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Getting Organized Part 1 - Tips & Tricks

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #12, 1996.

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Kathy von Duyke


Books and magazine articles make it sound so easy . . . "To organize your life, start by labeling a set of boxes A-Z. Get file folders and label them as follows: Accounting, Aster seeds, Acts (book of), Articles . . . " With enough file folders, you can conquer the world!

Well, maybe you can conquer the world. As for me, I'll be in the middle of filing and inevitably start reminiscing. "Oh, I remember this article!" "Someday I'm going to try this craft." "Look at this college paper; I really did have a mind once." And I'll stop to read it.

I've avidly read books on organization since my first baby uncovered this hidden inadequacy in my life years ago. Over the years, six principles have emerged that have remained true friends in my struggle to conquer clutter and pursue beauty in my home. These are:

  • Organize around themes
  • Less is more
  • Plan in blocks
  • Prioritize space by time, money, and use
  • Put it in plastic
  • Weed consistently

Organize Around Themes

A theme directs your thinking, prayers, and creativity and helps turn them into reality. A theme should feel satisfying and whole. It weeds out the fuzzy decisions from the productive ones.

As I stood back and looked at the work produced in my kitchen, its own theme emerged: simple and natural. My children are allowed to use the kitchen for all kinds of messy food experimentation. Therefore, the kitchen is kept simple, with plenty of counter space and replacements for most of the important equipment. Places for things are clearly marked so the children can clean up without my help.

Our decorations usually consist of a bunch of drying herbs, a tray of recently planted seeds, an onion someone is sprouting, and rows of assorted grains and legumes in antique canning jars. I can easily see that stoneware, wood, and dried herbs will compliment the look, while fussy decorations would be a source of tension. Decorative canisters that can't be knocked around or knick-knack shelves would work against my goals.

Some themes slowly develop as we stand back and look at the whole of the work we do, as in our kitchen, and some themes are decided at the outset. I'm currently working on building a western theme into my boys' room. I started by picking red, white, and blue, with touches of green, for my palette. My boys and I keep finding little ways to make the theme come alive: denim patchwork quilts, coiled rope lamps the boys can make, a collection of old horseshoes on the wall, stuffed fabric cacti, and tab curtains with bandanna tie backs.

A theme can also help to simplify. I use one for clothing decisions. I'm usually blessed with bags of outgrown children's clothes. Initially, I saved and catalogued everything. This job was tiring, and the results were disappointing. I'd find that this year's neon colors were a poor mix with last year's pastels. My children were dressed, but the result was an fashion nightmare. I took a lesson from the Amish and chose a palette of colors and styles for my children. Anything outside of that palette, with no match, goes to a local thrift store where patrons have a better chance of finding matches from a larger selection.

We picked jeans, turtlenecks, and sweat shirts in the primary colors for our everyday pattern. Winter dress outfits are in black, red, white, and gold. Summer outfits follow a sailor look. Some of my children look better in fall colors, while others look better in pastels, so we chose the colors that looked best on everybody (off-white, royal blues, and orange-reds). Though my choices are not unique, I'm thrilled with the time I save on Sunday mornings. Plus, since we seem to add a new baby to our family every two years, whatever clothes survive can be mixed and matched with new purchases or hand-me-downs.

Less Is More

I've always loved the way Japanese homes are decorated. They often use blank space to offset one exquisitely curved floral arrangement. I use this example to remember that "less is more." As I plan my theme I ask myself, "Which are the simplest choices?" I then rule out the rest. For example, if the children's drawers are stuffed with outfits, they won't be able to keep them neat. So I remove some of the clothes. They only need a week's worth of outfits in their drawers. A few extras can be kept in storage.

Picking themes limits the amount of crafts we will do, instruments we will play, businesses we will attempt, or units we will study. I'd like to do pottery, but don't have the time or space for it now. In the meantime, I'm not collecting pottery materials; they would clutter and detract from the themes I am faithful to now. The less themes I follow in the present, the more potential there is for developing new themes in the future. Less is more.

As our home schooling has progressed, our family learning style has developed a few themes. We love fun, unit-style activities that weave in practical skills along with history, science, literature, writing, and a basic survey of art and music. I love sharing these studies with my children, but I recognize that I would burn out fast if I tried to teach everything this way. We balance our schooling by teaching math, foreign languages, grammar and spelling, and a sequential art program (I confess, PHS has influenced me!). In addition, I want my children to have some time available to pursue their own interests. I make my purchase decisions while keeping in mind the aim of our homeschool. I won't be buying a complicated science textbook or an intricate, activity-based math program. They don't fit our scheme. I want to invoke the "less is more" principle so that I'm not saturating my children with more material than they can possibly absorb.

Plan In Blocks of Time

A study once noted that men are usually convinced that whatever they are doing is what they should be doing, while woman are almost always sure they should be doing something else. So we prioritize time as well as space.

A rigid clock-watching schedule doesn't work for me. I need time to initiate tasks, but I also desire the flexibility to respond to the people in my life. Schedules should follow a progression of priority, energy, and natural setting. My priorities begin with the Lord, then my husband, then my children, then my physical home, then business, etc. When I have time left over, I can dedicate it to items lower on my priority list.

I've learned that my family is most faithful to anything scheduled before lunch - probably because that's when we have the most energy. Therefore, we clean the house, have school, practice instruments, and write in our school journals early in the day.

I usually don't have a lot of energy in the afternoon, but I can accomplish mending and sewing and be available to answer questions as my children work on individual assignments.

Many tasks have natural settings and times. For example, we take an exercise break midday, because that seems to be what we all physically and mentally need. While I am cooking, I can do laundry because my washer is in the kitchen. Your environment will shape when you can accomplish some tasks. You can't fight your surroundings, so you have to figure out how to efficiently work within them.

Big Blocks or Little Plods?

Many women have enjoyed the benefits of grouping their cooking tasks into one block of time. They save on preparation work and clean-up. One clever woman simply re-thought a task normally done in little bits, and chunked it into one large block.

As you plan your schedule, try to visualize yourself maximizing performance while completing tasks in organized blocks of time. Should I clean one room every day or clean the entire house in an hour period once a week? Can I remodel the kitchen over a period of days or should I set aside an entire concentrated week?

On a yearly basis, I may need to schedule a whole week for one task. For example, I like to map out the entire school year in the summer. I also enjoy taking a few major sewing and craft breaks throughout the year.

On a weekly basis, I need chunks of time to spend on organizing, cleaning, schoolwork, desk work, homemaking, and errands. All of these jobs need more than an hour to complete. While I could do a little bit every day, the time it takes me to gather my thoughts, locate the materials, and clean up afterwards is too costly. I save time by minimizing these steps and working at the task longer. The activities I perform within these blocks of time change throughout the year and involve some trade-offs. If I'm on a writing hiatus, I can use the extra time to paint. If I am gardening heavily in April, I won't sew much that month. My goals and duties may change, but I still know when the best time is to work on each block.

On a daily basis, I need bits of time to keep the small jobs from adding up. I write better if I work at an article over many days. Mending is less monstrous if it doesn't pile too high (though some prefer to mend all in a day). The house needs to be picked up often or it looks like "eclectic clutter."

With my time blocked out, I now have the ability to tie up those nagging loose ends. I use business cards to list my tasks (you could also use ScanCards or sticky notes). I then file these in a card holder under the appropriate day/time heading (Monday - 10:00, Tuesday - 3:00, etc. ). All of my business ideas get filed under Wednesday since that's when I establish my office hours. Each Wednesday, I scan down my list, decide which tasks take priority, and work my way through them. Any "leftovers" stay under the Wednesday heading until that block of time comes up again. The card holder saves me from having to re-write lists, and I don't have to look at a whole mess of different jobs to do, just those that apply to the current block of time.

Space, the Final Frontier

Once your time is blocked, you can decide how to store materials. You may only cook once a month, and a lot of your big pots and pans can be put in storage. If you sew only once a month, your supplies can be kept in the closet. However, if you sew every day, you'll want your supplies accessible. Your house may not readily lend itself to a sewing corner, but if you are an avid sewer, get creative. If experimentation is a big part of your homeschool, an extra bathroom could function as your lab.

My point: balance what you want to accomplish with the traits of your home. Leaving out lots of lab equipment isn't feasible, so we have a lab box that can be readily taken down and used in the kitchen.

Ask yourself three questions when deciding where to store an item:

  1. Will it be stored in the open or hidden?
  2. How frequently will the item get used?
  3. How much manhandling or hard use will the item receive?

Bookshelves, walls, and tables are easily accessible and open to public view. Frequently-used items are often stored there, because they make for interesting conversation and are not easily lost. Items that receive hard use, like dishes and utensils, should have the most stable storage. Items used only on a weekly basis can be stored in harder-to-reach areas, such as high cupboards, and seasonal items can go into deep storage.

We had a problem that demanded high priority in all three areas. Our house had no front closet, and coats are usually stored in the entrance hall (first point of public view). Coats are used frequently and the children are not always gentle in pulling them down. My husband spent time and money building an attractive, sturdy shelf and hook system so that each child would know exactly where to put his things.

We didn't need to expend the same amount of time and money to organize the children's drawers. Each top drawer has a homemade set of containers to hold, socks, belts, "treasures," etc. This helps to keep drawers neat and teaches categorization.

In a large family, where everyone is responsible to help with the laundry, it is important that everyone knows where things go. I can remember spending many frustrating moments weeding through our children's drawers trying to find the baby's socks! Organization makes problems more clear and makes them easier to isolate and identify. We can also come up with creative solutions. We keep a bin on the back of the dryer labeled: "Personal: Lonely Crew seeks same for Mate" for all the single socks that turn up.

I also seek the minimum level of organization that yields the maximum time benefit. For instance, my spices are divided between savory and sweet. I know many people who alphabetize their spices, but since I don't alphabetize well, I'd have to sing the alphabet song every time I wanted the salt! I would use more time than I would save.


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