I think I've hinted at this in previous columns, but let me make it clear: Housekeeping is not one of my strong suits.
It's not that I didn't have plenty of housekeeping practice growing up. More so, I think that, just like with parenting or dairy farming, everyone has to find a system that works for them. It's just taking me longer than I would have liked to develop a system for managing our house.
Part of the problem is that housekeeping is one of those tasks that often gets pushed down on the list of things to do. No living beings (i.e. kids or cattle) are at risk of neglect if the mail on the kitchen table doesn't get sorted or the clean clothes don't get folded and put away. There always seems to be something more important to do than tidy up the house.
Not spending enough time on housework wouldn't be a problem if there weren't times when I really did want the house to look tidy, like those times when we're hosting a birthday party or company is expected. Then, cleaning up the house happens real fast. Sometimes too fast.
My office was a great example of what happens when you need to tidy up quickly, but don't have enough time to tidy up properly. My office was the place in our house where stuff was stuffed when I didn't know where else to put it, or didn't have time to find a permanent place for it, or couldn't decide whether or not I really needed to keep it.
Most of the stuff that got stuffed in the office arrived directly from the kitchen table. Our table suffers from what I call horizontal surface syndrome - it's a horizontal surface, out of the reach of little people, where stuff gets piled. Mail and school papers were the most likely to get piled on the table. And, then, when I needed to clean the table off in a hurry, I'd just move the whole pile to the office. It was not a good system, but I let myself believe that it was easier to just move the pile than to sort through it and put the items where they belonged (mostly in the recycling bin). Needless to say, cleaning the office was one of those things that seemed to be permanently stuck on my to-do list.
But not anymore! I used a couple rainy afternoons (and a couple late nights) and some help from Glen and my mom to de-clutter the office. When I first started, the thought of going through all of the boxes and shelves and cupboards felt like eating an elephant one bite at a time. But I started with one shelf. And then did another. Before long, the office looked like an office again and not a recycling warehouse.
I can actually get to the pizza boxes I use for managing the kids' school papers. I pick up new pizza boxes from the pizzeria in town and use one box for each child for each school year. I write the child's name and the school year on the end of the box with a permanent marker. The boxes are big enough to hold larger art projects, but small enough that I'm not encouraged to keep everything.
We also put a basket in the kitchen for magazines and it's working really well. It's a place to keep reading material close, but off the table. The funny thing is, I tried a basket once before and it didn't work so well. Magazines got put in the basket and not looked at again until it was time to recycle them (maybe a sign that we don't really need them?) The difference now? This time, I stacked the magazines in the basket vertically instead of piling them in horizontally. We can now easily find the magazines we're looking for.
So, now that the kitchen table and the office have been de-cluttered, the question is how to keep them that way?
Well, I adopted a mantra a little while ago after reading a magazine article about home organization. The article had a half dozen tips, but the one that went off like a light bulb in my head was something like: Don't sacrifice X to clean Y. (As in, don't sacrifice the office to clean off the kitchen table.) I find it interesting that sometimes you can read advice or hear a suggestion a thousand times, but it doesn't resonate or sink in until your mind is receptive to hearing it. Anyway, that tip stuck with me and I've been very vigilant about not making new messes to clean up existing messes.
Sometimes it takes a little while to find household management systems that work, but the important part is that they're found - later is better than never.
But the best part: When I sat down in the office to write this column, I didn't get that claustrophobic feeling like an elephant was standing on my chest.
Up next: The basement.