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Clever Organization Tips for Busy Families

Smart strategies to help you clean up clutter.

Through ten years of nannying, I’ve spent hundreds of hours inside more than 25 family homes in four different states. And while I’m not a parent, I am an over-the-top organizer and gotta-be-squeaky-clean freak. One thing I’ve learned: Everyone has their own challenges when it comes to cleaning and organizing. Despite that, these local experts show there are a few universal tips that can make the daunting tasks a bit easier.

Let’s Talk Basics

Set standards

“The biggest struggle in my family and most families, I believe, is a difference of standards,” says Laura Smith, owner of All Star Cleaning Services. “I personally want counters clear, everything in its place, small spills wiped up immediately, and so on. Whereas the rest of my family abides by the phrase ‘good enough for who it’s for.’” Smith points out that this situation often leads to power struggles where the cleaner family members feel like they’re doing it all, and the “good enough” family members feel like they’re constantly being nagged about something they don’t see the point of.

If this sounds like your family, set aside some time to have a chat. Talk through your different visions of what a clean and welcoming home looks like, and come up with ways you can adjust your habits to make things better. This means you should all be open to change and flexibility.

If your husband is the one who feels like he’s responsible for all things clean-up, consider splitting up cleaning tasks each week. Or, if you’re the one who stresses over every little mess, try to be more understanding when your kids don’t immediately get on board with their pick-up duties.

Teach accountability

Another big organization obstacle is accountability. Ideally, everyone in your family should have a responsibility to help keep the home organized. This is easier said than done. Darcy Roberston, owner of the Colorado locations of Major Mom Organizers, believes parents need to start teaching accountability when their kids are as young as one year old.

“Start demonstrating what cleaning up looks like to your children, and verbally tell them what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Children love to emulate their parents, older siblings, and other adults,” she says.

I know firsthand that this method can work. One of my past babysitting gigs was with a little boy named Theo. I watched him from the time he was just weeks old until he was two. Around his first birthday, I started asking him to put toys in his toy baskets after we’d play. The floor was always scattered with what seemed like 1,000 different blocks, wooden figurines, and pretend food. Although he picked these toys up painfully slow (read: one by one), he fully participated in the clean-up process and actually seemed to enjoy doing it.

Start out slow by communicating why it’s important to have an organized home, model it to your kids, then hold them accountable to their own responsibilities.

family organization ideas
Photo: Getty Images

Control the Clutter

Audit your stuff

It’s hard to keep a space clean when there’s junk in the way. Some people live with a minimalist approach while others have a hard time letting things go. If you fall into the latter category, try the “When did I last use it?” method. That shirt that’s hanging in the back of your closet that you haven’t worn in months? It’s time to toss. The book your child never reads? Donate it. Hanging on to things you don’t need or use just creates more chaos.

Similarly, if your kids have too many toys to neatly have a home to go to, then it may be time for some “toy control”, as Robertson calls it. “The solution: limit the amount of toys, have a place to contain them, and if your kids no longer show an interest in them, then it’s time to donate them.”

Robertson believes there are ways to make a deep declutter a joint effort that’s fun for the whole family. Her main tip is to keep your kids involved in the decision making. One example of this could be letting them choose one or two toys to keep out of a pile of potential donations. Play some music while you all work together, listen to a kid-friendly podcast, or play a movie in the background to make this tedious task more bearable.

While this is a nice strategy in theory, it’s not always realistic. Plus, having kids around can make it harder to actually get the job done. If you have a child who wants to keep everything, declutter when they aren’t around. Allow them to make the decision on keeping a couple items that you pull from the pile—rather than allowing them to see the entire pile.

If you plan to entirely overhaul or rearrange a room, try using the Major Mom Organization method:

Picture it: Visualize how the space or room would best serve your needs.
Plan it: Create a space plan and an action plan.

Proceed with S.T.E.P.S.
S – Sort into Categories
T – Treasure What Counts (Donate items,
and let your children know that the donated items are going to someone who needs them more.) A good reminder to children and adults: The less there is at home, the less there is to clean.
E – Establish Homes and Systems
P – Plan Container Strategy
S – Start New Habits

Contain loose items

Both Roberston and Smith are big fans of storage bins, especially those that are labeled. “An excess of stuff is a lot less overwhelming if it’s contained. If stuff is laying around and I can clearly see it belongs to Susie, but don’t know where it goes and don’t want to wait for Susie to get home, then in the basket it goes.”

Keep things clear

Sometimes, tossing items into bins can become an excuse to just get junk out of sight. While it might be a quick fix, it can lead to bigger problems later on. That’s where clear acrylic bins come in handy. When you can see what’s inside each bin, it can help you limit the things you hold on to, and fend off the “I’ll deal with it later” mindset.

family organization ideas
Photo: Getty Images

Get to Cleaning

Sure, at the end of a long day, the last thing most parents want to do is bust out their steam mop. Plus, carving out time to clean seems to be a big obstacle for families. “My honest advice is to hire a service if you’re able,” says Smith. “It ends the chore wars, keeps the clean members of the family happy, and can take some pressure off of families that are often already quite overscheduled.”

Create a schedule

If a cleaning service is not an option, try a daily (yes, daily) cleaning routine, which can help you stay on track. By doing a little bit each day, you won’t have to spend your weekends tackling a huge mess. Try making Monday bathroom day, Tuesday dusting day, Wednesday mopping day, Thursday vacuuming day, and so forth. Then, establish a 10-minute tidy-up session each day for mess hotspots, like wiping down the kitchen counters. This will save your sanity on the weekends, especially if you don’t want to or can’t delegate certain tasks to your kids or a cleaning service.

Consider a chart

The tried-and-true chore chart is always an option, but Robertson says it’s important to include every member of your family on it. “This way the kids see that the parents are playing their part in helping to keep the home organized and clean too,” she explains. If you choose to follow the daily cleaning routine mentioned above, your kids can play a small role in helping with each task. Have your tween clean the mirrors in the upstairs bathrooms on Mondays while your toddler helps you replenish the toilet paper or hang fresh towels, for example.

Remember to reward your kids for their efforts at the end of the day or week, whether it’s a simple “thank you” or a special treat. It’s not about what your kids get out of it (because after all, adults don’t get ice cream sundaes for sweeping the floor!) but rather, about celebrating the fact that everyone pitched in.

Give yourself some grace

When we make too many changes at one time, it can be overwhelming and discouraging to try to maintain. With so many resolutions bombarding us in the new year, it’s especially important to take things slow. Your child won’t become a mini-Marie Kondo overnight, and your spouse won’t always put their coffee mug into the dishwasher, so pick your battles and remind yourself that tomorrow will bring a new day.

“Do our homes need to be perfect? Absolutely not—we are imperfect humans,” Robertson says. “It’s more about setting forth the effort rather than actually being perfect.”

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