Goal: Get everyone out the door on time and tantrum-free
Now: Turn a plastic dishpan into a home-base bin to hold everything your child needs for school or daycare: backpack, lunch box, snacks to share. If she decorates it with stickers and markers, she may actually dump her backpack there instead of on the floor. And if you remember to stock it the night before with lunch and that signed permission slip, you'll make it out the door with only minor delays.
In two weeks: "Instead of several little routines every day, consolidate," says Amy Brady, the Austin-based owner of The Clutter Consultants and mom of a 2-year-old. For instance, she says, "If your child takes lunch money to school, don't give it out every day; divvy it into five different envelopes on Sunday night." Use a white board to track what you and your kids need to remember on different days of the week, like library books on Monday and show-and-tell treasures on Tuesday. Then stash them in a hanging clothes organizer (one compartment for each day of the week) so you can grab and go.
In a month: Okay, you're still running late sometimes. Make mad-dash mornings less hectic by stocking a bin with breakfasts your kids can eat on the go, like cereal bars, whole-grain toaster pastries, and baggies of trail mix. Stockpile napkins in your car's glove compartment.
Goal: Simplify the laundry, and keep it from taking over the house
Now: No room for shelving? Use a lazy Susan on your dryer to corral everything from detergent bottles to stain removers. Keep smaller necessities — the bleach pen, the dryer sheets — in a clear shoebag. (It's also perfect for holding popped-off buttons and the crayon stubs you've fished from your preschooler's pockets.)
In two weeks: Assign each family member two mesh bags for laundry, one for whites and one for darks (look for different colors to help everyone keep track of what goes where). Kids 3 and up can haul their own to the washing machine. Plus, when time runs short, you can throw the whole bag in and wash and dry as is, no sock sorting required.
In a month: Cut down on folding. Use a separate basket for each bathroom to hold clean towels that aren't folded, says Sara Fisher, a certified professional organizer and owner of A Simple Space, in Atlanta. "When towels come out of the dryer, they can go straight in the baskets." Same goes for undies and a baby's one-piece suits: Stick them in a shoe box in a drawer, no folding or sorting necessary. And if you come across clothes that don't fit your kid anymore, don't put them away thinking you'll sort them later. You won't. Keep a giveaway bin right in the laundry room.
Goal: Pay the bills on time and never forget another permission slip
Now: Throwing paperwork in a basket is quick, but horizontal surfaces turn into pile-up zones. Instead, think vertical, says Jackie Kelley, a professional organizer with Clearing House in Bethesda, Maryland, and a mom of two. Hang a multipocket wall file near where you sort the mail, and get a different brightly colored folder for every member of your family. As soon as you get the soccer schedule, write the game dates on your calendar, then slide the paper into your daughter's file. As long as you check the calendar each day, you're golden.
In two weeks: If the sheer volume of papers is overwhelming, make it easier on yourself to get rid of the junk. Put your recycling bin right where you sort the mail — in the kitchen or even by the door — so you can get rid of credit card offers and catalogues as soon as you get the mail. That'll make the pile to sort and file much smaller.
In a month: Reality check: Filing may not happen every day. So place a magnet strip or a bulletin board near your files and tack paperwork there that you have to act on right away, like book order forms or donation requests. If you set aside five minutes before bed to tackle the paperwork, it won't turn into a mountain.
Goal: Get the junk out of your trunk (and the rest of your car)
Now: Add a few collapsible mesh bins to the cargo area to round up everything from ballet bags to extra diapers. Next, slip a clear plastic envelope between the front seats so you have a place to stash loose scraps of paper, like coupons or Mapquest directions. When you're waiting for the gas tank to fill or to pick up your kids after school, sort through the envelope and toss anything you don't need anymore.
In two weeks: Put a basket or crate by the door as a catchall for anything that's en route somewhere: rental movies to be returned, clothes to be dry-cleaned, packages to be mailed. When you're ready to run errands, simply put the crate in the car. It'll keep your stuff looking neat — and you won't have to pay late fees for the DVD that disappeared under the rear seat.
In a month: Start this routine: Before your kids get out of the car, pass around a sack and have them put in whatever trash they see, suggests Brady. That little maneuver will keep detritus from piling up on your floorboards (as long as you remember to dump the paper bag!).
Melody Warnick, a mom of two in Ames, Iowa, relies heavily on baskets, cork boards, and a gigantic calendar to stay organized. Just don't look in her car.