You have a toddler—or three. You work from home. You work outside the home. You’re a stay-at-home-mom or dad. You volunteer. You have hobbies.
Whatever the specifics of your situation, spending a lot of time organizing and tidying up just isn’t a reality for you. You don’t have whole weekends to devote to decluttering, or even a whole day.
And you probably don’t want to. Understandably, with your limited time, you want to do something else: hang out with your family, be outside, have a date night with your spouse, read a novel, write your novel.
Still, it’d be nice to find your stuff, and keep a relatively tidy home. You’re certainly not aiming for perfection. You just don’t want your space to look like a tornado swept through it. And you’d like to feel good when you’re at home, instead of wanting to get out because it’s such a mess—or not wanting someone to stop by because you need to pick up first (i.e., throw everything in the closets).
Below, you’ll find a variety of helpful tips from organizing experts on how to get organized and stay organized when you’ve got young kids afoot, and you don’t want to spend too much time tidying up.
Realize the real problem. Paige Trevor’s clients regularly assume they have a time and organizing problem. That is, they think they don’t have enough time, and they think they need help with organizing their homes.
However, when Trevor, a certified parent educator who pens the popular blog Nifty Tips, sees that these families literally have thousands of objects, such as toys, trinkets, puzzles, stuffed animals, crafts, and books, she tells them what the real issue is: “volume.” In other words, they—and likely most of us—have too much stuff.
Similarly, as Tracy McCubbin, said, “the less we have, the easier it is to organize.” McCubbin is the owner of the organizing and decluttering company dClutterfly.
Divide items by two. “As the parent, we are the gate keepers of the house and so have the authority, life experience, and judgment to decide the appropriate number of stuffed animals, books, toys, crafts, clothes can enter in our house,” said Trevor, who’s helped thousands of parents deal with common, everyday familial irritations and overwhelm, and foster healthy and mutually respectful relationships with their kids.
Whatever number you come up with, divide it by two, she said. “You’ll hate me now and love me later.”
Take out the same number that you take in. In other words, if you get one book, give away one book. If you get two shirts, give away two shirts. Trevor noted that your kids might cry or balk at this idea. She suggested having them help you choose which items to let go of. “[T]hey can help with the choosing, but not choosing is choosing that you choose.”
Purge before big holidays. Do a major toy decluttering before big gift-giving holidays, said McCubbin, author of the forthcoming book Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You’ll Ever Need (June 4th, 2019). She suggested looking for toys your kids haven’t played with in months, toys that are broken or missing pieces, or toys that your kids have outgrown.
Give them to your neighbors who have younger kids, or donate them to an organization that works with foster children, McCubbin said. “Involve your children in the donation process. They are never too young to learn that there is always someone in need.”
Go slow. “If spring cleaning is on your to-do list, do it slowly,” said Ronni Eisenberg, a professional organizer and author of 10 books on organizing, including Organize Yourself! One of the biggest reasons we don’t start organizing projects is because they’re overwhelming. We think about the time and energy that we don’t have.
Instead, Eisenberg suggested giving yourself a week to tackle two projects: For instance, the first week organize two closets; the next week focus on the mudroom and pantry. Or if that feels like too much, complete one project per week. Which means you could have your entire house organized in a few months, or less.
Organize like with like. McCubbin said that this is the best tip for organizing kids’ spaces. In other words, put books with books, and dolls with dolls. “Using this simple method makes for easy clean-up and even better, stops the ‘Mom, where is my _______?’”
“If things are always put in the same place, then kids know exactly where to go to find the toy or book they’re looking for. Or even better, they know exactly where to put it away, so they can help with clean-up time.”
Tidy up for 10 minutes. Trevor suggested tidying up the common areas of the house six days a week. “Expect kids to dawdle, and do a less-than efficient and perfect job. If you keep it light and fun, without lectures or disappointment, you will build the habit of working together, and after a few months you will have kids that willingly—for the most part—pitch in.”
Have a positive attitude. Similarly, our perspective “will seep into our kids’ thoughts and ideas about tidying and organizing,” Trevor said. So, if you’re hesitant, grumpy, and frustrated, your kids will likely be all of that, too—and nothing will get done.
Of course, keeping a positive attitude about organizing isn’t necessarily easy. Try to incorporate fun ways to declutter and tide up. Put on your favorite music. Set a timer, and make decluttering into a game: How many things can we get rid of in 10 minutes? Remind yourself and your kids that the nice things you’re donating will be enjoyed by other people.
Set rules that make your life easier. Eisenberg shared these examples of rules you might set in your household: Leave shoes by the front door, so you’re not tracking in dirt, “which creates more work and clean-up.” Keep toys in one area, and have your kids clean up at the end of the day. What other rules can you establish that simplify your days?
Keep the entryway clutter-free. “The front hallway, or your entrance, is the window to your house’s soul,” said Trevor. “Keep it decluttered with only seasonal items that are being used multiple times a week.”
Keeping this area neat also “greets you with the message of, ‘Well done, you got this!’” which means you’ll “enter your home life with more sanity and love,” Trevor added.
Create routines around problem areas. According to Trevor, “once established, [routines] create so much freedom.”
Think about your current challenges—grocery shopping, getting dinner on the table, piles and piles of laundry—and how you can create a strategic routine, or incorporate those tasks into a current routine.
For example, Eisenberg noted you might run the dishwasher every night and unload it in the morning, even if it’s a small load. You also might have set days for certain tasks, such as laundry on Mondays, she said.
Trevor said you could plan your meals on Wednesdays, shop on Thursdays, and cook a few meals for the week on Saturday. “Double up recipes and freeze half, [so you get] two dinners for the effort of one.”
Go digital with bills (or really any kind of paperwork). “And to make sure digital bills don’t get lost in the email clutter, download your bank’s app and set up reminders when your bill is due,” McCubbin said. “That way you never miss a payment.” In addition to bills, what else can you do electronically?
Take care of things right then and there. This way you avoid an inevitable pile-up of tasks and stuff that’s out of place. Eisenberg shared these examples: Keep rags under the sink so you can quickly clean up your kitchen and bathroom; teach your kids to make their beds as soon as they get up; teach your kids to hang up their coats and backpacks (use hooks); and have laundry bins in the bathroom and bedroom, so clothes immediately go into the hamper.
Live by this motto. McCubbin suggested following this motto for the entryway, but it actually works for anything in your home: “Don’t put it down, put it away.”
Decluttering, organizing, and keeping a tidy home with kids isn’t easy. But it’s also not impossible. Maybe you can outsource some of the cleaning (after reworking your budget). Maybe you can start small, and do a little bit every day. Maybe you’ll discover that after decluttering your cabinets and closets, you actually don’t need to do much organizing.
Just remember to do what works best for you. It’s your home, after all.