Thursday, December 28, 2006

Chaotic Tips for the Disorganized: Managing a Dynamic Household

When beloved Parent Hacks issued a call for household organization tips to kick off the New Year, I thought how much I needed to read this thread without commenting. As I told a friend earlier this week, "My house is a freakshow." She laughed and said "I'll kill you if that means you have a couple magazines on the coffee table and a few plates in the sink." If only that were the case.

My house has more than 20 semi-unpacked boxes (we moved mid-2004 and every once in a while I try to find some long-lost item), we have two dining tables and two large desks completely covered in paperwork, correspondence, books, groceries, receipts, tools, replacement electrical outlets, stuff that I couldn't leave on the floor when Baby Geek started getting around on his own, and half-finished projects.

We even have a black-hole room (which we refer to as "that room," "the corner room," or simply nod in its general direction as naming it something like "the office" would be complete delusion and acknowledging its present state, "crap-hole" or "Heart of Darkness" might seem both impolite and resigned).

Who am I to discuss household organization? But then I had one best practice that is helping and doesn't involve a shovel, calling a television program for assistance, or setting the home ablaze. As I started typing the first idea others came to me. I realized that my war with this mess is hardly lost (though at times it often looks like a stalemate). My house could actually be worse than it is now! Somehow that is reassuring.

So here are some hard-won tips from our danger zone to others:

1) Having a good friend team up with you on a particularly large problem area usually pays off.

This is hard for me to arrange, and I suspect for others, because it may mean you're inviting people into the very area of your home that you least want them to see, but it can be quite motivating in tackling bigger problem areas (like the black-hole catch-all office-type room swamped with paperwork, half-finished projects, computer peripherals, hobbies, items to repair, art from previous homes, and stuff we have absolutely no idea what to do with).

A close friend and I have been tackling a problem laundry room and office together. It's easier with two people who like each other because neither person wants to leave the room for too long, so tangential distractions are kept to a minimum.

The second party is helpful for manpower, but they can also help carve individual tasks out of an overwhelming situation, and force decisions. When a broken stool was unearthed (with its amputated leg), the events went something like this:

non-homeowner: "Will you get this fixed?"
homeowner: "Yes, I loved it for the kid's bathroom."
NH: "Can you fix it?"
HO: "No. That's the problem."
NH: "Who do we know who can?"
[HO has an idea, makes a phone call to arrange it, and drops the item off with a woodworker before the week's end. Our alternative (and much weaker) plan was to put the item in attic or garage storage where it would most likely languish until aforementioned children go to college.]

We set up a number of designated bags, boxes, and piles and start sorting. There is only so much the non-homeowner can do with some of the items (paperwork especially), but they can carry stuff to appropriate groupings, break down cardboard boxes, mate like items, vacuum the newly exposed carpet, hang pictures, and simply be a sounding board for "should I keep this" and "what exactly do I with this" decisions.

We worked two afternoons, had nice teas with lunch, and made a lot of headway on two sizable projects. Family members and friends received lost and borrowed items.

With the right person this can be rewarding and even fun. The benefits for the non-homeowner are a sense of accomplishment, a true gift to a friend, and a good idea of who to call when their own household needs order.

2) If you're not using it, why are you keeping it? Sometimes there is an answer to this question. If there isn't, jettison.

3) SORT INTRA-HOUSEHOLD ITEMS AS YOU GO, BUT DON'T LEAVE THE INITIAL PROJECT EACH TIME YOU FIND ONE. Always keep a recycling bag and a trash can handy when cleaning mixed item chaos. A laundry basket or two (clean/dirty) are handy. We make piles of stuff that belongs to specific people and belongs in other rooms to be delivered when they hit a critical mass or the initial sorting project is finished.

Every time you leave the room, you offer yourself an opportunity to be waylaid by fate.

4) ORGANIZE, DONATE, DISTRIBUTE, AND EXCHANGE UNWANTED ITEMS: Always have a Goodwill box (charity of your choice, of course) somewhere in the house.

When clothes fit poorly I used to try them on, reject them, and put them back on my closet shelf (though I had no intention of ever wearing them again). Now they are refolded, placed on the bed, and then shuttled to the Goodwill box. In that box you would currently find over-the-door hooks that worked in our last house but not here, sippy cups that BabyGeek despises, baby gear that seemed like a good idea at the time but proved worthless, games we didn't take a fancy to, duplicate/upgraded items, and old or non-compatible computer peripherals.

We also have donation bags for the public library book sale (magazines and books that we didn't love enough to keep), a local food shelter, and a box for the Habitat Home Store (working lighting fixtures we've updated, old switch plates, excess tiles, etc.).

My mommas group often has a table full of unwanted goods that we offer each other: foods our babies won't eat, perky videos that cannot be tolerated for one more iteration, Hooter Hiders from families no longer breastfeeding, formula samples, outgrown items, product points for loyalty programs (like Pampers), and coupons for most major baby products.

Friends who get a lot of unwanted freebies or gifts through their jobs keep boxes of items to give away (to the rest of our delight!). We keep a box of items to give to friends (not really regifting as items are given without ceremony and the recipients often hear the story of the item's arrival in our lives). Phrases like "would you be interested in..." always seem to kick off these item exchanges.

As an insecure tween, I was always happy to receive bags of my professional neighbor's cast-off clothing and accessories. Her need for the most current fashion gave me a completely undeserved reputation for style during some very self-conscious years. Though I grew to be a much taller than her, I still have a few favorite items from her almost 20 years later. Giving away useful items can be a great gift.

One note: Make sure the stuff in the boxes is regularly delivered to appropriate parties. No one should warehouse this stuff.

5) If your current arrangement doesn't allow for enough storage, either limit your items to fit those existing options or engineer better storage solutions (there are some great, inexpensive DIY storage ideas in ReadyMade). Sadly, the fabric of space and time still refuse to stretch in response to human will (despite regular testing in our household).

May the Force be with us all.

1 comment:

Stu said...


I'm gonna paste this entire post to the side of my computer and use it as a reminder that cleaning is not immoral.

Also, nice strategy. I hope it works for me!! :-)