Many stressed-out parents have come to think of home organization in terms of major closet, kitchen and basement makeovers, requiring substantial planning and time not available to busy families (not to mention the purchase of fancy hangers, woven bins and drawer dividers). But there are a lot of small things you can do routinely, without a huge investment of time and money, that will help make your house run more smoothly and give you a sense of order and control.
Over years of organizing clients and observing busy people, I’ve noticed there are certain tasks “organized people” — people who don’t need to “get organized” because they already are — do every day. These tasks are done so consistently that they become second nature. Think of them almost like a set of commandments that keep you on track and lessen your mental load: the constant need to make decisions and remember details. As the new school year approaches, consider these nine habits to keep your household on track.
1. Tidy small messes early
Make it a point to clean up small messes immediately. It’s much easier to take five minutes to put away a game, straighten up the pantry, put away your clothes or do a quick desk cleanup than it is to let your whole house turn into a disorganized mess that requires hours or days to clean.
The phrase “mess begets mess” is absolutely true. Once your house has become cluttered and messy, it can feel too daunting to clean up and the situation can quickly spiral out of control. But the same is also true of order and organization. If things are orderly and planned, messes and clutter are less likely to pile up.
2. Stay on top of the dishwasher
Many families go through enough dishes to fill the dishwasher daily. Make it a habit to run your dishwasher before you go to bed and to empty it each morning. (If it’s not full, feel free to skip a day.) Unloading the dishwasher takes less than five minutes, and you can do it while your coffee or tea is brewing. That way you won’t wake up to a sink full of dirty dishes, and you’ll have the clean dishes you need to prepare breakfast and make school lunches.
3. Open and sort the mail ASAP
This is important — and easy. Make it your routine to open your mail every evening. It’s so much easier to manage if you spend a couple of minutes sorting each evening than it is to look through a big stack on the weekend. Recycle unwanted pieces immediately and place bills to be paid and papers to file in a designated spot.
4. Unpack boxes right away
Many of us are increasingly using delivery services — for pet food, for groceries, for clothing. If a package contains items you know you’re going to keep, take the moment to unpack the box, collapse it and take it to your recycling bin. Put the items away immediately, too.
5. Pack backpacks every evening
Have your kids pack their backpacks each evening and put them by the door. Place shoes and jackets for the next day nearby, and put clean lunchboxes and water bottles on the countertop so they’re ready to fill in the morning.
6. Make lists
Keep updated lists, either with pen and paper or electronically. These may be a daily to-do list, a list of food and household items that need to be replaced, upcoming birthdays, or long-term goals and plans. There is no right way to keep your lists and no correct formula. But writing things down will help you prioritize and keep track of what needs to get done each day.
7. Limit your distractions
With so many distractions vying for our attention each day, it’s a wonder any of us get anything done. We’ve all sat down and planned to spend five minutes checking social media and then looked up after an hour of scrolling. Just 15 minutes of that hour could have been spent tidying up around the house. If you find yourself putting off household tasks by distracting yourself with your phone, commit to doing one quick organizational project before you start scrolling. Or, better yet, use your phone to listen to a podcast or music while you’re getting something done.
8. Meal plan
A huge stress on working parents is deciding what to serve for dinner each night and then actually being able to prepare a healthy meal. If there’s no plan, families end up eating takeout, going out to dinner or eating the same meals over and over. Plan at least three meals, and do the necessary grocery shopping over the weekend.
9. Make your bed
This is a demand most of us heard from our parents, and we never really understood its importance. Five years ago, in a commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin, Adm. William McRaven neatly laid out why this habit matters. He said: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
I could not agree more.