I wasn't a born organizer. I have a distinct recollection of coming home late one night and crawling into bed with a pile of unwashed dishes. My brother had placed them between my sheets as a way of reminding me I was slacking in my household responsibilities. Martha Stewart I was not.
I'm currently a full time stay-at-home mother without any cleaning help. Married with a house full of kids, I quickly realized that I had to "get it together" because if I didn't, no one else was going to clean up after me (or anyone else in the house for that matter). I slowly learned to become organized during my early years. My motivation was simple. I wanted to function more effectively on a daily basis and I was determined to learn how to make it happen.
My current household management skills are self-taught and born out of the necessity of learning from my own mistakes.
I'm generally not into other people's "systems" and you might not be either. But I would like to share some tips that have made my life less stressful. I've divided my advice into six areas:
Avoid a Mess: As a former English teacher I try to avoid the use of clichés; however, sometimes there is no better way to say it, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If you avoid making a mess as you go through your day, you won't have many cleanups to do later. The first thing I suggest is to make your bed as soon as possible after getting up in the morning, ditto for getting dressed. These two tasks really help you feel "together" and can serve as a jumpstart for the rest of your day. Of course a shower and a cup of coffee can't hurt either.
Pick one thing you don't want to do every day and do it without delay.
Don't Procrastinate: Pick one thing you don't want to do every day and do it without delay. A brilliant acronym I learned from Rebbetzin Vital Kalmanowitz is OHIO (Only Handle It Once). For example, discard the junk mail immediately upon coming in the house from the mailbox.
Multitask: Try to multitask as much as you can. A cellular or cordless phone is very helpful in this regard. Try folding laundry while returning phone calls. I wash hand washable items in the shower while my seven-year-old son is standing under it brushing his teeth. (Kids can learn to multitask too.)
Plan Ahead: Doing as much as possible the night before will help the morning crunch go much smoother. If you have children make sure any homework, signed permission slips, books, non-perishable lunch items, etc. are ready to go the previous evening. In the same vein, lay out each child's outfit (including underwear and socks). If the kids are old enough have them do this themselves. If you're able to leave out breakfast items the night before and pack lunches in bags to stay in the fridge until morning, you're one step ahead.
Avoid Impulsiveness: Stock your pantry and fridge with staples and plan menus from what you already have and use often. You can save a lot of money this way as it restricts impulse buying at the grocery store and saves times as well. Shop from a list and stick to it. Try not to grocery shop when you are hungry or accompanied by small children who may harass you to buy junk food and other unplanned for items.
Assess Your Needs: Purchasing in bulk is often cheaper but not always. Assess your actual and projected needs before you buy. It's no bargain if you don't need it or won't use it before it expires. A coupon is no great deal if it is for an item you weren't planning on buying in the first place. It's a good idea to exercise restraint regarding catalog or Internet shopping as well. Shopping this way can be a time and money saver but it can also be disastrous if it inspires one to make unnecessary purchases. A good rule of thumb before making a questionable purchase is to refrain from thinking about it for a week. If you still think you need it after a week of ignoring it, then reconsider buying the item.
This aspect of running a home is perhaps the least glamorous, but potentially the most important. The ability to manage your living space in a clean and organized manner with minimal effort can have a profound impact on how you feel on a daily basis. Obviously this is easier said than done.
Establish Priorities: If you can afford full time cleaning help then you might not need my advice. If you need but can only afford minimal cleaning help, work out what daily maintenance you can do so that you don't have to pay someone for the time it takes to do basic upkeep (washing breakfast dishes, straightening up, sweeping, putting away toys). Paid help could then assist you more efficiently by doing larger tasks (windows, blinds, vacuuming, mopping, bathrooms, changing linens).
Dirty Dishes: If you have a dishwasher that's great. If you don't... I'm going to repeat an earlier mantra: Don't procrastinate. When you use something try to wash it ASAP. If you use a teaspoon to stir a cup of coffee, it will take approximately three seconds to wash that spoon and toss it in a drying rack. An ounce of prevention. . .
General Cleaning: Do whatever works for you in this regard but make it as easy for yourself as you possibly can. I use diaper wipes for just about everything. I keep them in containers all over the house, in the car, in the stroller, etc. I use non-toxic spray cleaners a lot. Water and white vinegar also works great for floors, countertops and windows. A little dish soap and water in a spray bottle can go a long way as well. The basic idea is to wipe up spills as soon as they occur to prevent a sticky mess to tackle later.
Whatever you use, make sure to have it stored wherever you might need to clean. If you have to go to the kitchen to get a cleaner to use in the bathroom you will most likely procrastinate.
To minimize mess when preparing meals, open cans and jars or stir chocolate milk over or in the sink as opposed to on the counter. When peeling and slicing vegetables, cracking eggs, etc. hang a plastic bag (the kind they give you at the supermarket) over your kitchen faucet and discard your peelings and accumulated trash directly into the bag as you go, When you're finished, just tie up and throw away the bag!
Laundry: This can be a daunting task no matter what you do. For people I know who can afford part time cleaning help, this is where they put their money. If you wash your own clothes (as do I) there are a couple of things you can do to keep this task from taking over an entire Sunday afternoon.
My kids have hampers in their rooms. Frankly, they seem to enjoy the target practice.
First of all, make sure everyone has easy access to hampers so the laundry does not end up on the floor, under the bed, etc. In the bedroom I have three small wicker hampers. One is for whites, one for darks and the other for dry cleanable items only. My kids have hampers in their rooms, too. Frankly, they seem to enjoy the target practice. I do laundry every day but I do one load instead of running a weekend laundry marathon. I do whites one day and colors the next. This helps cut down on what we need to buy because clothing gets washed often.
Storage Baskets: This idea seems ridiculously simple but it really works. Take a look at each room in your house that gets major traffic and buy inexpensive storage baskets that match the decor. Large leftover gift baskets can be great for this purpose. These come in wicker, rattan, wire, canvas, plastic, faux leather and more and in endless shapes and sizes. When you don't have time to really organize and you have to pull your house together for a surprise guest (or for your own sanity), toss the toys, books, etc. into the baskets. Even a one-year-old can do it.
Designated Areas: Have designated areas for shoes, backpacks, coats, etc, and be consistent about using them. To keep hangers from disappearing in the closet, have a space on the rod just for hangers and return the hanger to that place whenever you remove an item from it. A well-placed coat rack by the front door can keep guests from having to leave their belongings all over your couch.
Helpful Products: Keep an eye out for products that you think will make your life easier. I find closet organizers, wall hooks, shelves and storage baskets to be tremendously helpful and when they match the decor of the room, you can really enjoy and maximize your space. Try using a dry erase board in the kitchen to write down things to do as you remember them, or grocery items as you run out of them. You will save time by not having to take a huge inventory before going to the store or relying on your memory.
Go Paperless: I used to maintain files for receipts, bills, etc., but I have streamlined in this area as well. I still maintain a small file cabinet but, to whatever extent I am able, I pay bills and bank online. This alone can cut down on the paperwork you have to deal with in a major way. When movers stole our passports, I resolved to keep all important documents (passports, birth certificates, savings bonds, etc.) in a safe deposit box at the bank. It keeps more paperwork out of our house and in a safer place.
Dinner is Served: If dinnertime is chaos at your house, try a new idea. You will know quickly whether or not it will work for you. I prefer to keep the house stocked with nutritious basics that include something I know I can get everyone to eat and go from there. I found this approach to be the easiest when I was single as well. One thing I have never managed to do well as a parent was cook one thing for dinner and make everyone eat it. It just doesn't work in our house so I don't bother trying. If your kids are more flexible in this regard, find out what they like that you can prepare easily, set up a schedule, and shop keeping the staples you need for those meals in mind.
Keep it Healthy: I have also found it helpful to offer healthy alternatives which are always available if they don't want to eat what you've cooked. Don't resort to letting them nosh on junk because you fear they will starve. Only my oldest has become somewhat adventurous and the younger ones well . . . haven't. So I always tell them that string cheese, fruits or vegetables are their only options after dinnertime. If they are really hungry, they will eat it and if they aren't they are just scouting for snacks.
Advanced Preparations: Like everything else, the more you prepare in advance, the less stressed you will feel as company approaches. Some people have a list of things they need to do to prepare for Shabbat and stick to it faithfully. Others delegate responsibilities to different people to get things done. Whatever works for you it will most likely work better if not left until the last minute.
If you can't deal with washing dishes, use attractive disposables.
Make it Easier: Basically, choose the areas that stress you out the most and resolve to minimize stress in these areas. If you can't deal with washing dishes, use attractive disposables. Do as much cooking as you can in advance and make the most of your freezer space if that works for you. If you prefer to be more spontaneous, rely on the recipes you know you can make quickly and draw on the staples you have on hand to save last minute trips to the store. If someone offers to bring a gift in advance, don't be afraid to ask for something that you could really use like soda or grape juice if you don't need wine or flowers.
Analyze favorite recipes to see where you can cut corners. For example, I used a recipe for a chilled strawberry soup that listed fresh-hulled strawberries, red wine, sugar and ice water among its ingredients. I once substituted grape juice and frozen strawberries out of necessity and it was so much simpler, not to mention better tasting. Don't be afraid to experiment and take chances. Sometimes the best dishes are born out of culinary mistakes.
Know your limitations: Don't beat yourself up if you need to tell a potential guest that you would love to have them . . . next week. If you have been doing a lot of entertaining and you feel like you need a break, work it out in your schedule. Make yourself a priority. It's just like a shower and an uninterrupted cup of coffee. It can allow you a much-needed opportunity to relax, reflect and refresh. And why not? You deserve it!