Quality Time: Organization Tips for Busy Families

by Elizabeth M. Rosenman

Quality Time: Organization Tips for Busy Families

If you think your house is a mess, check out David Gallimore’s. The father of two preschoolers, Gallimore says he and his family usually don’t do a thorough clean-up more than once a month. "We try to have friends over every three or four weeks just so we will clean the house," he says.

Debbie Leizman, M.D., who has three young daughters and a full-time medical practice, concedes that dinner guests at her house are surrounded by a hodgepodge of toys and kid stuff in the dining room.

That’s nothing to be embarrassed about, says Tracy Landsman, the mother of four boys, whose theory on neatness is that its time has not yet come in her life.

But disheveled closets and crumbs on the kitchen floor aren’t all that these parents have in common. They are all incredibly organized in spirit, if not in space. They each reshuffled priorities after the arrival of their children so that they now feel relaxed around their families. How can you achieve this kind of control over your time? We asked some professional organizers for advice.

Surprisingly, the experts give points for having a relaxed attitude about housework. Bruce A. Baldwin, Ph.D., a psychologist who counsels people on how to enhance the quality of their home life, encourages parents to lower their standards when it comes to mopping and dusting. "If you have high standards, you will work all the time," says Baldwin. "Then you will be resentful because your emotional needs haven’t been met, since you’ve been working all the time. The people around you will suffer because you are stressed."

But we can’t simply ignore housework altogether. Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer, suggests having members of your family work together in the same room doing different jobs. That way, you can have family time and get the house clean. Don’t be afraid to delegate work to your kids. Why not let your child empty the dishwasher? If you shudder at the thought of mixed-up silverware drawers, it’s time to revise your thinking, says organizing consultant Peggy Timm. "You have to get into the mind-set that you want to get something accomplished, even if it’s not perfect," she says. "That’s not being lazy  — it’s being practical."

Keeping a calendar is also crucial, says Timm. She recommends recording all your errands and appointments in one place. Write your "to do" list in the space for each day, in order of priority. Don’t worry if everything doesn’t get done; just transfer the leftover chores to the next day and try again. Of course, a wall calendar or a pocket organizer is no help unless you remember to look at it, so make it a habit to review your calendar every morning and night.

Remember that it is okay  — and sometimes important  — to say no. "Women tend to overinvolve themselves in their kids’ lives," says Timm. "The people who think they can handle a lot and commit to everything  — those are the ones who call me for help. They have spread themselves so thin that they can’t enjoy the activity that they signed up to do."

If you’d like to take a family outing once a week, have a night out with your spouse every month, or spend one-on-one time with each of your children, write it on your calendar, says Morgenstern. Otherwise, it probably won’t happen. One way to build in more family time is to start your morning earlier. "Be sure you are allowing enough time in the morning for everyone to get ready at their own pace so that there isn’t rush and panic," Morgenstern says.

Rush and panic? Don’t ask David Gallimore. Gallimore, who works for an aerospace company, traded in a fast-track job for one that gives him more time to be a dad. He admits that it’s a struggle keeping family the main focus. He and his wife, Margaret, go out for dinner every two weeks just to evaluate how well they are doing. They are currently negotiating new rules for taking evening calls now that Margaret has become active in a community organization.

But what they do agree on is that driving old cars and doing their own remodeling projects is better than taking time away from the family to earn more money. And they like to think they are teaching their children self-reliance. "We often joke that we are frustrated pioneers," says Gallimore, whose family chops its own firewood.

Chopping wood isn’t a priority in the Leizman household. But Debbie Leizman, like David Gallimore, is protective of the time she spends with her family. She’s not at all concerned that her living room still has no furniture. The busy doctor says she’d rather spend a free day at a museum with her children than go furniture shopping alone. Routine is what helps her organize her time. Every Sunday she plans the week’s meals and even makes a few dishes ahead of time. The kids’ dinner is always served at 5 P.M. And before crawling into bed, she has already laid out her girls’ clothes for the next day and set the breakfast table to help make the next morning run smoothly.

While Leizman is thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast, Tracy Landsman is still scrubbing pots and pans from tonight’s dinner  — and proving that there’s more than one way to be organized. "I’m often cleaning up the kitchen at 9 PM," she says, explaining that she reserves the after-school hours for her four boys. But woe to anyone who messes with her calendar. She keeps it by the telephone and writes down absolutely everything. Soccer practice for the next eight Saturdays? It’s written down.

"I always have more to get done than I can do," Landsman says. "It used to bother me. Now I realize it’s just the way life is at the moment. What I enjoy is being around and being involved in what’s going on with our family."