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Steps for organizing… life

Reader A.C. writes:

“As a young mom with two toddlers who works full-time, and recently decided to go back to school part-time, I sorely need to get organized! … I spend my down time at work saving sites in ‘Delicous’ that I never go back to. I save lists in Amazon of books that I want to read that I never read, and lists of things/dreams that I would love to do. I am subscribed to a whole bunch of blogs that I am geninuely interested in but never have the time to read.

“My desk at work and carefully hidden boxes at home are filled with piles of papers and ‘stuff’ that never gets put in its proper place. I feel like I spend much of my time looking for things and digging through my purse for something. I have all these ideas that never become anything. …I don’t want my children to experience these frustrations. Do you have any simple suggestions to help this frazzled mom get organized?”

A.C., before I answer your questions, I need you to know that I do not have organization down 100 percent. I’m much better than I used to be, but I still have seasons of chaos and frustration. So when I share these ideas, keep in mind that I don’t do all of them all the time, nor do I know what’s best for every person in every situation.

In reading your question, it sounds like you feel more overwhelmed at being a mom and everything that entails, than you are the nitty gritty details. I completely understand that feeling — what mom doesn’t wake up and think, “I have so much to do today, and I’m not sure I can do it all”?

Here are some ideas that came to mind as I read your question.

First off, focus on one thing at a time.

Photo by Margo C

Our jobs require a lot of hats, and if they all feel overwhelming, only focus on the one you’re wearing. They overlap frequently, but if you ever start telling yourself, “I need to organize my finances, my menu planning, my kids’ educational needs, my holiday decorations, my kids’ toys, my purse, my relationships… Aak!” you’ll quit before you start. No one can focus on all those things at once.

Have a brain dump.

Take a sheet of paper and a pen, and start writing down every little thing that comes through your mind. As you write down one thing, you’ll start thinking of another. I like the mind-mapping technique of brain dumping, which Nick Cernis’ Todoodlist explains very simply.

The basics of a mind-map are to start with one general idea, and then add ideas that stem off that main one you started with. As you add more and more, you’ll end up with a spider web-looking list of things your brain is swimming in.

Here’s an example of a brain dump via mind-mapping:

Pick one area from your brain dump, and start with that.

Since you’re one person, and can focus on only thing at a time, just pick something on your list and start with it. So if you want to start with organizing your finances, look at the sub-ideas that stem from the finances category. Circle the one task you should do first. Do it. If you’ve got “update this month’s accounts,” “create next month’s budget,” “call about the water bill,” and “get cash,” pick the item that affects you the most right now. In this case, it’s probably updating this month’s accounts.

Circle that task, and then sit down to do it immediately. Get rid of anything that will distract you. If you use an online service for budgeting (I use Pear Budget), close out any windows that would distract you, like your email inbox. Focus on it until it’s done. Then cross it off.

Find the tools that help you, and don’t worry about the rest.

Photo by Tom Adriaenssen

There are so many great online tools to help you be more productive, we’ve got the gamut of choices. But pen and paper might be your best choice, if you’re more of a kinesthetic learner or prone to distraction when you’re on the computer. Pick a few tools that will help you stay on task, and use them to your advantage. It sounds like you’ve already got a few under your belt, and that’s good. Here are just a few of mine:

  • As already mentioned, for tracking our family finances, I use Pear Budget.
  • For banking with a decent interest rate, I use Capital One 360.
  • For tracking my business expenses and income, I use Outright.
  • For saving recipes I find online, I use Delicious.
  • For saving online items of interest, I either use Delicious or Tumblr, depending on my reason for saving it.
  • To keep track of my family’s ongoing list of things we’d like eventually, I use Wishpot.
  • For my daily to-do list, I use my Daily Docket.
  • For organizing local restaurant menus, keeping track of little papers with notes we need, and holding our paper calendars, I use a simple Home Management Notebook.
  • To organize the kids’ toys, we use a basic bucket-and-shelf system (we got ours from Ikea, but anything will do). We also keep all the toys together in one playroom.

Have one place of storage for each thing in your life.

Don’t save your recipes on index cards near the flour, printed on paper and tucked in a folder, and tucked between the pages of cookbooks. Pick one system, and put everything there.

Don’t keep track of your work calendar on Outlook, your kids’ sports schedule on a printed flyer hanging on the fridge, and your family birthdays on the hanging calendar on the wall. Put everything in one place, and use that as your command central for your schedule. This is the beauty of a home management notebook — everything is in one place.

Don’t let paper rule your life.

Paper clutter is my biggest pet peeve. I can’t stand it. All those little receipts, the half-written notes, the candy wrappers… I cringe just thinking about it. Don’t assume the mantra, “If in doubt, keep it.” That’s not true. We really need to save very little. If in doubt, scan it and save it on a disk.

I recommend investing in a decent scanner, a paper shredder, and possibly a receipt saver like Neat Receipts. Find a workable money management system, and throw away needless receipts as soon as you enter them. You seriously don’t need that Starbucks receipts from 2001.

And in case you’re wondering, the papers you actually need in their original form are:

  • Legal documents, such as birth and marriage certificates and social security cards
  • Mortgage and loan papers — keep these for three years after the payoff date (although many companies offer a paperless version of these — always opt for this if it’s available)
  • Warranty letters, appliance repairs, and records of maintenance for your home and your vehicles.

Things like insurance records, tax information, and medical records can be scanned and saved as a PDF on a disk.

Take care of yourself as you take care of others.

Photo by Zara

I’m a big fan of single-tasking, but you can multi-task those items that can handle it. If you want to infuse a little continuing education in your life, listen to quality podcasts while you work on your finances, reply to emails, or clean the house. Listen to books from Audible. Check out a book from the library and keep it on your nightstand. Make it a habit to read a chapter each night before bed. Always be learning.

Don’t wait for your entire life to be perfectly organized.

When littles are in the house, there’s honestly very little way to have all your ducks in a row, all the time. If they are, they’ll probably stay that way for 20 minutes, until nap time is over. As I write this, I’ve got my lunch plate next to me, my home management notebook on the other side, and random cloth napkins, my laptop case, a doll, some of my husband’s work papers, some drawings, and a few DVDs tossed along the dining room table from which I type.

It annoys me, but I’ve also learned to not let it bother me too much. I’ll clean it up in a minute, and I know it’ll get filled with stuff again in a few hours. I like keeping the perspective that these items tossed hither and yon are footprints of those people in my life I love. This doll that never lives where it’s supposed to is here because of my daughter. And she’s such a blessing in my life. I’ll take her over a perfectly organized home any day.

Remember that life is a journey.

That long wishlist on Amazon? Your bookmarked sites on Delicious? For the most part, they’re not going anywhere. I have a ton of articles and sites on my Delicious account I haven’t read yet, either. And I’ll never be able to read all the books I want. That’s okay! In fact, it’s a sign of life — that you continually want to learn, that you’re proactively seeking improvement and better habits. Don’t let those things stress you. You know how to eat an elephant.

I hope this is an encouragement to you, A.C. Don’t panic! There are many sides to our multi-dimensional role of Mom, and there are seasons when we have a lot going on. It sounds like you might be in one of those seasons.

Take a deep breath, do only what you can do today, and don’t worry about tomorrow. God gives us the strength only for what He has for us. If you go to bed not having done everything you want to do, then perhaps that wasn’t on His agenda to begin with.

What about you, readers? What advice would you give to other moms like A.C., overwhelmed with the many hats we moms wear?

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  1. Micha

    I think, it’s very important to have breaks in your day and time to take a deep breath in the day. Perhaps you have 15 minutes to drink a cup of tea or read a few pages before going to bed. This is essential to manage a full day.

  2. Jen@Balancing Beauty and Bedlam

    It’s very important for me to take some time during the summer to re access my goals, think of what worked/what didn’t and get organized in some of the ways you mentioned. Last summer, I procrastinated and didn’t take the time for myself and I have been behind the whole year…seriously. That’s not a way to start off a homeschooling year. 🙂
    Finding a system that works for you is HUGE!

    Jen@Balancing Beauty and Bedlam´s last blog post…Frugal Fashionista Fashion Show

  3. Kristi

    Wonderful article. I pray every day that I’ll focus on and get done my most important priorities. Some days that is spending time with my children–you have to take advantage of those sunny days while you have them with your young children. The other projects will get done eventually, and I try not to stress out about them.

    Kristi´s last blog post…The One and Under Crowd

  4. Chele

    It is very important for me to take mini breaks throughout the day. There is never enough time in the day but if you get some things done on your daily to do list… I know it helps me to see at least something finished! Great post!

  5. jenn

    Love this article! I’m jennmet on twitter by the way 🙂 I needed this to remind me to slow down, focus and breathe! lol thanks!

  6. Jaime

    Thank you so much for your article. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and trying to get things organized and you’ve given me some great ideas as well as reminded me that I can’t do everything at once and to cut myself some slack. Thanks!

  7. Birken Mommy

    I loved this post! In fact, I loved it so much I linked to it on my own blog.

    When I’m feeling overwhelmed by the mess or unfinished (or un-started) projects, I think to myself “start where you are” which is a Buddhist saying. Don’t beat yourself up about the past, don’t constantly think about how it will all be different/better in the future. Concentrate on what you can do right now to affect change.

    I especially loved the brain dump – mind map – plan of attack idea. I will definitely be trying that. Thanks Simple Mom!

    Have a great weekend everyone!

    Birken Mommy

    Birken Mommy´s last blog post…Love this post…..

  8. Amy Reads Good Books

    I agree! I love the brain dump idea. I teach it to my students when they’re writing essays, but don’t always think to use it to organize my own life. Now I will!

    Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog post…Booking Through Summer

  9. Vintage Mommy

    I can so relate to AC’s distress! I struggle with paper AND time management. Right now I should be cleaning up a giant pile of unfiled papers that are strewn across my office floor. (You can see a photo of the mess in my post below).

    I must agree that focus (one thing at a time) and kindness to yourself are key to success with this. Flylady says “progress not perfection” and that is a wonderful motto for moms of young children! I also think multi-tasking is over-rated and as I get older I get worse and worse at it!

    Hang in there AC; you have a lot on your plate!

    Vintage Mommy´s last blog post…Show & Tell: BEFORE

  10. Jenevra

    I have a problem similar to A.C.’s, where I worry about all the things I’m collecting but not getting around to. Then I think about the times in the future when my daughter won’t want me around or that she will be grown up and moved out of the house, and I think… all that crap can wait, I want to enjoy my daughter now! Because when it comes down to it, if I died tomorrow, I would have wanted to draw chalk pictures and give my daughter a few extra hugs and kisses, then to have read some extra books or blogs.

  11. Mindy M.

    I don’t have a lot to add as far as suggestions, I just wanted to say, A.C., you’re certainly not alone in feeling overwhelmed. Your words could have come directly from my mouth. As those State Farm commercials say, “I’m there.”
    Thanks for posting about this, I certainly have a few tips I can apply to my situation.

  12. Erin

    What a great post!

    I too am a working mom. It is so easy to beat yourself up when reading about all the organization, baking, great projects and activities stay at home moms provide for their families. You can’t do all that as a working mom but that’s okay.

    I too keep a home management notebook which has helped tremendously. I also do all my budgeting, finances at work during downtime. Those long lists of books to be read…I have them too.. I bring a book to work to read after I finish the budgeting. Sometimes I bring a little knitting to do at work as well. It also helps to do little cleaning chores throughout the week so you can spend more time with your family on the weekends instead of marathon housework.

    My long to do lists… I found prioritizing them helps. What three things can I do today that would make me got to bed happy. Those are the things I focus on for the day if the other stuff does not get checked off that’s ok.

    Being a working mom is hard just do the best you can and everything will be fine.

  13. Molly

    Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing! It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with everything.

  14. Amy at The Red Chair Blog

    Great article! I like the “footprints of the people you love” idea–a good reminder to count our blessings.

    Amy at The Red Chair Blog´s last blog post…French Nature Charts

  15. julie

    What a great article filled with simple and practical ideas! Thank you for this!

  16. Steph

    Prioritizing is so important in this phase of life…both the few things that need to get done each day and the big issues – what specific things do I want to focus on and what could I let slide.
    I use lots and lots of lists, from my modified version of a daily docket to my morning and evening lists and intermediate and long term goal lists.
    And don’t be afraid to ask for help if it’s available. I work outside the home too, and one of the things I struggle with is making time for housework when I feel the need to spend my evenings and weekends catching up for lost time with my family…I find that if my mom watches my daughter once a month or so for a few hours I can do a major declutter/cleanup – making it much easier to keep up with the daily messes here and there as I have time.

  17. Gay B

    Tsh, thank you for this article. At times, I feel odd subscribing to this post because I don’t have children. However, many of the things you write apply to everyone. The encouragement in this post has come at the perfect time in my life when it just seems like things are starting to get a little out of control. I also love the “footprints of the people you love” concept. I can’t tell you how much this helps. Keep up the great work!

  18. MaryAnn

    Bravo! Thanks for spelling out exactly which tools you have found most helpful. I am currently at home with my 3 kids, but I plan to go back to teaching ion the fall, and I am flat-out terrified at the thought of doing everything I do now, plus working outside the home. This post gives me a workable game plan, and I really appreciate it.

    Peace be with you –

  19. Katherine Marie

    Thank you so much for the inspirational article… I often call myself the most disorganized organized person ever!

    I really LOVE: “Put everything in one place, and use that as your command central for your schedule.” What fantastic advice!!! I’m starting THAT TODAY!!!!

    Katherine Marie´s last blog post…I love naptime

  20. ChristineG

    Fabulous post! I am going to print and re-read this one. I particularly second the idea of the ‘brain dump’. It is so helpful to just stop and write everything down. 🙂

    ChristineG´s last blog post…The Habit of Calm: Making Deposits

  21. Barbara

    For me the hardest part, as with A.C., is having all these ideas and not following thru.

  22. Megan at Simple Kids

    Tsh, thank you so much for this. So timely.

    I have read/heard of the brain dump idea before, but I need to put it into practice like never before! I feel like ideas – good ones, bad ones, random ones – are zinging through my brain all day. I need to keep paper close by to get them down and set them free!

    Thanks for being open and honest with us. I think many of us can’t imagine that there are things you don’t get to on your to-do or to-read list every day – it is VERY encouraging to me to know that this is not the case . . . and that there is hope!

    Megan at Simple Kids´s last blog post…June 26th: SK Showcase and Weekend Links

  23. Iva @ Horizontal Yo-Yo

    Fabulous article. I accidentally stumbled across something that worked for me:

    I bought a simple spiral-bound monthly planner with the intentions of keeping track of my school assignments. What ended up happeneing however, is since I kept it open, right by my computer, I have used it for everything – when bills are due, doctors appts, and other meetings. Just by looking down at this book, I’m able to see at a glance what my month brings.

    Never underestimate the power of a pen and paper.

    Iva @ Horizontal Yo-Yo´s last blog post…I Have Succumbed

  24. Meghan

    I just wanted to recommend another online resource: I have found it to be a great way to keep track of what I’m learning from books I’ve read, as well as keep track of what books I’d like to read. You establish your own page, with “bookshelves” and you can keep track of quotes, write reviews, etc. This may become just another to-do for some people, but I find that it helps me get the most out of what I read, instead of just putting down a book, picking up the next one, and forgetting most of the information.

    Meghan´s last blog post…sometimes

  25. Sarah

    Great post with great advice!

    Sarah´s last blog post…Design Work

  26. Melissa Multitasking Mama

    This is a fabulous post! It is so true about picking one method of storage for each category in your home- everything needs to have a place- ONE PLACE. Thanks for the tips.

  27. turnitupmom

    I love how you say that things strewn about the house are footprints from the people I love. It helps me to see the clutter in a whole new light. One thing that really helps me is a pad that I have. It reads, “I will do one thing today.” That’s it. One thing. I allows me to actually DO the thing I set out to do, rather than feel guilty about a whole list of to-dos that never get accomplished, and just eat away at me.

  28. Andrea

    I’ve done mind dumps in the past. I was so overwhelmed, that I didn’t know where to start. I would just stand, staring at my mess, not knowing where to start. I just grabbed one of the kids old school spiral notebooks that still had paper in it, and started writing down every thought in my head. When I was done, it was really just “brain clutter.” Nothing I wrote down was really important, but it was like like opening the windows on a beautiful spring day — my mind was fresh and clear and I was able to focus and pick a task that needed to be done.

  29. Stephanie Calahan - Productive & Organized - We'll help you find your way! (tm)

    Great tips! I love the resources that you have shared. Some I had heard of and some that were new to me. I have a few additional thoughts regarding your recommendation on scanning documents. When it comes to papers and electronic information that we keep, it is not so much about how we store it as how easy it is to RETRIEVE it.

    If you are comfortable scanning then definitely do so! If you do, make sure you have a backup system for your electronic information. Check out my horror story on losing electronic info!

    If you are someone that is not comfortable with scanning (you just love your paper like many of my clients) then a system is still the key to helping to eliminate overwhelm. My favorite tool is software that helps me find all of my paper in 5 seconds or less. Get my free class to learn more
    To your success!

    Stephanie Calahan – Productive & Organized – We’ll help you find your way! ™´s last blog post…The Paper in Your Office is Costing You More than You Think

  30. Dominique

    Its definitely important to take a step back in life sometimes to sort out and reorganised all that we have so that we can function more effectively.

    Dominique´s last blog post…Weekend Linky Links- Mom Faves

  31. Mailnda

    Thanks. This is just what I needed today!

  32. Shannon

    One of the things I found that works for me is similar to the “Brain Dump”. I have trouble sleeping and realized that it’s because of ALL the thoughts running through my head and it was mostly a running list of things I need to do. So, I decided to keep a notebook and pen on the nightstand and evertyime a new through crosses my mind that is going to prevent me from falling asleep, I jot it down. Yes, I write it in the dark and it’s usually somewhat unreadable in the morning, but it’s off my mind and I can fall asleep!

  33. sam

    wow great post! TheseOrganization Tips I feel are truly going to save me when next month comes around. Thanks for the help.

  34. Vicki Winterton

    Some great ideas here!
    I am a professional organizer and teach my clients that one of the main things we need to learn to do, as busy women, is to spend more time on the things that really matter. See the benefits of this at
    Thanks for focusing on something most of us struggle with!

  35. Heather

    This is an awesome article. Something that helps me is setting the timer on tasks. It helps me not procrastinate, and forces me to focus, and if I dont get finished, as long as it’s not urgent like paying a bill, I come t back to it again the following week during my allotted time.
    Thanks for all the suggestions!

  36. Stacey Blevins

    I know that this is an old post. I was just reading through some of your productivity blogs because I felt like I needed help. It was funny reading the mother’s request who wrote in because it describes me perfectly. Also a mom of two babies, working from home, attending grad school, and trying to at least have some time to hit the gym or scrapbook every now and then. ALWAYS FEELING BEHIND. This was encouraging, and I wll try to impliment some of these strategies. I especially love the brain dump idea. I feel like my mind is running 90 miles an hour, which is why I’m up right now at 3am playing on the computer. I can’t sleep because of how much my mind is racing with things to do. I’m going to go do some braindumping now and hopefully get a peaceful night of sleep. (what’s left of the night) Thanks for your great blog!
    .-= Stacey Blevins´s last blog ..Drifting Away =-.

  37. Robert Whiting

    I’m definitely not a mom, but everyone could use a little organization. Thank you for putting together such an excellent list of ideas and tools. The brain dump is a great idea for anyone in need or organization.
    It’s hard to have a positive outlook when everything is spinning so fast, but it’s so important to take a look at all the aspects of life and see where we’re winning. I beat myself up over the things I’ve messed up–but we need to look at the victories–and it’ll help give us the strength to face the hard stuff.

  38. demi

    It’s amazing when I see so many people relating to my life being a wife, mother of 4 and a student myself. I use to think why can’t I keep my house clean, be a great wife, and excel career wise? I practically burned myself out now I’m taking each day at a time. As of now I’m doing the best I can, that is all I can do to remain mentally and physically capable of taking care of my family. I love this article and I definitely relate.

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