Few things make me feel more overwhelmed as a parent than living in a cluttered house, particularly in the post-holiday disarray of yet more stuff. Whether it’s my boys’ cherished school papers and artwork piling up (begging to be archived), too many toys amassed in overstuffed closets, or just the daily pandemonium of mail, bills, and life in general, it’s like the disorganized heaps of mess are mocking me with their film of dust and disuse, as if to say, “You are a failure.”
Professional organizer Tracy Di Lorenzo, owner of Denver-based House of Glow, says I’m not alone. “Parents that connect with [me] have reached a point in their homes where they are sick of living with toys underfoot and beyond that, even sicker still of nagging their kids to clean it up,” says Di Lorenzo, a mom of two. “There is no beginning and no end to the cycle of disorder.”
Now with the holiday bedlam behind us, follow this expert advice and start the new year with a clean slate by conquering your home’s chaotic clutter.
1. Dominate the “drop zone.”
Typically, homeowners establish a “drop zone” that’s “somewhere between the car and the kitchen island,” Di Lorenzo says. “I often see things piled with mail, school papers, shoes, used socks, jackets, and book bags.” The idea, then, is to organize a drop area—in a mud room, on a bench—so when family members enter the house, “stuff” goes in the designated spot.
“Simply say, ‘It is time to put the day away,’ before snack, before getting on devices, before we check out,” she says. “This one step prevents the chaos from settling atop your counters and spilling onto your floors.”
Professional organizer Angela Cody-Rouget, founder and CEO of Major Mom Organizers—an organizing franchise with nine of its 11 locations in Colorado—recommends a regular “8-Minute Clean-Up Sprint” to maintain order beyond the “drop zone.”
“Nightly before dinner, Dad, Mom, and kids all pick up 10 to 20 items and put them where they belong,” she says. “Then come to the table and eat. Ahhhhh…yes, many hands make work light.”
2. Manage kids’ memorabilia.
All those cute drawings, scribbles, and tomes are clear evidence of our children’s brilliance (at least that’s what we tell ourselves), but you just can’t keep it all. So instead of going to extremes—keeping it all or throwing out every masterpiece—professional organizers say it’s important to manage it as it enters the home.
Di Lorenzo suggests designating a plastic container for each child’s work, labeled with the kid’s name and school year. Then store bins away where it’s accessible but not visible, like a cabinet drawer or closet.
“During ‘put away the day’ time, each kid can put their work in their bins,” she says. “At year’s end, weed through it, tease out the best ones and archive them along with any other medals, achievements, or mementos from that year. Down the road, you can turn over these bins to your adult children.”
Cody-Rouget also suggests using bins but revisits them routinely, about every five years. The ultimate goal is for each child to have a maximum of three bins from ages one to 18. “Once they go off to college, you can re-look at the three bins and get them down to one,” she says. “This is so much fun to do with the children. It is a precious visit down memory lane, and you will see they may be horrified that you kept so many ‘scribble pads.’ They will insist you throw it away.”
Yampa, Colorado mom and tiny-home dweller Emily Gerde—along with her husband and five-year-old son—takes that process a step further, opting to take photos of prized schoolwork and artistry instead of storing it.
“A bin full fits into one, tiny 8-by-10-inch book,” says the former teacher and author of Minimalist Living for a Maximum Life: The Joys of Simple Living, whose home tops out at 325 square feet. “You’re still keeping it, but it’s not taking up a ton of space.”
3. Create a “command center.”
This is a must-have to keep parents on top of their game, Di Lorenzo says. This could look like a giant whiteboard with a portion that is corked, where families can pin museum passes, keys, a list of upcoming events, and other regularly-referenced items.
“Hang it low enough that the littles can jot down items that they crave or are running low on,” she says. “Then when you are ready to head to the market, snap a pic of the whiteboard list and replenish.”
4. Periodically purge.
Whether it’s twice annually or before holidays and birthdays, experts agree families should prioritize purging unused or outgrown items. Cody-Rouget suggests doing so every year before the holidays.
“Before Christmas [or the gift season] comes, get rid of everything that you don’t use, need, or love,” she says. “Every year have a pre-Christmas purge and donate items to a local charity.”
She also advises following a “one in, one out” policy. “This applies to any category that has gotten so out of control that there is not room for those items,” she says. “For example, stuffed animals, books, Dad’s tools, Mom’s craft supplies, kitchen gadgets, electronic games, etc.”
Di Lorenzo says most households need clearings twice a year, although she suggests parents do so without kids’ help. “I have found that there are very few kids who can part with a single Lego; do not involve your kids when trying to declutter,” she says. “Instead, consider bagging up excess clutter in opaque trash bags and then store them in the garage for two weeks. If you don’t hear any gripes from your children, drop them off at your favorite donation center.”
Gerde follows the same “one in, one out” guideline and purges her son’s items every six months, preferring to include her son in the process. She asks him questions such as: Have you played with these Legos in the last six months? Do you still like to read this book? If the answer is “no,” they typically donate or sell the items and let him use the money on other things or activities. “He actually really enjoys it,” she says. “It’s a lifelong lesson: Are we surrounded by things we enjoy? It’s the quality not the quantity.”
5. Live by “less is more.”
American children have too much stuff, and they do not know how to verbally express their overwhelm about it, Cody-Rouget says. “It is so damaging to flood our children’s lives with 50 books, 75 Lego sets, and much, much more, and expect them to be able to clean up afterwards,” she says. “A sure sign that you have too much stuff is that it never seems to get put away—or worse, there is not room to put items away—meaning the golden rule of organizing is being broken: a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
Part of that process means looking at our belongings with a different perspective, Gerde says. “I always tell people that it’s not the item that holds the memory,” she says. “The memory is in your heart.”
Using Tech to Simplify
- Pack&Track Labels: No more wondering where you packed your child’s baby blanket, these labels use tech to track the contents of storage boxes. Attach the label to a box, scan the code on the label using the smartphone app, then speak or type whatever you packed in the box. You can also take a photo. Next time you need to find something, just scan the box labels for an inventory.
- Shutterfly: This site that lets users make everything from photobooks and cards to gifts featuring personal photos is not new, but it’s a valuable tool for preserving kids’ artwork and school papers. It’s easy to upload, store, share, and create from this site or the mobile app. Sign up for a free account and receive offers and freebies galore.
- ArtKive: Send a box full of your child’s artwork and this company will professionally photograph the pieces, create an archive, and design a hardcover 8½-by-11-inch book filled with the pictures. For a membership fee, preserve the images in the archive and access them on any device.
Did You Know?
- According to a team of anthropologists from UCLA, 3.1 percent of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40 percent of the toys consumed globally.
- One in 10 Americans rent off-site storage, says the New York Times. The cost of holding on to stuff in that storage unit? According to CostOwl.com the average rental cost of a 5 foot by 10 foot storage unit, without climate control, is $35-$50 per month, or $420 to $600 per year.
- A study done for Esure home insurance found that adults spend 10 minutes a day looking for lost items, from keys and phones to coats and paperwork. That adds up over a lifetime to 153 days spent searching for stuff.