One definition of project clutter

According to the 2007 article “Measuring Visual Clutter,” in the medical Journal of Vision, “clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.”

This definition implies that clutter depends on a task being performed and is strongly tied to messes made while working on a project. Having too many items for a task will impede performance because the user has to sift through inessential items to obtain useful ones. Conversely, too few items may reduce productivity because the user has to go elsewhere for the items and the task takes more time than necessary.

Project clutter may also be dependent on a person’s level of skill at a particular task. Novices at a particular task may prefer to have only those objects necessary to perform the task from start to completion. Whereas experts at the same task may have items from several projects on their desks at the same time because they are familiar with the processes for each project.

Within families and offices, because project clutter depends upon the task and the users’ expertise, one person’s way of working and their tools may seem like clutter to someone else in the family or office and cause tension. Finding the answers to “How much stuff needs to be out to complete a project and for how long?” can go a long way in resolving these disputes.

Solving project clutter disputes

Begin by planning the project and defining the break points. If you have a large project to be completed that may disrupt normal household or office operations, divide the project into a series of tasks with logical points for taking breaks. For example, if you were making a quilt, cutting fabric into the correct shapes would be one task. If you were re-organizing an office filing system, categorizing the accounting files might be considered one task.

When examining your tasks, estimate the amount of time needed to complete the task and how long it will take you to return the workspace to its original state. For example, when I am preparing our quarterly submission for sales tax reimbursement, it is easier for me to remove the files from the filing cabinet in my husband’s office and stack them on the laundry room counter for the period of time I am working. The counter has lots of room for me to work and my office is beside the laundry room.

I love doing my quarterly tax claim on the spacious laundry room counter and it takes me several hours to complete the paperwork and return all the items to their regular storage area. I schedule this task on an evening when there is very little laundry to be washed or early on a Sunday morning before the counter is used for school homework projects.

It takes a bit of planning when using shared space but it will reduce clutter and improve everyone’s productivity. Talking about these issues with your family members or coworkers before you begin working will give everyone proper expectations and reduce tensions. Finally, working through this process with a child will help him/her to better understand time management, productivity, as well as putting away items when you’re finished using them.

Music and its relationship with organizing and productivity

There have been many studies over the years about the effect of music on productivity in industry. One study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks that may not be intellectually stimulating. The findings of another study show that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Dr. Lesiuk of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami carried out a study in which workers could listen to whatever music they liked for as long as they wanted. She found that those people who were reasonably skilled at their jobs realized the most benefit. Workers who were identified as experts saw almost no effect on their productivity and some novices found that listening to music was distracting and did not help them accomplish the tasks (which makes sense as they were acquiring new skills).

In short, music will likely help you and/or your employees be organized and productive. If you have a project you have been putting off for some time or if your task involves repetitive work (such as sorting through clothing), turn up the volume and listen to your favourite music to get you motivated.

However, if your task involves complex decision-making (such as writing a research proposal), you may want to keep your surroundings quiet, especially if the task is something you don’t usually do.

Personally, I find when I listen to dance music with a fast beat (anything from the Big Band Era to Disco to Electronica) my house gets organized and cleaned much faster. When I have a large re-organizing job such as a storage area clean out, I listen to classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC). If I’m working on a project that requires my full concentration such as writing or working on data analysis, I don’t listen to music at all because I end up singing to the music and getting distracted from my work.

Most of the time I work from home so I can choose the music I like, but if you share a working space, keep a set of comfortable headphones handy so as not to disturb your co-workers. At the office, always check with your manager or supervisor before you don your headphones. Some companies have policies regarding listening to music during working hours. If you are a manager, consider letting employees listen to music if you find it makes them more productive.

Do you find listening to music helps you be more or less productive? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Situational disorganization, chronic disorganization, and hoarding

There are many forms of disorganization that span from a few things out of place to hoarding disorders. It’s important to understand the complexities of the range so you can identify if you or others may need/want outside assistance. Below, I’ve identified the three types of disorganization that may want or need to seek out assistance from professionals.

Situational disorganization is due to unforeseen events that temporarily change living or working arrangements. Events that may cause one’s life to be situationally disorganized include:

  • Death or severe illness of a family member, friend or co-worker;
  • Marriage, divorce or re-marriage, especially blending families;
  • Birth or adoption of a child;
  • Parent or adult children moving into the home;
  • Change in employment or partner’s employment, either forced or voluntary;
  • A family member or friend is using the home as a storage facility until he/she stabilizes his/her own situation; and
  • Moving into or out of the home or office.

Even though one’s life may never be quite the same afterwards, organization may be restored relatively easily after the event. Based on the situation, an individual may seek the help of a professional organizer to aid in motivation and strategizing, but may be able to handle the situation on one’s own.

Chronic disorganization is disorganization that has had a long history, undermines one’s quality of life on a daily basis, and is constantly present.

According to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, someone may be suffering from chronic disorganization if he/she:

  • Accumulates large quantities of objects, documents, papers or possessions beyond apparent necessity or pleasure
  • Has difficulty parting with things and letting go
  • Has a wide range of interests and many uncompleted projects
  • Needs visual “clues” as reminders to take action
  • Tends to be easily distracted or lose concentration
  • Often has weak time management skills

Chronic disorganization can also be created when people who think or work in an unconventional manner try to use conventional methods of organizing. Although being situationally or chronically disorganized can often result in someone having a hoard of things, it does not classify him/her as a “hoarder”. Similar to situational disorganization, an individual may benefit from working with a professional organizer or may be able to go it alone.

The book Buried in Treasures, indicates compulsive hoarding is thought to be present when all three of the following criteria are met:

  • The person accumulates objects that most people would consider of limited value and the person has a great deal of difficulty parting with those objects;
  • The amount of clutter acquired limits the use of living spaces;
  • The acquiring, owning and discarding of the objects causes considerable stress in the person’s life.

A licensed medical professional usually makes the diagnosis of a hoarding disorder and then prescribes a level of care that can (and almost always) includes working with a professional organizer and an on-going relationship with a licensed medical professional (such as a psychiatrist). Note: As hoarding is a medical disorder requiring on-going care, our website does not provide adequate resources to people with these conditions. Please see the resource section below for sites that can be more helpful.

How can you help someone who is disorganized?

If someone’s chronic disorganization or hoarding issues are affecting your life, it is important to explain how the disorganization affects your relationship with him/her without blaming. Indicate that you are concerned about your relationship with him/her and concerned for his/her well-being. Ask what would be the most effective way you can help in the situation, and please abide by the request.

If you are the person in the situation and you wish to seek outside assistance, you can find professional organizers in your area through the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization‘s directories. If you think you might be a hoarder, begin by talking with your physician. You also can find hoarding resources through the International OCD Foundation.

Regardless of which type of disorganization a person is dealing with, offer encouragement and support. Be compassionate if things don’t go as well as expected and help them celebrate their successes.

Perform a personal audit for 2014 to guide you in 2015

I can hardly believe it’s near the end of December 2014. For my kids, the weeks and days before Christmas are passing at a snail’s pace. For me, the last 12 months have been the blur of an Indy car race. How are we about to flip the calendar onto another year? Speaking of, where exactly are we?

As the new year approaches, many people start thinking about resolutions. I’ve no interest in resolutions. I’ve typically been fueled by reflections on the previous 12 months. And that’s what I’m focused on this year. I’m conducting what I’m calling a personal audit. It starts by asking myself two questions, providing honest answers, and then drawing a plan from the resulting lists.

Question one

Question one is simple: What went well in the past year? My answer is in the form of an unhindered brainstorm. I’ve got a pen and a notebook and I simply list whatever comes to mind. There’s no stopping to think or question each item. I’m simply listing. For example:

  1. Relationships with the kids
  2. The Home Work podcast
  3. Launching Board Games Weekly
  4. Getting healthier
  5. The garden out front

… and so on. When writing this list, I keep going until I can’t think of another thing. It’s important to be honest here and, again, to resist the urge to stop and second guess each item. There will be time to deal with the specifics in a bit. Now, on to the second question, which some of you may have guessed.

Question two

What went poorly? Composing this list follows the same rules as its predecessor: just let it flow. Some highlights from my list:

  1. Finances
  2. Travel
  3. Spending time with family, either in person or on the phone
  4. Spending quality time with my wife, away from the kids (date nights)
  5. Day-to-day productivity
  6. Staying on top of daily chores

Once both questions have been answered thoroughly, I move on to step two: categorization.

Categorize it all

While reviewing the lists, certain groupings become clear: family, finances, health, professional life, travel, learning, and personal organization. These are the areas that saw success, failure, or both. I made these lists because the act of brainstorming and then sorting the results into categories lets me see the areas of life that are important to me. Now, I can make informed goals for next year, as opposed to pie-in-the-sky, out-of-the-blue resolutions like “Be happy.” The following are the goals I’ve created for 2015 based on the personal audit I did of 2014.

Financial: Use budget software regularly. I’ve toyed with You Need A Budget in the past, but not consistently. It’s my fault for losing motivation; the software is excellent. This coming year I’ll be back on track.

Professional: My podcasts are doing nicely. This year I’d like to expand their reach, and attract/increase sponsorship opportunities.

Health: This was hit-and-miss this year. I’ve gotten much healthier than I was six months ago, but there’s still work to do. Getting winded after 15 minutes of kicking a soccer ball around is not fun and honestly, quite embarrassing at 43. This year I’ll continue to eat right, obsess over my Fitbit and increase the amount of walking I do.

Personal organization: I’m great at forgetting to do important things. This year I’ll research and adhere to strategies to make myself more successful in this area.

I’ll continue in this manner until I’ve addressed all items and categories on my lists.

Execution

I know what you’re thinking. “Dave, you just created the list of resolutions you denounced at the start of this post.” It can seem that way, but I assure you, I haven’t. It’s all thanks to how I plan to pull off the goals I’ve created. Specifically, I’ll be making projects, actions, and reviews.

Let’s start by defining a project. I use David Allen’s definition: anything that requires more than one action be completed before it’s marked as done. So, “Walk for 30 minutes” isn’t a project, but “Attract podcast sponsors” is. The next step is to identify all of the projects I’ve created, and then to break them down into concrete, observable, measurable action steps. This is crucially important, as it’s how I’m going to:

  1. Define what “done” looks like
  2. Know if I’m making progress
  3. Act and keep moving forward

Define, know, act steps — for each project. If I had nothing else to do in the world but attract podcast sponsors, what’s the first thing I would do? The second? Third? And so on. This is repeated for each project. Next is the good part.

If I were to say, “OK, Dave, hop to it. Here’s your 15 projects for 2015. Go be a better you!” I’d fail in no time. So, my final step is to identify what I’m going to work on in January. And then February, March and April, etc. Finally, I set up regular review days and put them into my calendar. I’ll schedule a reminder during the last week of each month to see how I’m doing and make adjustments.

In short (too late, I know), I’m treating the result of my personal audit like any other project I’d have to complete for work. “Walk 45 minutes per day” gets the same treatment as “Get the Williams proposal on Mr. Johnson’s desk by Friday.” Actions are defined as well as review dates.

Be flexible

What if you do this and you hate it? Change it! It’s your life! As a former boss used to say to me, “Don’t be afraid to abandon the mission.” If it’s not working, make adjustments. Maybe you’ll have to scale back a project or alter the execution plan. That’s fine, and so much better than tossing up your hands and saying “Oh, forget this.”

Finally, and I didn’t do this but it’s a nice idea, you can create metrics to work toward. You can identify the “amount of money in my savings account” or “number of steps walked in a month.” I lump this in with defining what “done” looks like, but you can certainly use this tactic if you want.

I suggest sitting down when you have some quiet time and performing a personal audit. Be completely honest and nonjudgmental with yourself. Organize the results and set clearly-defined, attainable goals from there, as well as regular review periods. Finally, if you’re unhappy with how it’s going, make adjustments. There’s no shame or failure in being proactive and taking steps to make something work for you. Here’s to a fantastic 2015. I hope you all achieve your goals.

Stop apologizing to guests for the mess

I have an extremely annoying habit: The minute anyone walks into my home, after I’ve said my greeting, I apologize for my home being a mess.

I don’t understand why these words fall from my lips. For starters, my home isn’t usually so messy as to bother my guests. There might be a toy or two the kids left out or an abandoned coffee mug on the kitchen table, but nothing they might fall over or need me to address for their comfort. As a result, my comment makes my guest feel as if I’m searching for a compliment (when I’m not) or asking for their approval (which, again, I’m not) about the state of my home.

Second, all it does is call attention to what mess does exist. If I wouldn’t say anything, I can’t imagine they would even pay attention to the toy or mug or whatever objects are out of place. I have young children and my home, obviously, reflects that. No one is ever surprised to see signs of life in a house, with or without children. I don’t live in a design magazine and no one needs to be reminded of that.

Finally, my unnecessary apology gives the impression that I care more about my stuff than I do my guests. Instead of drawing attention to things, I should immediately be inquiring about them. I shouldn’t delay learning about their well-being until after I’ve apologized for my home, but I do, and it drives me mad.

I’m not alone in this behavior. When I started noticing that I was always apologizing to guests about the state of my home, I wondered if it might be because everyone knows I’m the Unclutterer and I feel extreme pressure to have a home like a museum. But then I realized my friends do it, too, and they’re not professional organizers. I walk in their homes and, after they greet me, they also apologize for their homes looking messy. And they admit they say it to everyone, even the UPS driver and mail carrier, not just to the Unclutterer. It’s like a plague, this apologizing.

It’s a bizarre social convention, uttered in one breath: Hello nice to see you I’m sorry my home is a mess please come in.

Well, I’ve had enough. For 2015, I’m going to try my hardest to stop saying this unproductive phrase. No more apologizing because my stuff isn’t perfect.

If on the rare occurrence my home is really so messy as to not be welcoming to guests, I’ll simply greet my guests at the door with my keys and wallet in hand, and we can walk to Starbucks. If my home isn’t out-of-control, I’m going to greet my guests and welcome them into my home and make no mention of how it looks. It’s my house, where I live and work, and it would be strange if it were perfectly tidy every time someone came to my door.

I care more about my guests than I do my things, and I’m going to let my words reflect that.

Do you apologize for the state of your home when guests first arrive? Are you interested in letting go of this unproductive phrase, too? If so, join me in my goal to end this annoying habit. We can think about and work on cleaning and uncluttering and organizing when our guests aren’t in our homes.

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

At first glance, I felt that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing was like many of the other organizing books that I have read. The author describes the KonMari method of organizing, which is pretty similar to the S.P.A.C.E. method described in the 1998 book Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern:

  • Sort: Gather all items from one category together (e.g. clothes)
  • Purge: Discard items no longer needed.
  • Assign: Designate a storage place for all items
  • Containerize: Find suitable containers to hold the items
  • Equalize: Consistently return items to their assigned homes every day.

However, Kondo’s approach to the process is more graceful and she describes a deep respect for all items. During the purge process she tells readers not to focus on what to purge, but instead she tells them to focus on what they want to keep. “In this manner you will take the time to cherish the things that you love.”

Kondo believes in making the decision easier on yourself by asking the question, “Does this spark joy?” She instructs her clients to take each item in their hands and note their body’s reaction. She asks, “Are you happy when you hold a piece of clothing that is not comfortable or does not fit? Are you happy to hold a book that does not touch your heart?” If the answer is no, the item should be discarded.

Kondo recommends that clients declutter in the following order:

  • Clothing
  • Books
  • Papers
  • Miscellaneous
  • Mementos (including photos)

In her experience she has found that most people can make decisions easily about clothing (Does it fit?) which will strengthen their decision-making skills for the following, sometimes more difficult, categories. By the time the client is ready to sort through mementos, he/she will have a stronger understanding of the tidying process and be much less stressed when making decisions.

I found Kondo’s suggestions for discarding items helpful. She says to think of the lesson that the object taught you while you owned it. For example, the sweater you bought that was on sale but wasn’t quite your colour, taught you what was not your style. The sweater has served its purpose. It should be thanked for its service and be sent on its way to serve a purpose for someone else. If the item is to be disposed, it should be done in a way that honours the item.

Organizing paperwork is difficult for many people so the KonMari method classifies papers into three categories: papers currently in use, papers that need to be kept for a limited period, and those that need to be kept indefinitely. She states that papers that do not fall into one of these categories can be disposed. Sentimental items that happen to be made of paper (e.g. wedding invitations, love letters) should be classified as mementos and organized within that category.

Kondo provides recommendations as to which documents should be discarded. I would caution all readers to examine their personal situations and, if necessary, discuss with their legal and financial advisors prior to making decisions because laws and regulations between jurisdictions can vary greatly.

While the general methodology of the KonMari method of “tidying” is very much the same as many North American books about organizing, I found the Japanese way of framing our relationships with our possessions quite interesting. If you have had trouble parting with items you know you should really discard, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing may provide a new perspective that will help get you started.

More modified principles of sanitary design

I know it seems a little strange to apply food industry practices to one’s personal life, but it does make my life easier. Whenever we move to a new home, I apply all kinds of modified principles of facility design to arrangement and layout. It isn’t always easy because of the architecture of the house, but some simple modifications can be made so that things run smoothly and efficiently.

If you’re interested in doing the same, consider the following:

Create Distinct Zones. Maintaining separations between areas reduces the likelihood of transfer of material from one area to another. When items are kept where they belong, you can quickly and easily find what you need, when you need it. You may not be able to renovate your home to add walls, but a shelving unit could be used to separate a living room from a dining area. Screens or curtains could be used to designate distinct areas in a shared bedroom or to separate a home gym from the family room.

Control Process and Material Flows. Lack of adequate processes or poorly designed processes can cause clutter to build up. Identifying and repairing bad processes can help you save time and effort. Ensure you set up the processes so that the people in your home can move around easily without bumping into one another. For example, if someone is trying to pour his/her breakfast cereal at the same counter space where someone else is making coffee, you could consider relocating the coffee maker or the breakfast cereal. An alternative would be for the coffee drinkers to adjust their morning routines to vacate that particular counter space before the cereal eaters need to prepare their breakfast.

Easy Cleaning. When you are examining your processes, think about general housecleaning. Will the vacuum cleaner easily pass between pieces of furniture? Would the addition of garbage and/or recycling bins help keep clutter at bay in certain areas?

Environmental Control. Ensuring proper airflow in the home improves indoor air quality and makes the home more comfortable with respect to temperature and humidity. Do not block vents, radiators or windows with furniture. Vent deflectors can be used if furniture must be placed over vents. In the winter, temporary curtains can be installed to create a double doorway and prevent cold air from entering all over house.

Plan Exterior Elements. Putting mats and boot brushes at the entryway to the house can prevent dirt and mud from getting deeper into the house. A chair or bench by the door will allow you to set packages down in a clean, dry area while you unlock your door. Be sure to keep the area clean of leaves and dirt so rodents and insects don’t have a place to hide while they wait for you to open your front door.

Organizing, straightening up, and cleaning

Organizing. Straightening up. Cleaning. Tidying. Arranging.

These are some of the terms that describe varying levels of what everyone who has possessions does to keep their dwellings from being messy. By their very nature, each term’s definition can vary greatly from person to person, spouse to spouse, or house mate to house mate. In the name of domestic harmony and effective un-messying, I’m opening a dialog on how we define these terms and what we expect from each. A similar conversation like this in your home can ensure everyone is on the same page when talking about establishing and maintaining order. It doesn’t matter if your terms match mine, simply that all of you agree on the definitions of the words and phrases you use.

Defining organizing

For me, organizing is to apply logical structure to an unstructured collection of items. The items can be physical, like books or LEGO bricks, but they also can be intangible, like ideas or plans.

What organizing looks like

If I were to organize something, you can expect to see a collection of items arranged in a neat, systematic order. In other words, a messy pile of [x] becomes a tidy arrangement, sorted by a system that is easily understood.

Defining straightening up

Straightening up is different from organizing in that it implies that organizing has already been done, and only some minor maintenance is needed to restore order.

What straightening up looks like

My kids’ shoes are stored in three wicker baskets near the back door of our house. Three baskets for three kids. The organizing has been done — having baskets for each kids’ shoes. To straighten them up, I’d ask the kids to put their shoes in their basket.

Defining cleaning

Cleaning implies no organizing or straightening up. For me, cleaning means simply: to bust out the window cleaner, mop, broom, vacuum or what-have-you to remove dirt, dust, and the like.

What cleaning looks like

I’ll admit it, I don’t like cleaning. It’s the most labor-intensive of the activities, and involves taking things down, moving furniture, and telling the kids, “Stay off the floors!” We can get nit-picky and differentiate between “cleaning” and “a good clean,” but that’s for another conversation.

Other words

There are even more words in the English language to discuss un-messying your home. Tidying is one that implies the least amount of effort of the bunch. If I’m going to “quickly put these things in to some semblance of order before our dinner guests arrive,” I’ll spend likely less than 10 minutes resetting order. If your home is organized and you take time each evening to straighten up before bed, tidying is usually all you need to do when you have people over to visit.

Now I turn to you, readers. How to do define these un-messying words? What do you expect of each, and, finally, are there any terms specific to your household? I once had a friend from the midwest who said, “This room needs ‘red’ up.” I think that meant cleaning up.

Part 3: An uncluttered back-to-school transition

In my opinion, one of the best parts of kids being in school is that it can bring more routine into their lives and yours. Years of research by social scientists strongly concludes that routines help children adjust better to new situations and also improves the overall happiness of a family. For the school year to run smoothly, routines are a valuable key, and schedules and calendars are a great way to get started creating this practice.

Although it might seem a bit cumbersome, I suggest each family have at minimum a shared calendar and a shared routine schedule. Then, each person in the family will likely want a personal calendar (and maybe even a personal routine) to keep track of things like homework, projects, and personal to-do items.

A family calendar

Whether digital or print, there needs to be a calendar everyone in the family can post items to and review together. In our house, we’re currently using a 17-month Chalkboard Wall Grid Calendar that Paper Source sent to me (it’s pictured at right). I’ve embellished extremely important dates with some Washi Tape, but mostly we just write shared events onto the calendar with a black pen — nothing too fancy or a pain to update.

I also continue to love Martha Stewart’s Chalkboard Paint Wall Calendar, and if we owned our home I would immediately paint this up on a wall. A big visual calendar provides lots of room to write important family events, as well as creates decoration for what might otherwise be a plain wall.

If your kids are older, a shared digital calendar like Google Calendar (great for all mobile devices) or Fantastical (for iPhone) might be a good alternative for you.

The most important parts of keeping a family calendar are 1. remembering to add items to the calendar, and 2. reviewing the calendar each evening so everyone in the family is in-tune with tomorrow’s events. In our house, we add important events to the calendar as they pop up and then review the calendar each night as a family before the kids take their baths. Some families choose to review the calendar during the evening family meal, which is also good for keeping conversations going. The only warning about talking about the calendar at dinner time is if you keep the calendar digitally it means everyone will come to the meal with an electronic device (this is a no-no in our house, but I know it’s not the same for all families).

For more information on calendars, read our in-depth article “Family calendars.”

A family routine

If you’ve read my book Unclutter Your Life in One Week, you know I’m a detailed routine planner listing specific times and tasks to complete each day. Currently, with a toddler at home full time, two adults who work primarily from our home office, and an elementary schooler with a lot of energy and a handful of extracurricular activities, our house would fall into complete disarray if we didn’t keep to such a regimented schedule.

I’ve heard numerous complaints over the years from people saying that routines are dull and kill creativity and fun. I find them to be the exact opposite. Because our family has routines in place for the repeated activities at home, the things that must get done do so without much effort or thought and then leave us free to enjoy ourselves the rest of the time. When we head out to the zoo or a festival or go on vacation, we live purely in those moments. We’re not thinking about dishes or laundry or other things we should be doing — because those things are done or scheduled to be completed at a specific time. Our free time is truly free because our routines make this possible.

I recommend creating a family routine in Excel or a similar grid-style software program. Include all seven days of the week and break down responsibilities to the house by time of day and who will complete the task. For variety, you can switch up who does what on different days, or you may choose to keep the same responsibilities with each person if that is easier for your family. As you crate your routine chart, be realistic about how much you can do and how long tasks take to complete. Time yourself for a number of days to make sure you aren’t underestimating the length of a task.

Our family routine chart includes items like packing lunches, creating weekly meal plans, grocery shopping, feeding and caring for pets, regularly scheduled lessons and appointments, laundry, dishes, chores throughout the house, and even who puts the trash can out on the curb for pickup and who brings it back. We also identify which load of laundry is done each day — clothes on Mondays, towels on Tuesdays, more clothes on Thursdays, and sheets on Fridays.

At the start of each month we review the routine chart as a family and add and subtract and make alterations as necessary. Everyone receives a printed copy of the routine chart on the first day of each month.

For more information on creating routines, read our detailed article “Routines can make even the most unsavory tasks easy” and check out pages 98-99 of my book.

Personal calendars

In addition to the shared family calendar, each person in our home (except for the toddler) has a personal calendar. Our son keeps track of school assignments and violin practice records in his pocket calendar provided by his school. My husband, who loves all things digital, uses Google Calendar. He uses Gmail, so it’s even easier for him to schedule items that come into his inbox because the programs are integrated. I’m a tactile person, so I use the Staples Arc Planner for my appointments and obligations. (And, on the off-chance you’re curious, I use the Emergent Task Planner by David Seah for my to-do list. I have an Arc Planner hole punch, so the pages fit right into my Arc Planner.)

The personal calendars my husband and I keep are primarily full of work-related items, but other activities are included. It can be easy to forget to put family-related items on the family calendar if you also keep a personal calendar, so I recommend scheduling into your daily routines a time to transfer relevant information from your personal calendar to your family calendar. If you keep a digital calendar, this is extremely simple since all you typically have to do is check a box indicating all of the calendars with which you would like to share the appointment.

How do you keep your family on the proverbial “same page”? What routines do you find to be the most helpful? What has worked for your family and what has failed miserably? Thankfully, in our home, we’ve found that the research about routines being beneficial has been accurate. As long as we keep to our routines, life runs much more smoothly than when we don’t. Our home is also at a fairly consistent state of order, which makes having friends over to visit extremely simple and helps to keep our stress levels low.

Be a clutter detective

Years ago, I worked in a group home. It had a big kitchen with flat, spacious counters. My staff and I were very good at keeping the place nice and tidy, however, there was one corner of the countertop that just seemed to attract clutter.

No matter what we did, things would pile up in that corner — notebooks, mail, pens and paper, all sorts of stuff the should’ve lived in the drawer in the kitchen. For a long time, this annoyed me. I’d think, “How hard is it to just put this in the drawer? Why can’t anyone put this stuff away?” It was only after doing some detective work that I discovered the problem. The cabinet where the clutter should have been stored was the same cabinet that held a whole lot of plastic storage containers. The containers were stored in a haphazard fashion, and opening this cabinet almost guaranteed that lids and other bits of plastic would rain down upon you. Once I took care of the plastic storage containers, the countertop remained clean.

Today, you can conduct the same type of clutter detective work in your house. Look at the areas that are typically messy. You’ll want to try your best to see the space with fresh eyes. That is to say, hold a question in your mind as you inspect the space: “What exactly is keeping this area so messy?”

I did some successful detective work around our own house recently. The back door of our house is what we use most often. Just inside this door is a small coat rack we bought for the kids to use years ago. However, the kids come home from school and drop their coats and bags and hats and what-have-you all over the floor. This drove my wife and me crazy, and constant requests to please pick up after yourself after coming home from school seemed to fall on deaf ears. So what was the problem?

Well, one afternoon while putting everything on the rack again, I remembered how wobbly it was. After heaving the last winter coat onto it, the whole thing toppled over. The coat rack was the root of the problem. My kids learned that the rack just was broken and stopped using it entirely. A new coat rack was the solution.

You can apply this investigative strategy to your home office as well. In a previous post, I mentioned something I call swivel distance. This is the distance you can reach things from your chair without having to get up out of your seat. Since human beings will almost always lean toward the path of least resistance, we’re more likely to stack something instead of getting up and putting it in filing cabinet across the room. That stack of papers could be due to simple poor office layout planning.

The takeaway here is to periodically scan your house for persistent clutter spots and try to figure out why clutter loves to accumulate there. Often, the reason isn’t what you think. For example, my kids aren’t lazy or disinterested in following the rules, they just learned that the coat rack wasn’t very effective.

Being organized makes life easier

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to go see a radio show being taped in San Francisco tonight. Seats for the show disappeared within a day, so I was lucky to get one. In addition to luck, I was also prepared to make the necessary quick decision as to whether or not I wanted to attend the event when the tickets became available.

  • I had my goals for the year already defined. One of my goals is to get out more, putting aside work and having fun, and taking advantage of all the area has to offer. So I knew that this opportunity fit within my goals.
  • I had my finances organized, and I knew how much I could afford to spend on a ticket.
  • I had my calendar up to date, and I knew I didn’t have any scheduling conflicts.
  • I’d recently exercised my decision-making skills, and making one more decision was pretty easy.

Being organized has helped in many other areas of my everyday life. I’m having a couple family members over to the house on Saturday. I’ll do some extra cleaning before they arrive — don’t we all do that before company comes? But because the house is basically organized, I don’t have to fret about this being a big deal or plan on throwing a bunch of stuff into a closet or room that no one will see. And, I know I have the supplies I need to do the cleaning.

I moderate a Yahoo Group with over 2,000 members. In this group, the same types of problems come up time and again. These problems require me to write to certain members and explain what they are doing wrong. Since I took the time to set up some snippets in a text expansion tool — I happen to use Typinator, but there are plenty of others — I can respond much more quickly to these repeat problems and be sure I’m saying exactly the right thing.

And this year, I’m up-to-date on my bookkeeping and my scanning of tax-related documents. Next tax season will be much less stressful than in the past, when I’ve let myself fall behind.

I see the same kind of day-to-day benefits when I talk to other people, too. Artists who have their supplies organized can put their fingers on those they want when they begin a new project. Shop owners who are organized can find the inventory they need to restock their shelves. I have a friend who is both a painter and a gallery owner, and she’s always showing off to me when she puts a new organizing tool in place.

I’ve seen people with overflowing kitchen cabinets, full of stuff they don’t use. Once those cabinets were uncluttered and organized, meal preparation became much less stressful since everything needed was easy to find.

Organizing isn’t an end unto itself; it’s a way to make it easier for each of us to live the life we want to live.

A place for everything and everything in its place, well, for the most part

At Unclutterer, we usually support the organizing standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” However, there are occasions when adhering to this motto is inefficient and might best be put on hold.

For example, most of the year our family eats meals in the dining room. During the financial year-end though, the dining room table turns into a horizontal filing cabinet for a couple of days while I prepare our income tax returns. During these few days, our family eats in the kitchen or in the living room on TV trays while the paperwork stays out on the table. This is a minor inconvenience for our family compared to the time-consuming task of packing up all of the paper work and re-filing it into the filing cabinet everyday. All of this paperwork does have a long-term place, but for this period of time it has a short-term place on the dining table.

You may decide there are other times when the standard of “a place for everything and everything in its place” should be temporarily ignored or when a short-term home should be established for specific items.

From time-to-time, your children may take on projects with their toys that are too much fun to go away after just a single play session. If your child is building a space station with blocks, confine the construction to a certain area of the room and let the building continue for a few days. A doll’s excessive wardrobe and shoe collection could be out for a few days and then sent to the “dry cleaners” (cardboard box) that can be easily moved so that housekeeping can be done. If you notice the projects haven’t been worked on in awhile, that is a good indication that the toys are ready to be returned to their permanent homes.

Rather than trying to obtain one those picture perfect houses from the magazines, think about how to manage your projects efficiently. When is it a good idea for you to ignore the “a place for everything and everything in its place” motto?