your child, and ask her to store her library books in her special bag (perhaps placed near her bedside table for nighttime reading) so that aren't left frantically searching for overdue library books mixed in with her own personal collection or school textbooks.
When on the go with kids, storing a little bit of everything the trunk of your car can be a saving grace. A change of clothes for each family member, a big beach towel (in case someone gets sick, or as a blanket in a pinch), snacks, bottled water and a roll of paper towels will come in handy. If you are the mom of younger ones, always keep two diaper bags ready to go: one in the house and one in the car.
Whenever you find yourself stressed, looking for the same thing again and again, whether it's a hairbrush, a backpack or library books, that's a signal that you need a system or that your current system needs an overhaul. Spend just a few moments asking yourself: How could I make this easier for myself? and What system/container/routine might solve this hassle? Then implement that system — you'll be so glad you did. Don't worry about organizing everything all at once; that's too daunting. Remember: inch by inch. Start with the situations that most often yield hair-pulling moments and tackle them first. Then, like me, you may find that being organized is such fun that it takes on a life of its own. To me, it's more than a hobby (actually, it's become my career!).