Now’s the time when I put on my teacher hat, and divide the task into its essential components. If I were to try to teach one of my students to organize their shit, I would teach each skill separately. Most people don’t do well learning a bunch of new things all at once, so if we want to set up our children (and ourselves!) for success, we need to learn things one at a time. Over years of practicing task analysis, I’ve gotten pretty good at it (although I have to admit that I’m always surprised when it ends up working!). This system isn’t guaranteed to be perfect, and you’ll have to tweak it a bit depending on your house, your children, and yourself.
Here’s what I got:
1. Categorize Their Stuff
Think about the different categories of items that you will want to keep separate. How many categories are there? For example, in our family room, we really only have three categories of things: books, small toys, and big toys. Books go on the bookshelf, small toys go in the bin, and big toys go wherever (like I said, not a perfect system). The good news about this step I that there is no physical effort required—you can do it while you’re home sick, or while you’re on the crapper.
Think of it as a front-end load and a back-end load. The front-end load is the amount of time it takes to sort the stuff and put it away, and the back-end load is the amount of time it takes to find an item that you are looking for.
A complicating factor is, how likely are you to be looking for a specific item? To return to my toy example, we have had times where we have had to look for a specific toy, but more often, the kids just yank out a bin and go to town. When they want to play with toys, they usually are happy to play with any toy, not a specific toy.
If you have more than one child, will you be sorting their things by person, or by category, or both? For example, you could have Bobby’s Toys and Suzie’s Toys, or you could have soft toys and hard toys, or you could have Bobby’s Soft Toys and Bobby’s Hard Toys, Suzie’s Soft Toys and Suzie’s Hard Toys. A lot of this will depend on the parents’ and the children’s personalities.
So we’re more than 500 words in, and we’re only on the first step! See why it’s so hard to figure out how to keep our shit tidy?
2. Think About Where You’ll Put Each Category
If you have decided to group your children’s clothes into five categories, do you have a five-drawer dresser? Will one of the categories be hung up in the closet? Can you repurpose a piece of furniture you already own to accommodate five categories? Do you need to invest in a new (or new-to-you) storage unit?
You don’t need to literally have a physical compartment for every category, but it sure helps. Whenever you have more than one category sharing a space, it makes finding what you’re looking for more challenging. You may as well lump the two categories together, or think about re-categorising so that you will have only as many categories as you have drawers or bins, etc.
We figured the books vs toys rule based on the fact that we had a bunch of bins, and wouldn’t be able to accurately separate out each bin into its own category, so tada! We chuck the toys into the bins and call it macaroni.
You can also decide that one category should be in a different area. For example, instead of having toys and books in both the family and living rooms, have a reading nook in one, and a play place in another.
3. Sort Your Shit
Okay, so here we go. You’ll need to get off the crapper for this one. You need to actually go through all the stuff in the area (and find all the stuff in the categories you have created elsewhere in the house). This is the first step that your children will really be able to help with (unless they’re tweens or teens)– I’d suggest you start sorting the stuff and then invite your kids to join you, clearly explaining your sorting rule.
Set up your beautiful categories and stick to ’em for a while. See how it feels. Does it feel natural to put away the stuff based on these categories, or do you find yourself forgetting your sorting rules? If your categories made sense in your brain when you were planning it all out, but find that your categories are not intuitive when you’re actually putting stuff away, re-think it! Go back to step one and reconsider ways to categorize the stuff. Or do you need categories at all? Like in my toy example, can everything in one huge category be tossed all together easily?
Try it one way, reassess, then try it another way, then reassess. Keep going until you find one with a front-end and back-end load that you are happy with.
5. Label That Shit
If your kids can read, you can use words to label (environmental text! So good for kids!), and if your kiddos are not comfortable reading yet, use words and pictures. Make the categories completely explicit. If you are expecting your kiddos to do it independently (and that’s the ideal!), make sure they can sort based on your sorting principles. (Do your children know the difference between “morning clothes” and “pajamas?” Or would it just be easier to separate it into “tops” and “bottoms” and decide to be okay if your kiddo wears a pair of train pj pants to the grocery store?)
So don’t do that. It would have been far easier if my mom would have just put up two exemplars– “anything this colour or lighter goes in the warm wash,” and, “anything this colour or darker goes in cold.” And then list any exceptions (eg, underwear of any colour goes in warm cuz butt germs).
Every couple of months, check in with your kiddos as to how they look for their things. Does your child look for a specific shirt in the morning, or do they just grab any shirt and throw it on? For the former, the best option may be to hang all their clothes in a closet, whereas the latter can handle chucking stuff into drawers in a dresser.
(Another, bonus dimension that you can add to this plan is how thoroughly, exactly, you expect them to follow the system. We all don’t put all our shit away all the time, and that’s okay. If you are giving your expectations to your kids, take a photo of the room when it’s tidied the way you want it as an exemplar for your kids. If you and your kids are building an expectation together, take a series of photos of various tidyness and discuss the pros and cons of each one. When you have agreed on one, post that thing on the wall, and gently but firmly hold them to it.)
This process is not sexy, and it is not clear-cut. It takes a lot of trial and error, and it’s easy to feel discouraged when you walk into your child’s room and see their stuff all over their floor like an hour after you explain the new system.
But you’ll get there. Our relationship to our stuff is complex and multifaceted, and we won’t see progress until we begin to acknowledge that dynamic relationship, and respond to it with a dynamic approach. The good news is that if your plan doesn’t work out, you can always try again. What are some organizational breakthroughs that you’ve had? Let us know!
Featured image is by Caroline via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.