Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A place for everything and everything in its place

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Welcome to the January 2015 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Household Chores

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories, tips, and tricks on tackling household chores. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to tidy up easily, because everything had a dedicated place to stow neatly away?

This is the dream we have for our small space, and it's one we're slowly (slooowly) achieving. As a consequence, this post is still somewhat in the "do as I say, not as I do" category, so fair warning. But we're getting there!

If you don't have a lot of space (like us), or if you have a lot of stuff (like we have had), or if you just plain have more stuff than room for it (like many) — and assuming acquiring substantially more space isn't a viable option at the moment — you'll breathe more easily if you reconfigure your stuff to fit your space.

Save your energy

Having a place for everything means — hard truth here — having less stuff than absolutely fits. In other words, don't cram your space; get rid of things instead.

Back when feng shui was "in," I read a bit about it. I know, I know — ancient Chinese wisdom as a fad! My heartfelt apologies to anyone who's an expert and a believer. But it was quite popular a few years back in Western home decorating, so I was curious what feng shui was all about. I didn't embrace the concept of energy as a mystic force, but I did take away a huge lesson in psychology. To wit: Clutter steals energy.

Think about this. If you have a huge stash of junk somewhere — even if it's hidden away — you waste emotional and mental energy on it and, from time to time, physical. For instance, let's say you have a box of old magazines in a closet that you're keeping because [insert vague reason here] and you really need to sort through them sometime and decide what to get rid of. Every time you see that box, you have to open it and remember what's in it and go, "Oh, yeah, those magazines," and experience a little sinking feeling that you have this uninspiring work to do at some point. When you need to move something else into the closet, that box is in your way. When you need to move to a new home, you have to haul it with you and find a new space for it there. Even when you're not actively thinking about it, you kind of are. You're always aware that you have loose ends untied, tasks hanging over your head. Clutter saps you like that.

So, first step: Do yourself a favor, and be willing to let the bad energy go, leaving room for the good energy to flow in. That good energy (remember here, I'm not a feng shui person; I'm just speaking metaphorically and from my own perspective) can be the feeling you have seeing a clean, tidy living space, the satisfaction of knowing you can accomplish that feeling daily, and the relief that you have no chores lurking in your closets.

Get more space

Oh, I'm cheating already! This obviously might not be an option for everyone. But I don't think it's failing if you admit that you have an overflow and designate a certain space to contain it. We live in a small condo with minimal closet space, so we've rented a small storage unit offsite to function as our garage/attic/basement. Perhaps you have an actual garage/attic/basement, which is handy. Maybe you have a relative (dear old Mom or Dad) who has same and is storing some of your overflow for free. If not, you'll need to get clever with what closets and storage furniture you do have.

This seems kind of contradictory, to say on the one hand, "Get rid of your excess," and then immediately follow up with, "Or just put it somewhere else," but I'm ok with the philosophy, and here's why. You want your living space to be livable. What your storage space should be is usable. It shouldn't be so full and awkwardly packed that you can't find anything or get it out when you need it. So the clutter rules apply there just the same. Barring that, however, it doesn't need to be pretty — just functional. The items that stay in your living space are the items you need often. The items that go to storage are those you need only rarely. This is a primo way of freeing up space in the areas you use the most and keeping those areas attractive.

The storage space also functions as a midway step for clutter sorting. If you're finding it too difficult to part with certain things, try storing them for a bit. If you need them, you can get them back out. If, instead, you come across that box a year from now and find you haven't touched it, that gives you an idea how nonessential those items really are for you, and you'll have more peace about letting them go. It helps to label boxes with a date — either the date you store them or an expiration date to alert you to do something with it then. And, yes, that something could be not to even open it at all but just bring it to Goodwill and have done with it.

Prioritize everything

In every space, decide what you really use and what can go, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. In the kitchen, consider what appliances and tools get scant play. Do you need a sandwich maker, or can you just use a pan like the hoi polloi? Do you really need that fifth whisk, or can you, I don't know, wash one of the other four if it comes down to that? Can you make do with not ALL THE SPICES but choose the ones you actually like the taste of?

In the living room, attack your media — we live in 2015 (I think? That's the year now, right?); the virtual world is our oyster. Rent movies from the library or stream them online; borrow magazines or just read online articles and blogs (huzzah!); check out books and ebooks, and let the physical copies go. (Yes, honest, you can love books and not own many. We're not in the eighteenth century where you have to prove your wealth by your impressive home library.)

In your personal areas, chuck toiletries you tried and didn't like that much but are keeping around (for why?), medicines that have expired, and anything you know you'll never use. (WHY do I still have any headbands? I don't wear headbands. They make my head ache.) Scour your closet for the clothes you like, for the ones that make you happy. Who needs the rest? Not you! But someone else might, so pass them along and do both of you a favor.

Once you decide what you're keeping, you have to prioritize where it goes. Is this something you access frequently, or is it something you want to keep but need occasionally or rarely? Frequent items remain in the home and close at hand — out in the open or in convenient drawers and shelves. Occasional items might be stashed farther back but still be accessible within a few minutes. This category might include birthday wrapping paper or guest linens. Items you need rarely, such as annual holiday decorations or camping supplies, can go in that storage space that's a little trickier to get to. Even there, prioritize the less urgent stuff toward the back (for instance, mementos that you want to keep but don't need to keep an eye on).

Sort the kids

How do you handle the kids' stuff? This can get tricky. Every time I read an article that swears that sorting kids' stuff is easy-peasy, I quickly suss out that the author's kid in question is under the age of two, i.e., not old enough yet to object. With our particular chaos-happy seven-year-old, we've found it quite challenging to involve him in sorting and decluttering, because he wants to keep everything. Every. Thing.

While I'd love to use every decluttering session as a training opportunity to convince my younglings of the sanctity of minimalism and the lovingkindness of passing along our excess to others who might need it, sometimes you just want to move along instead of arguing with a gleefully hoard-a-riffic kidlet. So…I propose the stash-and-rotate method as a compromise. It works well with several ages of kids, from babies up through elementary school. (I suspect we'll need a new method with the tween and teen years, so anyone in that bracket can chime in.) Include your kids as much as their ages and emotions allow.

Decide how much fits in your kids' space: toys, books, and miscellaneous nonsense. Choose their current favorite items of those categories to put away in the storage that's available. Don't pack it — leave room for gifts and other acquisitions to fill in the gaps.

Now sort what's remaining. Some of it you'll earmark immediately to toss into a give-away pile, because it's outgrown or trash or unloved or whatever. But if you and your kid are on the fence, box up the remnants and pop them into storage. Be sure to label and date the box. After a few months, get out a stored box, and substitute it for some of the toys that were out but aren't as currently favored. (Always keep out anything that's absolutely adored.) As you're unpacking the stored box, with or without your kid, keep an eye out for anything that is now obviously ready to find a home elsewhere. Otherwise, just observe over the next couple weeks how much your kid attaches to anything that was in the box. If there's no interest in something, slip it into the give-away pile. (There might be initial excitement about "Yea! Toys I haven't seen for awhile!" but look for lasting enthusiasm.) If your child asks for an item that's in storage, that's a sign that it should stay in the rotation for longer. Having storage takes the anxiety level down a notch for everyone, because it lets both you and your kids trial living without certain things for a time.

Rinse, repeat, until the toys and books and such are down to what fits comfortably on the shelves and in a reasonable amount of storage space. What's reasonable for you depends on how much space you have to commit to that. Keeping the amount of toys available small and having a rotational system can make kids play more deeply with the toys they have around, so it's worth trying even if you have a very small storage area.

Contain wisely

Don't assume the problem with your space is not having enough storage bins. The problem is, almost always, having too much stuff. Clear up the stuff, and then you'll be able to see honestly what you need to contain what's left. If it's more containers than fits nicely in a given space, once again: You have too much stuff.

What we've forced ourselves to do is flip the process. We first pick the containers (and I mean this word very broadly to encompass any sort of containing furniture or smaller bin, so bookshelf, media center, cabinet, basket, decorative box, trunk, hat box, spice rack, you name it) that fit nicely into the space. Then we fit our stuff nicely into the containers. Doing it this direction instead of the other way around means we don't keep stuff "just because." If it doesn't fit in our designated calm and peaceful space, it must mean we need to pare down some more. And, in this scenario, "fit" does not mean "it fits if you cram half of it in sideways across the top and throw a blanket over it." It means, ideally, that it doesn't even fill the space, because then there's room to breathe.

For instance, say you get your pantry down to the food items you actually like and use on a regular basis, or so you think. Only, everything just fits. What do you do, then, when there's a good sale on one of those items and you buy three big jars? Pare down even further (it's possible with practice), and those extra jars will fit while you use up something else. (This is also, by the by, a good lesson in not stocking up just for the heck of it. We've begun to recognize the wisdom in having on hand only what we need.)

A very practical note on storage boxes: For your hide-away storing, I recommend using mostly the same size and shape box. We have a mix of Office Depot file storage boxes (the white cardboard type with removable lids, like these) and Home Depot (we like depots?) moving boxes in size small (like these). Both are inexpensive, and both are a consistent and reasonable size and shape. Most things fit in them but then aren't too heavy to lug, they're simple to paw through, you can label them on any and all sides, and they stack like a dream.

And another little cheat? Acknowledge that you're never going to have everything perfectly perfect. You'll always have a junk drawer or a collection of odds and ends you don't know what to do with. So do plan your space with a little wiggle room for detritus, and a covered place to tuck it away inside. Just make sure to go through that junk drawer if it's getting hard to close — you'll probably toss about 80% before starting the collection all over!

Choose your places

Where you put your stuff is personal, and you don't have to keep it in the standard spots. It goes where it makes sense to you.

For instance, we keep a lot of our kids' toys in our living room because they prefer to play near us. We pack it away in a toy chest so it's easy to clear the area for company. Library books and DVDs, too, have a home in our living room, so we can see what needs to be read and returned. Speaking of returns, we hang a bag inside on our doorknob and pop in anything that needs to go out the next time we make a trip to the car.

The baby's clothes are in my room, because that's where he sleeps. The big boys' clothes are in their room for the same reason. The art supplies are near the dining table, because that's where art projects happen.

Give thought to the functionality of your space. If you find it hard to put certain items away, consider if it's because they should be put away right where they end up, rather than somewhere more distant and inconvenient. Then seek a place for them in the right spot.

Get seasonal

One important way we've managed our meager coat and clothes closets is to apply the principles of rotation to them, too. If you live in a seasonal climate, you also have the benefit of storing away the items you're not currently using, freeing up space for the ones you are to fit nicely.

As the weather gets warm, I pack away winter coats, boots, and accessories. I box up clothes I know I won't be wearing for several months. I sort through the kids' clothes even more thoughtfully. I consider what size each child will likely be when this box is pulled from storage. Will any of my three boys be the size of this article of clothing I'm considering? If not, it goes into another pile. That could be a give-away pile if there's no one waiting in line to use it in the future (as with two-month-old Karsten's newborn clothes already — sob!), or it could be a separate box. Anything that's likely to be needed again at a specific time, I label with the season and year to pull it back out (e.g., "Fall 2015 Kid Clothes"), or if it's undetermined when it will be needed, I label it by size(s) contained therein (e.g., "2T and 3T Clothes"). Either label alerts me to get the box back out of storage at the appropriate time. (And by "me," I mean Sam, because he totally handles the storage unit.)

Clothes for the new season are then unboxed and put away. As this happens, anything that's out of place gets swept up. If it turns out a kid grew three feet since the last boxing (it seems like it these days!), a too-small size can be returned to a box or passed along appropriately. If there are larger sizes than needed, they also can be repacked for the next seasonal opportunity. If you come across clothing or accessories that are looking sad or that you or your kids just don't like, you can winnow these as you go. As your kids wear their clothes, keep an eye out for too-short sleeves and hems and cull those from the clean-laundry pile to put aside for the next boxing-up.

Tips for kids' clothes also apply to kids' gear. If you have baby gear, for instance, that you're not currently using, either store it for the next little one to come, loan it out for awhile, or pass it along for good if you're not going to use it.

I also recommend using storage space for life seasons. What I mean by that is storing anything that's not currently on your plate but that you'd like to get back to at some point. For instance, let's say you sew, but right now you're concentrating more on knitting. If you have a weensy crafting space, pack away your sewing supplies to leave room for your yarn and needles. Next time you want to sew, just pop over to storage and pull those boxes back out. The same is possible with any hobby, but also for decorations, clothing, and other supplies you'd like to rotate out. As I mentioned before, it can be a good testing ground for living without the items in question. If you don't miss them at all — sayonara. If, on the other hand, you need them again soon, they're still available, so it's a low-cost commitment to put them farther away from you for awhile as you decide.

Keep it up

Now that you have everything sorted and stashed, you need to maintain your beautifully tidy home. First step: Say no to more stuff. Everything you let into your life, you know now you have to do something with. Yuck. Why give yourself more work? Prioritize (there's that word again) your peace of mind over having a new thing. If you really, really need or want it, at least you'll have done the calculus of what this new possession will cost you in terms of space and time.

Second step: As things inevitably come in (it happens), keep things going out. Continually look with a critical eye on what remains. As you let things go, you'll feel more peace about letting other things find a new home, even items you once treasured. You'll realize you value the harmony more than the objects.

Third step: Have a process for moving things out that is easy on you. Set up collection spots that are easy to get to. These could be bins, bags, or boxes that sit in a closet or other hidden but accessible place. Ideas for categories (depending on your druthers): thrift-shop donations, hand-me-downs for friends' or relatives' kids, Freecycle give-aways (toiletries, cleaning supplies, plants, other things that thrift shops wouldn't take), items of some value to sell on eBay or Craigslist or at a consignment store or yard sale, items to take to your storage location (so you have a place to put the outgrown kids' clothes we were discussing or that random Christmas ornament you just found). Of course, you already have a recycling bin and trash can, so use those appropriately, too! And remember to keep emptying these collections when they get full (or before that). My very organized sister-in-law actually has a standing pickup with a thrift store in her area. Every three months (no, wait — was it every month? She is super-duper organized), they send out their truck and include her house in their schedule, and she always has a box to hand over. Having a deadline and an expectation like that could work wonders in motivating you to keep cleaning things out!

Fourth step: Continue to clear out your storage. Commit to going through a box a month, or whatever regular schedule seems doable to you. Bring a box of old, unused stuff back to your home and sort through it, getting yourself into a mood to purge as much as possible to clear up blissful space. Use your collection bins to re-sort what's inside.

A work in progress

As I said at the beginning, we're still implementing all of these ideals ourselves. We're especially working on getting our stuff down below maximum capacity for the space, so that there's more wiggle room for new things to flow in and out. (This is a lesson that came home to roost at Christmas, with an influx of new items that had no home.)

Give yourself time and compassion as you sort through your own feelings about letting go of so much stuff. Deal with an area you can live with making spare, and move out from there. You'll find that the more you declutter, the more good energy you feel, and it's contagious. You'll start seeing every area of your home as an opportunity to feel better and look cleaner.

And, speaking of clean, it really will make it so much easier. You can put things away in a jiffy when you know exactly where they go and when there's adequate space to place them there. It will be easier for family members (even the reluctant ones) to help you in tidying when the task is so straightforward. Plus, less stuff means less to put away in the first place! That will leave you more time to enjoy and admire your cozy, well-organized living space.

Photo credit: Jenni Waterloo

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • Seven Tips for Decluttering with Your Clutterbug — Do you have a child with hoarder tendencies? Help them declutter before the Legos and stuffed animals take over your home. Charlie of Three Blind Wives, guest posting at Natural Parents Network, offers some expert advice.
  • Chores, Chores, ChoresLife Breath Present talks about how her family divides chores, and how Baby Boy joins in to keep their home clean and running smoothly.
  • Of Toddlers & Housework — Holly at Leaves of Lavender talks about some of the ways she lets her not-quite-3-year-old son help out around the house.
  • Whistling While We Work: On Kids and Chores — Dionna at Code Name: Mama realized recently that she often feel resentful when she carries more than her share of the household load. And so several weeks ago, she brought a laundry basket upstairs and had the kids start folding. Thus began a regular series of household responsibilities for her kids.
  • The 4-Day Laundry Plan — Becca at The Earthling's Handbook line-dries all of her laundry, including cloth diapers, and stays sane while also working full-time outside the home. She's sharing her tips!
  • Chores Don't Have To Be Drudgery — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses how she gets the whole family motivated in the daily care and maintenance of maintaining a home. After all, chores do not have to be drudgery.
  • Morning Chores and Weekly Chores — Kellie at Our Mindful Life can get anything done, so long as she gets her morning chores - and her weekly chores - done!
  • A place for everything and everything in its place — Make it easy to tidy up by having just enough stuff for the space you have. Lauren at Hobo Mama talks about this goal in her own home and gives tips on how to achieve it in yours.
  • Cleaning With Essential Oils — What essential oils could add a boost to your cleaning routine? That Mama Gretchen has a round up of what you might like to consider!
  • Montessori-Inspired Sweeping Activities — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells how her children helped keep their house clean and shares ideas for Montessori-inspired sweeping activities.
  • 9 Natural Cleaning Recipes for New Mamas — Dionna of Code Name: Mama, guest posting at Mama & Baby Love, shares recipes for safer, natural homemade cleaners that parents can make with ingredients they trust. Leave a comment on the post for a chance to win a copy of Homemade Cleaners - a book packed with tons of natural cleaner recipes!


Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

I love decluttering, and I love giving it all away, but I haven't reached the stage of "ruthless" yet.
My friend, Charlie, who wrote for NPN for this Carnival on decluttering with kids (for you! for you!), says that when she declutters, she looks at things and thinks about whether she'd pay to replace them after a fire. Now *that* is ruthless!

Kendall said...

These are great ideas and some I'm sure to take with me as we continue moving into our house, organizing our things the way we want/need to, everything actually having a true place (containers anyone), and get settled.

Thankfully, over the last year or so I've gotten rid of much of what I don't need/use any more (especially by way of clothing). I've donated or taken items to consignment more than once in an effort to let go of and clear out space for the life I lead as a stay-at-home mother instead of a go-to-work-everyday professional (so many lovely suits that held such memories).

As I look at my desk, there is a massive amount of clutter to the right of me (pens, note pads, papers) all with no real place yet. So, I like your beginning sentiment - it's a slooow process! :)

Holly Scudero said...

Sometimes it feels like decluttering is a constant, ongoing process! You have some great thoughts in here. When my husband enlisted in the military, we did a great purge of our belongings, since we knew we'd likely be moving frequently so long as he stayed in the Navy. I got rid of a ton of books (which was SO HARD, since I love them!), resolving to switch primarily to ebooks and library books, although I have found that my collection keeps growing anyway. (Part of that is because I review them, so I get free books every month.)

I have always deplored the idea of a storage unit, but I must admit that I see the value more now that I have a kid and am living in an apartment again. (When we had a house, before the military, there was no excuse to not have a place to store things!) So far, we've made do with the outside closets every apartment seems to have, but there are times that I wonder about getting a storage unit....

And I have been wanting to implement a toy rotating program for a long time now, and am seriously planning to do so once I get a chance to pick up some boxes! My son has way too many, and I am pretty sure he'd play with them more if they weren't always out. I know I really need to get rid of some of his old clothes too; we've got boxes already, neatly labeled by size, but now that we know another baby is likely not in our future I want to just get rid of them!

Anonymous said...

This is great advice! The part that works best for me is rotating clothes seasonally; I always manage to get rid of some things, and I'm talking here about my own clothes, not just the kids'.

I have friends who decided to move, about a decade ago. Because they own a business that at the time was home-based, they could live anywhere, so they were doing research trips and meanwhile gradually packing the things they don't use every day and putting them in a storage unit. Of course some things got culled in the packing process, but the real surprise came when, after YEARS of indecisiveness, they wound up buying a house only two blocks away and, after moving the essentials, started getting their boxes from storage--and saw that they didn't need 75% of that stuff; they'd forgotten that they ever had it!

Unknown said...

We have rotated (hehe!) through almost all of the ideas here! I feel like we are finally getting hold of systems that work for us, as a family. Of course, that means that we are hoping to move again soon and start over. One of the hardest parts for me has been giving space to family members who have no desire to downsize to fit the space nor desire to put things where *I* think they should belong. Really, why should boxes not be piled on the deep freeze that is stocked with all of our meat for the next two weeks' dinners? Silly Mommy and her silly rules... ;)

Deb Chitwood said...

Great ideas! I always need inspiration to continue the process of decluttering. I pinned this to my Organization and Preparation Pinterest Board. I should read it periodically! :)

Stephanie said...

Super helpful, thank you! And for what its worth, I still love me some Feng Shui! Have you heard of capsule wardrobe? I am super organized gal, but capsule wardrobes has literally blown my mind and changed my life this month. Check out the blog Un-Fancy, if you want to learn more. She's awesome!

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