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6 Strategies for Organizing Clutter

  • Ned Matura

    When you're a mom, you're waging a constant war against clutterit's one of the great mental challenges of motherhood. We become very close friends with the guy who mans the Goodwill truck.

    With all the bags and boxes we give him, you'd think there'd be nothing left in our homes. But the stuff multiplies faster than we can get rid of it!

    And the more stuff you have, the less time you have—because then there's more to clean, and more to put away or look for when it's lost. So it makes sense to streamline wherever you can.

    Some moms thrive on order; for others, closets are used primarily for cramming things into just before people come over. No matter which type you are, we've gathered some great, realistic tips for getting your life more organized. Consider it our Mother's Day gift to you!

  • Strategy: show kids how to help

    • Give your children specific instructions: Just saying "Clean your room" is too vague for most of them, and it's also overwhelming. "Pick up all the blocks and put them in the block box" is a more useful thing to say. Break big jobs down into smaller ones.
    • Make sure there's enough storage space: If you're helping your child clean his room and get stuck trying to find a place for everything, you need to get rid of some stuff or get more storage, or both.
    • Maximize closet space by hanging shoe racks on the doors (which you can use for more than just shoes!). Add hooks for hats, belts, necklaces, tote bags, robes and so on. If hangers and drawers are out of reach, keep a library stool in the room so kids can reach clothes, to make it easier for them to clean up or get dressed.
  • Strategy: get crafty with artwork
    When your kids are in preschool and elementary school, it's important to find a place (other than the refrigerator) to display their prized scribbles and projects. Some ideas:

    • Mount clips on a wall near the kitchen, low enough for the kids to reach, where they can hang up the creations for everyone to see.
    • Put a magnetic board in their room, the playroom or the kitchen so they can switch out the displays.
    • Hang a long ribbon or string along the wall with clothespins for attaching artwork—this is an easy and inexpensive way to show off their masterpieces.
    • A more expensive solution: Buy frames with an opening on the back that makes it easy to slide artwork in and out for exhibiting various pieces.

    No matter which method works for you, be sure to rotate artwork so your display area doesn't get overloaded.

  • Strategy: purge toys regularly
    Kids rarely want to part with their toys. (And sometimes parents don't, either!) Which means you'll have to dig deep for your most creative mom skills to help them realize it's time to get rid of something.

    For very young children, sometimes it's easiest to simply put an item away for a while, then get rid of it after they've forgotten about it. This also helps sentimental parents because it's a two-step process; somehow it's easier to get rid of an item that's gathered dust in the basement for several months than something taken straight out of your child's toy box.

    As kids get older, it's best to be up front and honest about clearing out the clutter.

    • Go through the easy stuff with them first: broken toys, puzzles with missing pieces, Happy Meal—type toys that have no sentimental value. Throw all this stuff out!
    • With some kids, it works to tell them they've outgrown something: "This toy is for really little kids. You're way too big for this now!"
    • If it's sentimental, give it to a younger cousin or close friend. That way, neither of you will feel like you're discarding something important, but instead you're sharing it with someone special.
    • Give the kids a bag to fill with toys and games for less-fortunate kids.
    • And when you need to, just chuck the stuff after they're asleep. (But make sure you use a black garbage bag—if you use a translucent white one, they're sure to spot the "treasures" and want them back!)
  • Strategy: rein in your photos
    It nearly kills us to get rid of any pictures of our precious kids, even those shots that are so blurry we can barely make out their features. Some steps that will help you tame the beast:

    • Purge before you print. We take lots of duplicate shots with our digital cameras and tell ourselves, "I can always delete ones that aren't good." Just make sure you actually do delete them—and, ideally, before you upload them to your computer. There's no need to have eight different shots of your daughter's Brownie troop lined up together.
    • Sort through boxes and eliminate bad photos.
    • Pass on duplicates to grandparents, aunts and uncles. And to your kids—they love having pictures of themselves.
    • If a shot really doesn't have much meaning to you, toss it.
  • Strategy: let go of things

    • Use the revolving-door technique: For instance, for each new book that you buy, get rid of one you've already read or know you won't. Give it to a friend, donate it to a charity or sell it to a secondhand shop.
    • Don't keep it if you can find it elsewhere: If a recipe, insurance form, article, etc., is easily accessed online, don't keep it lying around—toss!
    • Tackle your kitchen: Throw away old spices that are past their prime, and every now and then, go through your pantry and toss out items that are out of date. Also go through the drawers and keep just those kitchen tools that you use frequently (store other things, like the holiday cookie cutters, in a box on a shelf).
    • Only keep business cards of people or businesses you can't easily find online. For those you're hanging on to: Buy a business-card binder, which will hold hundreds without taking up too much desk space (you can find them in different sizes at places like Offce Depot, OffceMax and Target). Then when you're looking for that guy who cleans gutters, you can quickly find his card.
    • Take back your garage: Clean out toys and ride-ons your kids have outgrown and donate them to a nearby preschool or give them to Goodwill. Then get equipment off the floor so you might actually be able to park your car in there! Put up shelves with large hooks and bins for hanging gardening tools and storing sports equipment.
    • Don't feel guilty about getting rid of gifts that you never used or didn't like. Give them to someone who needs them.
  • Superstock

    Strategy: make a place for yourself
    Do you have a closet or nook somewhere in your house that's underutilized? Or one that could be decluttered to free up some space? Here's what one of us, Sara—an avid scrapbooker—did when she was tired of spreading everything out on the dining room table, working for an hour (if she was lucky!) then packing it up again: She turned a double-door closet in her basement into a scrapbooking nook.

    • Her husband and father-in-law installed a countertop, wire drawers and shelves. The work space is at counter height to keep little hands off her stuff.
    • Sara added a wire wastebasket for storing gift wrap, a small rod attached to a shelf for ribbon, and hooks for gift bags, cutting templates, scissors, etc.
    • She bought an inexpensive stool that stores under the counter when she's not using it. Says Sara, "This is one of the best ideas I've ever had for my house because I don't have to put anything away when I'm in the middle of a project and can't finish—I simply close the doors! Even if you don't scrapbook, you can use this idea for a home office, sewing nook or anything you'd rather not have to put away midstream. It's a great way to carve out some space for yourself."
  • Getty

    Our bottom line: If you have to choose between alphabetizing your toy room and going outside to blow bubbles in the backyard with your kids, of course, choose the backyard. We share these organizing tips with you to help you have more time with your family. If they're useful, great. But if all this just seems overwhelming, then do what you can and don't fret the rest.

    All moms know what a challenge it is to keep a house neat and organized with kids running around. Most of your fellow moms understand, and if they don't, then remove them from your holiday-card list immediately because they're not true friends! After your kids go to college, you'll have more than enough time to devote to a spotless home. While they're here with you, spend every minute with them that you possibly can stand. Your kids aren't going to remember how clean your house was, but they will remember that you played games with them.

    Sara Ellington and Stephanie Triplett codeveloped and hosted the weekly radio show The Mommy Chronicles. This is excerpted from their new book, The Must-Have Mom Manual: Two Mothers, Two Perspectives, One Book That Tells You Everything You Need to Know

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